32. On New Year's Day (1845) (Svo rís um aldir árið hvurt um sig)

Color photo of cairn and valley, small version.
[larger image/full caption]


On New Year's Day (1845)

Svo rís um aldir árið hvurt um sig

Thus the years open, each of them in turn,
endlessly blooming flowers of transiency.
Their ceaseless passing is of no concern,
for time no longer means a thing to me.

I have a treasure of eternal worth:
a guardian heart which — girded against harm —
gazes on heaven but is content with earth,
and views the threatening fog without alarm.

"Always be tough!" they tell me. "Hold your own!"
But I would rather live and feel and see —
even when this earns me men's antipathy —

than be a hollow half-decayed sheepbone,
hidden by pack-train boys in piles of stone,
stuffed full of slander and obscenity.

Svo rís um aldir árið hvurt um sig,
eilífðar lítið blóm í skini hreinu;
mér er það svo sem ekki neitt í neinu,
því tíminn vill ei tengja sig við mig.

Eitt á eg samt, og annast vil eg þig,
hugur mín sjálfs í hjarta þoli vörðu,
er himin sér, og unir lágri jörðu,
og þykir ekki þokan voðalig.

Ég man þeir segja: hart á móti hörðu,
en heldur vil eg kenna [til] og lifa,
og þótt að nokkurt andstreymi ég bíði,

en liggja eins og leggur upp í vörðu,
sem lestastrákar taka þar og skrifa
og fylla, svo hann finnur ei — af níði.

Date:1 January 1845?
Form:An "Italian" sonnet rhyming aBBa aCCa CDE CDE (and with the alliteration pattern 211 121 21 21). The translation rhymes abab cdcd eaa eea.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II, where it has no title (facsimile KJH201-2; image).
First published:1847 (A249; image) under the title "Brot" ("A Fragment"). In 1929 Matthías Þórðarson gave it the title "Á nýjársdag. (1845)." ("On New Year's Day [1845]") (1D142).

Commentary:        Although this sonnet has no title in the surviving manuscript, its first line has led to general agreement that it is a New Year's poem. Its manuscript connection with a poem that can be dated after 17 December 1844 (see KJH314) indicates that its occasion was almost certainly New Year's Day 1845.

It is difficult to know whether to interpret "On New Year's Day (1845)" as a Christian poem which employs Christian language and imagery (perhaps derived proximately from J. P. Mynster's Reflections) in a thoroughly orthodox way, or whether the poem uses this language and imagery (which is bound to be, in the last analysis, universal and nonsectarian) for a somewhat different purpose.

On the one hand, one can regard this poem and the poem that follows as outgrowths of, conscious meditations upon — even Auseinandersetzungen with — the imagery and ideology of the magnificent fifty-eighth chapter of Mynster's Reflections, which begins like this (in the translation of Brynjólfur, Jónas, and Konráð):

When we stand on a riverbank and look down into the flowing water, we see how one surge succeeds another, hurrying farther and farther downstream until it disappears from sight and joins the sea, where all the waters of the world come together in the vast ocean main. Yet though the water in the stream is always changing, the stream itself is always the same, and its source, which is never exhausted, constantly renews it. When we ponder this sight, so changeable and yet unchanging, it gradually awakens strange, solemn, and often melancholy emotions in our heart. For here is an image of human life on earth. Just as the river flows ever onward from its invisible source, its current never ceasing, its waves now rolling gently, now dashing over furious rapids, so life on earth streams incessantly onward. It is only the individual moments, hours, days, and years that follow hard one upon another, receding ever farther from us until they vanish, never to return.

What are we to do? Are we to stand on the bank and weep, adding our tears to the river, because it goes on flowing and we cannot stop it no matter how much we might wish to? Or are we to thrust such thoughts resolutely from us, hurling ourselves into the turbulent stream of time and forgetting — in its rapids — that it flows unceasingly onward, and we with it? Are we to forget that life here on earth passes like a shadow?

There is a wisdom which proclaims: Lay hold on the passing moment before it is gone! And we do not deny that this is sound advice. It is important for everyone to lay hold on the passing moment, to use and enjoy it before it is gone, to gather honey from the flowers before they wither away (and how swiftly and suddenly this sometimes happens!). But if we are consumed by desire to lay hold on the things that pass — and if that is all we are concerned about — then they lay hold on us, turning our existence into something that is subject to dissolution and death, as they are themselves. A deeper wisdom about all this (as about everything else) is found in the Bible, where the apostle utters these pregnant words: Lay hold on eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12 [AV]). These are words that deserve to be pondered carefully by every serious human being.

When we speak of eternal life, the phrase usually refers to life after death. The Bible, too, uses the words in this sense, since eternal life will be manifest in more perfect and glorious form in the better and nobler world beyond the grave, and its manifestation there will be more solid and substantial than it is during our sojourn in this world. But what is eternal life, if not something that is proof against the changes of time? It. . .can have no beginning but exists always, just as it has always existed. We should not imagine that eternal life is found only in another world, or that this present world holds nothing but temporal life. For temporal life is rooted in eternal life. We often think of the images that pass before our eyes in this world as shadows, because their appearance is dim and cloaked in mist and they come and go as swiftly as a shadow passes over the grass. And yet this shadow, though it is little or nothing in itself, always attests to the fact that some real body exists to cast the shadow. Similarly this temporal life attests to the existence of true, eternal life, in which it is rooted and whence it is revealed. The more a person possesses within himself true and eternal life, the more perfect and vigorous and happy will be his life here on earth; the more he is alienated from it, the more he embraces and pursues what is only a shadow, the more his whole existence will gradually turn into nothing but a mocking shadow. This is what the Bible refers to as death, that is, extinction of true and eternal life. But just as this death threatens us on all sides, trying — everywhere and always — to swallow up life, so is eternal life, true and heavenly life, eveywhere and always at hand. That is why our Lord not only promised continued existence in another world to those who were willing to join him: he also wanted to lead them, already here on earth, to fountains flowing with the waters of eternal life, so they might slake the painful thirst in their souls. Thus when the apostle says that we should lay hold on eternal life, he means that we should do so already while living here on earth. (Hhk513-5)

In the penultimate chapter of his Reflections, where he elaborates on Jesus's words "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:22 [AV]), Mynster interprets "the kingdom of God" (guðsríki) as a state of illumination that occurs inside individuals. He pointedly contrasts this state with "earthly happiness" (jarðnesk hamingja), whose source people tend to locate outside themselves and thus tirelessly — and futilely — pursue. In describing how, during their lives on earth, most men experience this inner illumination only by fits and starts, Mynster writes (in words that seem especially relevant to the beginning of Jónas's poem):

Is there anyone who would dare to affirm. . .that from the moment the kingdom of God dawned in his soul it has shone there steadily? That he has seen the sun rise and set and the years come and go, bringing joy and sorrow to him and a new face to the world, but has not been troubled by this? That he has looked without concern on the revolutions of the times and his mind has remained constant and unshaken? (Hhk567-8)

If one takes a Christian approach (via Mynster's Reflections) to "On New Year's Day (1845)," it is easy to interpret lines 7-8 as expressing Jónas's belief in immortality. Mynster writes: "Man must remain here on earth as long as he is an earth-dweller. But from here he can see heaven" (Hhk9). If this statement, or something like it, underlies Jónas's lines, then they can be interpreted: "it [i.e., the 'guardian heart'] looks from afar on heaven [where the spirits of the dead are reunited] but [in the meantime] contents itself with [living life on] earth and regards the looming fog [i.e., death] without alarm."

On the other hand, at about the time he wrote this sonnet Jónas may have already been reading and translating, apparently with approval, passages from a poem by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, a poem strongly critical of Christian belief in life after death. The last four lines of Jónas's translation assert that accepting the finality of death can lead to a kind of spiritual rebirth, a cleansing of one's attitudes and the development of a fresh appreciation for life on earth:

Awareness of this
can wash your eyes,
give you light and blood
and bright features.

In fact one possesses "a guardian heart, girded against harm," and determines to take full and strenuous advantage of the opportunities presented by life and death. This may be the point of both this poem and the poem that follows.

It is quite wonderful to see how, as this sonnet approaches its end, Jónas abandons the high-flown diction and imagery with which it had opened (for example the "eilífðar lítið blóm" that later found itself transplanted into the Icelandic national anthem) and descends to earth with a thump. He alludes to the old custom, on the part of travellers riding across the Icelandic highlands, of leaving verses — scrawled on scraps of paper and stuffed into hollow sheepbones — in cairns along their route. Verses of this kind, known as beinakerlingarvísur ("poems from an old lady of the bones"), often professed to be messages from the amorous old cairn to the next male passer-by and were not infrequently "full of slander and obscenity."1


1 On the origin of this practice, and for numerous examples, see the entertaining article by J[ón] Þ[orkelsson], "Beinakerlingar," Blanda: Fróðleikur gamall og nýr, II (Reykjavík: Félagsprentsmiðjan, 1921-3), 406-19. See also 6Íþm365 and LM12/8/95, 6-7, where one finds the following poignant message from a latter-day "old lady of the bones":

Here I stand beneath the stars.
Strange are history's courses!
Guys now gad about in cars —
gone are all the horses.

And speaking of latter-day "old ladies of the bones," here is a picture of Dick Ringler — editor and translator of this collection — attempting to fend off the advances of the beinakerling who lives on Gvendarskál up above Hólar in Hjaltadalur:

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

Jonas' MS flourish for the end of a poem For technical assistance:
Library Technology Group
University of Wisconsin-Madison
General Library System