STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON
by Richard Beck.
To have earned the lasting gratitude of both his native Iceland and his adopted country, Canada, is the unusual distinction of the poet Stephan G. Stephansson, whose centenary was commemorated in 1953 by his countrymen and other admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The observance in Iceland of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the poet included the erection of a striking memorial cairn on the mountain pass of Vatnsskard, above the scenic and historic district of Skagafjordur in northern Iceland and in the immediate vicinity of Stephansson's birthplace. The ceremonies in connection with the dedication of this unique monument were impressive and attended by large crowds; and most fittingly, the unveiling was performed by the poet's daughter, Mrs. Rosa Benediktsson of Markerville, Alberta, who had been invited to Iceland for that special occasion by the Icelandic government.
Some years before his admiring Icelandic friends in Canada and the United States had honored him with a memorial cairn in the family plot near Markerville.
Nor was that all. On September 4, 1950, at Markerville, there took place, with appropriate ceremonies, the unveiling of a monument and the dedication of a park in Stephansson's honor, sponsored by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. This was indeed a rare national distinction accorded an adopted son of Canada, and equally dramatic in the annals of the Icelanders in America.
All this is still more remarkable in the light of Stephansson's life and literary career. He was born on October 3, 1853 at Kirkjuholl, a small farm, since abandoned, in the Skagafjordur district. His parents were farm folks of small means, but both possessed good intellectual equipment and characteristic Icelandic interest in literary and cultural matters. Moreover, poetic talent had manifested itself on both sides of the future poet's family.
In the year 1873, at the age of nine-ten, Stephansson emigrated with his parents and other relatives to the United States. Here he was destined to become a pioneer three times; first in Shawano County, Wisconsin, in 1874; again, in 1880, in Pembina County, North Dakota; and lastly, in 1889, near Markerville, Alberta, Canada, where he made his home until his death on August 10, 1927.
In 1878, while in Wisconsin, Stephansson married a cousin of his, Helga Sigridur Jónsdóttir, a splendid woman, who proved in every respect a comrade for her gifted husband; abundantly and unselfishly she shared with him the struggle and hardships of pioneer life. And together they raised a family of eight children.
Life-long a hard-working farmer and, until his later years, the supporter, of a large family, Stephansson, nevertheless, found time to play his full part in the community enterprises and the development of his frontier settlement. What is still more amazing, he lived such a rich intellectual and creative life that he succeeded in becoming one of the most productive as well as one of the greatest of Icelandic poets past and present, which places him indeed in noble and selected company, because ever since the days of Egil Skallagrimsson and the other skalds of old, poetry has been the time-honored and highly developed form of literary expression in Iceland.
Surely, one may wonder how this rare achievement on the part of the embattled Icelandic pioneer farmer in North Dakota and Alberta came about. The key to that phenomenon is, at least in a considerable degree, found in the very title of Stephansson's six-volume collections of poems, Andvokur, which means "wakeful, or sleepless nights". These books were published in Reykjavik, Iceland, and in Winnipeg, Manitoba, between 1909 and 1938, and a new edition is now appearing in Iceland. Filling some 1800 octavo pages, these poems are the fruit of labor while others slept, of precious hours of much needed rest sacrificed to the expression of a rare creative genius, and revealing commensurate devotion to the poetic art.
In fact, one of Stephansson's chief accomplishments was resolving the conflict between the exacting demands of his heavy daily duties and the compelling creative urge burning within him. That victory was, of course, bought at a high price, achieved through great sacrifice, as strikingly and touchingly expressed in his poetry, for instance, in the following stanza from one of his greatest and most characteristic poems, "Evening" (here quoted from Jakobina Johnson's translation in Icelandic Poems and Stories):
And Care on my doorstep sits drowsy at last,
— Who guards all my movements by day,
Who startled my songs — all the lightest of wing —
And silent they fluttered away,
Who bruised the wing of a thought as it soared
Its heavenward call to obey.
Stephansson's unusual productivity was matched by the equally impressive variety and range of his themes, his large sweep and world-wide horizon, all the more surprising in view of. the circumstance that he was virtually self-educated, his schooling in Iceland having been of a most elementary nature; like many another dedicated brother-poet, Icelandic and non-Icelandic, he made up for his lack of formal education with continuous selective reading.
Let it be emphasized that Stephansson wrote entirely in Icelandic, which, in turn, means that his poems have to be translated into English, or other languages, for the non-Icelandic reader; indeed no easy undertaking, as his poetry is both strikingly original and unusually rich in diction and abstract ideas.
Rooted deep in his native soil, he was linked to Iceland by tender bonds, which long years away from the homeland only served to make stronger; in numerous stirring patriotic poems he records, in noble language and inspiring word-pictures, his abiding love for the distant land of his forebears, interpreting with sensitivenes and vigor the close kinship of the sons and daughters of Iceland with the ancestral land, wherever they may find themselves on the face of the earth. This he does masterfully and memorably in his most widely known poem, "However Far Thou Mayst Travel", of which the most quoted stanza runs thus in Professor Lee M. Hollander's rendition (The American-Scandinavian Review, March-April, 1915):
Wherever on earth or in heaven,
Restless, may wander thy mind,
Decked with bright hills and waters,
The land of thy dreams thou shalt find;
And from eternities' ocean
Thy island belov'd will arise.
Nightless, worlds without ending,
As far views flash on thy eyes.
His native district of Skagafjordur, noted alike for its varied and beautiful scenery and its hallowed historic memories, Stephansson has rendered a magnificent filial tribute in one of his truly great poems. Here, as elsewhere in his poetry, is amply illustrated his intimate and vivid portrayal of the Icelandic scene, although he had for all his mature years resided on a distant continent.
"Your antiquity and sagas dwell in my heart," Stephansson says in one of his most affectionate and deeply moving poems to Iceland. This was no exaggeration, for, steeped as he was in Iceland's literary tradition, he found in its literature and folklore fruitful themes for powerful and original poems, strikingly symbolic and universal in significance; he possessed in an uncommon degree the ability to bridge the gulf between the past and present b) relating historical themes to his own day, and thereby proving his adherence to his own wise admonition: Be a friend of the evening sun and a son of the dawn."
Deeply as Stephansson was attached to his native Iceland and his Icelandic heritage, he harbored in his heart an equally fond affection both for the United States and for Canada, which he has eulogized in sincere and poetic tributes. His numerous nature poems, alive with his fertile and vivid imagination, rich in colorful detail and profound thought reveal in graphic and charming pictures his devotion to his beloved Alberta in all its scenic grandeur. No other Canadian poet in any language presents a comparable picture of Western Canada," declares Dr. Watson Kirkconnell ("Canada's Leading Poet: Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927)", The University of Toronto Quarterly, January, 1936).
And nowhere is Stephansson's great descriptive and interpretative ability seen to a better advantage than in his cycle of poems A ferd og flugi ("En Route"), where he rolls up a whole series of unforgettable pictures of the prairie and of pioneer life, which he had experienced in such a full measure; interwoven with the lifelike and authentic description are striking similes from Old Norse mythology.
Stephansson was a man of wide human interest and sympathy, a cosmopolitan of the noblest kind. This attitude of his is memorably expressed in his much quoted lines in which he says that he harbors a brotherly feeling towards foreign lands, but the soil that shelters the earthly remains of an Icelander tugs at his heartstrings. His many and notable memorial poems about friends and neighbors grew out of that sensitiveness and whole-souled feeling towards them and mankind generally.
His all-embracing interest and strong sense of justice, as well as his ingrained human sympathy, found a lasting expression in challenging poems inspired by current events. In such poems of his, as elsewhere in his poetry, he always aligns himself with the suffering and the oppressed; a humanitarian with a world-wide outlook, he is fearlessly outspoken in his abhorrence of war and equally eloquent in his advocacy of peace. "The sword cuts all heart bonds" is a fundamental part of his creed and philosophy of life, which he expressed fearlessly and forcefully in his series of poems Vigslodi ("The War Trail"), his impassioned reaction to the First World War. Radical in religious and social views, he was the arch-enemy of reaction, narrowmindedness, and hypocrisy in every form. Withal, he never lost his idealism, and his faith in the future and the ultimate victory of truth and justice are beautifully expressed in several of his poems, as in the closing lines of "Evening", previously referred to, in Mrs. Johnson's translation:
The best that was in me forever shall live
— The sun over darkness prevail.
Vigor, intellectuality, and deep though often restrained emotion, are basic qualities of Stephansson's poetry, while he also possesses the genuine lyric touch. Generally he is, however, more concerned with thought content and originality than with polished form. Many of his poems are undeniably rough-hewn; nor is the charge of obscurity which has been leveled against him entirely without foundation. His mastery of his native Icelandic was, on the other hand, nothing short of astounding; a pliant instrument in his skillful hands, it" appears in his poems in all its wealth and beauty.
With his extensive new themes, clothed in a variety of verse forms and in a strikingly original diction, Stephansson has enriched Icelandic literature immeasurably. His prose writings, letters, articles, and essays, recently published in Iceland in four large volumes, are also a significant contribution to Icelandic literature, and cast a light on the poet himself, his development, his struggle against great odds, and his whole outlook upon life.
Stephansson's place among the greatest of Icelandic poets is firmly established. Canadian and American scholars, possessing first-hand knowledge of his poetry, have gone so far as to consider him Canada's greatest poet to date, and even placed him in the forefront among the leading poets of the western world.
Whatever Stephansson's place in the realm of Canadian and Icelandic letters, no one can read his poems seriously and with an open mind without coming to recognize the greatness of the man no less than the greatness of the poet, for there is no gulf between those two sides of his personality. His whole-heartedness, his manliness, as expressed in his poetry, constitute, perhaps, his most attractive quality and greatest glory. Add to that the timelessness of Stephansson's poetry, in which love of justice, of humanity, of freedom and peace, is ever the deep and heartwarming under-current. His wholesouledness is revealed in an intimate and even more remarkable degree in his numerous letters, where he lays bare his views of men and matters, and thereby his inner life. He is a challenging personification of the ability of the unfettered spirit of man to rise victoriously above formidable obstacles and the most adverse circumstances.
- The American Scandinavian Review, Summer 1956.