WHERE THE LIMITATION OF LENGUAGE AND GEOGRAPHY CEASE TO EXIST
by Haraldur Bessason
A few comments on the life and works of the Icelandic Canadian poet, Stephan G. Stephansson (All references to Stephansson's works in this article are to Andvokur, I-IV, Reykjavik 1953-58, identified here with the Roman numbers I-IV and to page no., and to Bref og ritgerdir I-IV, Reykjavik 1938-1948, identified here with Arabic 14 and page no. Unless otherwise indicated, translations of references have been made by the present writer).
The works of the Icelandic Canadian poet, Stephan G. Stephansson rank high in quality not only when compared with other literature in Icelandic, but also as a part of world literature concerned with human progress and betterment.
This does not imply that Stephansson's books should fee regarded as guides to successful living. One could rather say that much of his work dwells on themes of intellectual value—themes which the poet often analysed in depth in highly symbolic poems.
By stating that Stephansson was engaged in the search for truth and that he reflected upon such human qualities as strength of character and the individual's desire to develop his intellectual powers one is, of course, speaking in generalities. Nevertheless, when applied to the subject at hand these words take on a special significance which is far removed from the realm of generalities. Stephan G Stephansson's life and creative work were of no ordinary nature; one is indeed quite justified in stating that his attainments represent a case without parallel.
Stephan G. Stephansson was born on the 3rd of October in 1853 in the district of Skagafjordur in northern Iceland. In 1870 the family moved from Skagafjordur to Sudur-Dingeyjarysla, also in the northern part of Iceland. In 1873 all the immediate family emigrated to the United States and settled in Dane County, Wisconsin. Five years after their arrival there Stephansson married Helga Sigridur Jónsdóttir. "All I then possessed", Stephansson has written, "consisted of 160 acres of land which had only been partly cleared of its huge fir trees, and twelve barren, but fully cleared acres of sandy soil and a reasonably good house." (4,80).
In 1880 Stephansson and his family moved to the Gardar district near Mountain in North Dakota where they stayed until the spring of 1889 when they moved to a district close to Markerville in Alberta in western Canada where Stephansson lived until the day of 'his death, August 10 in 1927. It was in Alberta that Stephansson wrote most of his poems, some of which rank among the finest attainments in both Icelandic and Canadian letters.
When Stephansson left Iceland, he was only nineteen years of age. Financial circumstances had allowed for little formal education so that he did not get the -chance to pursue higher learning. He has related a touching incident which shows how he, as a youngster, reacted to this great obstacle which, fate had placed in his path.
"When I was in Vidimyrarsel" (in Skagafardarysla), he wrote, "I had a strong desire to embark upon an educational career. From-those years I can particularly recall one windy and chilly day on which I happened to see three young men as they rode past our farm. I knew that these young men were students who were on their way to a school in Reykjavik. . . This sight did not make me envious, but I was filled with a sense of depression and sorrow. I could not help shedding a few tears and, to avoid making a display of my emotions, I sought out a hiding place some distance away from our farm buildings. Soon my absence was noticed by my mother. She came out of the house and called my name, but I remained silent, since I did not want her to discover me in such a condition. However, she almost immediately discovered my hiding place, and noticing the depressed mood I was in, she naturally wanted to know what had upset me. Reluctanly I told her the truth. Many years later I heard my mother say that never in her life had she sensed the stifling effect of poverty as keenly as on this occasion. Her words made me deeply regret that 1 could ever have allowed myself to lose control of my emotions." (4,93).
This incident from Stephansson's youth not only reveals the difficult circumstances he had to contend with —it also shows his ability to cope with them. On this and many other occasions later in life, Stephansson was able to draw on his reserves of inner strength and to accept adversity as a challenge. He lived by the rule ad lata ekki basild smaekka sig ('not to let the bitter struggle of life make him a lesser person', III, 87).
Since Stephansson had little opportunity to attend school, he made use of whatever informal education was available to him in the private homes of his district. This kind of education consisted mainly of the reading of literature, and young Stephansson read everything he came across. In his own home there was a collection of religious books; other literature he borrowed from neighboring farms (4, 84-85).
Just before leaving Iceland in 1873, Stephansson received some private tutoring from a minister. Among the subjects which he studied was English. Later in life Stephansson greatly increased his knowledge of languages ns is borne out both bv his poems and his essays, reflecting as they do a surprisingly extensive knowledge of the literatures of many lands.
In commenting on his own poetry, Stephansson referred to himself as the descendant of both Egill Skallagrimsson, a tenth century Icelandic poet, and of Loftur Riki (1375-1432). "Name me an Icelander who is not descended from these men", he wrote (4, 81). With these words the poet emphasized the literary ties between himself and these two ancient authors—ties which remain unbroken through the entire history of the Icelandic people.
It is necessary to point out that even though the Iceland which Stephan G. Stephansson knew was a land of meagre material resources and limited opportunities, it was nonetheless, the intellectually reawakened Iceland of the 19th century. Aspirations for increased political autonomy and reassessment of the Icelandic heritage were important elements in many of the Icelandic works which were published during the first half of that century. The authors of these works were among the men who laid the foundation for modern Icelandic nationhood. As an example one should mention the writings of Jonas Hallgrimsson and Jon Sigurdusson, some of which had just been published when Stephan G. Stephansson was born. Stephansson was therefore in a better position than Icelandic poets had been one or two generations before him in that he had richer contemporary sources to draw upon.
As early as 1868 Stephansson composed a verse in which he described in a poetic manner the sense of boredom which laziness can create. This verse he entitled Sjalfskaparvitid (i.e., "the self-inflicted punishment", I. 11). One cannot help thinking that in this verse, which marked the beginning of a long and fruitful literary career, Stephansson declared that it was his own responsibility to dispose of one of the arch enemies of intellectual endeavour.
The importance of taking responsibility first on one's own shoulders is indeed a major hallmark of Stephansson's philosophy which emphasizes that all progress depends upon self-improvement. Framforin er lifsins sanna saela ('progress is the only true enjoyment in life', IV. 39), he wrote. It was only natural that his concern for human progress would eventually prompt him to condemn "the idleness and wealth which thrives on the labours of the poor" (I, 231). His frequent criticisms of capitalistic exploitation were based on the belief that the exploited class is ever deprived of the benefits which a continuously expanding civilization can bring.
In his evaluation of history Stephansson observed that "even in remote antiquity the human mind attained intellectual goals comparable to those which it is now capable of attaining. What then constitutes our gain?" the poet asks himself (I, 212). His reply contended that even though the average life span of man is not long enough to afford any one individual an opportunity to notice the difference, enlightenment had constantly been extending its course so as to reach individuals who in the past had not been in a position to get to realize its presence (Loc. cit.)
The above assertion reveals an interesting aspect of Stephansson's concept of intellectual progress. One might perhaps call this a horizontal view of civilization which regards the task of bringing it within the reach of an ever-increasing number of .people to be of paramount importance. The poet envisaged the day when "one man's success is not another man's misery", in a world where power would cease to be the ultimate goal to strive for and fairness in every exchange among men would he accepted as "the supreme commandment"; (I, 211) where "an ode to the sun is sung by all the common heirs of mother earth." (II, 518). The foregoing makes it easy to understand why Stephan G. Stephansson was a pacifist whose feelings were deeply wounded by the numerous outbreaks of war that occured in his time (cf. for instance III, 132-210).
In a poem from his later years (III, 194-195), Stephansson suggested that because of his deep understanding of the world around him, Christ was subjected to mockery, and that his benevolence and his ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood aroused a feeling of hatred among his fellow-men.
Considering the above reference it comes as a surprise, perhaps, to many of Stephansson's readers when he refers to himself as an "agnostic" (1, 344). It appears that by using this term the poet meant to imply that he rejected some of the fundamental tenets of the conventional Christian faith. He felt that the Church as he knew it had become stagnant because of unalterable dogmas (1, 41-42) and that it had failed to give enough consideration to life on earth—the life which according to Stephansson was "God himself" (3, 98).
As a child Stephansson received the kind of religious upbringing which was customary in 19th century Iceland. This involved a good deal of reading in strictly orthodox literature, as for instance The Sermons of Bishop Jón Vidalin' (Vidalinspostilla) (4, 83-84). Upon his arrival in North America, Stephansson joined a Lutheran congregation as was customary for other Icelandic immigrants, and in spite of some disagreement with the church minister, he remained an active member of the Church during his early years in North America (4, 86-87).
During his stay in North Dakota (1880-1889) Stephansson's affiliations with the Church deteriorated and came to an end. At that time he did not only join a group of men who had become dissatisfied with their church, but he also played a leading role in organizing in his district a society of freethinkers which received the name Hid islenzka menningarfélag ('The Icelandic Cultural Society'). Stephansson was entrusted with the task of outlining the aims and objectives of this new organization. This he did in the following preamble to its constitution: (cf. Timarit Djódraeknisfélagsins 1967, 12).
As one can easily imagine the founding of the Icelandic Cultural Society in North Dakota was frowned upon by the leaders of the Icelandic Lutheran Church. In their own home district the members of the Society ran into considerable opposition (cf. Loc. cit.), and the Icelandic press in Winnipeg referred to this new society of freethinkers as a fellowship of disbelievers who had most o'f them come from the ranks of "unenlightened farmers" (Sameiningin 1888, no; 1, 13).
Stephansson wrote a polite rebuttal 'to the criticisms which were levelled at the Cultural Society (Logberg, June 20, 1888). In his reply Stephansson showed firmness and ingenuity. However, he did not wish to become further engaged in religious polemics at this time. Shortly after his first direct encounter with the Church he moved to Alberta where at a comfortable distance from petty disputes he later increased his literary output both in quantity and quality, (cf. Óskar Halldórsson Studia Islándica 19, 23-24).
Stephansson has written about his participation in the Icelandic Cultural Society: he considered it a significant factor in his own intellectual development (cf. I, 7), and believed that it had stimulated his poetic talent (cf. Dorkell Jóhannesson Nordaela 1956. 218). Finally, it is safe to say that when our poet laid down the rules for the Icelandic Cultural Society, he formulated a principle which he himself had resolved to follow, namely that of attempting an "unimpeded assessment of spiritual values."
According to Stephansson's own testimony the Icelandic Cultural Society in North Dakota was founded upon the same principles as societies which had formerly been founded in the United States by Professor Felix Adler (1851-1933).
Dorkell Jóhannesson and Óskar Halldorsson have pointed out that some of Stephansson's works must have been influenced by Adler's book of 1877 titled 'Creed and Deed' (Nordaela 1956, 218).
The following passages from that book are among those selected for discussion by Oskar Halldorsson:
We do not therefore deny dogma, but prefer to remit it to the sphere of individual conviction with which public association should have no concern.
To broaden and deepen the ethical sentiment in ourselves and to hold up to the sad realities of the times the mirror of the ideal life is the object with which we have set out.
The dead are not dead, if we have loved them truly. In our own lives we pave them immortality . . . All the good that was in them lives in you, the germ and nucleus of the better that shall be.
And now the new Ideal differs from Christianity in this, that it seeks to approach the goal of a Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, not by the miraculous interference of the Deity, but by the laborious exertion of men, and the slow, but certain progress of successive generations.
But the condition of all progress is experience; we must go wrong thousand times before we find the right.
(These references are from Studia Islándica 19, 70-72).
Óskar Halldorsson has rightly drawn attention to the resemblance between the above passages on one hand and some of Stephansson's observations in both his Introduction to the Constitution of the Icelandic Cultural Society and his poems and prose writings on the other. Special attention is called to the following lines:
"To think not in hours, but in ages, At eve not to claim all our wages," (Transl, by Paul Bjarnason, Odes and Echoes, 118).
Halldörsson further mentions Stephansson's view that truth is always derived from beneficial experience, (cf. Op. Cit. 19, 72).
Stephansson's extensive knowledge of the American freethinkers movement is clearly indicated in one of his letters from 1890. In this letter he speaks of the American freethinkers from whom he demands "the kind of scholarly caution which can advance well founded statements rather than prejudice." (1, 9-10). Of their numererous publications Stephansson was only satisfied with Boston Index edited by B. F. Underwood (cf. Timarit XLVIII, 19). However, he recommended the following publications as useful reading: The New Ideal, Boston; Boston Investigator, Boston; Ironclad Age, Indianapolis; Truth Seeker, New York; Free Thought, San Fransisco; Secular Thought, Toronto; The Individualist, Colorado; Freethinkers Magazine, N. York. (For further information, see Loc. Cit.).
Even though the freethinkers' movement had a lasting influence on Stephan G. Stephansson, he discarded much of its printed output and accepted only the kind of literature which m his opinion was likely to enhance I intellectual maturity. (1, 10).
In a letter from 1910 Stephan G. Stephansson expressed his views on life on earth as follows:
"As far as one can see, life is eternal; it was and it will be. It is of the greatest importance that all the circumstances that surround life be favourable. What each and every individual has in common with the life of the living will live on after he ceases to exist." (1,220).
Life on earth was to Stephansson the kind of god that demands work as sacrifice, but since such sacrifice brings about improvement of the conditions of life it should also be regarded as a reward. The Icelandic writer Gudmundur Fridjonsson had this in mind when he maintained that Stephansson's affection for hard work was to him "the equivalent of religion" ("truarbragdaigildi", cf. Hannes Petursson in Andvari (Summer) 1959, 41; See also Gudn. Fridjonsson: Ritsafn VI, 419). One should note that it is indeed this kind of religion, to make further use of Fridjonsson's definition, which in Stephansson's poems is often contrasted with conventional faith. This contrast Stephansson subjected to careful scrutiny in many poems, among which is a long epic on Sigurdur trolli (Sigurdur the Big, I, 509-522) based on a story which is partly from Icelandic folklore. The poem depicts Sigurdur trolli as a somewhat strange character who occupies an out-of-the-way shack in the mountains. Nearby is a treacherous path where in the past many travellers have been caught in snowstorms and perished. Sigurdur trolli's daily chores consist of herding his sheep. However, his more important calling in life is that of saving the lives of those who lose their way and get into difficulties along the treacherous paths of the mountains. This man had made it his 'business to rescue people from death's door.
In spite of Sigurdur trolli's concern for human lives, he fails to attend the parish church which is closest to his valley. As a result of this he is rebuked by the church minister who has taken such a dim view of Sigurdur's negligence that he finds it necessary to classify him with the followers of Satan himself.
In a dialogue which takes place between these two men the minister accuses Sigurdur trolli of being altogether lacking in gratitude and humility towards his creator to which accusation Sigurdur replies by telling his own story.
From Sigurdur's account we learn that he was born in the valley in which he later decided to settle permanently. While he was still in his youth, Sigurdur moved with his parents out of the valley down to the searshore. A short time later his father was drowned and his mother died from exposure while on her way to church. These tragic events gave young Sigurdur reason to believe that fate was making a senseless attempt to exterminate his kin folk. Therefore he made up his mind to launch a counter attack against fate and to avenge the heavy loss he had sustained. At this point, however, Sigurdur was faced with the problem of deciding against whom he should wreak his vengeance.
Having considered this problem carefully, Sigurdur came to the conclusion that catastrophes that befall innocent and defenseless people must be the doings of the ruler of the universe. He therefore decided to challenge this ruler by moving iback to his native valley and try to prevent further catastrophes on the treacherous mountain roads. At the time of the dialogue between the church minister and Sigurdur trolli the latter is able to report that he has avenged the death of two by saving the lives of eight.
Stephansson's poem about Sigurdur trolli emphasizes that on the battlefield of life self sacrifice is the only means by which victory can be gained; the protagonist of this drama is the spokesman for the author's own convictions and beliefs, (cf. Hannes Petursson, op. cit).
Sigurdur trolli represents an individual who in spite of extremely difficult circumstances succeeds in putting his capabilities to good use. In the snowstorms of the mountains this man shows superhuman strength. This kind of strength which increased with every challenge is the theme with which Stephansson, on many occasions, either conciously or sulbconciously, appears to have identified his own attributes and circumstances. In many of his poems the proportion between achievement and circumstance is of great significance, i.e., the first cannot be properly assessed without taking the other into account. Thus, the Viking sailor Grimur lodinkinni (Grimur the Shaggy Cheek) who became the first man to make full use of the sail is worthy of higher recognition than Robert Fulton the builder of the first steamship. In the .poet's opinion both men deserve recognition. Nevertheless, the accomplishment of the pioneer who had only had his own ingenuity to draw on is to be judged as proportionately greater than that of the person who merely perfected the work begun by others, (cf. Sig Nordal, Andvokur, 1939, XXVIII).
Of particular interest are poems in which natural phenomena symbolize aspects of human life, as for instance Greniskogurinn (The Spruce Forest, of. I, 317-319) where the poet draws a singularly graphic picture of a tall and splendid looking spruce tree Which derives its strength from a (barren patch of land where other trees had not dared to take root. This poem with all its striking images reflects the spiritual development of the poet himself.
In this poem one discerns two kinds of conditions which constitute a threat to human progress. In the first instacne, the meagre soil and the unattractive environment symbolize a scarcity of intellectual resources. Secondly, the unfriendly appearance of the yellow hill which is on one side of the attractive spruce tree represents the ever present threat of bourgeois arrogance. But in spite of these opposing forces, the spruce tree grows so tall that its underbrush has great difficulties in even catching a glimpse of its top.
Such was our poet's faith in his fellow men that he believed that the individual could, on his own resources, overcome any restrictions which either social circumstances or other environmental conditions may create.
The foregoing discussion reveals that in many of his poems Stephan G. Stephansson was deeply concerned with the attainments of individual human beings. Nonetheless, the same poems clearly indicate that hard work alone is not of great significance in this regard, unless it is motivated by an unselfish desire to contribute to the welfare of others. This view is clearly expounded in the poem Braedrabyti (I, 576-581) which contains an account of two brothers who fell heir to a barren and deteriorated farm. Both brothers became keenly interested in increasing the yield of their property, tut their interest had different motivations. In his search for hidden treasures in .the ground, one brother fell victim to greed and perished, while the other brother through unselfish labour managed to reverse a long prevailing trend towards deterioration and thus improve his part of the land for the use of future generations.
As a poet who wrote all his works in Icelandic, Stephansson often reflected upon his own cultural heritage. This is the main theme of Kolbeinslag (The Lay of Kolbeinn, from 1914, III, 73-98), a long poem based on folk tales about an Icelandic farmer-poet by the name of Kolbeinn.
In Kolbeinslag the poet equates the Icelandic language and the literary traditions of Iceland with the very soul of the Icelandic people, a considerable part of which is contained in the literary compositions of Icelandic farmer-poets. The history of Iceland shows that for long periods the soul of the nation was indeed beset with disaster. Therefore, it has always been a legitimate question to ask just what it was that kept the Icelanders alive down through the centuries; this is the question put forth in Kolbeinslag.
In this poem the powers of evil are represented by Satan who has dedicated himself to the task of bringing about the ruin of all civilization in Iceland. Satan is fully aware that in order to achieve this end he must begin by destroying the Icelandic language, and since the farmer-poets have contributed much to the preservation of this language, it is only logical for Satan to dispose of them first. It is with this intention that Satan persuades Kolbeinn, the representative of the farmer-poets, to pledge his own soul in a verse-making contest in which the two of them engage.
Both contestants show great skill in the art of capping verses: one contestant presenting his opponent with the beginning of a verse which the latter has to complete in accordance with the rules of both rhyme and alliteration. Occasionally the two contestants exchange their positions as is required by the rules of the contest.
This particular verse-making contest which is designed to destroy the loser goes on until Kolbeinn manages to present Satan with opening lines under a new metre called Kolbeinslag (Kolbeinn's Metre). Satan is not prepared for this innovation and is unable to complete the verse using this new metre. As a result of this he loses the contest. The lack of adaptability which is a "characteristic feature of the destructive forces in the world" (cf. Sig. Fridbjolfsson: Studia Islándica 19, 180) is among the reasons for Satan's defeat. It must also be conceded that in the contest Kolbeinn wielded the most powerful weapon of the Icelandic arsenal, namely the resilient poetic sword.
Kolbeinn's method of protecting himself against the forces of evil is therefore the very same method which the Icelandic nation has always used in its acrimonious struggle down through the centuries. It is the kind of defense which consists of .the cultivating of the best traits of one's heritage. Thus Kolbeinslag not only provides an answer to the historian's question; ilt contains an important lesson based on the poet's own experience.
Stephan G. Stephansson had profound respect for his native land, Iceland, even though he admitted that in kindness it had not been as generous to him as to many others; "only death will part us," he wrote (I, 116). He was fully aware of his responsibilities as a representative of Iceland in his adopted land. This is borne out by the last lines of a poem from 1894 which can be paraphrased as follows: "Wherever I may travel, I shall cherish the hope that my motherland will never receive anything but pleasing news about my conduct." (I, 117).
In describing his attachment to his adopted land (or lands), Stephansson spoke of bonds of kinship (brodurhug). His feelings for Iceland were, according to his own account, of a similar nature except that they had an element of sensitivity which one's homeland alone can foster. The poet related in a symbolic manner his personal experience in his poem Bardardalur (Bardur's valley, III, 289-291), and owing to his own involvement this poem must be regarded as an interpretation of an episode from one of Iceland's oldest books, Landnamsbok (The Book of the Settlements from the 12th century.)
The poem recounts the experience of one of the settlers of ancient Iceland by the name of Bardur. This pioneer settled in a valley in the north of Iceland, but after a brief stay there he found that the cold gusts of wind from the north did not agree with him and moved to the southern part of Iceland. The ancient source from Landnamabok and Stephansson's poem are in agreement that Bardur's brief stay in the northern valley was not in vain. At the time of his departure from there he had stored a good supply of provisions which he could take with him to his new settlement in the south. "I know one who filled his knapsack in the same way," (III, 290) Stephansson tells us, keeping in mind that he himself brought with him to North America an inherent interest in literature and language which later became a powerful means of expression in his best poems.
The valley in northern Iceland gave its first settler Bardur a cool reception, but it gave him a twofold reward for his labour. In the first place it provided him with the kind of sustenance which stayed with him, even after he had moved to another district. Secondly, in its name Bardardalur (Bardur's Valley) it faithfully preserved the memories of its first inhabitant.
The example of the ancient settler Bardur and Stephan G. Stephansson manifests the everlasting reciprocal faith between Iceland and those of her people who have the strength to cultivate what she has bestowed upon them.
As has been indicated earlier -the works of Stephan G. Stephansson belong «to world literature, because, in many instances, they are universal in theme. Secondly, his works are a part of Icelandic literature, because they were written in the Icelandic language and have a distinctive Icelandic background. Thirdly, one would be entirely justified in classifying many of his poems as Canadian, since they were not only composed and printed in Canada, but, as shall be pointed out soon, were Canadian both in theme and idiom.
Stephansson had such rare command of his native tongue that one can truthfully say that his works are among the important linguistic sources for students of Modern Icelandic. This was duly recognized by the Chief Editor of the largest Modern Icelandic dictionary which has been published to date, Dr. Sigfus Blondal, who selected a great number of Jexieal items for his dictionary from the poems of Stephan G. Stephansson (of. Dansk-islandsk ordbog, Reykjavik 1920-1924).
As has been implied earlier the themes of Stephansson's poems span the entire range of events from the prehistoric (cf. Skagafj6r5ur, I, 134-135) to the contemporary. His own experiences were also of a wide range, covering in time about three quarters of a century and in geography the distance from northern Iceland to the Canadian Rockies. Memories from his adolescence in Iceland provided him with themes and the raw material for descriptive metaphors for some of his best liked poems (cf. Rammislagur, I, 369-371); Skagafjordur, I, 134-140). A well-known Canadian literary scholar maintains that "No other Canadian poet in any language" has ever presented a comparable picture of Western Canada (Dr. Watson Kirkconnell: University of Toronto Quarterly V, 264-265). Among the poems on Canadian themes is Klettafjoll (The Rocky Mountains, I, 307-310). This poem and the location of the author's home in Alberta gave rise to the name Klettafjallaskaldid (The Poet of the Rocky Mountains), a name which all Icelanders occasionally use in reference to Stephan G. Stephansson.
To help explain Stephansson's use of Canadian idiom in his Icelandic poems the following verse from Kolbeinslag can be used as an example:
Þó að spör á "eld" og "önk"
yrðu kjörin ferða,
axarför í bjarkabörk
benda á örugg leiðarmörk
An imperfect rendering of this verse follows: 'Although the pioneer's course of travel is neither shown by burning beacons nor lavishly praised in authors' writings, the "axe-marks" on the "birch trees" show us the way'.
This verse from Kolbeinslag is not included here because of its high literary merit; rather it is an interesting example of metaphorical use where trail blazing in Canada is neatly linked with the poet's search back into the literary history of Iceland. It shows us clearly how perfectly Stephan G. Stephansson had adapted himself to the difficult role of an Icelandic Canadian.
The Poet of the Rocky Mountains was a hard working farmer all his life. It is therefore difficult to explain how he managed to find time to write six volumes of his Andvokur (Reykjavik and Winnipeg, 1909-1938). Not less surprising is the posthumous four-volume edition of his Bref og ritgerdir ('Letters and Essays', Reykjavik 1938-1948). As is implied in the name Andvokur which means 'restless or sleepless nights' and in several poems and letters, Stephansson had to pursue his literary career at night after others had gone to bed. His own creative work can only be equated with the super-human accomplishments recounted in some of his poems. The late Professor F. Stanton Cawley called Stephansson "The Greatest Poet of the Western World" (cf. Scandinavian Studies and Notes XV 1938, 99-109). A professor of literature at the University of Toronto has referred to him as "probably the most extraordinary "common man" who ever made Canada his home." (H. Milnes: New Frontiers (Fall, 1953, 7).
Stephan G. Stephansson never spoke of his own greatness, but expressed instead the modest belief that the best traits which he had recognized in himself would survive him (1, 213). We know for certain that his literary works have survived their author and that an ever increasing number of people will wish to acquaint themselves with their content. The language in which they were written will pose a problem for many, but their wholesome view of humanity defies the limitation of both language and geography.
For detailed information on Stephansson's works the reader is referred to Dr. Richard Beck's History of Icelandic Poets 1800-1940, Cornell University Press 1950, 201-210.
- The Icelandic Canadian, Summer 1967.