II. Biographical Sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson

3. Jónas Hallgrímsson's Childhood and Boyhood (1807-1823)21

Jónas Hallgrímsson — his name is pronounced something like YOE-nahs HOT'L-greem-sawn — was born on 16 November 180722 at the farm Hraun ("Rockfall") in Öxnadalur (Oxen Valley) in north central Iceland.23 He was the third of four children of Hallgrímur Þorsteinsson and Rannveig Jónasdóttir.24 His father Hallgrímur had attended the cathedral school at Hólar from 1794 to 1799, marrying in the latter year and moving to Hraun in 1803, after having been appointed curate to the aging Rev. Jón Þorláksson (1744-1819). In the spring of 1808, when Jónas was about six months old, Hallgrímur moved farther down the valley to the farm Steinsstaðir, which was more convenient to his church at Bakki. This is where Jónas grew up.25

Winkler illustration of Steinsstaðir in 1858, small version.
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Color photo of Steinsstaðir, small version.
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Steinsstaðir in Öxnadalur in 1858.

Steinsstaðir in Öxnadalur today.

In terms of Icelandic farming society in the early part of the nineteenth century, Hallgrímur and his family were reasonably well off, though hardly well-to-do.26 But economic conditions were difficult for everyone in Iceland during the early years of Jónas's life, partly because of the disruption of trade caused by hostilities between Denmark and England during the Napoleonic Wars, partly because weather conditions — especially in the north of Iceland — were terrible.

Little is known about Jónas's childhood and early boyhood, which seem to have been happy. His earliest education will have taken place at home, since there were no public primary schools in the country. Matthías Þórðarson speculates that he learned to read in his sixth or seventh year, but it may well have been earlier. He will have been taught to read and write by other members of his family.

Color image of lithograph, small version.
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The reading lesson.

Women — mothers and grandmothers — often assumed this role, but it is hard to believe, in Jónas's case, that his father did not play an important part: he was a minister and, in terms of Icelandic society of his day, a highly educated man.

Hannes Hafstein writes:

As a boy Jónas began to be aware of the great alterations in the landscape produced by the operation of natural forces, and his desire to understand the reasons for this — and to study natural science — awoke very early. And so, by slow degrees, was kindled his love for nature, which presented itself to him in the guise of a beautiful and enticing riddle. (BXI)

Then in August 1816, when he was eight, something happened to overturn his world. Pétur Guðmundsson gives an account of it in his Annal of the Nineteenth Century:

On 4 August, a Sunday, the curate Hallgrímur Þorsteinsson said mass at Bakki in Öxnadalur. After mass he made arrangements with Jónas, the farmer at Hraun, to go trout fishing up at the mountain lake Hraunsvatn with Jónas's sons Jón and Ólafur, who were both in their late teens.

Hallgrímur accompanied Jónas from Bakki to Hraun and from there climbed up to the lake with the two brothers. A seine net and small boat were kept at the lake. Hallgrímur got into the boat, intending to play out the net; Jón stood on shore holding the land line; Ólafur was rowing. The boat started moving much too fast, and when the net ran out, Hallgrímur stood up, capsizing the boat, and both he and Ólafur were thrown into the water. Hallgrímur sank but Ólafur stayed afloat.

Jón, seeing the accident from shore, waded out alongside the net to shoulder-depth and managed to get hold of his brother and drag him ashore. Then he hauled in the net. Hallgrímur came up with the farther end, which had tangled itself around him. The brothers assumed he was dead and laid his body on the ground. They made no effort to resuscitate him, lacking both the presence of mind and know-how to do this. Instead they went back home to tell what had happened. (1Ana216)

Twenty years later, in his "Lay of Grief," Jónas Hallgrímsson still vividly recalled this tragedy and its aftermath:

I was only a boy
when the blind waters
slaked his sight
and sealed it forever,
but I cannot forget
that grievous loss —
the first in the world —
when my father died.

I remember the steadfast
strength of his soul,
the sheer affection
that shone from his eyes;
they gushed their love
like God's fair sun
quickening the green
grass in spring.

I remember the tears
my mother shed
knowing her husband
would never come home,
the love of her life
and light of her world —
her children's too.
A chill leavetaking!

Þá var eg ungur,
er unnir luku
fyrir mér saman;
man eg þó missi
minn í heimi
fyrstan og sárstan
er mér faðir hvarf.

Man eg afl andans
í yfirbragði,
og ástina björtu
er úr augum skein.
Var hún mér æ
sem á vorum ali
grös in grænu
guðfögur sól.

Man eg og minnar
móður tár,
er hún aldrei sá
aftur heim snúa
leiðtoga ljúfan,
ljós á jörðu
sitt og sinna —
það var sorgin þyngst.27

His father's tragic and unnecessary death seems to have weakened Jónas's sense of basic trust in the universe, making him unusually conscious of its "devouring element" (the phrase is Robert Louis Stevenson's) and extremely sensitive to the early deaths of people he knew. "The sense of being alone in the world set its stamp on Jónas," Hannes Hafstein wrote, "shutting him in upon himself and giving a serious cast to his thoughts" (BXII).

The autumn after his father's death Jónas was sent into fosterage with his mother's sister Guðrún at Hvassafell in Upper Eyjafjörður, where he probably spent most of the next four years. During his last winter at Hvassafell he studied at nearby Möðrufell with Rev. Jón Jónsson "the Learned" (1759-1846), who guided him through a beginning Latin grammar and some of the Lives of Cornelius Nepos and judged him to have the intellectual capacity for further education (4E20). But these were not happy years.

Still but a boy
standing alone,
I lost my father
and his love forever.
Wearisome days
dogged me then,
mixed with sorrow
of many kinds.

Ungur var eg forðum,
fór eg einn saman,
föður sviptur
er mér fremst unni;
þannig liðu
langir dagar
meini blandnir
á marga lund.28

In the spring of 1821 Jónas was back at Steinsstaðir, where he was confirmed on 27 May. He spent the next two winters at Goðdalir in Upper Skagafjörður, studying with Rev. Einar H. Thorlacius (1790-1870), a highly regarded scholar and teacher who ran a boarding school (heimaskóli or heimavistarskóli) for a handful of promising boys, preparing them to qualify for entrance to the Latin School at Bessastaðir. Bessastaðir was at this time the only formal institution of higher education in the country. During his second winter at Goðdalir Jónas made the acquaintance of a new student there, Brynjólfur Pétursson (1810-1851), who became one of his two closest lifelong friends. In June 1823 Rev. Einar certified Jónas as "well advanced in Latin, Greek, and other subjects, thanks to his outstanding abilities and commendable application" (4E21). On 1 October he was admitted to the Latin School at Bessastaðir, where he studied for the next six winters (1823-9), spending his summers at home with his family at Steinsstaðir. He received a half scholarship during his first year at Bessastaðir; this was increased to a full scholarship for the remainder of his stay.

By the time Jónas went to Bessastaðir, he will have acquired an intimate familiarity with the traditional oral and written culture of his country. On many farms in Iceland the "evening watch" (kvöldvaka) was a powerful cultural institution: the time during the long winter evenings, after the early darkness had closed in and the dim seal-oil lamps had been lit, when members of the farm household sat together in the common living and sleeping room (baðstofa), engaged in the winter wool industry and other forms of indoor work, while they listened to the Icelandic sagas being read aloud, or folktales about outlaws, ghosts, and magicians being told, or rímur-poems being chanted, or ferskeytlur (quatrains) being tossed back and forth, either spontaneously composed or quoted from memory.29

Greyscale illustration of interior scene, small version.
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Kvöldvaka on an Icelandic farm.

We are told that Jónas composed his first ferskeytla in his sixth or seventh year.30 His mother overheard him mumbling it to himself one day when he was getting dressed:

Shoes and britches, shorts and vest,
shaggy socks (much mended),
leggings, scarf, and — last but best —
little cap. How splendid!

Buxur, vesti, brók, og skó,
bætta sokka, nýta,
húfutetur, hálsklút þó,
háleistana hvíta.31

The child is father of the man. In this earliest composition, the poet-to-be indulges for the first time his lifelong ambition — very seldom gratified, alas! — to be elegantly dressed and cut a dashing figure.


21 The earliest full account of Jónas's life, written by Hannes Hafstein and prefaced to the 1883 edition of Jónas's writings (B), is still by all odds the most eloquent and accessible (in all senses of the word). It is an extremely skilfull and conscientious work, based upon documentary evidence and upon the memories of three of Jónas's closest friends, all distinguished scholars: Konráð Gíslason, Páll Melsteð, and Japetus Steenstrup (B[VII]).

The most authoritative biographical treatment is Matthías Þórðarson's detailed and generally reliable — but not very user-friendly — account from 1937 (5D[III]-CLXXXIX). Vilhjálmur Þ. Gíslason's Jónas Hallgrímsson og Fjölnir (1980) tells the story in detailed, consecutive form and contains much information on social, cultural, and literary backgrounds, but is maddening in its lack of documentation.

It is important to note that the various surviving sources of information about Jónas's life and personality are of very unequal value. At one end of the spectrum are documents that are absolutely contemporary: school reports, Jónas's own poems and notebooks, letters to and from him, etc. No less valuable are materials written so close in time to the events they describe — events well known to early readers — that there is not much room for distortion. A good example is Konráð Gíslason's account of Jónas's last days and death: since it was written and read out loud to Jónas's most intimate friends and associates at a meeting of the Fjölnir Society less than a year after the events (see 33Eim190), it must in the main be accurate (though one must of course allow for some rhetorical heightening).

It is sources like the ones just described that are relied on most heavily in constructing the present sketch.

Still reliable (within limits) are accounts provided by people who knew Jónas but who write years later — sometimes decades later — and occasionally have axes to grind. Páll Melsteð is one of these (a fairly accurate and sober reporter — after all he was a historian), Benedikt Gröndal another (he is generally quite au courant — but is perilously inclined to gossip).

At the other end of the spectrum are reminiscences — often in oral form — dating from many, many years after an event and stemming from persons only marginally or briefly acquainted with Jónas. It is often impossible to determine how much truth (if any) there is in some of these accounts. A good example is the story of Jónas's summer romance with Þóra Gunnarsdóttir. There is obviously a kernel of historical truth here, but most of the details are late and questionable.

Jónas himself was not unaware of these sorts of problems in historiography, and one of the aims of his prose piece "Hreiðar's Hill" ("Hreiðarshóll") — not included in the present collection — is to raise the serious epistemological question: can there be any such thing as "truth" in a world of second-hand stories, rumor, anecdote, murky motives, and folklore?

22 A little chronological orientation may be helpful. In 1807 Napoleon stood at the height of his fame, and the Battle of Eylau — one of the important battles of the Napoleonic wars — was fought in February of the year Jónas was born. In September the British, angered by Denmark's willingness to participate in Napoleon's continental system, bombarded Copenhagen for three nights and carried off the Danish fleet. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson was in the middle of his second term as president. In England, William Wordsworth published his Poems, in Two Volumes, containing some of his finest work (including the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"). In Germany, G. W. F. Hegel published his Phenomenology of Spirit and Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and "Appassionata" Sonata were heard for the first time.

23 There is a long and highly informative account of Öxnadalur by an anonymous author, writing probably in the 1840s, in EBacka142-55 ("Bakkakirkjusókn, Annexia í Bægisárprestakalli"). This account was written in response to the request for information initiated by Jónas himself in 1838 in connection with his "Description of Iceland." The account contains extensive information about the topography of the valley, its climate, its farms and the annual routines of their inhabitants, their clothing, etc. Used in conjunction with the detailed map of the area published by the National Land Survey of Iceland (Uppdráttur Íslands, Blað 63 [Akureyri], 1:100 000), it provides student or visitor with the best possible introduction to the valley in northern Iceland in which Jónas Hallgrímsson was born and raised.

24 Hallgrímur (1776-1816), a descendant of the sister of the famous hymn-writer Hallgrímur Pétursson, died when Jónas was a boy. His mother Rannveig (1777-1866) outlived her son; so did his three siblings, Þorsteinn (1800-1857), Rannveig (1802-1874), and Anna Margrét (1815-1866).

25 In 1814, when Jónas was six, his parents made a highly favorable impression on Ebenezer Henderson, a Scotsman travelling around the country to supervise the distribution of Icelandic Bibles on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Henderson spent the night of 8/9 August at Steinsstaðir.

Sira Halgrimr. . .is clergyman of the church of Backa on the opposite side of the valley. He is a man of about six or eight and thirty, and has been twelve years priest of this parish, which contains nearly two hundred souls. He is distinguishedly serious and modest [and a] deep sense of genuine piety seemed to penetrate his whole frame. His wife also appeared to be an excellent Christian, and exemplified in her own person and the cleanliness and arrangement of her house, that part of the Apostle's description of the Christian character: "Whatsoever things are of good report," &c. It was not long till she provided for us a good supper; and I was much gratified to observe the serious and grateful manner in which they partook of the bounties of Providence. (IJR100)

Henderson is not guilty of exaggeration when he asserts, in the subtitle of his book Iceland, that it includes "Observations on the Natural Phenomena, History, Literature, and Antiquities of the Island; and the Religion, Character, Manners, and Customs of Its Inhabitants." Indeed, Henderson's Iceland supplies — better than any other book in English — a comprehensive and living picture of the physical and cultural world in which Jónas Hallgrímsson grew up.

26 Compare the inventory of his livestock, made after his death (5DXXIV), with the figures given at 2Ísa24. In 1839 Steinsstaðir was described as the best-built farm in Bakki Parish (ESs160), but this may well have been thanks to the rebuilding done by Tómas Ásmundsson (see KMÍ153).

27 In this biographical essay, parallel Icelandic texts are provided for poems not included in the Web site. The text above is the first three strophes of "Saknaðarljóð." Date: 1836 (probably mid- to late April). Form: Thirteen fornyrðislag strophes. Manuscript: None surviving. First published: 1837 (3FI/3-4).

28 This is the sixteenth strophe of "Ad Amicum." Date: April 1828, 1829, or 1830. Form: Twenty-five fornyrðislag strophes, eight of which are expanded. Manuscript: KG 31 b I (facsimile KJHll-8). First published: 1847 (A34-45) under the title "Til vinar síns" ("To His Friend").

29 Describing the parish in northern Iceland where Jónas grew up (Bakkasókn), an anonymous writer of the mid-nineteenth century says: "There isn't much here in the way of entertainment except chatting and 'having a good jaw' (as people call it). Some, however, read instructive and entertaining books during kvöldvökur — a pastime to which a lot of people here are partial" (ESs153-4).

30 There is a well-known anecdote about even earlier poetic activity on Jónas's part. According to a favorite story of his mother, which was passed down in the family for generations, Rev. Jón Þorláksson (the translator of Milton) visited Steinsstaðir when Jónas was five years old and stayed the night.

Next morning the parson was sitting by himself in the private apartment off the commons room. Little Jónas was lying awake in bed and babbling to himself, which he often did as a child. When his mother came in a little later, Reverend Jón said: "Now I am going to tell you something, dear madam. You have here the makings of a great poet." (5DXXI-XXII)

31 The text was recorded by Jón Borgfirðingur, who reported hearing both the poem and the circumstances of its composition from Hallgrímur Tómasson, the son of Jónas's older sister Rannveig (see 1D374). Date: 1813-4. Form: Ferskeytla. Manuscript: No autograph manuscript. First published: C3 (1913) under the title "The Poet's First Poem" ("Fyrsta vísa skáldsins"). Matthías Þórðarson gave it the title "These Are My Clothes" ("Ég á þessi föt") (1D154).

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

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