47. The Solitary (Einbúinn)

Color photo of Einbui, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Einbúi in Öxnadalur.

The Solitary


Over scarp, over fen,
over gully and glen
I have gone on the feet of the breeze,
ever meaning to find
an abode for my mind
in the mountains and valleys and seas.

But I found not a one,
all the places were gone,
they were packed with the living and dead.
Now I live all alone
in a lodge of my own
where the licking flames are red.

recording available

Yfir dal, yfir sund,
yfir gil, yfir grund
hef eg gengið á vindléttum fótum;
eg hef leitað mér að
hvar eg ætti mér stað,
út um öldur og fjöll og í gjótum.

En eg fann ekki neinn,
eg er orðinn of seinn,
það er alsett af lifandi' og dauðum.
Ég er einbúi nú,
og á mér nú bú
í eldinum logandi rauðum.

Date:Winter or spring 1845 (KJH315).
Form:Two stanzas of six lines. Each stanza consists of two two-stress + one three-stress + two two-stress + one three-stress lines, generally anapestic. The rhyme scheme is aaBccB (the rhyme scheme of the translation is aabccb). There are normally two stuðlar in each pair of short lines and a höfuðstafur in each of the long lines.
Manuscript:KG 31 b I (facsimile KJH247; image).
First published:1847 (A245; image).
Sound recording:Valgerður Benediktsdóttir reads "Einbúinn." recording available [0:34]

Commentary:        Hannes Hafstein, relying no doubt on information provided by Konráð Gíslason, declared that during the last winter of his life Jónas's spirit "began more and more to turn in upon itself. . . . He felt totally isolated. . . . It seemed to him that life was unbearable" (BXXXVIII). In "The Solitary," various thematic emphases — loneliness, isolation, and alienation; wanderings far and wide throughout Iceland; a vain and futile search for a home, concluding in a place of torment — all work together to create what can only be called a mythic picture of one of Jónas's recurrent psychological moods in the last months of his life.1

The poem's Icelandic title "Einbúinn" means "the one who lives alone." Einbúi is the ordinary word for a hermit. But it can also be used of anyone who, for whatever reason, lives in isolation — like Oddr einbúi ("Oddr the Lone-Dweller") in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. In an Icelandic folktale the word is used of a being — a king's son who has been transformed into a dog by enchantment — who lives in a cave on a mountain and draws the attention of passers-by to himself by crying out, "Einbúi í fjalli. Einbúi í fjalli" ("Lone-dweller in the mountain! Lone-dweller in the mountain!") (2Íþs430).

"Einbúi" is also the name of many isolated and often strikingly-shaped hills, mountains, and seacliffs in Iceland. Jónas, reading through the parish descriptions sent to the Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society, will have come across the name again and again. Perhaps even more to the point: there is an Einbúi in Öxnadalur, close to the farm Hraun where Jónas was born and clearly visible from down the valley at Steinsstaðir where he spent his boyhood. This Einbúi may have been given its name because it stands isolated from the little community of peaks — including Steeple Rock (Hraundrangi) — to its southwest.

The problem described by the speaker in this poem — that he has come too late and found all the places taken — is strikingly reminiscent of the dilemma of "the poet" in Sveinbjörn Egilsson's "Skáldamanna hlutur" ("The Poets' Portion"),2 a much-expanded version of Schiller's "Die Teilung der Erde." The situation in Sveinbjörn's poem is as follows: only after God has finished distributing the earth and all its goods among various classes of men does "the poet" arrive on the scene, having travelled a great distance and wandered widely. He discovers that everything has been taken:

Nú kom, laungu eptir skipti sked,
skáldid lángt ad úr ferdastjái;
en ónumid vard nú ekkert séd,
eigandi var á hvørju strái.

In Sveinbjörn's poem, as in Schiller's, "the poet" explains that he missed the great giveaway because he was far from the earth, lost in contemplation of God. God is pleased with this reply and rewards the poet by telling him that though he has come too late to receive a portion of the earth, he will have a home in heaven whenever he wants it:

En ef þig lángar, medur mér
í mínum himni ad eiga vistir,
hann æ skal standa opinn þér,
svo opt þig þángad vitja lystir.

If this poem of Sveinbjörn's, with which Jónas is likely to have been very familiar, was indeed on his mind when he composed "The Solitary," then Jónas — by providing his own speaker with a home in what appears to be hell — has given the story a bitter, ironic, and despairing twist of the kind that is common in his late verse.

In the first collected edition of Jónas's poetry (1847), his friends Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason placed this poem last among his original poems,3 speculating that "these two stanzas probably have some connection" with Jónas's late cycle of twelve topographical poems (A245). Certainly "The Solitary" can be read as an interesting commentary on those poems and on the far-flung research trips in Iceland that underlie them. It can also be read as a cry of despairing recognition that many of the things Jónas wanted from life had passed him by and that his work on the "Description of Iceland" was going badly and would probably never be brought to a successful conclusion (see Kf230-1).4


1 The plenitude from which "the solitary" finds himself excluded is described as follows by Jónas in his translation of Ursin's handbook on astronomy:

If we study the world around us, we see life everywhere. It is not only human beings who have spread over almost the entire surface of the earth: an immense number of creatures live there along with us, so many that there is not a single inch of land, not a hummock or blade of grass, where some creature does not dwell. Look through a good microscope at drops of water, one drop at a time: you will see that every drop is a sort of miniature world, completely filled with living creatures, all in busy motion, some having the same form, others having dissimilar forms. (3E324)

2 Published in Sunnanpósturinn, III (1838), 9 (September), 142-4.

3 It is followed only by a group of unfinished or fragmentary poems (all of which are identified by the editors as fragments [brot]), and by Jónas's translations from other languages.

4 When reading "The Solitary" in the context of Jónas's personal and professional life and work, one cannot help thinking — and cannot help wondering whether Jónas himself was not thinking at some conscious or unconscious level — of Peter Schlemihl in the famous story by Jónas's fellow-poet and fellow-scientist Adelbert von Chamisso. Strikingly similar are Peter's isolation and alienation from his fellow human beings and their society; the seven league boots that enable him to traverse the globe in the interest of his research as a natural scientist; and the hermit's cave in the Egyptian desert that serves as his refuge and final home.

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

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