II. Biographical Sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson

6. Copenhagen (1832-1839)

Color etching of Copenhagen University, small version.
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Copenhagen University, ca. 1840.

Although the roots of Jónas Hallgrímsson's creativity would always lie in the Icelandic countryside, it was — as Halldór Laxness pointed out — "a great metropolis that fostered his poetic gift and brought it to maturity" (Ab59).

Jónas's travel journal does not continue long enough to record his first impressions of the Danish capital.48 Probably they were not unlike the impressions of other Icelanders before him.49 When his contemporary Ólafur Eggert Briem (1808-1859) saw Copenhagen for the first time in 1825, he recorded his astonishment in a stanza of stuðlafall:

Strange, astounding things I found to stare at!
Wonders to amaze the mind —
marvels there of every kind!

Mér við brá hér mörg að sjá í fyrstu
allra handa undraverk
óteljandi furðu merk.50

For Icelanders, Copenhagen was a new world, some 200 times more populous than Reykjavík. Jónas's friend Tómas Sæmundsson, arriving in 1827, described the dizzying moments after he was met at the pier by a kinsman:

He immediately led me to his quarters through an immense maze of streets, all crammed with people, so I thought I was either dreaming or in a trance. I could never in my life have imagined such prodigies of noise and screaming and tumult as surrounded me here all at once on every side. (BTS5)

Jónas Hallgrímsson first set foot in Copenhagen in September 1832, planning to study law and thus lay the groundwork for a career in government and administration. He arrived too late to see his friend Tómas, who had set off earlier that year on a remarkable pilgrimage to the cultural centers of Europe that would bring him great celebrity (and also the illness that caused his early death). A book edited by Tómas and several other Icelanders had just been published — a collected edition of the poems of Eggert Ólafsson — and Jónas no doubt devoured it eagerly. Of all his Icelandic predecessors, Eggert was the one with whom he would come to feel the closest kinship, on the basis of their similar scientific labors and their similar hopes for the country. In a few years Jónas would write an elegy on Eggert ("The Lay of Hulda") that is the longest and most ambitious of all his poems.

Jónas spent the year after his arrival in Copenhagen preparing for and taking the battery of tests that would allow him to begin his studies at the city's ancient and prestigious university.51 In October 1832 he passed the entrance examination (examen artium) with flying colors, subsequently registering and moving into Regensen, the ancient residence hall known among Icelanders as the "Garður" or "Gamligarður" ("The Old Residence").

Greyscale etching of  Regensen, small version.
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Color photo of Regensen, small version.
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Courtyard of Regensen, ca. 1840.

Courtyard of Regensen today.

For the next four years he enjoyed free accommodation there,52 studying hard (presumably) in spite of the distractions of residence-hall life.53 His roommate during the first two years (1832-4) was his close Bessastaðir friend Gísli Einarsson; during the next two years it was Páll Melsteð.54 The Icelanders in Regensen tended to stick together, avoiding contact with the Danes who lived there and forming their own hermetically sealed society.55

In April 1833 Jónas took and passed the examen philologicum and the following November the examen philosophicum, both with excellent results. "He then began the study of law," Konráð Gíslason says,

and there is no doubt that neither that branch of knowledge — nor any other — lacked interest for him. But his inclinations pulled him much more strongly in a different direction, with the result that he abandoned his law studies to read extensively in creative literature, and at the same time to study the natural sciences, especially natural history. His deepest wish was to come to know the nature and condition of his native land. (9F2)

In pursuit of this goal he began to study zoology with J. C. H. Reinhardt (1776-1845), a follower of Cuvier and Lamarck (Jónas would always have a great admiration for Cuvier), and geology with Johan Georg Forchhammer (1794-1865), the leading geologist in Denmark and a man well acquainted with the groundbreaking work of the British geologists Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison. Reinhardt and Forchhammer were impressed by Jónas and his efforts and would be strong advocates and supporters of his future scientific activities. It is possible that already in the course of his early studies Jónas made the acquaintance of two Danish fellow-students, Japetus Steenstrup and Salomon Drejer, both of whom — and especially Steenstrup — would be important to him in the future years (Ín140, 142-3).

Jónas and his friends Brynjólfur and Konráð had already begun to discuss the creation of an annual periodical, to be called Fjölnir, which they hoped would widen the cultural and literary horizons of their fellow Icelanders and "break through the obstructions that dam the current of the nation's life, allowing it to flow freely" (1F4). "Filled with patriotism and nationalism," Bärbel Dymke writes, they wanted "to wrest Iceland out of its isolation after years of total stagnation, allow it to share in the progress taking place elsewhere in the world, and thus save it from the destruction that threatened it" (HHi19). On 1 March 1834 they issued a prospectus, and when Tómas Sæmundsson returned from his European travels in May, he joined his three friends in this enterprise.

In February 1835 Jónas gave a lecture on the birds of Iceland to his countrymen in Copenhagen (3E207-22). He was slowly but surely making himself into an authority on all aspects of Icelandic nature (see 109Skí136-44).

The first issue of Fjölnir appeared at the beginning of the following summer (1835), committed — according to a remarkable and eloquent preface written by Tómas Sæmundsson — to usefullness, beauty, truth, and everything that is good and moral (nytsemi, fegurð, sannleikur, and "það sem gott er og siðsamlegt") — the italics are those of the original (1F8-13). The preface has this to say about "truth":

We are firmly resolved to publish only what we believe to be correct, and always to try as hard as we possibly can to seek the truth. Therefore we will be just as scrupulous about not slanting the truth (to the extent we know it) in favor of some particular point of view, as we will about the inappropriateness of remaining silent about it — even though this may earn us some people's opposition and enmity. (1F12)

These two sentences were so dear to the hearts of the four colleagues, and so expressive of their attitude, that they reprinted them as a kind of motto on the back of the title-page of the next two issues (1836 and 1837).

Color image of journal page, small version.
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Title page of the first issue of Fjölnir.

The content of the first issue was extremely varied, as the name of the periodical implied.56 The collaborators (especially Jónas and Konráð) had taken great pains with its style (orðfæri) and Bjarni Thorarensen was impressed (2BTL327). It is not unusual today to speak of Fjölnir as having inaugurated a revolution in Icelandic prose, "so utterly different is the periodical's style from most of what had been published before its day" (Ísf469).57 Sveinbjörn Egilsson, too, was pleased with Fjölnir's style. But "some of the articles strike me as rather daring," he wrote Jón Sigurðsson, "and some of the judgments as rather intemperate" (Ísf475n12).There was a radical — even revolutionary — flavor about the first issue of Fjölnir that guaranteed it a mixed reception back home in Iceland;58 critics also felt that its content was much too sophisticated for its intended audience.59 None of this surprised its editors ("It was a foregone conclusion that Fjölnir would be unpopular," Konráð wrote a friend, "and we knew in advance that this was sure to be the case" [BKG41]); but it led them to adopt a somewhat more moderate stance in subsequent issues.

Jónas's own contributions to the first issue of Fjölnir were a remarkable essay in popular science ("On the Nature and Origin of the Earth"), a third of which is translated in the present collection;60 a paper on the "poor-law districts" (hreppar) of Iceland; and his poem "Iceland," which led off the "Icelandic Section" of the issue, reiterating many of the themes of Tómas Sæmundsson's preface and stating in poetic form the political agenda of Jónas and his colleagues: cultural and economic revival for Iceland based on a greater measure of political independence and restoration of the Alþing at Þingvellir.61 ("Das ist die grosse Aufgabe unserer Zeit!" Tómas Sæmundsson had written his Fjölnir colleagues the previous summer [BTS133].) With the publication of his poem "Iceland" Jónas ended the three years of total creative silence that had followed his arrival in Copenhagen: years during which his poetic powers remained latent but were constantly being refreshed and nourished from a number of different sources, among which contemporary German and Danish poetry were the most important. With "Iceland" Jónas becomes (in Hannes Hafstein's words) "the poet of our reborn language" (BXVIII): it shows a quantum leap over anything he had done before and signals the beginning of the flow of important verse that would continue unabated during the remaining ten years of his life, letting so much light and air into the dusty and somewhat claustrophobic house of Icelandic poetry. It was Jónas, together with his Fjölnir colleagues, who — in Einar Benediktsson's memorable phrase — "built a bridge between foreign culture and the life of our nation."62 The uncomprehending and hostile reception that Fjölnir met in Iceland, at first, shows how absolutely necessary such bridge-building was.

In spite of a series of surprisingly acrimonious quarrels among the editors over the journal's format and editorial direction,63 Fjölnir published four more annual issues (1836-9).64 It then lapsed during the three-and-a-half years of Jónas's residence in Iceland (1839-42), only to be revived — after his return to Copenhagen — on a slightly different basis and publish four more issues (1843-5, 1847). The journal never circulated very widely in Iceland, where it generated considerable hostility by the firmness with which it held and stated its opinions, and the candor of its book reviews (see ÍbM46-7).65 As time went on it tended to be increasingly apolitical and literary.66

It is generally thought that during the winter of 1835-6 Jónas wrote his long piece of prose fiction, "Gathering Highland Moss," which is either the first short story in Modern Icelandic or a fragment of the first novel and which shows to perfection Jónas's new and highly influential prose style: straightforward, colloquial, and often lyrical.

A style of quite another kind — gamesome and often affectedly bizarre — was cultivated by Jónas and his closest Fjölnir colleagues in their conversation, letters, and poetry. They referred to this style as the "absurd-comical" (absúrdkómík). Its roots may well lie in the schoolboy humor of their Bessastaðir days. It is particularly characteristic of the nonce (and nonsense) verses that Jónas throws off and inserts into letters to close friends, but it has left its mark, too, on some of his prose sketches, especially those originally included in letters (e.g., "The Devil at Þingvellir" and "The Queen Goes Visiting"). The "absurd-comical" is a very important component of Jónas's humor.

In March 1836 Jónas and his Fjölnir colleagues published an Icelandic translation of a brief swimming manual by the Danish physical-education expert Franz Nachtegall (1777-1847). The idea was Jónas's and he did most of the work himself (9F6); his father's death by drowning, many years before, was no doubt an important stimulus. In the same month he proposed to the Copenhagen Division of the Icelandic Literary Society67 that he write a book about the birds of Iceland (see 2E236-7). The Copenhagen Division accepted this proposal with the proviso that the Reykjavík Division do so likewise. But the latter, run by individuals who either disliked Fjölnir or whose withers it had wrung, declined.

In April 1836 Jónas wrote his "Lay of Grief," in which he laments the early deaths of a number of friends and relatives (including his father). The poem was prompted by the recent drowning in Copenhagen of his friend and cousin Skafti Stefánsson, for whose tragic death Jónas no doubt felt partly responsible.68 Later in the spring he ceased to enjoy his right to free residence and moved out of Regensen; for the next four years he was supported by a grant to do research in the natural sciences (43).

In late July 1836 Jónas took a walking tour of some places north and northwest of Copenhagen, writing a charming account of this expedition in a diary-letter to his friends ("Salthólmsferð"). Meanwhile in Iceland an expedition on a much grander scale was taking place: this was the summer that Paul Gaimard's lavishly-funded French scientific expedition toured the country, creating an enormous stir that would find frequent echoes in Jónas's later scientific and literary work.

The next summer (1837), after an absence of almost five years, Jónas returned to Iceland at his own expense for a visit of some four months, primarily to try out his wings as a field researcher in the natural sciences (4E66). He spent two weeks in the Westman Islands, then based himself for almost three weeks at Breiðabólsstaður in Fljótshlíð, where his friend Tómas Sæmundsson was now the pastor. This visit provided the inspiration for "Gunnar's Holm," one of his most important poems, the first example in Icelandic of terza rima (following the lead of the German poet and natural scientist Adelbert von Chamisso). Jónas subsequently resided in Reykjavík for about five weeks,69 then travelled east to Haukadalur to study the eruptive hot springs Geysir and Strokkur.

Winkler illustration of Geysir, small version.
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Winkler illustration of Geysir basin, small version.
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Winkler illustration of Strokkur, small version.
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Geysir. Beginning of an eruption.

Geysir. The basin after an eruption.

Strokkur. How not to treat a geyser.

Color photo of Strokkur, small version.
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Strokkur erupting.

Jónas spent a day studying these world-famous springs, measuring their temperatures by sinking a thermometer into their depths; he subsequently wrote a highly readable account of his visit which was published the following year in Denmark's most prestigious scientific periodical, Naturhistorisk Tidsskrift. After leaving Geysir, Jónas stopped at Þingvellir, then headed north. While crossing the highlands en route to his family home at Steinsstaðir, he witnessed a brilliant display of northern lights, which he described in highly poetic fashion in another article in the same issue of Naturhistorisk Tidsskrift. He stayed at Steinsstaðir for several weeks before sailing from Akureyri in late September.

Steindór Steindórsson writes: "There can be no doubt that this first research trip in Iceland, which turned out so successfully, opened Jónas's eyes even wider than before to how deficient was people's knowledge of the country — and not least the knowledge of the Icelanders themselves" (Ín148).

At some point during the summer he wrote two important poems that are heavily indebted to the German poet Friedrich Schiller: "The Vastness of the Universe" (an imitation and amplification of Schiller's "Die Größe der Welt") and "Mother Love" (the form of which is borrowed from Schiller's "Des Mädchens Klage"). The latter poem describes a doomed woman lost in a snowstorm and carrying her infant son:

Blizzards are blinding the highlands tonight,
blotting the pathways and landmarks from sight.
Travellers who stray from the track will be lost,
trekking this cold desolation of frost,
bleak and unbounded and dreary.

Who is the woman who wanders the snow,
weeping, unsure what direction to go,
clutching her slumbering son to her breast,
slipping and falling and stopping to rest,
weak from exertion and weary?

Fýkur yfir hæðir og frostkaldan mel,
í fjallinu dunar, en komið er él,
snjóskýin þjóta svo ótt og ótt;
auganu hverfur um heldimma nótt
vegur á klakanum kalda.

Hvur er in grátna, sem gengur um hjarn,
götunnar leitar, og sofandi barn
hylur í faðmi og frostinu ver,
fögur í tárum, en mátturinn þverr —
hún orkar ei áfram að halda.70

The third issue of Fjölnir, which appeared this summer, contained this poem, in which Jónas deliberately tried — and easily managed — to outshine a poem on the same subject by Rev. Árni Helgason. It also contained Jónas's essay "On the Rímur of Tistran and Indíana." This is the first substantial piece of literary criticism in Icelandic and by all odds the most famous: a savage attack on a rímur-poem by Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798-1846) and on the deficiencies of the rímur-tradition in general. It has been said that with this essay "Jónas consigned to perdition five hundred years of the history of Icelandic literature" (JHF106). Sigurður and his work were held in high esteem by many Icelanders, and Jónas's devastating critique71 did nothing to increase his own popularity (see JH9; JHF99-107). "Fjölnir is excellent in spots," Bishop Steingrímur Jónsson wrote Jón Sigurðsson, "but I don't much like its arrogant tone and provocative scolding or the fact that it seems to like — indeed to relish — entering into competition with other writers" (GR13; and see also 23-4).

Hannes Hafstein claimed in 1883, probably on the authority of Páll Melsteð, that during his travels this summer Jónas began to drink more heavily than he had before, and that signs of this were evident when he returned to Copenhagen in the fall (BXX). Rumors of drunkenness and debauch pursue Jónas's memory in Iceland down to the present day.

In the spring of 1838 he took his last examinations at Copenhagen University (in mineralogy and geology). He was beginning work on a book in Danish with the prospective title "History of the Icelandic Volcanos" ("De islandske Vulkaners Historie"), which would contain both a general introduction to the subject and a description of every major volcanic mountain in Iceland (BXXII; 47). At the suggestion of Rev. Þorgeir Guðmundsson, he and Brynjólfur and Konráð undertook to translate the long and important Reflections on the Principal Points of Christian Faith by J. P. Mynster, Bishop of Sjælland and Primate of the Danish Church.

Color photo of bust, small version.
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J. P. Mynster.

Each of the friends was responsible for a third of the translation (9F6), which was published the following year. This translation shares with Sveinbjörn Egilsson's Bible translations the honor of being "the most careful and poetic of all nineteenth century [Icelandic] religious texts in prose" (Ísf459). It is a book that introduced Icelanders to a conservative but vigorous Christianity, poles apart from both the hell-and-brimstone variety of the seventeenth century and the lukewarm rational Christianity of the Enlightenment. It was also a book that made a considerable impression on Jónas himself.72 The translation proved to be extremely popular, requiring a second edition in 1853.

In 1838 Jónas made the first of three unsuccessful attempts to obtain a parish and be ordained a clergyman in Iceland. The ministry was at this time the only career path — and the only source of assured regular income — open to Icelanders who wished to pursue scientific or literary interests.73 Jónas was put forward as a candidate for Reykholt in Borgarfjörður, but it was awarded to someone else.

By far the most important development of 1838 was the decision by the Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society, on 24 September, to adopt Jónas's proposal that it initiate a project to "collect all available documents, both old and new, describing Iceland or its various districts, and prepare for publication a new and accurate description of Iceland" (ÍbS42). It was decided that Jónas would research and write the portions of this work dealing with the land (geography and natural history), while the section on the people (history and economics) would be entrusted to Jón Sigurðsson.74 Jónas himself characterized his parts of the prospective work as a "fysisk-geografisk-statistik Beskrivelse over Island" (2E22, 243). Had it ever been completed, it would have provided an exhaustive account of the geology and physical geography of the country, including accounts of its flora and fauna, and would have superseded the corresponding portions of Eggert Ólafsson's and Bjarni Pálsson's Journey through Iceland (1772). Indeed, Steindór Steindórsson's concise description of Eggert and Bjarni's aim and achievement in their work can serve equally well as a description of what Jónas aimed to do and hoped to achieve. Journey through Iceland

is based on acute observation, extensive knowledge and deep understanding of the nature of the land and the context it provides for the life and occupations of the people. Its fundamental purpose is to create the knowledge base upon which a better and more attractive national life can be built. (Ín59)

Jónas's own work was intended to complement the new and accurate map of Iceland being produced by the Literary Society on the basis of exhaustive surveys of the interior of the country made between 1831 and 1843 by Björn Gunnlaugsson, Jónas's old mathematics teacher at Bessastaðir.75 Jónas's part of the "Description of Iceland" would have met roughly the same need, in the days before photography, of a modern reference work like Landið þitt Ísland (Iceland: Your Country).76

In January 1839 the Icelanders in Copenhagen held a banquet to honor Paul Gaimard, who was passing through town, and for this Jónas composed his poem "To Mr. Paul Gaimard" with its famous stanza in praise of science:

Progress depends on truth and lore.
Patient research, pursued with rigor,
restores a people's stagnant vigor,
and brings them boons unknown before.
Therefore we place supreme reliance
upon the work of men of science,
who toil up pathways never trod
to tend the holy flame of God.

Some three months later a farewell banquet for Rev. Þorgeir Guðmundsson elicited not one but three poems from Jónas, two of which are included in this collection ("A Toast to Iceland" and "Table Hymn").

It is important to note that many — indeed most — of Jónas's poems are "occasional poems" in the best and largest sense of the word, i.e., their composition was prompted by some immediate, tangible, and identifiable external stimulus. Sometimes (as in the three cases just mentioned) this stimulus was a banquet for which Jónas had been asked to compose a poem that could be distributed among those present in broadside or pamphlet form and sung to a preexistent melody in the presence of the guest of honor; sometimes it was a death which Jónas had been commissioned — or decided spontaneously — to commemorate; sometimes it was the publication of a book; sometimes it was an incident or episode that he had recently experienced or observed; and so on. Páll Valsson has written: "When one bears in mind how many of Jónas's poems. . .are commissioned, or composed as memorial pieces, one is forced to the conclusion that he really needed some external stimulus in order to set about composing poetry" (3Íb325-7). A similar dynamic is observable in the very large number of Jónas's poems that are directly inspired by — or begin their careers as translations or imitations of — works by other poets: a method of self-stimulation which surely had its origin in his classes and early poetic exercises at Bessastaðir, but which he continued to rely on throughout his career.

In the spring of 1839 the Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society sent a circular letter and long questionnaire to all the parish ministers in Iceland, and another to all the sýslumenn, asking them to help collect data for the "Description of Iceland" by providing detailed accounts of their parishes and sýslur.77 A glance at these documents shows that

the questions for the sýslumenn are designed to solicit an extremely general overview of the country, whereas the responses of the clergy are expected to provide more particular information: thirty questions deal with the physical character of the land and its settlement patterns, twenty-five with occupations and means of subsistence, and the last five with cultural conditions. (RSsIX)

Steindór Steindórsson writes:

Jónas undoubtedly played the leading role in developing these questions, and they show clearly what a comprehensive overview he had already attained of the entire project. Nothing of any importance is omitted. (Ín145)

On 24 May 1839, Jónas sailed for Iceland, where he would reside continuously for the next three and a half years, gathering data for this project and conducting basic research in a number of scientific fields. "The natural history of Iceland is still largely unknown," he had written the Finance Office in April, "to the detriment of both science and the economic development of the country. I have resolved, to the best of my ability, to remedy this situation" (2E242).


48 Nor are there any surviving letters from the period March 1832-November 1835, so we know very little about his early years at the university. No poetry survives from these years either.

49 What these impressions may have been like are suggested in an excellent imaginative sketch by Dagný Kristjánsdóttir (50TMm172-5). For an elaborate and well-illustrated account of Copenhagen in Jónas's day, and of the activities and amusements of Icelanders who studied and worked there, see Björn Th. Björnsson, Á Íslendingaslóðum í Kaupmannahöfn (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1991)(ÁÍK).

50 Benjamín Kristjánsson, Eyfirðingabók I (Akureyri: Bókaforlag Odds Björnssonar, 1968), p. 114.

51 Copenhagen University had been founded in 1497. For an excellent short history (in English) see Svend Erik Stybe, Copenhagen University: 500 Years of Science and Scholarship, tr. Reginald Spink (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1979). The definitive history is Københavns Universitet 1479-1979, 14 vols. (København: G. E. C. Gads Forlag, 1979-93).

52 The practice of supporting Icelandic students at Copenhagen University with scholarships and free accommodation had been initiated in 1579 by the Danish king Frederik II.

53 A later Icelandic resident of Regensen, the poet Gísli Brynjúlfsson, complained in his Copenhagen Diary (Dagbók í Höfn): "Got up at l0:00. Various people dropped by. Jabbered. Ate. Goofed off. Regensen is the worst place" (DH46). And a year later: "That's how it is living in this damned Garður, you can't get a bit of work done" (DH104). See further ÁÍK68-70.

54 Páll writes:

For as long as Jónas and I roomed together, we never had a quarrel, although we were quite unlike one another and each of us went his own way. We most often chatted together when we had just gone to bed, and then we discussed a whole range of subjects. We told each other stories from home, talking about nature, landscape, birds, and livestock as often as we did about people. We recited stanzas we knew, I from out east in Múlasýsla, he from Eyjafjörður and Skagafjörður in the north. (4E43-4)

Páll was a sharp observer who knew Jónas well and on whom we are dependent for a good deal of reasonably reliable information. He did Jónas no service, however, in after years, by promoting the legend of his laziness. (One suspects that his attitude toward Jónas was a mixture of admiration, disapproval, and envy.) There is no denying that Jónas was sometimes dilatory and procrastinating. But it is unfair — and a misunderstanding of his temperament — to write as follows:

He was the laziest person I ever knew. He would lie lengthwise on the sofa with his hands clasped behind his neck. And often he would smile, or burst out laughing, though no one was saying anything. He was laughing at his own thoughts. (4E44)

This is the "laziness" of genius.

55 Which is why (according to Baldvin Einarsson) they "acquire only a superficial education and go back to their fatherland much the same as they left it, except for the specialty they mastered" (50TMm173).

56 According to the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Fjölnir was one of the names of the god Óðinn. The word implies "manyness, multitudinousness." Explaining the name to a correspondent in Iceland the next year, Konráð wrote that the periodical "intends to attract to itself all the forces wishing to work together in the nation's interest, and we wanted its name to suggest this" (BKG38).

57 Ísf463, 468-9 contains a good, analytic discussion of Fjölnir's — and Jónas Hallgrímsson's — characteristic stylistic innovations and the sources of their inspiration (among which Sveinbjörn Egilsson's teaching at Bessastaðir must certainly be included). "Although — for obvious reasons — the journal's [founders] had to be extremely careful about sending the Danish authorities any explicit message about political independence, they made up for this by waging a merciless war against Danicisms in the Icelandic language, showing by their own example that one could develop a rich diction and vocabulary while avoiding all the Danish features that had come to be so deeply ingrained in the written language" (Ísf468).

58 It contained (among other things) a translation of excerpts from the intensely lyrical and compassionate Paroles d'un croyant of Félicité-Robert Lamennais (1782-1854) — a work that had been condemned in a papal encyclical a few months after its publication; a translation by Jónas and Konráð of the provocative anecdote (about Charles V and his court fool Kunz von der Rosen) that concludes Heinrich Heine's Reisebilder (the original had been written only a few months after the July Revolution of 1830, and the translation was interpreted in Iceland as politically subversive: "Though it seems all nonsense on the surface," wrote a critic in Sunnanpósturinn, "it conceals a dangerous spirit of liberty and opposition to legal authority" [Ísf491]); and a translation by Jónas and Konráð of a disturbing tale of Ludwig Tieck's about murder and incest — subjects not likely to please Icelandic sensibilities. Tómas Sæmundsson liked the story, though he reported that others did not (BTS161), and Sveinbjörn Egilsson wrote Jón Sigurðsson: "I read the story of Eggert Glói to my girls. They thought the beginning was marvellous but when it got to the end they were pretty displeased and said 'Humph!'" (Ísf487). It is interesting to note that the editors of Fjölnir, defending Tieck's story in a subsequent issue of the periodical, gave it an interpretation that brought it into line with the strictest traditional morality (4F14). See further RGL123-7.

Of course the editorial triumvirate in Copenhagen was not totally without common sense. They declined to print a now-lost piece by Tómas Sæmundsson with the title "The Nature of the Dane" ("Um Danskinn") — even though Tómas had given them carte blanche "to tone down its language wherever it is too critical and dangerous" (BTS130 and n.).

59 See the strictures of Brynjólfur's brother Pétur, BPÆ58.

60 In spite of Jónas's elaborate and eloquent attempt to forestall criticism, portions of the essay struck readers as contradicting the Bible. "And that was taken very seriously in those days," Þorsteinn Gíslason notes (JH9). Sigurður Breiðfjörð was delighted to use Jónas's essay (which he mistakenly believed to be a translation) as a point of attack in the third stanza of his "Fjölnir Cream" ("Fjölnisrjómi") of 1835:

The translated piece on earth's creation
(though intellectuals swear by it)
has caused a heap of consternation
by contradicting Holy Writ.

Um uppruna jarðar útlögð klausa,
þó athygli fengi lærðum hjá,
bændurna rekur ráðalausa
ritningar sinnar orðum frá.

(See Sigurður Breiðfjörð: Úrvalsrit, búin til prentunar eptir Einar Benediktsson [Kaupmannahöfn: Á kostnað Bókaverzlunar Gyldendals, 1894], pp. 128-30.)

61 There is no evidence that Jónas's political opinions ever had an anti-monarchical cast. In 1834, in fact, when discussions were under way about the content of the first issue of Fjölnir, Tómas Sæmundsson — who was by all odds the most radical and populist of the four colleagues — called Jónas a "legitimist" and a "Carlist" (BTS130).

62 Sigurður Breiðfjörð: Úrvalsrit, p. XVII.

63 These quarrels arose between Tómas, who was severely practical in his approach and ranked "usefullness" far above "beauty" (see BTS206), expressing his criticisms in a very bossy and supercilious way, and Jónas and Konráð, whose attitude was much more aesthetic and who naturally resented both Tómas's criticisms and the manner in which he expressed them. Tómas made his attitude crystal clear in a letter to Konráð (4 February 1841):

I don't imagine my name is going to outlive my death for very long. But I want — above all else — to go to my grave secure in the knowledge that I was more concerned about being useful than anything else. You would no doubt. . .think this the most contemptible epitaph imaginable. To change the world through Ideas — to bring about a Revolution in the realm of truth — that's what spirits like you are most interested in! (BTS277)

64 The fifth issue (1839) was written and published by Tómas Sæmundsson on his own as a result of the quarrels mentioned in the previous note.

65 These features had their admirers, of course. Rev. Skúli Thómasson wrote in 1839 that "Fjölnir with its critical stance [aðfyndni]" was among the most frequent secular readings during kvöldvökur in Suður-Þingeyjarsýsla (ÞSs137). On the general question of the journal's distribution and reception, see BPÆ84-91.

66 In May 1844 Brynjólfur Pétursson, describing the newly published seventh issue to his (and Jónas's) friend Þórður Jónasson, wrote that Fjölnir "is constantly becoming more and more inoffensive, on principle. And yet — really — it has always been inoffensive" (BPB56).

67 The Icelandic Literary Society (Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag), of which Jónas became a member in March 1834, had been founded in 1816 on the initiative of the Danish philologist Rasmus Rask (1787-1832). It originally consisted of two independently governed but cooperating divisions (or sections), one in Reykjavík, the other in Copenhagen. In 1911 the Copenhagen Division was merged into the Reykjavík Division and its resources and assets transferred to Iceland; its leading members then proceeded to form the Icelandic Learned Society in Copenhagen (Hið íslenska fræðafélag í Kaupmannahöfn). The Icelandic Literary Society is still in existence and publishes Skírnir, the oldest literary and cultural periodical in Scandinavia.

68 On the evening of 9 April 1836 Skafti ate dinner with Jónas and Konráð Gíslason at the restaurant Fernini. He drank too much, got involved in a street fight with a stranger whom he struck in the head, and was taken for interrogation to the police station, where his two friends — who had taken to their heels after the fight — peeped in at him briefly through the doorway and then made off again. Skafti was released from custody and escorted back to Regensen — still drunk — by a policeman. As they approached the residence hall he suddenly took flight and vanished into the night. Early the next morning his drowned body was found in Holmens Canal. When news of his death reached Iceland, Rev. Árni Helgason expressed himself privately as follows: "I was extemely distressed to learn that the two fellow-countrymen who were with him (and they are two of our most promising young men) abandoned him at the police station before his business there was concluded. But then everyone acts according to his own lights." (Letter to Bjarni Þorsteinsson [8 November]; see Biskupinn í Görðum: Sendibréf 1810-1853, Finnur Sigmundsson bjó til prentunar, Íslenzk sendibréf II [Reykjavík: Bókafellsútgáfan, 1959], p. 157 f.)

The dean of Regensen has left a very circumstantial account of the incident (and he, too, was appalled by the somewhat irresponsible conduct of Jónas and Konráð). There was no obvious reason for Skafti to have commited suicide, he says, judging it likely that he did so because of an "injured sense of honor about what had happened." The dean continues: "This incident has made a profound impression upon me. He was perhaps the most industrious of all the Icelanders who have been here in my time" (ÁÍK141-2). See further Tómas Sæmundsson's letter to Konráð of 1 August 1836 (BTS177-8).

69 It may have been during this visit that Benedikt Gröndal met him and found him to be "plump-faced, sullen-looking, and extremely quiet" (4BGR293).

70 These are the first two stanzas of "Mother Love" ("Móðurást"). Date: Summer 1837; the poem was composed in Iceland and mailed to Jónas's colleagues in Copenhagen (see 3F29-30). Form: Eight stanzas, each of which consists of four four-stress lines + one three-stress line and shows the alliteration pattern 221; each pair of stanzas rhymes aabbC ddeeC. Manuscript: None surviving. First published: 1837 (3F30-3).

71 Jónas opened his essay by taking the highly unusual step (unusual for him, that is) of prefacing it with a Latin quotation, lines 470-2 of Horace's Ars Poetica. The lines may be rendered in English: "It's not at all clear why he is condemned to go on making verses. Maybe because he once urinated on his father's ashes or profaned some dismal shrine, thus committing sacrilege. Whatever the reason, it is obvious that he is totally mad." The cool contempt and Olympian scorn of this — Jónas's bringing the big guns of classical correctness and his classical education at Bessastaðir to bear on the comparatively unschooled Sigurður Breiðfjörð and the wholly unschooled tradition of folk poetry exemplified by his rímur — all this was a brilliant (if cruel) device.

72 Tómas Sæmundsson was much impressed by his colleagues' achievement (see BTS286), and Konrad Maurer reported in 1858 that the translation was in wide use (KMÍ101). In connection with this translation, Þorsteinn Gíslason tells a backbiting story of the sort that has low credibility but did much to damage Jónas's reputation in Iceland:

After he left the Garður [i.e., Regensen], he roomed with Konráð Gíslason, who became — much later — a professor at the university. Stories are going the rounds about how they lived something less than a model life during these years. The two of them translated Mynster's Reflections into Icelandic. And it is said by a minister of the church — a contemporary of theirs in Copenhagen — that when the book was published he just couldn't understand how it was produced in such a "swinery," viz., Jónas's and Konráð's quarters. (JH8; see further BPÆ98)

73 The duties connected with a pastorate were not particularly onerous, even when one took them as seriously as Tómas Sæmundsson did. He wrote Jónas that they "generally take up about two days a week" (BTS164).

Jónas's Copenhagen friends took a dim view of these applications for a parish, since they saw teaching rather than preaching as his vocation. "Whatever you say, my friend," Brynjólfur wrote in April 1842, "I would rather see you standing before the upper form in a green frock-coat than standing before the altar in black" (BPB16).

74 This decision was made later, in February 1843 (5DCXLIX).

75 The coasts had been surveyed earlier, between 1801 and 1818 (see 3251-302), and this made Björn's work possible. For a detailed account of his achievement, see 3302-34.

76 The zoologist Arnþór Garðarson has recently expressed the view that while it is impossible to know what impact the "Description of Iceland" might have had, if it had ever been completed, "it does not seem wrong-headed to suppose that its scientific portions would have contributed to a broader scientific culture and an improved economy, accelerating the nation's development beyond what actually proved to be the case" (4E55).

But unfortunately the Literary Society's grand project was not destined to bear any fruit. Þorvaldur Thoroddsen noted many years ago that its sponsors

had hardly any idea at all, at first, of the scope of their project, and it soon became clear that the original conception was unrealizable with the resources at hand. . . . The most serious problem was that little financial support could be expected from the government. And Jónas Hallgrímsson, despite his enormous talents, abilities, and expertise, was hardly the man to bring such a work to a successful conclusion: he had neither the health nor stamina to produce a book that would have required working daily from morning to night over a period of many years. (42)

77 For the text of these letters and questionnaires, see ÍbS71-80, RSsXIII-XX, and also — most enlighteningly — ESs7 sq. The response to the Literary Society's request was enthusiastic (for an analytical list of replies see HSsXV). The replies are preserved today in the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Iceland (ÍB 18-21 fol. and 71 fol.); many (but not all) have been published this century. They differ greatly in quality and few of them have much entertainment value for non-Icelanders. An interesting exception is the caustic and amusing report written by Rev. Ögmundur Sigurðsson (1799-1845), who, like Jónas, was a geologist and a student of Forchhammer (HSs324-44) — and an interesting and outrageous character besides (see ÁÍK154-5).

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

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