14. The Style of the Times (Aldarháttur)

Color painting of Fróðá parish, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

View over Fróðá parish.

The Style of the Times


(Composed while riding down below Fróðá)

Here, over heathland pathways
harried by dismal blizzards,
the girded hero hurried
to hug his brocaded lady.
That peerless age has perished.
No prickstaff-shoving lover
crosses these modern meadows
to meet his tucked-up sweetheart.

(Kveðið á reið fyrir neðan Fróðá)

Hingað gekk hetjan unga
heiðar um brattar leiðir,
fanna mundar að finna
fríða grund í hríð stundum;
nú ræðst enginn á engi
(í ástarbáli fyrr sálast),
styttubands storð að hitta,
stýrir priks yfir mýri.

Date:11 August 1841.
Form:One strophe in a variety of draughent (see Bbk38).
Manuscript:Two copies survive. The earlier of the two, probably written in January or February 1842 (see KJH310, 2E349) and currently in private ownership, once belonged to Valdimar Briem, who received it as a gift from Páll Melsteð in 1907 on the centennial of Jónas's birth (122Skí185; facsimiles ibid. 186 and KJH107; image). The other copy is contained in a letter to Brynjólfur Pétursson written at several times between 18 and 22 February 1842 and now in Landsarkivet for Sjælland in Copenhagen (for the text see 29TMm168-75 or 2E121-33; no facsimile in KJH; image). The poem is given the title "Aldarháttur" in both manuscript copies.
First published:1845 (8F54; image) under the title "Aldarháttur."

Commentary:        In August 1841, when Jónas was travelling around the Snæfell Peninsula (Snæfellsnes) in the shadow of the great Snæfell Glacier, The Saga of the Men of Eyrr (Eyrbyggja saga) was his constant companion. He writes:

Every moment, here, you come upon places of historical significance, familiar from Eyrbyggja, and these awaken such avid interest that you cannot imagine journeying through the region without that classic old story clutched (so to speak) in your hand (3D189).1

The saga, written in the early 13th century, takes place almost entirely on Snæfellsnes, demonstrates an intimate familiarity with its geography, and was almost certainly written by someone living there.2

On 11 August, travelling along the north coast of Snæfellsnes en route from Ólafsvík to Krossnes, Jónas rode down below the farm Fróðá.3 "I saw a lone girl in the meadows raking hay," he noted, and the sight of this girl put him in mind of some incidents in the saga and thus led to the composition of the present poem.

In the second half of the 10th century Fróðá had been the home of Þuríður Barkardóttir ins digra, the sister of the famous chieftain Snorri goði. Much to the annoyance of her brother Snorri and her second husband Þóroddur skattkaupandi, Þuríður carried on a long love affair with Björn Ásbrandsson Breiðvíkingakappi ("the champion of the men of Breiðavík"). Björn was a figure of heroic stature and a first-rate poet who lived at the farm Kambur on the other side of the peninsula, separated from Fróðá and Þuríður by the chain of mountains that forms its backbone. Björn was in the habit of tramping across these mountains to visit his lady love, until the visits led to some violence that led in turn to his being outlawed for three years, sometime around 985. After returning to Iceland he resumed his visits to Þuríður, to Þóroddur's intense annoyance.

During the winter, Þóroddur paid [the sorceress] Þorgríma galdrakinn ["hex-cheek"] to conjure up a big storm that would settle Björn's hash as he made his way across the mountains.

One day Björn set out for Fróðá. That evening, as he prepared to leave home, the sky was thickly overcast and rain was falling. When he reached the heath it got colder and the rain turned to snow. By now it was so dark he could no longer see the track ahead of him. Soon the snowfall became a blizzard, driven by winds of such force that he could hardly stand upright. He was already drenched to the bone; now his clothes started freezing to his body. And he was so totally lost, by this time, that he had no idea what direction he was heading in. In the darkness he chanced upon a cave, went into it, and spent the night there. He had a rather chilly time.

Björn had to remain in the cave for three days while the blizzard raged outside. During his enforced stay he composed two of the seven poems attributed to him in Eyrbyggja saga, and a third the next day when he finally made it back home to Kambur, "totally exhausted."

Sending a copy of "The Style of the Times" to Brynjólfur Pétursson in February 1842, Jónas wrote: "Last summer I rode down beneath Fróðá and saw a lone girl in the meadows raking hay. That led me to compose 'The Style of the Times.' . . . You will observe that — content aside — something of the poetic spirit of Björn Breiðvíkingakappi entered into me there in the shadow of the glacier" (2E123-4). Brynjólfur read the poem to the Fjölnir Society at a meeting in March or April 1845,4 with Jónas present, and it was accepted for publication in Fjölnir by a unanimous vote.

Jónas has borrowed the title of his poem from — and thereby consciously alluded to — a famous poem by Hallgrímur Pétursson (ca.l6l4-1674). In this work Hallgrímur criticizes the evil ways of his contemporaries, comparing their behavior with that of the heroic Icelanders of the saga age. That is Jónas's point, too.

The poem may be translated literally: "Hither strode the young hero over steep paths of the highland — sometimes in blizzards — to meet his lovely 'ground of the snows of the hand' [fanna mundar grund]. (Men died, once, in the fire of love!) Nowadays no 'helmsman of a prick-staff' [stýrir priks] comes crossing the bogs to the pasture in order to meet (his) 'land of the tuck-up ribbon' [styttubands storð]."

Steingrímur J Þorsteinsson calls this a "dróttkvætt poem with parodic kennings, written half in jest" (2NH121). The woman-kenning in the first half of the text is in the grand style of Björn Breiðvíkingakappi himself and suggests the lofty self-image of the "saga-age" (though presented here by Jónas with deliberate irony). The two kennings in the second half are more down-to-earth and reflect the realities of farm life in nineteenth-century Iceland: a "prickstaff-shover" is a shepherd with his staff; a "tucked-up sweetheart" is a woman who has tucked up the hem of her skirt — fastening it with the band or ribbon designed for this purpose — in order to enable her to do heavy outdoor work. Thus, in Jónas's poem, the disparity between past and present ages is not only asserted through outright statement, but is also suggested — quite wittily — at the level of style. (It is no accident, of course, that the kennings in the second half of the poem are sexually suggestive.)

It is very instructive, if one wishes to contemplate the differences between Icelandic and English poetry of the early nineteenth century, to compare this poem with a famous poem of Wordsworth's, written four years before Jónas was born and also inspired by the passing sight of a lone farm girl working in the fields. The comparison suggests (among other things) why it is very perilous to call Jónas a "Romantic poet" (at least in the sense that this phrase is commonly understood among readers of English verse):

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings? —
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending; —
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.


1 A few pages later Jónas adds: "On the whole, in my travels, I have paid close attention to the ancient topographical descriptions of the country and have tried to orientate myself — as regards the location of sites — with constant reference to the sagas" (3D193).

2 On Eyrbyggja saga see 4ÍfrV-LXIV.

3 I.e., the present-day farm. The Fróðá that figures in Eyrbyggja saga was Old Fróðá (Forna-Fróðá), sited about a kilometer to the northeast (see 2Íss66 and n. 3).

4 See 33Eim187. The date "Thursday 15 April" in the society's minute-book cannot be right, since the next meeting is dated Saturday 12 April. Matthías Þórðarson conjectured (1D346) that the misdated meeting occurred on Thursday 10 April. But it seems unlikely that two meetings would be scheduled so close together.

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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