The Icelandic Canadian Poet - Stephan Gudmundsson Stephansson (1853-1927)
by Kerry Wood
Iceland is unique in history because it has not had any wars in over one thousand years.
This nation holds the highest literacy rate in the world.
Stephan G. Stephansson was born on October 3, 1853, on a small farm named Kirkjuholl, in the parish of Skagafjorour, in the community of Akoreirie on the north coast of Iceland. The land has now been abandoned in Iceland. The poet lived there until he was twenty years old, when he took passage to America and hired out as a day laborer to a farmer near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The payment for his work was small, but he was frugal by nature and managed to save some of his earnings. A year later he moved to Shawano County in the same state, and it was there that he married Helga Jonson. Their lot was the same as others of pioneer stock, but to improve their position, the Stephanssons moved in 1880 to Pembina County, North Dakota, and they spent nine years there. Icelandic communities are noted for their concern for their neighbors, be they of the same background or any other nationality. Mr. and Mrs. Stephansson were in a joyous mood when they moved to Canada in 1889, to a well known Icelandic settlement called Markerville, Alberta.
In Markerville he was able to get the first school started at Hola, in 1894. Realizing that most farmers in the area had dairy herds, he established the first creamery, an immaculately clean place managed by a Danish gentleman, Dan Morkeberg. The year was 1899. He was one of the prime sponsors of the community hall in 1907, and the new Icelandic library (The Idun Reading Society) the same year. Also the beginning of the first church, though he was not slow to pick up his pen and attack the clergy for not condemning the world war. His many outcries against the war laid him open to some criticism from the surrounding English-speaking regions, but he was a farmer, producing food, and this protected him.
Not all of his poetry was written at Markerville; he had started composing before he left Iceland. However, it blossomed at Markerville and, in all, amounted to 1,800 pages of poetry and 1,400 pages of articles. A Bible lay on his desk in the tiny study overlooking the Medicine River, and Mr. Stephansson knew its passages by heart. His formal education had been brief, depending mostly on family readings and the encouragement of an itinerant Icelandic Lutheran minister. It has been said that the inspiration for writing poetry came from an ancestor, Benedict Grundal. Later assessors of his work claim that he needed no inspirations other than those that were born with him, and during those first twenty years in his homeland he began the sing-song rhythms that are the pattern of true poetry.
He was always conscious of his duties to his family, and worked at $2.00 per day for a Canadian Pacific Railway survey crew about two years after he had moved to Markerville. Some of the children had been born in the United States, and one son had died there. The family totalled eight: five sons and three daughters. Twin daughters were born October 6th, 1889. Perhaps that was why he took the work with the survey crew, though the $2.00 per day was not all clear: he had to pay for his board- and room out of it. However, he returned to the farm with a little money.
Helga was a fine helpmeet. During those early, hard times she carried a heavy share of the work and responsibilities for the young family. The poet's mother lived with them from the beginning, and often other children came to stay with them in order to attend the school. Mrs. Stephansson always managed to maintain the peaceful, quiet climate necessary for her husband's creative talent.
He was a fine neighbor, willing to help anyone in the Markerville district with physical choring and good advice. He was not a wealthy man and perhaps never had as much as one thousand dollars at any period of his life. Yet he had more: the joy of creation. He wrote at night because he could not sleep. A small wood-burning stove was in his study. He would sit writing, wrapped in a blanket, a coal oil lamp beside him to provide light. When his fingers became numb, he would realize that he had allowed the fire to go out.
Then on July 6, 1909, came the tragedy of his son Gestur's death. A brief thunder storm was raging and three of the boys raced for home. Gestur was the first to reach the barbed wire gate, just as lightning struck it. That very night the father composed a poem in memory of his son. It is a mark of the greatness of the man that he was able to rise above personal grief and turn the poem into a sharing of the good things of Gestur's brief life of sixteen years.
Once, early in my own writing career, I walked the twenty-five miles out to Mr. Stephansson's farm to ask his advice on writing. He and his sons were busy with farm chores, and I deemed it rude to interrupt their work. Mrs. Rosa Benediktson, youngest member of the poet's family, has since told me that her father would have welcomed and encouraged me. They would have made sure that I had a good meal and a night's lodging, and would have driven me, with horse and buggy, back to my bachelor shack a mile from the centre of Red Deer.
In recognition of his writing the Government of Iceland invited him to come back to his homeland, where he gave many readings of his poetry and spoke fondly of his adopted country, Canada. Iceland paid for this and other trips back to his birth place, and, after the poet's death on August 10, 1927, invested his widow, Helga, in the Royal Order of the Falcon.
It was not until September 4, 1950, that Canada recognized him. That afternoon the Historic Sites and Monuments Board honored his memory by placing a memorial plaque on a stone cairn and naming a Provincial Park at Markerville. Jacob K. Stephansson, the only surviving son, did the unveiling as two R.C.M.P. constables stood at attention, while Mr. 0. Sigurdson paid a moving tribute to the poet, not only for the music of his words, but also as a good neighbor and steadfast friend. It was my privilege to be present on this occasion, and Jacob showed me the wire gate where Gestur had been stricken, and was generous in allowing some of us to see the poet's study, the desk, and his favorite chair. We then went to the family cemetery, a quarter of a mile away, and many quiet prayers were murmured at the grave of the great man.
Icelandic people are among the finest settlers Canada has known, hard working and honest citizens and always kindly neighbors, and this was abundantly clear at the memorial gathering. Their choir sang the Icelandic National Anthem, then promptly followed with 0 Canada. The chairman was the genial Mr. Morkeberg, who was still manager of the creamery. Some of us thought the playgrounds of the Provincial Park would have pleased Mr. Stephansson, who was so fond of young people. It was fitting that all who attended -remembered the reason for the assembly: to honor the life of one of the world's greatest poets.
I would like to acknowledge with grateful thanks the wealth of information from Rosa S. Benediktson, of Red Deer, for her written permission to publish these two poems from her father's works, and for her assistance in obtaining permission from the National Cultural Society Publishing Company in Iceland, who hold the copyright. Also my appreciation of Carl C. Morkeberg's columns in the Innisfail Province.
by Stephan G. Stephansson
(The poet's son. killed by Lightning)
The law that smites a life with harm, or slays,
Gave little time for anguished hope and fear.
It flung to earth a random ray ablaze
And rent the heart of one to me so dear.
But it is well that I should get the news
Without a warning - - - since I had to lose.
Yea, it is well to understand and know
That it was not a sentient thing, my dear,
With evil for its aim, that struck you so,
But accident, upon its chance career.
No cosmic law, but simple savagery
Designs and wills the keenest agony.
It helps the lorn to bear what has to be
If bitterness and fear are held at bay.
Benevolence could have no hate for thee,
Nor heave the bolt that took your life away;
And Love could never cause such cruelty
To countless hearts that mourn your destiny.
No evil force can overcome the good,
As eons prove, in spite of what may seem.
It lacks the moral strength and hardihood.
And heaven's lightning with its deadly beam
Was innocent of ill - intent, or wrath
As even you, who walked into its path.
And lovingly I wrap you in my ode
With anguished calm and feelings bitter-sweet.
And there will ever be thy warm abode
Where bliss and goodness, in the spirit, meet.
And so, content, I close each sore that sears
And say farewell, with thanksgiving and tears.
I know that all is well, but wince to feel
How weak and ill-equipped I am to share
The load that others also would conceal
Within their hearts, and find so hard to bear.
Thy being with my songs itself will blend
And so be with me to the very end.
Thy kindness never will be spoiled or spent;
The spool of time will keep the thread intact.
Though visions for thy glory with thee went,
The ones you gave inspired so much I lacked.
And when I pass from out the sphere of song
The soul of life their essence will prolong.
0 dearest child! Thy kind and helping hand
Gave hope and strength, in my declining days,
To save the lines that I with pain had penned
And piece together half-forgotten lays.
That treasure, jointly ours, I'd alienate
Could I have dared to bargain with thy fate.
And yet it will be sweet to sing to thee
A song of greeting from a heart at peace.
Until the final sun has set for me
Beside thy greening hill amid the trees.
And so will be ensanctified the ground
In songs that to thy memory redound.
Translated into English in 1956 by Paul Bjarnason
AT CLOSE OF DAY
by Stephan G. Stephansson
Translated from the Icelandic by Jakobina Johnson
When sunny hills are draped in velvet shadows
By Summer Night
And Lady Moon hangs out among the tree tops
Her crescent bright;
And when the welcome evening breeze is cooling
My fevered brow
And all who toil, rejoice that blessed night time
When out among the herds the bells are tinkling,
Now clear, now faint,
And in the woods a lonely bird is voicing
His evening plaint;
And when the breeze with drowsy accent whispers
And from the brook the joyous voice of children
Are borne to me;
When fields of grain have caught a gleam of moonlight
And dark the ground;
A pearl gray mist has filled to overflowing
The dells around;
Some golden stars are peeping forth to brighten
The eastern wood;
Then I am resting out upon my doorstep,
In nature's mood.
My heart reflects the rest and sweet rejoicing
Around, above; And beauty is the universal language
And peace, and love,
And all things seem to join in benediction
And prayers for me;
And at night's loving heart, both earth and heaven
At rest I see.
And when the last of all my days is over,
The last page turned,
And whatsoever shall be deemed in wages
That I have earned;
In such a mood I hope to be composing
My sweetest lay;
And then — extend my hand to all the world
And pass away.