|Date:||1842/3. Jónas read the poem to the Fjölnir Society on 11 February 1843.|
|Form:||Seventeen "half-strophes" in an original variant of the skaldic meter draughenda (see Bbk39).|
|First published:||1843 (6F11-3; image) under the title "Grátittlingurinn."|
|Sound recording:||Dick Ringler reads "The Pipit." [2:35]|
On the eve of the blizzard described in the poem, young Jónas, deceived by the balmy weather, appears to have left his two animals outside in the pasture for the night. The next day they were unable to forage, and in danger of starving, since the ground was blanketed with snow.
The bird at the center of the poem is the grátittlingur or meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis), a migratory bird that arrives in Iceland in late April or early May and departs between late August and mid-October. In late summer flocks of meadow pipits sometimes descend on the farms to forage in freshly mown homefields or piles of dung. In February 1835 Jónas had described the bird to an Icelandic audience in Copenhagen: "You've often heard it in the spring; it is the best singer of all the songbirds in Iceland. It nests among the tussocks out in the pastures, plaiting its nest from horsehair, and it visits our farms in the autumn before migrating" (9F66).2 The pipit in the poem, like young Jónas himself, seems to have been caught off guard by the sudden blizzard.
In this poem Jónas reacts sharply against the conception of God that informs the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament (Genesis 22), based as it is on the belief that God could — and would — demand the sacrifice of either a human being (Isaac) or an animal (the ram offered in Isaac's place). The poet's imagination (and indignation) seem to have been kindled by the general parallel between Abraham's attachment to Isaac in the Bible ("thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest") and his own boyish attachment to his animals ("my joys, my gentle / jealously treasured pleasures") and also by the more specific parallel between the Biblical ram ("caught in a thicket by his horns") that must be killed if the beloved Isaac is to live, and the pipit ("Frozen fast to the mosses") that must be left to die if the urgent search for the beloved animals is not to be interrupted.
"Abraham's brave behavior" is not something that can be — or ought to be — imitated. Jónas insists that the behavior of human beings, at their best, is governed by spontaneous compassionate impulses toward their fellow creatures; also that God is a God of love and compassion (not the God of punishment, wrath, vengeance, etc., who plays so prominent a role in the Old Testament and who had dominated Icelandic religion in the 17th century [see e.g. Íþh340-2]).
It is not unlikely that in writing this poem, and especially its concluding strophe (in which he expresses his own personal desolation and the hope that God will comfort and revive him,3 just as the boy once revived the dying pipit), Jónas had in mind the consolation provided by Christ in Luke 12:6-7, perhaps even as this passage was contextualized and interpreted in J. P. Mynster's Reflections on the Principal Points of Christian Faith, which Jónas and his friends Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason had translated in 1838-9:
Most men are very little concerned with one another's misery, and many people carry their burdens and fight their battles and sigh their last sighs almost without anyone taking notice. How important, therefore — and how consoling! — are these words uttered from above: "Are not five sparrows [titlingar in the Icelandic translation] sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" (Luke 12:6 [AV]). These words were not spoken by a human being, but by him whom God sanctified and sent into this world to reveal himself; they were spoken by him who also said: "Ye are of more value than many sparrows" [titlingar, ibid.].
Oh, that I could describe the emotion that fills my breast when I try to imagine to myself the vast multitude of human beings, both those living now and those who have lived in the past and sunk to dust, whose graves have long disappeared and their names been swept away by the sea of oblivion.
When my spirit is troubled by the size of this huge multitude, I say to myself: not one of them is forgotten before God. . . . When it seems to me that I am alone and abandoned and everyone has forgotten me, that there is no one to whom I might turn to rest my weary head against their breast — oh, even then, God has not forgotten me! (Hhk147)
For a tune to which Jónas's poem can be sung, see Íþl587-8.
Bibliography: In his article "Dýrðardæmi Abrahams" ("Abraham's Glorious Example"), Páll Valsson interprets Jónas's poem as a reaction to (or commentary on) contemporary theological discussions arising from the difficulty of reconciling the Old Testament (where Abraham = unquestioning obedience) and the New (where Jesus = unquestioning love); see 57TMm50-63.4 Páll's interpretation and the interpretation in the above commentary agree at some points and disagree at others; the most important point of disagreement, and the one which ultimately sends the interpretations in different directions, is that Páll understands the last strophe as being spoken by the same voice as the rest of the poem (i.e., the boy, who has fallen from grace and is in misery because of his disobedience to God), whereas the commentary understands it as spoken by the poet in propria persona (and/or perhaps representative of a generalized Christian sufferer), and hoping for God's loving mercy.
1 "Leaf-winds" (laufvindar) in the original. Rev. Páll Halldórsson (Suður-Þingeyjarsýsla) wrote in 1839: "I've heard people in my parishes talk about so-called 'leaf-winds,' which are supposed to blow. . .around and after Michaelmas, i.e., dry southeast winds" (ÞSs65n). See further Valgarður Egilsson, "Jónas Hallgrímsson tekur ákvörðun," in Bók Davíðs: Rit til heiðurs Davíð Davíðssyni [etc.] (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 1996), pp. 755-8.
2 And in November 1841 Jónas could not resist telling Steenstrup — for the second time — "the marvellous anecdote about the pipit who lies on his back while asleep, sticking one of his legs straight up in the air out of pure anxiety that the sky might fall on him while he slept" (2E118).
3 Brynjólfur Pétursson interpreted the mental state of the speaker of the final strophe as some sort of depression or spiritual misery, quoting its last two lines when attempting to console Grímur Thomsen (in a letter written 18 July 1849): "Andi Guðs á þig andi! Ugglaust muntu þá huggast!" (BPB190).
4 It is particularly interesting, as Páll points out, that Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (Frygt og Bæven), which exalts the role of faith and obedience, as represented by Abraham, should have been published only eight months after "The Pipit" was accepted by the Fjölnir Society. Though both works arise from the same milieu of theological discussion, there seems to be no possibility of a direct connection between them (see 57TMm63, n.16), and their conclusions are certainly very different.