|Date:||1841 and after (see below).|
|Form:||Sixteen stanzas, each containing six five-stress lines with the rhyme scheme AbAbCC and alliteration pattern 222 + four stanzas, each containing eight four-stress lines with the rhyme scheme ababcdcd and alliteration pattern 2222 + seven more of the six-line stanzas + three more of the eight-line stanzas.|
|Manuscript:||KG 31 b V, where it has the title "Hulduljóð" (facsimile KJH132-48; image).|
|First published:||1847 (A257-67; image), where it is given the subtitle "Brot" ("A Fragment") and printed with the last six stanzas in a different (and probably incorrect) order.|
I'm doing "surgery" at present, that is, spending every day dissecting fish stomachs, also cutting up eagles and ravens and lots of other beasties — and in between times composing the "Lay of Hulda." It is going to be a marvellous poem. (2E
Completing the marvellous poem, however, proved to be a frustrating undertaking. Jónas was still working on it three years later when he wrote Brynjólfur Pétursson (25 February 1844): "I never quite manage to come to grips with Eggert (I mean the 'Lay of Hulda') so there's no hope of sending him to you this year — though I would certainly have liked to do so" (2E190). Brynjólfur replied (on 11 March): "It's a great pity the 'Lay of Hulda' isn't finished — but what's the use of talking about that?" (BPB47).
In fact Jónas never finished the "Lay of Hulda" to his total satisfaction. The text contained in the surviving manuscript gives evidence of having been written and revised sporadically between late 1843 and winter 1844-45.2 When the poem was published posthumously in 1847, Jónas's friends Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason subtitled it "A fragment," which is potentially a little misleading, since the surviving manuscript version is a fully coherent text, obviously in something approaching final form.
The "Lay of Hulda" is a conscious and ambitious essay in the ancient, traditional genre of pastoral elegy. This makes it less than surprising that it is in a number of ways the most "artificial" poem Jónas ever wrote. Turning to this genre, adopting and adapting it, was a natural move on his part when he wanted to commemorate an admired fellow-poet whose own most important poem (the Rural Cantos) was a discussion and celebration of Icelandic agricultural life.
A "pastoral elegy" can be defined as a lament for a dead person — often another poet — that is imagined as being uttered in an idealized rural world of shepherds. "Its traditional machinery included the invocation, statement of grief, inquiry into the causes of death, sympathy and weeping of nature, procession of mourners, lament, climax, change of mood, and consolation" (NPE885), and recognizable variations of all these features (except the procession of mourners) can be found — in the usual order — in Jónas's poem. It departs from the tradition in not being "allegorical," i.e., in not representing the dead fellow-poet under a feigned classical name like "Daphnis" or "Lycidas" or "Thyrsis" — a device which Jónas properly rejected as artificial and un-Icelandic. It is not clear whether Jónas was familiar with the first of Theocritus's Idylls (the fountainhead of the tradition) or with the celebrated pastoral elegies traditionally ascribed to Bion and Moschus. But he certainly knew Virgil's Eclogues, which he had studied at Bessastaðir,3 and although it is likely that they were his first introduction to pastoral poetry and its traditions, they have left no discernible trace in the "Lay of Hulda." It is possible that Jónas knew Milton's "Lycidas," either in the original or in a German translation (of which there were more than one). Whether they result from design or coincidence, there are a number of striking similarities between "Lycidas" and the "Lay of Hulda".4
Very impressive is the way in which Jónas has retained many of the traditional features of this ancient classical genre — including rich doses of "pathetic fallacy" (i.e., the attribution to nature of human feelings and emotions), and even a digressive outburst of moral indignation (directed, in Jónas's case, against the rímur-poets he so heartily despised) — and yet has assimilated these conventional elements so fully to the Icelandic situation and Icelandic folk-traditions that the poem seems in the end to be a totally indigenous product, a native plant.
The action of the "Lay of Hulda" takes place between dusk (when shepherds drive their flocks home for the night) and dawn (when they lead them forth to fresh pastures). The interval between is the hour when spirits wander the earth, in this case Hulda and the shade of Eggert Ólafsson. These two figures — the central figures of the poem — represent, respectively, Icelandic nature and human beings who relate to it in what Jónas conceived to be the proper way.
Hulda ("the hidden one") is at one level, the level of traditional Icelandic folk-belief, an elf-woman who lives in the cliffs near a waterfall. She is one of the "hidden people" (hulduþjóð), whom the poet identifies by name in the first stanza. But she is also (and more importantly) the Weltgeist, the invisible and intangible force animating the universe of life and death, whose outward manifestations we perceive but whose inner workings (as Jónas had put it in 1829) "must be forever hidden [huldir] from the eyes of mortals" (1E341). She is the "life-force" which (as Jónas wrote in 1835) creates and then abandons "countless varied bodies. . .in its unending, hidden [huldu] progress through nature". This explains why, toward the end of the poem, Jónas bids her farewell in the following terms:
Hulda! though morn forever mounts the highlands,
making night's phantoms vanish at a bound,
may you not cease to fill the moors and islands
with myriad forms, wherever life is found —
and death — those designations framed by creatures
who dream about, but never see, your features.
Jónas's conception of this figure is clearly influenced by Plato's notion of the invisible World Soul, with which Jónas was quite familiar and which he had introduced to Icelandic readers in his 1835 Fjölnir essay "On the Nature and Origin of the Earth." There he described this "World Soul" (alheimssálin) as having been formed by God "half from his divine essence, half from the prime matter" and subsequently "infused. . . into earth, water and air," the "vesture, which veils her from our eyes [búningi, sem skýlir henni fyrir vorum augum]."
The poem's other protagonist, Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768), was an idealist and reformer, the earliest representative in Iceland of the European Enlightenment. Descendant of a long line of farmers, he had gone to Denmark in 1746 to study natural science and philosophy at Copenhagen University. In the summer of 1750, in the company of an older fellow-student named Bjarni Pálsson, he returned to Iceland to collect books and natural objects. In the course of their travels, Eggert and Bjarni made the first recorded ascent of Mount Hekla, doing so in the face of widespread popular belief that Hekla was one of the mouths of hell. This famous exploit was symbolic of the triumph of rational scientific investigation over the repressive constraint of ancient fear and superstition. Eggert and Bjarni subsequently spent six years (1752-57) travelling through the length and breadth of Iceland, exploring and inventorying the country's physical geography and mineral resources on behalf of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences, liberally funded by the Danish crown. The fruit of these travels was their monumental and enormously influential Journey through Iceland (Rejse igjennem Island), the first comprehensive account of the country, its natural features, and its inhabitants — mainly Eggert's work, completed in 1766 (but not published until 1772). Between 1760 and his death in 1768, Eggert lived mostly at Sauðlauksdalur (on the south shore of Patreksfjörður in northwest Iceland) with his brother-in-law Björn Halldórsson, who ran a remarkably innovative and progressive farm. Eggert was greatly impressed by this model agricultural establishment and described it in glowing terms in his Rural Cantos.
In autumn 1767 Eggert was married to his cousin Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir in an elaborate and sumptuous ceremony that attempted to revive the traditions of Icelandic weddings of the 15th and 16th centuries. The next spring he and his bride left Sauðlauksdalur to move to a farm of their own at Hofsstaðir (Miklaholtshreppur) on the Snæfell Peninsula. On 30 May 1768 they set sail from Skor, a landing place on the north side of Breiðafjörður, in two open boats overloaded with cargo (including many of Eggert's unpublished manuscripts). They steered directly south across the fjord into ominous-looking weather and were never seen again.
Eggert's tragic drowning in the prime of life shocked the entire nation and he was universally mourned. His death stimulated the production of a large number of elegies and commemorative pieces, not only among contemporaries but in the generations that followed (see 3LÍ42n). Jónas's "Lay of Hulda" is the crowning achievement of this tradition of reminiscence and homage.
As a poet, Eggert's own major contribution lay in making love and admiration of the physical beauty of Icelandic nature, in all its manifestations, a major theme of verse. He thus inaugurated a tradition that would characterize a good deal of Icelandic poetry down to the present day. All of Eggert's typical concerns and preoccupations are on display in his most important poem, the Rural Cantos (Búnaðarbálkur), a work of 160 stanzas, divided into three cantos, in which he analyzes the causes of widespread lethargy, superstitiousness, and hopelessness in rural Iceland, then goes on (as Jónas and his colleagues had emphasized in the first sentence of the first issue of Fjölnir) "to remind his countrymen of the natural wealth and delightfulness of their native land and to instruct them how — through industry and the rational deployment of their energies — they could live a profitable and useful, pleasant and fortunate life in Iceland" (1F1).5
Late in life, Jónas referred to Eggert as "the greatest man Iceland has produced in recent centuries" (1E376). He regarded Eggert as his most important spiritual ancestor (which is why he calls him father in the twelfth stanza of the "Lay of Hulda"). And in fact the lives and interests of the two men parallel each other at a remarkable number of points. Both were distinguished poets who made an effort to reshape Icelandic poetry in their day; both were natural scientists whose chief professional activity lay in compiling a description of Iceland and its natural resources, based on extensive travel; and both were ardent patriots who loved the land, its people, its language and traditions, and who admired the nation's past glories (which they held up as something to be emulated by contemporaries) and shared a robust confidence in the possibilities of the future.
Not surprisingly, Jónas's "Lay of Hulda" is rich in allusions to Eggert and his work. Eggert's ill-starred departure from Skor is mentioned in the seventh stanza. The Rural Cantos are referred to by title in stanza 24 and their hero (Björn Halldórsson) is the "kinsman" of Eggert toward whose model farm Eggert's phantom is walking when it vanishes. In further allusion (and homage), Jónas has adopted the stanza form of the Rural Cantos (AbAbcc) for the greater part of his own poem, modifying the rhyme scheme slightly (AbAbCC) and — in most of the text — rejecting Eggert's sing-songy tetrameter in favor of his own more spacious and lyrical pentameter.
In interpreting Jónas's poem it is important to recognize the vital role played in it by religion. The "Lay of Hulda" is Jónas's most serious and sustained effort, in poetry, to harmonize the claims of science and religion. It thus continues the campaign initiated in his 1835 Fjölnir essay "On the Nature and Origin of the Earth," with which it shares a number of key concepts. It also expresses a religious idea that Jónas shared deeply with Eggert: the idea that God has given Icelanders a world of blessings which, sunk as they are in the anxiety, apathy, and gross pleasure of day-to-day existence, they neither appreciate, nor are grateful for, nor understand as coming from God and constituting a means whereby men can ascend to recognition of God. Eggert writes, near the conclusion of the Rural Cantos:
Many the roads we mortals travel,
many our blessings here below,
and when our bodies' bonds unravel
blessings await us where we go,
up dizzy heights of dazzling flame
to dwell with God from whom we came.
Grant that we not be gulled by pleasure,
grubbing for acorns in the ground
like rooting sows who lack the leisure
to lift their eyes or peer around
or even once have wit to see
what the acorns' source might be.
Vèr höfum ótal varða vegi,
vèr höfum ótal gæða kyn,
og þá líðr af lífsins degi,
liggr fyrir oss sælan hin
uppá hæðum, sem aldrei þver,
í guði, hvaðan komum vèr.
Látum oss ei sem giltur grúfa,
gæta þær aldrei neitt á svig,
akarn við rætr eikar stúfa,
umhyggjulausar fylla sig;
en uppá trèð þær ekki sjá,
akarnið hvaðan kemr frá. (KEO49)
Jónas once asserted that the second of these two stanzas "contains the kernel of all Eggert Ólafsson's poetry and all his activities" (1E376). Its message is obviously something that Jónas, too, took very seriously and infused into much of his work.
Critics have noted that the "Lay of Hulda" seems to strike a balance (an uneasy balance, some feel) between the objectivity and pragmatic, progressive idealism of the Enlightenment and the subjectivity and dreamy idealism of Romanticism. But surely, whether we like the mixture or not, this is just what we should expect from an early 19th-century poet-scientist paying homage to a mid 18th-century poet-scientist.
From the point of view of style, three points deserve mention. First, Jónas deliberately set out to write the "Lay of Hulda" in a very high style, including the use of such "epic features" as ornamental epithets ("Oh sunbright lass!"). The translation attempts to imitate this stylistic heightening by employing a slightly more elevated and artificial diction than is usual elsewhere in this collection.
Second, the "Lay of Hulda" is considerably more dramatic than Jónas's other work in verse, making unrestrained use of such "theatrical" devices as rhetorical questions and (most notably) apostrophes. These features may owe something to the fact that, about the time he began work on the poem, Jónas actually wrote two plays, both now lost, The King's Island (Kongens Eje) (which we may conjecture to have been a political work about Iceland's subjection to Denmark) and The Bookseller's Shop (Bókasalan).
Third, the strategy of providing variety and contrast by using different meters and stanza forms for the main text on the one hand and the inset speeches on the other, is found elsewhere in Jónas's work, occurring for the first time as early as 1832 in "On the Death of Guðrún, Wife of Privy Councillor Stephensen." Particularly effective in the "Lay of Hulda" is the contrast between the five-stress lines in the main body of the poem, lines that are highly formal and almost uniformly iambic (except for frequent first-foot inversions), and the four-stress lines of the inset speeches, in which any unstressed syllable can be replaced by two unstressed syllables, with the result that these lines sound much more lilting and spontaneous. Moreover in the last three stanzas of the poem, spoken by the shepherd, Jónas has emphasized the speaker's low-keyed colloquiality by six times writing "'ann" instead of "hann." Three of these six occurrences have actually been "corrected" in the manuscript from earlier "hann," which shows how determined Jónas was to give a colloquial flavor to the words of this speaker.
In the surviving manuscript of the poem, which seems to have begun life as a fair copy and then turned into a working draft, Jónas has numbered some (but not all) of the six-line stanzas, partly no doubt to ensure that he would be able to keep track of them as he moved them around during composition and revision,6 but without ever finalizing the number system. None of the eight-line stanzas is numbered and there is no indication that Jónas ever intended to number them. It is most unlikely that the stanzas of this poem would have been numbered if Jónas had completed it and published it in Fjölnir, where none of his other poems contain stanza numbers.7 The word "conclusion" (niðurlag) written by Jónas in the manuscript above stanza 25 is assumed here to be — like the stanza numbers — a memorandum from the poet to himself, hence it is not reproduced in the text of the present translation or its Icelandic original.
Bibliography: For Eggert Ólafsson's biography and writings, see 3LÍ17-56 and Halldór Hermannsson, "Eggert Ólafsson: A Biographical Sketch" (16Isl1-56; in English). For an analysis of the rhetoric of Jónas's poem, see Dagný Kristjánsdóttir, "Skáldið og konan: Um Hulduljóð Jónasar Hallgrímssonar" (166Skí111-32). For a discussion of its relation to the pastoral tradition, see Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, "Hulduljóð sem pastoral elegía" (36And103-11).
1 This stanza was one of Jónas's latest additions to the poem. The notion expressed in the first two lines may be Platonic, probably derived from Plato's dialogue Timaeus, portions of which Jónas had translated in 1835.
The last two lines of the stanza gave Jónas a good deal of trouble. At first he wrote: "he [i.e., Eggert] knows that best, and desires only one thing: that the world should perceive God and itself in every blade of grass." Later he deleted this passage, perhaps feeling that it smacked too much of pantheism, and opted for the flatter statements in the revision.
The first line of this revision originally read "þar sem að háleit hugmynd leið sér brýtur" ("wherever a sublime idea opens a pathway for itself"). Jónas later appears to have altered "leið" to "lið," thus producing the much darker reading "wherever a sublime idea breaks its limb (i.e, breaks its neck, comes to nothing)." But there are problems with this reading (see 4E150).
2 See KJH311 on the manuscript . Its text of the poem has been extensively corrected and contains many second and even third thoughts. In several instances, Jónas's latest intention is not self-evident. For a convenient list of the manuscript changes, see 4E150-1.
3 An Icelandic translation of the Eclogues, read to the students at Bessastaðir by their Latin teacher Hallgrímur Scheving, survives in a copy by Jónas's friend and fellow student Tómas Sæmundsson (Lbs. 624, 8vo; see Kf211).
4 Jónas was familiar with Paradise Lost in Jón Þorláksson's Icelandic adaptation and will have been well aware of Milton's reputation as a poet of international stature.
5 Eggert's poem was first printed at Hrappsey in 1783. In 1829, in the first issue of Ármann á alþingi, Baldvin Einarsson reprinted it in its entirety. When Jónas arrived in Copenhagen in 1832, the first comprehensive edition of Eggert's poetry had just been published (KEO). One of its three editors was Jónas's intimate friend Tómas Sæmundsson.
6 Notice what happens in the two surviving manuscripts of his poem "Hugnun" ("Compensation"): in the earlier of the two, Jónas added stanza numbers to the text after it had been written out, because he wanted to indicate a changed ordering of the stanzas. In the later manuscript the new stanza order is adopted and the numbers are omitted. See KJH190, 193, and 313; also 229-30).
7 See 1E116-23 for a printed text of the poem in which all the stanzas are consecutively numbered.