At an Old Grave, 1841
Á gömlu leiði 1841
Hardship! though your unhappy son
Glazed is your eye — how free from guile,
Stilled are your thin, deft hands (how high
Artistry knows her cue to cry:
Sofið er ástaraugað þitt,
Vel sé þér, Jón! á værum beð,
Slokknaði fagurt lista ljós.
|Date:||8 August 1841 (or very soon afterward; see below).|
|Form:||Five stanzas of hringhenda: four four-stress lines with the rhyme scheme aBBa (characteristic of the redondilla, in origin a Spanish form), the alliteration pattern 121, and sequential full rhyme (þversetis rím) in the second stressed syllables of all lines in each stanza. See further Bbk55-8.|
|Manuscript:||Two copies survive. One of them, in JS 129 fol., is a fair copy written during the first half of 1842 and given by Jónas to Páll Melsteð,1 who presented it to the National Library of Iceland on 23 July 1890 (KJH310; facsimile ibid. 105-6; image). The other is contained in a letter to Brynjólfur Pétursson written at various times between 18 and 22 February 1842 and now in Landsarkivet for Sjælland in Copenhagen (for the text see 29TMm168-75 or 2E121-33; no facsimile available in KJH; image). The poem is referred to as "Á gömlu leiði, 1841" in both copies.|
|First published:||1842 (16Skí133; image) under the title "Á gömlu leiði 1841."|
|Sound recording:||Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir reads "Á gömlu leiði 1841." [1:11]|
Commentary: Sending this poem to Brynjólfur Pétursson in February 1842, Jónas says it was written during his trip around Snæfellsnes and adds: "Well — I don't know — I'm almost of a mind to ask you to have these verses printed in Skírnir, if the poetry committee is inclined to accept them" (2E124-5). The poem was printed in Skírnir later that year. (Jónas no doubt thought of offering the poem to Skírnir because this periodical had a tradition of printing funeral and memorial verses.)
In both surviving manuscripts, and the Skírnir text as well, the poem is clearly divided into three sections:2 a stanza apostrophizing hardship (neyð),3 a group of three stanzas apostrophizing Kjærnested, and a concluding stanza reflecting on the brevity of his life and the inevitability of death.
Jón (Þorláksson) Kjærnested,4 the subject of this poem, was Jónas's senior by ten years, born at Skriða in Hörgárdalur on 23 September 1797. He was an extremely talented craftsman who studied agriculture, horticulture, and other subjects — including swimming, drawing, and lathework — in Denmark between 1816 and 1818. Returning to Iceland, he taught swimming on a number of occasions in the early 1820s; Jónas claims that prior to that time it was no exaggeration to say "there were only about six men in the whole country who could save their lives by swimming if they fell into a pond deeper than they could touch the bottom of" (2D227). Jónas's father almost certainly did not know how to swim, and his tragic early death by drowning was partly a consequence of this fact (as well as the fact that the two young men who were with him at the time knew nothing about lifesaving or artificial respiration). Hence it is hardly surprising that Jónas should have wanted to learn to swim himself and to encourage others to do so. He probably took lessons from Jón Kjærnested when the latter was giving instruction in Eyjafjörður and Skagafjörður in 1821-3 (these were the years when Jónas was studying at Goðdalir during the winter and spending his summers home at Steinsstaðir). Jónas seems particularly well-informed about the swimming arrangements at Reykjatjörn in Skagafjörður, where Jón taught 24 youngsters in 1821 and 1822 (2D229, 416; see also SkSs72-3). Jónas certainly knew how to swim as a student at Bessastaðir (1E23), and in Copenhagen in 1835-6 he was instrumental in translating an instruction manual in swimming by the leading Danish authority on all aspects of physical education, Franz Nachtegall (1777-1847). The manual contains good, sound advice and includes a section on lifesaving (2D247-9).5
In the preface to this translation, Jónas notes that there had been famous swimmers in Iceland in saga times.
Even today it strikes us as highly entertaining to read the story of Kjartan Ólafsson, when he competed in swimming with King Ólafur Tryggvason; or about Grettir the Strong, when he webbed his fingers together and set out from Drangey on a winter's day, swimming more than a league across the sea (2D227).6
But this skill was lost, like so many others, when the nation became infected with sluggishness and apathy.
Mr. Jón Þorláksson from Skriða was the first person to remedy our ignorance and teach us once again how to swim — something everyone had forgotten. It is a well-known fact that he gave lessons in both the north and south and many who benefitted from his instruction later became well-known swimmers. This was an enterprise that brought credit to Iceland, and both its author and those who supported his efforts deserve thanks and honor from the public at large. (2D227)
In 1825-8 Jón Kjærnested experienced serious financial reversals that forced him to leave the north of Iceland, impoverished and ashamed, and resettle on the Snæfell Peninsula. He died at Ólafsvík on 25 June 1836, only 38 years old. He probably never read Jónas's laudatory words about him, since the preface that contains them is dated 1 March of that year. He was buried in the churchyard at Ingjaldshóll, where Jónas visited his grave five years later during his trip around the peninsula. The visit took place on 8 August, when Jónas was en route from Sönghellir (near Stapafell) to Ólafsvík (see 2E385, 449-50),7 and this date thus marks the earliest stage in the evolution of the poem. (The notion that Jón Kjærnesteð was buried in the churchyard at Fróðá, with its corollary that Jónas visited his grave on 11 August, en route from Ólafsvík to Krossnes [see 2E385], was a guess of Matthías Þórðarson's [1D347], echoed uncritically by subsequent scholars and editors [Kf101, 4E158]. For the true facts of the case see LM22/5/93, 8.)
The third stanza of the poem reads literally: "Stiffened is your skillful hand, adept at making anything from anything else as easily as little maidens spread out white, beautifully spun linen in the fields."8 In his letter to Brynjólfur Pétursson, Jónas comments in the margin: "Note! It's evident that I've lived near the Bleaching Pools [Bleikjupollana], fie, fie!" He is probably referring to the Blegdammen (Bleaching Pools) in Copenhagen.9 But as far as is known, he never lived anywhere near them — they were located a considerable distance out of town — and his "fie, fie!" is probably meant as an ironic acknowledgment of this fact (as well, perhaps, as of the fact that pressure to meet the complex requirements of rhyme and alliteration in this particularly "precious" form has seduced him into a rather far-sought simile).
In the original of stanza four, Jónas is content with a single trumpet. The "seven trumpets" of the translation are borrowed from the eighth chapter of the Book of Revelation.
One should not expect complex or original thought in a poem imprisoned in as many formal straitjackets as this one. What one has every right to expect are time-honored traditional words and images that will rouse time-honored traditional emotions and are arranged in a way that will stir hearers through the interaction of meaning and sound. This is what Jónas delivers.
Bibliography: Hannes Pétursson's chapter "The Skillful Hand" ("Höndin haga") in his book Kvæðfylgsni (Kf) is important for the study of this poem.
3 Hannes Pétursson, following (it would seem) the punctuation of the last line of this stanza adopted by Matthías Þórðarson (barnið þitt sært. Ó, beizka neyð! [1D96]), thinks that þitt refers to Iceland (see Kf107). However both the text in JS 129 fol. (barnið þitt sært, ó beiska neið!) and the text printed in Skírnir (which is identical) suggest that it is neyð ("poverty; hardship") that is being apostrophized. In this case the sense of the stanza is: "[He (i.e., Jón Kjærnested's soul)] passed away into the bright light [or perhaps 'world'] of meetings [i.e., reunion with his friends and loved ones in heaven]. Oh bitter hardship, your wounded child slumbers here tranquilly on a bed of soil, [having been] delivered to the blessèd mercies of the earth."
4 Jón adopted the name Kjærnested (or Kjernesteð) from his father's brother Friðfinnur, who called himself after his birthplace, the farm Kjarni in Eyjafjörður.
5 The Danish original is Kort Anviisning til at Lære at Svømme (København,1834). The Icelandic translation is Sundreglur prófessors Nachtegalls, auknar og lagfærðar eftir Íslands þörfum af útgefendum Fjölnis (Kaupmannahöfn: Prentaðar hjá P. N. Jørgensen, 1836).
7 Later that same day Jónas rode beneath Ólafsvík Headland, and perhaps it was the recent experience of standing over his old friend's grave — and doing so at a place so closely associated with Eggert Ólafsson — that put him in the gloomy thoughts he later recalled in his poem "Ólafsvík Headland."
8 Hannes Pétursson's suggestion that Jónas's "little maidens" (smámeyjar) are the tiny spiders who make gossamer, and that their "white, beautifully spun linen" (hvítt fagurspunnið lín) is gossamer itself, seems over-ingenious. More to the point, perhaps, is his citation of a Danish folk belief that gossamer is the handiwork of little elf-maidens who spread it out in the moonlight to bleach. See Kf112-4.