7. The Vastness of the Universe (Alheimsvíðáttan)

Stjörnufræði title page, small version.
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Ursin's figure of solar system, small version.
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Title page of Jónas's translation of Ursin.

The solar system.

Ursin's drawing of star cluster, small version.
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Ursin's drawing of Andromeda, small version.
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A star cluster.

The Andromeda nebula.

The Vastness of the Universe


(The idea is from Schiller)

I am the speeding
spark of light
flung by God
from the forge of Chaos.
I soar on wings
swifter than wind
above the paths
of the pulsing stars.

Faster! faster!
to find the place
where cosmic waves
crash ashore:
to cast anchor
off that empty coast,
that far frontier
and final reach
of created things: —
the edge of heaven.

I watched the stars
in the womb of youth
rise from the still
streams of heaven,
eager to make
their million year
race through the thin
ethereal blue.

Later they flickered
faintly behind me
as I rushed on
to the rim of worlds.
I peered with anxious
eyes about me:
now I was steering
through starless voids.

Faster! faster!
to find the place
where Nothingness reigns
and inane Chaos,
wending my way
on wings of light,
steering toward port
with steady courage.

As I dart on
through dim greyness,
I encounter clouds
of cosmic dust.
Behind me I hear,
hushed in distance,
dark cataracts
of dying suns.

Suddenly, something
comes swiftly toward me
through empty night —
an image that speaks:
"Stay, oh traveller
tired with flight!
Tell me, wanderer —
what are you seeking?"

"My way leads on
to the worlds you come from!
My flight is destined
to those distant shores,
that far frontier
and final reach
of created things: —
the edge of heaven."

"Cease your search,
sojourner! end
your futile wandering
through wastes of ether!
Know that ahead of you
lie nothing
but infinite tracts
of endlessness."

"Cease your search,
sojourner! end
your futile wandering
through wastes of ether!
Behind me, too,
lie torrents of stars
and infinite, empty

Oh eagle-mounting
Cease your soaring,
descend to earth!
Oh swift voyager,
venturesome poet:
tired of creating,
cast your anchor here!

(Hugmyndin er eftir Schiller)

Eg er sá geisli,
er guðs hönd skapanda
fyrr úr ginnunga
gapi stökkti;
flýg eg á vinda
vængjum yfir
háar leiðir

Flýta vil eg ferðum,
fara vil eg þangað,
öldur sem alheims
á eiði brotna,
akkeri varpa
fyrir auðri strönd
að hinum mikla
skapaðra hluta
við skaut alhimins.

Sá eg í ungum
stjörnur úr himin-
straumum rísa,
þúsund alda
að þreyta skeið
heiðfagran gegnum

Sá eg þær blika
á baki mér,
er eg til heima
hafnar þreytti;
ókyrrt auga
sást allt um kring;
stóð eg þá í geimi

Flýta vil eg ferðum,
fara vil eg þangað,
Ekkert sem ríkir
og Óskapnaður;
leið vil eg þreyta
ljóss vængjum á,
hraustum huga
til hafnar stýra.

Gránar í geimi,
geysa ég um himin
þjótandi fram;
dunar mér á baki
dökknaðra sóla
flugniður allra,
sem fossa deyjandi.

Kemur þá óðfluga
um auðan veg
mér í móti
mynd farandi:
"bíddu flugmóður
heyrðu! hermdu mér,
hvurt á að leita?"

""Vegur minn liggur
til veralda þinna;
flug vil eg þreyta
á fjarlæga strönd,
að hinum mikla
skapaðra hluta
við skaut alhimins.""

"Hættu, Hættu!
um himingeima
þú áfram heldur;
vittu að fyrir
framan þig er
og endaleysa."

""Hættu, Hættu!
þú sem hér kemur,
þú áfram heldur;
belja mér á baki
bláir straumar,
eilífðar ógrynni
og endaleysa.""

Arnfleygur hugur!
hættu nú sveimi;
sárþreytta vængi
síga láttu niður;
skáldhraður skipstjóri,
fleini farmóður
flýttu hér úr stafni.

Date:Summer (July/August?) 1837 (see KJH309).
Form:Eleven fornyrðislag strophes (the second of which is expanded). In the original, "a kind of assonance is noticeable at the end of the lines; whether this artistic device is conscious or unconscious is open to question (SW36)."
Manuscript:ÍB 13 fol., a draft of the last five strophes (facsimile KJH71-2; image).
First published:1843 (6F35-7; image) where it has the title "Alheimsvíðáttan."

Commentary:        The poem is based on "Die Größe der Welt," a youthful work (1778?) by the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), though Jónas insists in his subtitle that it is only the "idea" (hugmynd) of Schiller's poem that he has borrowed. Schiller's original reads as follows:1

Die der schaffende Geist einst aus dem Chaos schlug,
Durch die schwebende Welt flieg ich des Windes Flug,
              Bis am Strande
              Ihrer Wogen ich lande.
Anker werf', wo kein Hauch mehr weht
Und der Markstein der Schöpfung steht.

Sterne sah ich bereits jugendlich auferstehn,
Tausendjährigen Gangs durchs Firmament zu gehn,
              Sah sie spielen
              Nach den lokenden Zielen,
Irrend suchte mein Blik umher,
Sah die Räume schon — sternenleer.

Anzufeuren den Flug weiter zum Reich des Nichts,
Steur' ich muthiger fort, nehme den Flug des Lichts
              Neblicht trüber
              Himmel an mir vorüber
Weltsysteme, Fluten im Bach
Strudeln dem Sonnenwandrer nach.

Sieh, den einsamen Pfad wandelt ein Pilger mir
Rasch entgegen — "Halt an! Waller, was suchst du hier?"
              ""Zum Gestade
              Seiner Welt meine Pfade!
Seegle hin wo kein Hauch mehr weht,
Und der Markstein der Schöpfung steht!""

"Steh! du seegelst umsonst — vor dir Unendlichkeit!"
""Steh! du seegelst umsonst — Pilger auch hinter mir! —
              Senke nieder
              Adlergedank dein Gefieder,
Kühne Seeglerin, Fantasie,
Wirf ein muthloses Anker hie."" (1SWN102)

Jónas was no doubt attracted to Schiller's ode in the first place because of its religio-philosophical awe at the vastness and limitlessness of the universe and because it gave poetic expression to fields of study (astronomy and cosmology) that were of intense personal and professional interest to him. "For my own part," he would write in 1842, "I take joy in contemplating the heavens, for the sake of knowledge, and delight, and consolation." A brief account of the origin of the universe — in terms of the nebular hypothesis of Kant and Laplace — formed an important part of his 1835 Fjölnir essay "On the Nature and Origin of the Earth"; in the same number of Fjölnir appears a brief article about Halley's comet that he wrote in collaboration with Konráð Gíslason (1F175-6); and in the years 1840-2 he would go to a great deal of trouble making and publishing a painstaking Icelandic translation of A Popular Introduction to Astronomy (Populært Foredrag over Astronomien) by the Copenhagen mathematician and astronomer Georg Frederik Krüger Ursin (1797-1849).2 Indeed, it is possible that Jónas's decision, in the summer of 1837, to translate Schiller's "Die Größe der Welt," was stimulated by the publication (or forthcoming publication) of Ursin's book, which appeared that same year (1837, dated 1838). The fruits of Jónas's study of astronomy are clearly evident in "The Vastness of the Universe," which conveys an impression of astronomical and cosmological knowledge far in advance of Schiller's.3

When Jónas read "The Vastness of the Universe" to the Fjölnir Society on 4 February 1843, he said it was longer than its German original and therefore could not be classified as a "translation" (32Eim270). Indeed, Schiller's poem has been very considerably expanded; Jónas's adaptation contains almost half again as many words as Schiller's original.4 Moreover its form has been radically altered: with one exception, Jónas has recast each of Schiller's five stanzas (asclepiadean strophes with added rhyme) into two strophes of fornyrðislag (Schiller's fifth stanza has been expanded into three strophes).

Jónas could hardly have written this poem, or his friends have read it, without the eddic Þrymskviða playing about the fringes of their consciousness (see RGL119-20).


1 For commentary on the sources, meter, and philosophico-religious background of Schiller's poem, see 2SWNIIA94-6.

2 Ursin's book — a very fine nontechnical introduction to its subject, as Jónas was quick to recognize — was a reworking, for a wider audience, of a series of popular lectures Ursin had delivered in Copenhagen and other Danish towns.

3 And which — in its dignity of expression — is light years away from the astronomical passages in Njóla, the long philosophical poem by Björn Gunnlaugsson, Jónas's mathematics teacher at Bessastaðir. Björn's fifty-seventh stanza may be taken as a particularly salient example:

Just as crowds of cod and plaice
caper in the ocean,
God has filled the gulf of space
with galaxies in motion.

Sem þá mest er síldum af
í söltum þorska lautum,
alt eins morar uppheims haf
ótal vetrarbrautum.

"Oh how Icelandic!" Konráð Gíslason might have said.

4 A partial list of Jónas's expansions and alterations is given by Kjartan Rúnar Gíslason (SW36). Some of Jónas's changes serve to make the astronomical statements in the poem more precise and/or accurate. For example, whereas Schiller's stars go their "thousand-year way" through the firmament, Jónas's "run a race of a thousand ages."

Schiller never makes explicit the identity of the pilgrim "whom the creating spirit once flung out from Chaos". But since this pilgrim goes with the "flight of light," it is tempting to identify him with light itself and to see the Biblical account of the creation (Genesis 1) as underlying Schiller's account. Jónas certainly thought this was the case and has made everything much more explicit: his speaker is "the spark of light [geisli] whom God's creating hand once flung out from chaos." To this extent Kjartan is correct in claiming that Jónas's poem (unlike Schiller's) "bears strongly marked Christian features." But his theory that the "travelling image" in strophe 7 is Christ seems very strange indeed (see RGL120-1).

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

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