49. Drudgery (Strit)

Greyscale image of Ursin's drawing of the sun and earth, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Sun and earth.

(An excerpt from a poem by Heine)

(Brot úr kvæði eftir Heine)

The sun climbs
from cool streams
of eastern seas
to oust the night.
What long drudgery
for a light-bringer —
unpacking this foolish
planet from darkness!

Sun! while your bright
beams are conquering
half of the world
in heaven's service,
loosing legions
of light everywhere —
in the east the night
always pursues you.

Sturdy Sisyphus
strains at his rock,
the Danaids' jar
drips forever,
and earth whirls herself
out of light
and into darkness.

Sól rís sæl
úr svölum straumum
að eyða dimmu;
leiðinda langverk
á ljósgjafi:
heimskan hnött
úr húmi slíta.

Er þú glöðum
geislum hefir
hálfan heim
himni unnið
og skundar skært
skin margauka,
æ og sí austræn
þig eltir nótt.

Stritar við stein
sterkur Sisýfus,
dætra Danáu
drýpur æ úr keri;
svo veltur sífellt
sér úr ljómi
sjálfri fold
í sorta nætur.

Date:March/April 1845 (KJH315).
Form:Three fornyrðislag strophes.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II (facsimile KJH258-9; image). The title is written beneath the poem.
First published:1847 (A315-6; image) under the title "Strit. (Brot úr kvæði.)" ("Drudgery. [A fragment from a poem.]").

Commentary:       Jónas's poem is an adaptation of the first three stanzas of Caput XIII (Chapter 13) of Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter's Tale), published in September 1844 as part of Heine's Neue Gedichte (New Poems); see HHi59-61. Heine's stanzas read as follows:

Die Sonne ging auf bei Paderborn,
Mit sehr verdross'ner Gebehrde.
Sie treibt in der Tat ein verdrießlich Geschäft —
Beleuchten die dumme Erde!

Hat sie die eine Seite erhellt,
Und bringt sie mit strahlender Eile
Der andern ihr Licht, so verdunkelt schon
Sich jene mittlerweile.

Der Stein entrollt dem Sisyphus,
Der Danaiden Tonne
Wird nie gefüllt, und den Erdenball
Beleuchtet vergeblich die Sonne! (2HHS321)

Sisyphus was a legendary king of Corinth, condemned in Hades to eternally push a huge boulder up to the top of a hill. When it reached the summit it rolled back down again. The Danaids were the fifty daughters of King Danaus of Argos, all but one of whom murdered their husbands on their wedding night. For this they were condemned in Hades to forever pour water into a jar with holes in the bottom.1

Jónas's poem is much more astronomically sophisticated than Heine's — as is only to be expected (see HHi61). It is also much more elevated in tone — and much more somber — than Heine's original, partly as a result of Jónas's decision to use fornyrðislag (always a solemn meter in his hands), but also because he has turned a piece of playful ironic wit into a grim, semi-mythic statement. Heine's emphasis is on foolishness and folly, Jónas's on the weariness and futile drudgery involved in trying to bring light into the world — and perhaps also on the world's eternal foolishness in preferring night to day (see his fable, "The Girl in the Tower"). But the ease with which Heine's stanzas could be tailored to make a serious statement about one of Jónas's favorite themes (light vs. darkness) may not have been his only reason for choosing to adapt them: perhaps it struck him that the eternal, futile labors of Sisyphus and the Danaids were symbolic of his own frustrating and even futile struggle with the "Description of Iceland." Hannes Hafstein described his difficulties with this project during the last year of his life:

The winter deepened. He was struggling with the "Description of Iceland" but making only slow progress. He would start working on one chapter, then another, abandoning them in midstream and starting over again somewhere else. It is clear from this that he was getting sick and tired of being obliged to work in this fashion and forced to read a multitude of books on a single narrow subject. His mind started straying to other things. (BXXXVII-XXXVIII)


1 Jónas's manuscript has dætra Dana-u (editions ABCE dætra Danáu), i.e., "of the daughters of Danaë" (the mother of Perseus). Jónas has made a mythological error here, which Matthías Þórðarson "corrects" by emending the text to Danausar ("of Danaüs") (1D225).

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

Jonas' MS flourish for the end of a poem For technical assistance:
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