II. Biographical Sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson

4. Bessastaðir (1823-1829)

Barrow engraving of Bessastaðir, small version.
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Color photo of Bessastaðir, small version.
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Bessastaðir in 1834.

Bessastaðir today.

Jónas Hallgrímsson was just short of sixteen years old when he began his studies at Bessastaðir in the fall of 1823.

Destiny sent me
south of the hills,
a lonely stranger
stripped of everything.
I could not hear
my kind mother
nor see my sweet
sister's face.
My brother's love
seemed lost forever.

Fluttu mig forlög
um fjöll suður,
einn, ókunnan,
alls þurfandi.
Máttat eg móður
mál um nema,
máttat eg systur
mína sjá,
þá var mér bróðir
blíður horfinn.32

Bessastaðir, located south of Reykjavík on the Álftanes Peninsula, was in Jónas's day "the cultural and educational center of the country" (EPM23).33 It was a boarding school under the direct supervision of the Bishop of Iceland and enrolled about forty students from all over the land.34 It prepared them for one of two future careers: either the ministry of the national Lutheran church, or higher education (usually in theology or law, occasionally in medicine) at Copenhagen University. Latin, Greek, and theology were the core of the curriculum at Bessastaðir and the core of this core was Latin. Páll Melsteð wrote:

When we left school, to be known as "graduates," we actually had very little knowledge of anything but Latin. In Latin we were better prepared, on the whole, than students in Denmark (I speak here from personal experience). The aim of most of my schoolmates was to learn Latin, to understand it, and to be able to make respectable translations into it. (EPM31)

Latin pervaded the culture of Bessastaðir to such an extent that poems by the Roman poet Horace would sometimes be sung — in both monodic and duet (tvísöngur) form — to traditional Icelandic folk melodies (see Íþl525, 542, 551, and 574). Páll Melsteð says that when he arrived at Bessastaðir in 1828, Jónas Hallgrímsson was one of the four best singers in the school (EPM25). At Bessastaðir

the body grew strong and healthy, thanks to wrestling, football, swimming, and plenty of nourishing food, while the soul became archaic and half-classical. We thought about little else than the heroic ages of Greece, Rome, and ancient Scandinavia. Plato, Xenophon, Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cæsar, and Cicero were read in the classroom; Njáls saga, Grettis saga, and Egils saga in the sleeping lofts. (EPM35)

Among fellow students at Bessastaðir who would play a role in Jónas's later life, two are especially important. One was Tómas Sæmundsson (1807-1841), who was — in Jónas's mature judgment — "what men call a genius" (1E375). The other was Konráð Gíslason (1808-1891), whom the poet Gísli Brynjúlfsson regarded as "the most intelligent and profound of all Icelanders" (DH130). These two men, along with Jónas and his friend Brynjólfur,35 would one day found the annual periodical Fjölnir, which was destined to have a far-reaching effect on both the literature of modern Iceland and the language in which it is written. Another important acquaintance — an entering student during Jónas's last year at Bessastaðir — was the long-lived Páll Melsteð (1812-1910), whose Reminiscences (EPM) preserve a good deal of important biographical information about Jónas (and also contain the best surviving account of school life at Bessastaðir).

During Jónas's student days at Bessastaðir the most important of his schoolmates, for him, seems to have been Gísli Ísleifsson (1810-1851), with whom he had a passionate schoolboy friendship, the ups and downs of which are chronicled in three surviving poems. Passion of another kind entered the picture in 1828 when Jónas, on the way home to Öxnadalur for the summer, met and (so the story goes) fell in love with Þóra Gunnarsdóttir (1812-1882). Memories of Þóra and their summer idyll together haunted Jónas toward the end of his life, inspiring "Journey's End," one of the finest and most moving of his poems.

The teaching staff at Bessastaðir consisted of four outstanding men whose personalities and pedagogy had a far-reaching impact on their students. "I venture to affirm," Grímur Thomsen wrote, "that it would be hard to find — at any school in any country — a more select group of teachers than was then working at Bessastaðir" (95Skí88). The school head was Jón Jónsson (lector theologiæ), who offered instruction in religion.

The Latin teacher was Dr. Hallgrímur Scheving (1781-1861), "a true Roman," according to Grímur Thomsen, "a sort of Icelandic Cato, stern and just with both himself and others, beyond question one of the most learned Latinists of his day and one of the people most knowledgeable about our ancient [Icelandic] language and its literature" (95Skí88).

Björn Gunnlaugsson (1788-1876) — astronomer, geographer, surveyor — taught mathematics and Danish, also giving what little formal instruction was offered in Icelandic composition. Jónas's later work on his "Description of Iceland" was undertaken as complementary to Björn's production of the first reliable modern map of Iceland (publication of which was completed in 1848).

Color image of sketch, small version.
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Sveinbjörn Egilsson.

Jónas's favorite teacher was Sveinbjörn Egilsson (1791-1852), whose principal subjects were Greek and history. Sveinbjörn was a distinguished authority on early Icelandic literature, as witnessed by his work on the Prose Edda and his still invaluable Lexicon Poeticum (a dictionary of the vocabulary of skaldic poetry). In addition he was a first-rate poet and a brilliant translator, producing Icelandic versions of the Iliad and Odyssey that are still regarded as classics. He was instrumental in opening the eyes of his students at Bessastaðir to the resources and potential of their own language. "I was always learning Icelandic in Sveinbjörn Egilsson's classes," Páll Melsteð wrote, "because he was a genius at translating other languages into Icelandic" (EPM29). In Jónas's case, the enduring influence of Sveinbjörn's instruction is evident, throughout his career as a creative artist, in his use of pure and exact — but forceful — language, and also in the importance he attached to the activity of literary translation and imitation (see RGL8). Sveinbjörn Egilsson's son, Benedikt Gröndal, wrote words that — making all due allowance for exaggeration and family pride — contain a large element of truth:36

It is generally held that the renewal of the Icelandic language in modern times is the work of Fjölnir and especially of Jónas and Konráð. Men do not appreciate, or will not acknowledge, that Scheving and my father laid the groundwork for all this. They were the teachers and models of both these men. Konráð was influenced by Scheving and Jónas by my father. (4BGR340-1)

Jónas's best subject at Bessastaðir seems to have been mathematics. Hannes Hafstein writes:

He tried to study the natural sciences, but books and other materials in this field were so hard to come by in those days that he turned his energy to mathematics and solid geometry, becoming one of the best students in those subjects. (BXIII)

Konráð Gíslason noted many years later:

It is true that his school record says he was rather lazy during his first years in school. But most of his contemporaries at Bessastaðir will readily acknowledge that his "laziness" was just as productive as their most strenuous labors, both because studying came a little easier to him and because he was always engaged in one or another attractive pursuit (as was altogether natural for him). And during his last few years in school, at least, he mastered many, many things besides academic subjects. (9F2)

Páll Melsteð, who entered Bessastaðir during Jónas's last year there, wrote:

I thought that most of what Jónas said was remarkable. He was critical of everything ugly or untrue or half-true; he woke my powers of judgment and taught me not to believe everything I was told. It seemed to me that what he himself said was always true. None of the boys told stories as well as he did, especially funny ones. (EPM36)

Hannes Hafstein adds:

Already in his school days it was apparent that though he was playful and mercurial, he formed attachments to very few people, and though he frequently armored himself in irony and sarcasm, nevertheless a profoundly emotional nature was sometimes revealed to those who were his closest friends. (BXII)

From the beginning Jónas had a deep interest in Icelandic literature, both ancient and modern. On the one hand he studied the Poetic Edda and the verse of the skalds; on the other hand he knew the poetry of Bjarni Thorarensen so well that he was able to recite, to his schoolmates, major poems of Bjarni's with which they were unfamiliar (4E43). Bjarni was the most important contemporary Icelandic poet and his influence is detectable in much of Jónas's early verse. Jónas also appears to have devoured the Icelandic adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost, by his father's old ecclesiastical superior Rev. Jón Þorláksson, soon after it was published in 1828. Non-Icelandic works also came his way: in 1828 he was enjoying Holberg's Peder Paars and was obsessed by James Macpherson's "Ossian" poetry — that strange concoction which had such an enormous influence on the development of European Romanticism — in the Danish translation of Steen Steensen Blicher.37 Konráð says that Jónas knew "Ossian" practically by heart (9F2). He was also familiar with some or all of the Songs of the People (Almuens Sanger) by the Norwegian folk poet Claus Frimann.

Jónas "began composing poetry early and was very good at it," Hannes Hafstein says. "But he was so secretive about this talent that even his best friends were hardly aware of it at first" (BXIII). More than twenty poems survive from his Bessastaðir years, most of them in eddic meters and reflecting in one way or another the curricular and extracurricular interests of his school days. Several are translations from classical writers (Plutarch, Horace). A number of others, though dealing with Icelandic subjects, have Latin titles. It was during these years that Sveinbjörn Egilsson was translating Homer into fornyrðislag — so it is little wonder that Jónas should have accorded the same treatment to a passage (in Greek) from Plutarch's Life of Cæsar,38 to which he gave the Latin title "Physica Necessitas":

Even the mighty
Maker himself
cannot restrain
storms at sea
or halt the coming
of hoary winter —
He who created them
in the beginning.

Máat inn megin
máttki guð
vindi valda
sjá að fer vog yfir,
né um varnað fær
þærs í árdaga
áður skóp.39

Already in this early poem we see Jónas pondering matters of theology, a subject that would be of critical concern to him in later years.40 In another poem ("Night and Morning") — without question the most complex and successful of his Bessastaðir poems — he writes about "our vanished national spirit, failure of courage, sluggish lifestyle, and poverty" — themes that would occupy him for the rest of his life.41 And in a tiny article in the handwritten school magazine Íris we find him speculating about man's place in the universe and expressing — for the first time — his feelings of sympathy and compassion for animals:

It is not possible to repress the thought that killing animals is permissible, at best, only in cases of real necessity, never for mere amusement. Nor is it possible to extinguish in ourselves the conviction that there probably exist — before the great chain of being reaches its end at God's throne — thousands of sentient beings to whom humans are as inferior as the ptarmigan is to the hunter. Woe to us, if these more powerful creatures should ever decide to follow the example we set them!42

Already in the poetry of Jónas's Bessastaðir years we find an appreciation for the beauty of nature — as distinct from its utility — that sets him apart from a forerunner like Eggert Ólafsson. And in "Night and Morning" we even fancy we can hear the voice of the future geographer and geologist. Only one of Jónas's Bessastaðir poems is included in the present collection, an amusing piece entitled "The Farmer in Wet Weather." It was probably composed one summer when he was home at Steinsstaðir.

Jónas presented his "test sermon" (prófræða) in the church at Bessastaðir on 30 May 1829, taking 1 John 2:15 as his text (1E333-9). He graduated from the school on 10 June with grades of "outstanding merit" (egregiam laudem) in mathematics; "great merit" (magnam laudem) in translation from Greek and Latin authors, theology, and history; and "merit" (laudem) in Latin, Danish, and Icelandic composition, translation from Hebrew, New Testament exegesis, and comprehension of Danish. His graduation certificate states that he is "gifted with a penetrating intelligence, an excellent memory, and a living appreciation for what is true — and especially for what is beautiful" (4E22-3).


32 This is the seventeenth strophe of the poem described in note 28.

33 For general background see Hjalti Hugason, Bessastadaskolan: Ett försök till prästskola på Island 1805-1846 (Uppsala: Svenska Kyrkohistoriska föreningen, 1983).

34 The school at Bessastaðir had been established in 1805 to take over the role of the discontinued Latin School in Reykjavík (which had itself replaced the ancient cathedral schools at Skálholt and Hólar). The school building had originally been constructed to house Danish officials. Since 1944 it has been the official residence of the President of Iceland.

35 In addition to the sketches of Brynjólfur, Konráð, and Tómas in Benedikt Gröndal's autobiography Passing the Time (Dægradvöl), there exist valuable biographies of all three men: Aðalgeir Kristjánsson's meticulous Brynjólfur Pétursson: Ævi og störf (Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 1972); Björn Magnússon Ólsen's "Konráð Gíslason," Tímarit Hins íslenzka bókmenntafjelags, 12 (1891), 1-96 (this includes a brief autobiographical sketch written by Konráð in 1868); and Bishop Jón Helgason's Tómas Sæmundsson: Æfiferill hans og æfistarf (Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja h.f., 1941). A new biography of Konráð is a great desideratum.

36 Benedikt's autobiography Passing the Time (Dægradvöl), written 1893-4, is another important source of information about Jónas. It also contains a detailed description of the school at Bessastaðir.

37 Both Jónas and his teacher Sveinbjörn Egilsson translated passages from "Ossian." Macpherson's "Romantic" qualities were not the only reason for their interest: both men knew that Finnur Magnússon (who by 1828 was a name to conjure with in Icelandic intellectual circles) had attempted to prove the authenticity of "Ossian's" poetry by comparing it with work in Old Icelandic (see Rr176-8). On Jónas's admiration for "Ossian," and "Ossian's" influence on his own poetry, see further Helgi Þorláksson, "Ossian, Jónas, and Grímur," Mímir: Blað félags stúdenta í íslenzkum fræðum, 14 (8. árg., 1 tbl.), 22-32.

38 This was one of the works that Sveinbjörn read with his students (see Rit Sveinbjarnar Egilssonar [Reykjavík: Einar Þórðarson, 1856], II, XLV).

39 Date: 1826-8. Form: One fornyrðislag strophe. Manuscript: KG 31 b I, where it has the title "Physica Necessitas" (facsimile KJH7). First published: 1847 (A17) under the title "Náttúrulögmálið" ("The Law of Nature").

40 The poem's "Rationalism" is quite in the spirit of Jón Jónsson, the headmaster and theology instructor at Bessastaðir. Páll Melsteð remembered:

At first Jón the lector was a total believer in Rationalism, though by the time I arrived at the school (1828) this was somewhat less in evidence. Before my time, however, he is said to have rejected almost everything supernatural about Christianity, even maintaining the opinion that the miracle stories in the New Testament were myths. (See Páll Melsteð, "Guðfræðikenslan í Bessastaðaskóla um mína daga," Verði ljós: Mánaðarrit fyrir kristindóm og kristilegan fróðleik, II [1897], 53-7.)

Jónas is likely to have heard the same sort of rationalistic reluctance to take the text of the Bible literally from his mathematics teacher Björn Gunnlaugsson. Here is Björn contemplating the reality-status of various bioforms in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9):

It is evident from the whole narrative that it is a symbolic statement [rósamál] about temptation and sin in general, just as much — or more — than about any specific incident. . . . A talking serpent, a tree of life, and a tree of knowledge have no place in the natural history of our planet. (BGN54)

Jónas himself wrote hardly a word (in discursive prose) on theological subjects. There is one interesting exception, however, and this is the place to make note of it.

In the first issue of Fjölnir (1835), under the title "Some Observations about Icelanders — Especially as Regards Religious Belief," appeared a translation by Jónas and Konráð of an article by Ludvig Christian Müller, a theologian who had visited the country for a year and a half in 1832-3 (see BTS152-3n). Müller tells us that Rationalism (skynsemistrú) — of which he takes a very dim view — had reached Iceland from Denmark in the late 18th century and become extremely popular among the country's leading men. On the basis of his own observations Müller writes: "Even today there is no lack of such men — men without real faith — and unless I am badly deceived it is their number that is increasing, not the number of true Christian believers. This is only to be expected, since both the instruction at Bessastaðir, and the talks the boys hear there, cannot help but lead to Rationalism" (1F45).

In their translation of Müller's article, Jónas and Konráð feel obliged to add a lengthy footnote:

With regard to what the author says about the religious beliefs of Icelanders, it is necessary to point out that only those people deserve the name "Rationalists" who — in matters of faith — give more weight to reason than to divine revelation, with the result that when they find reason and revelation at odds, they presume revelation to be the more unreliable.

At the beginning of the present century there were many people ("Naturalists") who regarded reason as all-sufficient in theological matters and thought God had not revealed himself to human beings otherwise than through the faculty of reason he had bestowed upon them. Rationalists were then very common. Since that time, however, their number has been declining.

Some of those who preach opposition to Rationalism have gone beyond the bounds of moderation (as is not untypical in matters of controversy), absolutely forbidding people to use their own reason in matters of faith, while at the same time enjoining them to accept the reason of others — e.g., of men like those who composed the Augsburg Confession or similar creedal statements — even when such statements fail to jibe with the New Testament! There are many of these extremists in Denmark at the present time and Lindberg is their leader. Müller, it would seem, is of the same persuasion, at least in essentials. These men tend to pin the label "Rationalist" on anyone holding the view that the creedal statements we are obliged by law to accept are not altogether in conformity with the New Testament. Hopefully it is this kind of Rationalist, not the kind described a moment ago, that Müller frequently encountered in Iceland. (1F43-4n; see also BTS158)

On this subject see further Eiríkur Albertsson, Magnús Eiríksson: Guðfræði hans og trúarlíf (Reykjavík: Prentað á kostnað höfundar, 1938), pp. 28-9.

41 This is the poem beginning with the line "Röðull brosti, rann að næturhvílu", to which Jónas's schoolfellows Brynjólfur and Konráð gave the very appropriate title "Night and Morning" ("Nótt og morgun").

42 Date: November 1818. Form: Prose. Manuscript: KG 31 a I, where it has the title "Dýranna meðhöndlun" (no facsimile available). First published: 1932 (2D203).

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

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