Stephan G. Stephansson, Our Icelandic Hero-poet
by John Sheppard
Beloved there, he was a troublemaker here
You say I act as if living is for naught
And I search for not gold but filth
Believing that life is like a pitch black night
and aimlessly onward drift.
— From "Pessimism" by Stephan G. Stephansson
Icelanders hold two things dear: poets and heroes. The heroes are the Vikings whose descendants the Icelanders are. The poets are the ancient balladeers who keep the memory of those fierce warriors alive, and the moderns who keep their ancient language fresh. Odd it is then that one of Iceland's most revered poets was a pacifist farmer who wrote his works in far-off Alberta and died here in relative obscurity.
On August 7, fifty years after his death, the memory of Stephan Gudmundsson Stephansson will sparkle in his adopted homeland when Alberta Culture opens his restored homestead as a historic site near Markerville, 20 miles southwest of Red Deer.
Born on a farm in Kirkjuholl, Iceland in 1853, Stephansson was taught to read by his parents and tutored briefly in English by his Unitarian minister. Cold weather and volcanic eruptions forced the family to move to Wisconsin. In 1878 he married his first cousin, Helga Jonsdottir, and two years later settled in North Dakota's Red River Valley.
Throughout his life, Stephansson was driven by a number of constants: he was an insatiable reader of fine books, an inveterate prober and social critic, a lover of nature, a hater of war and a religious freethinker. It was the latter that eventually persuaded him to move to the tiny Icelandic community at Markerville with the wrath of the local Unitarian church and North Dakota dust storms raining down on his head.
"He never struck me as a man who was good with his hands or a lover of physical labours," says his grandson, Stephen J. Stephenson, now 74 and living in Calgary. When he was a teenager, Mr. Stephenson (his father changed the spelling of the surname to avoid confusion at the post office) spent most of his summer on his grandfather's farm. "He told me never to be a lawyer, because lawyers were liars. And he insisted I get an education. That was important to him."
While his father's gentleness did little to impress a young teenager, the older Mr. Stephenson is now attempting to read his grandfather's poems in the original Icelandic. "Much of what he said to me then only now makes sense."
What has kept poet Stephansson obscure in Canada was that he wrote almost exclusively in Icelandic, one of the most difficult languages in the world to translate. The introduction of his work to the English language was left to a handful of scholars such as the Winnipeg Unitarian minister Ragmavlour Petterson.
Stephansson was an outspoken man who loved to incite argument and take unpopular stands. As a socialist he campaigned actively for the United Farmers of Alberta, but it was his pacifism that earned him the antipathy of many of his neighbours and prompted some of his most graphic works, such as the damning "In Wartime."
In Europe's reeking slaughter-pen
They mince the flesh of murdered men,
While swinish merchants, snout in trough,
Drink all the bloody profits off.
"It was a tragedy to him for any nation to go to war," recalls his youngest daughter, now 81 and living in Red Deer. "He couldn't understand it, no matter what arguments he heard in favour of the war." Mrs. Rosa Benediktson remembers her five-foot eight-inch father as a slight man who liked to talk and hated to dance.
Active in the community (he set up the first school and creamery and served on the town council), he considered his labours to be interruptions. "He worked just enough to get by," his grandson says. "He didn't care about personal possessions or keeping the home neat and clean.
Stephansson was an insomniac who was constantly plagued by stomach trouble. After dinner, he would retire to his small study and work steadily by the light of an oil lamp until he at last fell asleep for an hour or two. This would continue for weeks until, finally physically and mentally exhausted, he would be bedridden for a few days, only to recover and begin the routine again.
It was a stroke in December of 1926 that finally slowed him down. Though he continued to write a little, most of his time was concerned with learning to walk again. On Aug. 10,1927, a second stroke ended it all. "He was a changed man after the first stroke, very frustrated," says Mrs. Benediktson. "He was never a man to display his emotions, which made it difficult for anyone, even me, to know him. Even when he was sick at the end and failing."
Learning much about Stephan G. Stephansson today is a challenge, says Jane W. McCracken, the research officer at Alberta Culture in charge of researching the poet's life: "He was a student of ancient myths and he used very traditional symbols and rhythms. That is why much of his work, even today, remains fairly difficult to understand." But perhaps the summation of his life and beliefs, the constant turmoil of poor health, unpopular ideals and philosophies, is best left to the poet:
Eventually problems shall be solved
By sober thought and judgment of the wise.
Blessed ever be the mind that so resolved
To shed a flicker of light on twilight times.
- Alberta Report, March 15, 1982.