44. Eagle Mountain Glacier (Upp undir Arnarfelli)

Color photo of Eagle Mountain and the Eagle Mountain Glacier, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Eagle Mountain and Eagle Mountain Glacier

Eagle Mountain Glacier

Upp undir Arnarfelli

Out under Eagle Mountain,
where ice lies broad and bright —
don't imagine I dreamed this! —
some Danes made camp last night.

Today they crawled from their covers
to cook a breakfast buffet
and soon they were gobbling and guzzling
and gulping and slurping away.

Facts on that far-off glacier
are few and hard to obtain.
I doubt that the Danes will bring us
data a bit germane.

Upp undir Arnarfelli,
allri mannabyggð fjær —
það er eins satt og ég sit hér —
þar sváfu Danir í gær.

Og er þeir fóru á fætur
fengu þeir eld sér kveikt,
og nú var setið og soðið
og sopið og borðað og steikt.

Ókunnugt allt er flestum
inn um þann fjallageim;
þeir ættu að segja oss eitthvað
af Arnarfellsjökli þeim.

Form:Three stanzas, each containing four three-stress lines, with the rhyme scheme AbCb and the alliteration pattern 22.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II, where it has no title (facsimile KJH284; image).
First published:1847 (A240; image) under the title "Arnarfellsjökull" ("Eagle Mountain Glacier").

Commentary:        Eagle Mountain (Arnarfell) and Eagle Mountain Glacier (Arnarfellsjökull) are located in the central highlands of Iceland. The glacier is a tongue descending from the Hofsjökull (Temple Glacier). Folklore held that behind the mountain, concealed in the glacier, was a secret valley, the abode of outlaws (2Íþs162-3; KMÍ119).

Jónas himself never travelled this region. But in the summer of 1840 it was visited by a Dane named Jørgen Christian Schythe [SHEE-tuh] (1814-1877), an engineer who had come to Iceland in 1839 with the natural scientist Japetus Steenstrup to investigate possibilities for mining sulfur on behalf of the Danish government. The next summer Schythe parted company with Steenstrup and organized an expedition that took him across the central highlands (the Sprengisandur route), where he encountered such foul weather that he and his party barely escaped with their lives. The next year he described his adventures in a long, 64-page article ("A Mountain Expedition in Iceland in the Summer of 1840") in the Danish scientific journal Naturhistorisk Tidsskrift.1

Neither Jónas nor Steenstrup had much respect or affection for the widely-travelled Schythe, who had spent time in northern Greenland in 1838 and would end his colorful and checkered career as a bank manager and provincial governor in Chile (see 431n2). In a letter to Jónas (24 May 1841) Steenstrup described Schythe's article as "suffocatingly detailed and verbose" (432n2) and on 4 October Jónas sent Steenstrup a parody of a review of Schythe's article ("the endless history" [den evige historie] as he called it), poking fun at Schythe's self-absorption and anecdotal circumstantiality in what was ostensibly a scientific paper. He told Steenstrup:

I've made a big sacrifice for your sake, reading "the endless history" from one end to the other for the second time. (Actually, I think this experience was designed as punishment for my sins.) Had our roles been reversed, you may be sure I would never have had the cruelty to inflict so thankless a task on a friend!

Certain portions of it are damn tedious. What the devil do we care where he was in the mountains when he had to piss, or details like that? I'll swear he's told the story of his trip a hundred times over, the article is so wordy and tasteless.

And what have we learned? I haven't bothered measuring the incomparable tent I have subsequently had the honor of inhabiting.2 Still, I don't doubt the endless history correctly reports its height and other dimensions. On the other hand — I mustn't fail to call attention to a terrible inaccuracy disfiguring this singular work: Gunnar's horsewhip wasn't really all that long, last year!3

And then — lucite!4 I beg you to convey to him my most respectful dubiety!

To speak seriously — I found his account of the tinkling horses' tails pretty tolerable, yes, I can even say I enjoyed it a little.

I'll pass by, for now, the misspelled place-names and geological absurdities — I find it impossible, at the moment, to waste a single serious word on all his interminable rubbish.

The postscript to my review goes something like this: it would behoove the good Schythernik or Schytharsoak — I don't know exactly what the Eskimos call him — to turn his attention from us Icelanders (whom he can't stand anyway)5 and apply himself to writing something long and edifying for his "sweet-tempered Greenlanders." His star here is sinking fast. (2D102-3)

Schythe's article, to which Jónas took such exception, is actually a fascinating and highly informative piece, giving an excellent idea of what it was like to cross the central highlands on horseback in the early nineteenth century. But there is no denying that Schythe talks about his stomach more than is appropriate in a scientific article. When we first meet him at Þjórsárholt, at the start of his journey, he is stowing away his food and cooking gear:

I was packing my provisions and the utensils I had used to eat lunch, which I had just finished and which (as was customary) was also going to serve as supper. I put every item in its proper place in packs that were stuffed to overflowing. ("En Fjeldreise," p. 331)

Schythe and his party arrived at the foot of Eagle Mountain late on the evening of 1 July. They stayed there the next day to rest and let their horses graze. That night they had themselves a splendid feast:

There are large quantities of angelica growing around the sloping base of the mountain. The fresh roots of this plant, seasoned with pepper and vinegar, provided us with a tasty and nourishing repast, while old dried-out stalks served as fuel for the open fire over which we roasted some ptarmigans I had shot the day before (p. 354 f.).

Angelica salad and roast ptarmigan — not bad for the middle of nowhere! This is no doubt the passage from Schythe's account that Jónas had in mind when he wrote his poem.

Schythe says they set off the next morning at nine o'clock "after having fortified ourselves for the coming day with a good meal" (p. 356), but he gives no information about their breakfast menu.

In developing his fantasy about the sybaritic aspects of the Schythe expedition, Jónas may have had a certain amount of eyewitness information to go on, since Gunnar Hallgrímsson — one of Schythe's attendants in 1840 — spent the next two summers travelling with Jónas.

Jónas's poem is ironic, like his letter to Steenstrup, but its irony is gentler and more Olympian, no longer aimed at Schythe in particular but his countrymen in general. In fact Schythe has been multiplied into a whole Danish expedition.

dividing line

Pálmi Hannesson has put his finger squarely on the unusual nature of Jónas's achievement in a poem like "Eagle Mountain Glacier":

Here and in some of the other poems [in his late topographical cycle], Jónas perfects the contrapuntal technique of playing two separate tunes on two separate strings and thus achieving remarkable new harmonies. On the one hand we have the bustle of the Danish travellers; on the other the enormous, unknown, ice-cold emptiness, its eerie vastness emphasized by the visitors' foolish fussing. As a "description of Iceland" this is miles beyond any mere scientific treatise. Yet it has come into being, in the mind of the poet, thanks to the professional concerns and activities of the natural scientist. Here science and art are perfectly fused together.6


1 "En Fjeldreise i Island i Sommeren 1840," Naturhistorisk Tidsskrift, Udgivet af Henrik Krøyer, Tredie Bind (Kjobenhavn: Paa Universitetsboghandler C. A. Reitzels Forlag, 1840-1), 331-94. The article was accompanied by a map. There is a much abbreviated Icelandic translation of Schythe's article ("Hrakningsför á Vatnajökulsvegi"), with useful supplementary information, in 2Hh63-107.

2 Schythe describes it circumstantially as a "ten-foot high cone-shaped tent" ("En Fjeldreise," p. 331). Jónas bought the tent (which he named "Hrauk" ["the Heap"]) later that year at the sale of Steenstrup's and Schythe's horses and travelling gear (4E302-3).

3 See "En Fjeldreise," p. 340.

4 See "En Fjeldreise," p. 337. Lucite is not found in Iceland (see 2Hh67n).

5 On this complaint of Jónas's, see 439n2.

6 Pálmi Hannesson, "Jónas Hallgrímsson: Náttúrufræðingurinn og skáldið," Landið okkar: Safn útvarpserinda og ritgerða (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1957), p.175.

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

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