Dandelions, a dazzling mass!
Dashing waters, faithful friends,
Cloudy river, brisk and bright,
Crested summits crowned with snow!
Summer valley, blissful, blest,
Fífilbrekka! gróin grund!
Gljúfrabúi, gamli foss!
Sæludalur! sveitin best!
|Date:||Early January 1844 (probably 14-15 January)|
|Form:||Five stanzas of eight four-stress lines in triolet-form (see below), rhyming aBaaBaBa and with the alliteration pattern 2222|
|Manuscript:||JS 129 fol. (facsimile KJH154-5; image) and KG 31 b V (facsimile KJH161-3; image); in both manuscripts the poem bears the title "Dalvísa."|
|First published:||1844 (7F27-8; image) under the title "Dalvísa" ("Valley Song"); reprinted A136-8 under the title "Dalvísur" ("Valley Stanzas")|
|Sound recording:||Emily Auerbach reads "Valley Song." [1:35]|
Commentary: In this sequence of exclamatory apostrophes, Jónas paints a rapturous picture of a typical rural valley in Iceland. He invokes, in the first four stanzas, the blossoms in its meadows, the waterfalls and ravines along its sides, the brooks and streams that flow along its bottom, and the cliff belts and high peaks that gird it round. In the fifth stanza he addresses the valley as a whole. It is hard to imagine a more briefly comprehensive or more artfully shaped portrait of this typical Icelandic landscape. When writing the poem, Jónas can hardly help but have had his birthplace Öxnadalur in mind; still, the portrait is firmly generic, including only features characteristic of the great majority of cultivated valleys in Iceland.1 Moreover its air of simplicity and spontaneity is deceptive, a striking example of the "art that conceals art," for the poem has very complex and sophisticated literary antecedents.
On 13 January 1844 Brynjólfur Pétursson wrote to Jónas in Sorø, asking for a contribution to the next number of Fjölnir. "Please," he begged, "you must send us a poem if you've got one!" (BPB42). Jónas no doubt received this letter the next day or the day after and it is possible that he composed "Valley Song" more or less on the spot, in response to Brynjólfur's request.
Two manuscripts of the poem survive. The earlier of these seems to have been intended, at least initially, as a fair copy, but was then substantially (and very advantageously) revised before Jónas sent it off to Brynjólfur with the following note jotted beneath the text:
Before you read this aloud (to everyone's edification, of course!) it will be best to make a clean copy.
I want to ask you [i.e., Brynjólfur and Jónas's other Fjölnir colleagues] to commission a tune — nice, but not too expensive — to go with my poem. (KJH155)
Brynjólfur read the poem to the Fjölnir Society on 20 January and on 12 February wrote Jónas:
I made a copy of "Valley Song," as you asked me to, but I have not commissioned a tune for it. I'm afraid a tune is going to be hard to come by. Setting this poem to music will be no easy task; it will be hard to explain the text to a composer, it is so "original and distinctive" [ejendommelig og original]. When I finished reading it aloud at our meeting, everyone said it was lovely and unusual and asked me to beg you to let Fjölnir have it. And you will, nicht wahr? (BPB43-4)
The poem was published later that year in the seventh issue of Fjölnir.
The other manuscript copy is later (but probably only slightly later) than the first. It is a fair copy dated 15 January. It incorporates all the revisions in the first manuscript and its punctuation much more closely resembles the punctuation of the text printed in Fjölnir. Beneath the poem (and "Mowing Song," which follows immediately in the manuscript), Jónas has written: "By the way, it's intolerable not having tunes to which poems like this can be sung! Without such tunes, they will never become popular among the people."2 Jónas evidently thought it important that a poem like "Valley Song," describing (and idealizing) the beauty of rural Iceland, should attain wide popularity among his countrymen at home, for the reason he puts into the mouth of Eggert Ólafsson in the "Lay of Hulda":
God has given more than a few
gifts to Iceland! But foolish men —
treating them with contempt — do not
tend or improve their garden plot,
loathe to admit, or realize,
they live in an earthly paradise.
"Valley Song" shows, perhaps better than any other of Jónas's poems, his genius as a formal innovator and his ability to adapt preexistent models, both foreign and domestic, to his own ends.
The starting point, in this instance, is an untitled poem beginning with the line "Tak være dig, min Sommerdal," published in 1790 by the Norwegian clergyman and folk poet Claus Frimann (1746-1829).3 It is possible that Jónas knew Frimann's poem in the original; he was familiar with other work by Frimann, having made a translation of the latter's "Lovsang" while still a student at Bessastaðir.4
Frimann's poem is six stanzas long.5 It begins with (1) a stanza addressed to a Norwegian farming valley. This is followed by four stanzas in which various features of the valley are apostrophized separately and more or less at random: (2) its woodlands, (3) the wall of mountains that surrounds it, (4) its arable land, and (5) the brook that flows through it. The final stanza (6) gives thanks to God. Frimann's poem is written in stanzas of eight lines (four alternating four- and three-stress lines + two four-stress lines + a verbatim repetition of lines 1 and 2); these stanzas rhyme aBaBccaB and have a relentlessly iambic rhythm.
Although it is not impossible that Jónas knew Frimann's poem in the original, it seems probable that the immediate impulse for writing "Valley Song" came from reading the bravura Icelandic translation of it by Jón Þorláksson, "Excellences of the Land" ("Landkostirnir").6 Jónas had taken a close look through Jón's collected poems in the winter of 1841-2, three years before writing "Valley Song". Jón's translation of Frimann's poem is extremely close to its original, following it line by line and docilely reproducing its Norwegian landscape without making any effort to adjust the picture to Icelandic actuality. The rhythm is fundamentally trochaic, now, with anacrusis and dactyllic substitution on the Icelandic pattern, and with addition of the obligatory alliteration.
When Jónas set about recasting this poem, he retained its basic format (a series of exclamatory apostrophes addressed to the different features of an agricultural valley) but made a number of radical changes. For one thing, he eschews the repetition of first person possessive adjectives that he found in his original, thus producing a much more universal poem.7 For another, he does away with the formulaic expressions of gratitude ("þökk sè þèr") to all the individual physical features of the valley and dispenses altogether with the final stanza of gratitude to God.8
More important, Jónas embarks on a thoroughgoing redeployment of individual items in Frimann's original. This redeployment may be represented graphically as follows:
This rearrangement (and sometimes reconceptualization) achieves two goals: (1) total Icelandicization of the content of the poem (for example, Norwegian trees become Icelandic flowers), and (2) the creation of a series of apostrophes that follow one another in a sequence that is not only logical but climactic as well. It begins with small-scale local features towards which an observer looks down (flowers), proceeds to middle-size features such as waterfalls and brooks (toward which an observer looks with more or less horizontal gaze), and concludes with the macro-features of the landscape, its surrounding mountains (toward which an observer looks up). The series concludes, logically enough, with an address to the valley as a whole. As already noted, Jónas does not reproduce Frimann's sixth stanza, consequently gratitude to God no longer plays an explicit role in the poem. But no doubt it is implicit throughout.
None of what has been said hitherto, however, touches on the most remarkable innovation in Jónas's poem. The stanza-form used by Frimann (in his original) and Jón Þorláksson (in his translation), with the first two lines of each stanza repeated verbatim at the end, apparently struck Jónas as being so close to triolet form9 that he decided in his transformation of the poem to use triolet stanzas, thus introducing the triolet into Icelandic literature half a century before its effective introduction into English by Robert Bridges.
In his decision to adopt this form, Jónas was almost certainly inspired by "Küssen will ich, ich will küssen" (1831), a poem in triolet stanzas by the German poet and natural scientist Adelbert von Chamisso. Jónas made an Icelandic translation of this poem of Chamisso's at about the time he wrote "Valley Song."10 Chamisso's first stanza is a good example of strict triolet form:
Freund, noch einen Kuß mir gib,
Einen Kuß von deinem Munde,
Ach! ich habe dich so lieb!
Freund, noch einen Kuß mir gib.
Werden möcht ich sonst zum Dieb,
Wärst du karg in dieser Stunde;
Freund, noch einen Kuß mir gib,
Einen Kuß von deinem Munde. (1CSW155-6)
Recasting Frimann's poem (and Jón Þorláksson's translation) in triolet stanzas meant writing four-stress lines throughout, observing a much more demanding rhyme scheme (two instead of three rhymes per stanza), and repeating the first line of every stanza verbatim as its fourth line. And that is where the potential problem arose: verbatim repetition was not possible without infringing the rules of alliteration, since double alliteration, compulsory in odd lines (like the first line of each stanza), is forbidden in even lines (like the fourth). Jónas solved this problem in two different ways, sometimes (1) altering, in the fourth line of a stanza, the word in its first line that had provided the second stuðull, so that it no longer participated in the alliteration (this was his procedure in stanzas 2 through 5), or (2) using the first line's non-alliterating stressed syllable as the headstave in the fourth line (in which case, in order to avoid overalliteration [ofstuðlun], he had to change — in the fourth line — the word containing the first alliterating syllable of the first line; this was his procedure in stanza 1).11 The solution devised by Jónas here —partly forced upon him, of course, if there was to be any hope of writing triolet stanzas in Icelandic — was brilliant, since the slight variation of the first line in every fourth line enabled him to avoid the greatest danger facing practitioners of the triolet form: its tendency toward otiose, mechanical repetition.12
There is a prior English translation of the first two stanzas by H.M.S. in Íslenzk þjóðlög. Icelandic Folksongs (Edinburgh: R. W. Pentland, [n.d.]), pp. 12-4.
Bibliography: Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson discusses the prosodic features of this poem at some length (Bbk71-5).
1 Einar Ól. Sveinsson has suggested (Vu298) that the word "sæludalur" ("bliss valley") in Jónas's last stanza is appropriated from Eggert Ólafsson's Georgic Cantos (Búnaðarbálkur). The third canto of Eggert's work is entitled "Munaðardæla" and the author explains in a footnote that this word means the same thing as "sæludalur" (KEO38n6). By using the word "sæludalur," Jónas may well be attaching "Valley Song" to the tradition of Eggert's poem and suggesting that he is describing the same idealized farming valley.
There is an interesting Icelandic folktale called "First Cousins in Bliss Valley" ("Frændsystkinin í Sæludal"), in which the name "Sæludalur" — very likely borrowed from Jónas (the story contains a number of literary touches) — is applied to a hidden outlaw valley in the central highlands, full of abundance and fertility, where people fleeing the ordinary constraints of law and society lead idyllic lives "in the blessedness of good fortune" (í velsælu lukkunar); see 4Íþs4l8-21.
3 Almuens Sanger [Songs of the People] (Kjøbenhavn: Trykt paa Gyldendals Forlag, 1790), pp. 146-8. The poem is the last of twelve poems in a subsection of Frimann's book with the title "Marksange og andre ved Naturens Betragtning" ["Forest Songs and Others Occasioned by the Contemplation of Nature"] (pp. 123-48).
Frimann is still regarded in Norway as a poet of considerable originality and importance and was thought of by J. S. Welhaven — who edited a selection of his verse in 1851 — as "without doubt the most outstanding talent among all Norwegian poets of the second half of the last century" (Udvalg af Claus Frimanns Digte, udgivet af J. S. Welhaven [Christiania: P. T. Mallings Forlags-Boghandel, 1851], XVII). Welhaven reprinted "Tak være dig, min Sommerdal" in this collection (pp. 36-7), giving it the title "Bondens Takkesang" ("The Farmer's Song of Thanks"). There is an excellent, highly sympathetic account of Frimann and his poetry by Francis Bull in 2NLH485-90.
Frimann's poems achieved wide circulation as songs, and this had been his intention. "His poetry is very singable and so many folk tunes have been composed to it that in this respect he probably stands ahead of all other Norwegian poets except Peter Dass" (2NLH486).
4 The translation is entitled "Lofsöngur" (MS KG 31 b I [facsimile KJH26-8]; first published A276-7). Frimann's original appears as the seventh poem (pp. 134-5) in the subsection of Almuens Sanger mentioned in the previous note. Frimann wrote the poem to be sung to a popular tune, French in origin, that was well known in Scandinavia in the eighteenth century: Bellman used it for "Movitz blåste en konsert" (Fredmans Epistel 51; see 1BSCLXXXIV) and Runeberg for his "Björneborgerenas marsch." Jónas intended his translation to be sung to the same tune. Jónas was so fascinated by Frimann's poem that he imitated its form in an original poem of his own ("Sumardagsmorguninn fyrsta 1828" ["On the First Day of Summer 1828"]), which he no doubt intended to be sung to the same tune.
There is some slight evidence to suggest that Jónas had become familiar at Bessastaðir not only with "Lovsang" but with some of the other poems in Almuens Sanger as well. It is tempting to speculate that he was introduced to Frimann and his work by Jakob Rudolf Keyser, a Norwegian student who spent two years at Bessastaðir (1825-7), becoming one of Jónas's closest friends and the subject of his poem "To Keyser." It is also tempting to speculate that Jónas's obvious interest, later in life, in writing his own "songs of the people" and their occupations (i.e., poems like "Mowing Song," "Valley Song," and "Skipper's Songs" ["Formannsvísur"]), and in having these poems achieve widespread popularity among the people as actual songs, may have stemmed from his early familiarity with Frimann and Almuens Sanger.
5 Below are parallel texts of Claus Frimann's "Tak være dig, min Sommerdal" and Jón Þorláksson's Icelandic adaptation ("Landkostirnir").
Tak være dig, min Sommerdal,
Tak være dig, min gode Skov,
Tak være dig, min Bierge-Bold!
Tak være dig, mit Agerland!
Tak være dig, mit Elveløb,
Tak være dig for alt, o Gud!
MINN sumardalur! þökk sè þèr,
Minn góði skógur, þökk sè þèr
Min fjallagirðing! þökk sè þèr
Mitt akurlendi! þökk sè þèr,
Minn bæjarlækur! þökk sè þèr
Fyrir allt, Drottinn! þökk sè þèr!
6 There is no indisputable evidence, in Jónas's text, of direct influence from Frimann. For the text of Jón's translation, see 1Íl239-40. The relationship between it and "Dalvísa" was first noted in print by Jón Helgason in 1944 (Rr168-9).
7 Jónas's speaker refers to himself directly only once (in stanza 1) and a second time indirectly (in stanza 2), then disappears from the poem. Frimann's speaker makes fifteen appearances (via personal pronouns and possessive adjectives), and Jon's makes sixteen.
8 To point this out is not to deny the possible truth of Einar Ól. Sveinsson's statement that "Valley Song" is not, "as people are sometimes inclined to think, merely an exquisitely pretty lyric poem, but a sacred ode" (Vu299). Halldór Laxness has called attention to the "litany-like enumeration of the symbols that make up the psychological life of people living in such valleys" (Ab54).
9 The triolet is a French fixed form that can be traced back to the 13th century. It was subsequently cultivated by poets like Deschamps and Froissart. A triolet (or triolet stanza) consists of eight lines and employs only two rhymes. Line 1 is repeated verbatim as line 4 and lines 1 and 2 are repeated verbatim as lines 7 and 8 (see the example by Chamisso cited in the text). The name "triolet" apparently derives from the fact that the first line of the stanza is repeated twice, i.e., it puts in three appearances altogether.
10 The earlier of the two surviving manuscript copies of this translation bears the date 25 February , which suggests that it is slightly later than "Valley Song." The translation, entitled "Song of Kisses" ("Kossa-vísa"), was published in the seventh issue of Fjölnir, a few pages after "Valley Song" and "Mowing Song."
12 In this connection it is perhaps worth calling attention to the fact that Jón Þorláksson, in the final stanza of "Landkostirnir," breaks the otherwise regular pattern of his poem (and Frimann's) by very effectively altering the first line when it reappears as the seventh.