II. Biographical Sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson1

1. Introduction
3.Jónas Hallgrímsson's Childhood and Boyhood (1807-1823)
4.Bessastaðir (1823-1829)
5.Reykjavík (1829-1832)
6.Copenhagen (1832-1839)
7.Iceland (1839-1842)
8.Denmark (1842-1845)

1. Introduction

Color image of portrait of Jónas, small version.
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Jónas Hallgrímsson.

Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845) is the best loved and most admired poet of modern Iceland: ástmögur þjóðarinnar ("the darling of the nation"). "He is the only Icelandic poet," Þorsteinn Gíslason observed in 1903, "who has become the founder of a whole school of poets: pioneer of a new movement in poetry and literature" (JH10). His work transformed the literary sensibility of his countrymen, reshaped the language of their poetry and prose, opened their eyes to the beauty of their land and its natural features, and accelerated their determination to achieve political independence. Halldór Laxness calls him the "poet of Icelandic consciousness" (Ab51). But although he is indisputably a "national poet" — and a fine one — there is nothing parochial about his work. His greatest poems rise far above local concerns and limitations.

Jónas2 was a scientist, too, and a scientist of up-to-date training, broad experience, and great originality, as has only slowly come to be recognized:3 "If Jónas was ahead of his time as a poet," writes the geologist Sigurður Steinþórsson, "he was a generation or two ahead of his fellow Icelanders as a scientist," since his work aimed at achieving an overview in time and space (4E85).

It is not easy to transpose Jónas's writings from their original cultural and linguistic setting to another. Partly this is because he is so quintessentially Icelandic and because he created, almost single-handed, a new poetic language for his nation. "In spirit," Guðmundur Finnbogason wrote in 1907, "Jónas Hallgrímsson was the most Icelandic of all men" (81Skí321). Some twenty years later Halldór Laxness crossed the t's and dotted the i's in this assertion, suggesting both the challenge of trying to produce translations of Jónas and the challenge of trying to read such translations with sympathy and understanding:

A foreigner cannot learn to read Jónas Hallgrímsson unless he has experienced close prior identification with our people: unless he has first learned to think and feel and talk and work the way we do and in identical circumstances. And indeed I cannot guarantee that even this will enable him to understand Jónas Hallgrímsson more than halfway.4

Emphasizing Jónas's quintessential "Icelandicness" is certainly not wrong or even misleading. But it is only half the story.

The other half can be dimly intimated, perhaps, by giving a brief account of what Icelandic poetry was like when Jónas arrived on the scene and then suggesting — mostly by implication — what he did to extend its range and change its character.

Looking out across the Icelandic literary landscape in Jónas's day, one sees — for the most part — a vast, flat desert of rímur-poems (a type of verse for which Jónas himself had immense distaste and which he did his best to kill off through his criticism),5 perfunctory funeral and memorial verses (like those which were a staple of the periodical Skírnir), and vast arsenals of hymns that were stiff and awkward to a fare-thee-well.6

Out of this flatness rise three considerable summits, very different from one another. The earliest and perhaps the most important is Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768), a man whose farsighted patriotism and scientific achievement Jónas admired greatly, but whose verse — though earnest and serious — is almost unfailingly wooden (Eggert is the sort of man who writes poetry requiring footnotes, then supplies the footnotes himself). Sigurður Nordal writes that Eggert was

the chief poet of the eighteenth century, not because of his superior poetic genius, but rather because of the new subjects he treated, amongst them the contrast between present and past times. Here he does not offer mere lamentations and criticism, as had been the fashion, but exhortation to endeavour and bright hopes of resurgence. The death by drowning of this outstanding man while still in his prime has cast a romantic glamour over his fate, and for later generations he has signified the eternally-young symbol of the rejuvenescence of the nation. (IHP79)

Another important summit is Jón Þorláksson (1744-1819), whose Icelandic adaptation (in fornyrðislag) of Milton's Paradise Lost is a very fine work indeed, and must have struck Jónas as a revelation when he read it soon after its posthumous publication in 1828.

The third summit is Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841), whose work Jónas admired and whose name is often linked with his own as a founder of the Age of Romanticism in Icelandic poetry (but whose verse seems old-fashioned, today, in a way that Jónas's never does).

Far in the distance, beyond these three summits (and another stretch of desert), lie the rich poetic pastures of the Middle Ages, the landscape of eddic and skaldic poetry, which was often visited and plundered by later writers (with varying degrees of success).

This was the poetic scene upon which Jónas Hallgrímsson entered. How he changed it can best be suggested, perhaps, by altering the image and giving a brief list of the many tributary currents that flow into his own poetry, mingling together to create a wide and deep stream that has flowed through — and nourished — the landscape of Icelandic literature ever since.

He grew up on farm in the north of Iceland, steeped in the rich oral traditions of Icelandic folklore, poetry production, and saga reading. Later, at the Latin School at Bessastaðir, he was nourished for six years on a rigorous diet of Latin and Greek classics, in an intellectual atmosphere in which the cool rational spirit of the Enlightenment played a decisive role. Throughout life he widened and deepened his familiarity with his country's high-prestige medieval literature (the sagas, eddic and skaldic poetry), literature which runs a gamut from tight-lipped restraint of utterance to the most abandoned emotional frenzy (and thus supplies a wide variety of rhetorical models). At Bessastaðir he fell under the spell of Macpherson's "Ossian" poetry, and later even more deeply under the spell of German and Danish Romanticism (Schiller, Chamisso, Oehlenschläger). Ultimately he found in the poetry of Heinrich Heine a model that met his own deep need for high-powered direct emotional utterance seasoned with complex irony.7 Like any other great poet, Jónas is a master at reifying affect — i.e., giving palpable verbal form to the most inarticulate and elusive feelings — and thus expanding the cognitive world of his fellows. In constructing his own verse he made use of many intricate and demanding forms, but almost never — either in theory or practice — allowed form to seize the reins from content.

He was a masterful writer of prose in both Icelandic and Danish (43-4). He was an all-purpose natural scientist with highly developed powers of observation and description, and this had important consequences for his poetry. Þorvaldur Thoroddsen, the widest-ranging and most energetic scientist produced by Iceland in the nineteenth century, wrote:

No Icelandic poet has described Icelandic nature in his poetry as brilliantly and beautifully as Jónas Hallgrímsson. This is hardly surprising. Jónas's descriptions of nature are the product not only of great poetic gifts and sensitivity to beauty, but of research and careful scrutiny, of profoundly intelligent observation and understanding. Jónas was a naturalist by inclination and disposition, a scientist who did not remain content with surface appearances but was deeply committed to probing the secrets of the creation in order to fathom its causes and character. (14Eim100)

Often the poet's imagination quickened the eye of the scientist; often the scientist's sober objectivity restrained the potential excesses of the poet. And occasionally poet and scientist worked in close collaboration to produce works like "Mount Broadshield" or "Eagle Mountain Glacier" in which there is not a hair's-breadth of separation between science and art.8

Finally Jónas was — like his closest friends and colleagues — a believer in the four cardinal virtues of Utility, Beauty, Truth, and Morality, and the pursuit of these four ideals motivated much of his creative work. Truth, perhaps, was what he valued most; and the quest for truth produced some extraordinarily penetrating and perceptive poetry — and a good deal of personal unhappiness.9

Color photo of monument medallion, small version.
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Jónas Hallgrímsson.


1 It is a pleasure to thank Karin Ringler, Sigurður Ólafsson, and Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson for reading the present sketch in draft form and making many helpful suggestions.

2 No familiarity or disrespect is implied in calling an Icelander by his or her first (baptismal) name. There is really no alternative, since the second element of the name is a patronymic and does nothing but give the baptismal name of the father.

3 Jónas died suddenly in 1845 in the midst of compiling and writing the "Description of Iceland" that would have been his scientific magnum opus and to which he had subordinated all other scientific activity and publication since 1838. It exists today only as a sort of easily inferrable master plan plus journal entries and a handful of completed fragments. These remained in manuscript, relatively unknown and unconsulted, until published by Matthías Þórðarson in the third and fourth volumes of D (1933 and 1934).

In 1904 Þorvaldur Thoroddsen (1855-1921) — whose magisterial Lýsing Íslands (Description of Iceland; 1908-22) finally realized the nineteenth century's ambitions to produce a work of this kind and scope — published a long, essentially negative assessment of his predecessor Jónas Hallgrímsson's contribution (42-20), and this — its judgments reiterated in briefer and even more patronizing form in 1908 (14Eim100-5) — proved to be enormously influential.

It is necessary, of course, to distinguish between Jónas's brilliant promise as a scientist and his somewhat meagre performance. Argument is possible, however, about whether this meagreness is a consequence of his early death or of temperamental and physical factors that would have disabled him from bringing the work to a successful completion in any case. Þorvaldur is of the latter opinion: "It can hardly be claimed that Jónas had even begun to assemble materials for his 'Description of Iceland,' much less to write it; and there is little likelihood that anything would have come of his work even if he had been granted longer life" (419).

A more generous, sympathetic, and balanced view of Jónas as a scientist was taken in 1981 by Steindór Steindórsson in his Íslenskir náttúrufræðingar (Ín139-56), which, in addition to providing a good overview of Jónas's numerous and wide-ranging scientific activities, serves handily to place him in the general history of the natural sciences in Iceland. Steindór challenges Þorvaldur's negative evaluation of Jónas's potential achievement and shows that Jónas's plans were, at least in some respects, even more ambitious than Þorvaldur's own. Steindór writes that Jónas's 'knowledge of the country, his attention to detail, and his verbal and narrative genius would inevitably have made his 'Description' into a classic of Icelandic letters' (Ín146).

For even more recent — and positive — reevaluations of Jónas's scientific contribution, see 4E54-61 (on Jónas as a zoologist), 62-88 (as a geologist; this is a particularly distinguished and informative essay), and Skjöldur 16 (1997), 11-2.

4 Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Alþýðubókin, 3. útgáfa (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1949), p. 52.

5 Jónas writes: "Rímur, as they have been composed in Iceland down to the present day, are mostly a disgrace to the nation (there is no point trying to conceal this). In addition they have extremely pernicious consequences, corrupting people's taste for what is beautiful, poetic, and appropriate to good verse, and engaging the 'talents' and skills of many individuals who could have spent their time better by doing something useful — writing something a little more valuable, or at the very least knitting a perfectly harmless woolen sock to sell visiting sailors — instead of endlessly rodomontading and hifalutinating and thus earning lasting mockery and ridicule everywhere in the world" (3F18).

For a good brief introduction to the rímur-tradition and the societal conditions that fostered it, as well as a fascinating analysis of the aesthetic and social grounds of Jónas's critique, see Eberhard Rumbke, "Anfänge bürgerlicher Literatur auf Island: Jónas Hallgrímssons Rímur-Kritik," Akten der Vierten Arbeitstagung der Skandinavisten des deutschen Sprachgebeits, 1. bis 5. October 1979 in Bochum, herausgegeben von Fritz Paul (Hattingen: Scandia Verlag, 1981), pp. 151-65.

6 This criticism does not apply to the Passion Hymns of Jónas's kinsman Hallgrímur Pétursson (ca. 1614-1674).

7 Jónas was the first Icelandic poet to translate or imitate Heine, making adaptations of thirteen of Heine's poems and adopting Heine's manner in a number of his original works. He thereby initiated a tradition, thanks to which Heine has had a greater and longer-lasting influence on Icelandic verse than any other non-native poet: to date, 56 different writers have produced 221 translations of individual poems by Heine, and Heine's influence has been widely felt in their original verse. For the details of Icelandic poets' long love-affair with Heine, and for excellent commentary on Jónas's translations, see Bärbel Dymke, Heinrich Heine in der isländischen Literatur, Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorsgrades der Philosophischen Fakultät der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität zu München (München: Leo Janikowski, 1972) and Eysteinn Þorvaldsson, "Dýrlingur okkar allra: Heinrich Heine og Íslendingar" (171Skí314-79). On Jónas's indebtedness to Heine see also Vu261-86.

8 See — most revealingly — Pálmi Hannesson's remarks on the second of these two poems.

9 By now readers will be asking themselves the question: is Jónas a "Romantic" poet? I.e., does the label "Romantic" fit him? The term is generally avoided in the present work. Kristinn E. Andrésson, after citing at considerable length the beginning of Novalis's "Hymnen an die Nacht," goes on to say that if we take something like this as our touchstone for Romanticism, then "there have never been any Romantic poets in Iceland" (Na200), and Helgi Hálfdanarson tellingly remarks about Jónas: "It is as if he always had a certain amount of reservation about his own 'Romanticism'" (39TMm53).

On the whole question of Jónas as a founder and standard-bearer of Icelandic Romanticism, see 46TMm416-24, 449-57, and — most illuminatingly — Oskar Bandle's essay "Jónas Hallgrímsson und die 'Nationalromantik'" (OB229-44). Bandle argues that it is probably more appropriate to think of Jónas as belonging to the School of Poetic Realism than the School of Romanticism (or even its Department of National Romanticism). Despite clear correspondences between Jónas's work and what is generally labeled "Romanticism," our picture of him remains that of a poet

who was certainly sensitive and form-conscious (indeed, almost programmatically receptive to all poetic forms that came his way, both ancient Icelandic types and new types from the Classic-Romantic poetry of Germany), but who was not a Romantic dreamer or visionary, nor a man of unbridled emotions, nor very much of a philosopher. He was a natural scientist whose life's task was his never-completed "Description of Iceland" and who worked very consciously to realize the national political and educational goals of the Fjölnir circle, not only in his belletristic contributions but in his literary criticism (his famous attack of 1837 on the rímur), in statements about Icelandic politics, in works of popular science, etc. . . . .

Despite the Fjölnir circle's obvious links to German Classicism and Romanticism, it is clearly not the place we are going to find authentic Icelandic Romanticism. (OB239-40)

It is also important to bear in mind what Bärbel Dymke refers to as a "characteristic trait of Icelandic literature, that no new movement represents a complete break with what had preceded it; the distinction between epochs is never as clear-cut as it is in the literature of the continent" (HHi139).

What poets in English does Jónas resemble? If one tries to imagine a poet whose content is an amalgam of William Cowper, William Wordsworth, and Robert Burns, and whose form would sometimes have struck the Beowulf-poet as familiar, one gets (perhaps) a dim idea.

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

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