II. Biographical Sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson

5. Reykjavík (1829-1832)

Kloss lithograph of Reykjavík, small version.
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Mayer lithograph of Reykjavík, small version.
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Lottin map of Reykjavík, small version.
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Reykjavík in 1834.

Downtown Reykjavík in 1836.

Map of Reykjavík in 1836.

Jónas wanted to follow Tómas Sæmundsson to Copenhagen and continue his studies there, but he had no money. Indeed, poverty would dog him all his life. At first he thought he had found a solution to this problem: he persuaded a wealthy fellow-Icelander to lend him enough money for the trip — but the death of the man's wife caused the arrangements to collapse (2E7-8). Jónas wrote Tómas in March 1829 telling him about this disappointment:

So that's how things have developed. I have no money in hand and no hope of getting any in the future, and since a reasonably well-paying job is always open to me with Ulstrup the magistrate, I guess I'm tempted to take it. However all this may work out, I know you'll be thinking about me — and maybe someday I'll manage to come and join you. (2E8)

And so Jónas went to work in Reykjavík as secretary to Regner Christopher Ulstrup (1793-1836), Magistrate of Reykjavík and Iceland. He held this position for the next three years, living with Ulstrup in Magistrate's House.

"Reykjavik is unquestionably the worst place in which to spend the winter in Iceland," was the opinion of Ebenezer Henderson, a pious Scotsman who lived there over the winter of 1814-5.

The tone of society is the lowest that can well be imagined. Being the resort of a number of foreigners, few of whom have had any education, and who frequent the island solely for purposes of gain, it not only presents a lamentable blank to the view of the religious observer, but is totally devoid of every source of intellectual gratification. The foreign residents generally idle away the short-lived day with the tobacco-pipe in their mouths, and spend the evening in playing at cards, and drinking punch. They have two or three balls in the course of the winter, and a play is sometimes acted by the principal inhabitants. (IJR290)

Reykjavík, at the time Jónas graduated from Bessastaðir, was "an ugly little town" of some fifty pitch-black wooden buildings, tarred on the outside.43 Páll Melsteð (who tells us this) estimated the permanent population at about 600 (EPM21-2). In the summer farmers streamed in from far and near to trade and their tents and horses were a common sight. Páll thought that the numerous Danish merchants (the "foreign residents" complained of by Henderson) were "surly and intractable," like Glámur in Grettis saga (EPM24). He says: "A new age only dawned for Reykjavík when the National Assembly [Alþing] was reestablished there (1845) and the Latin School moved there from Bessastaðir [1846]" (EPM23). But by then, of course, Jónas Hallgrímsson was dead.

On New Year's Eve 1829 Jónas gave a sermon in Reykjavík Cathedral, taking Genesis 8:22 as his text (1E340-6). It was the last sermon he ever preached.

A few months later, in the summer of 1830, occurred an event that would ultimately radicalize the political climate in both Denmark and Iceland44 and have an incalculable effect on the life and thought of Jónas and his contemporaries: the July Revolution in Paris. Writing from Copenhagen, Jónas's Bessastaðir schoolmate Lárus Sigurðsson kept him abreast of developments, sending him details about the Revolution and the other uprisings that followed in its wake (Na61-2).

In October 1830 Jónas became a member of "The Club" (Klúbburinn) in Reykjavík, the center of social activities for the town's upper crust. Danish was the language chiefly spoken there, and during these years Jónas's Danish improved markedly (JHF54, 52).

Over the winter of 1831-2 he prepared defense briefs in six cases that were under appeal to the supreme court (landsyfirréttur). These still survive (2D305-34) and show that he had mastered the technicalities of legal language, so unlike the kinds of language usually associated with his memory.

By and large, during these years, he seems to have lived the life of a fairly blameless young man-about-town. There are suggestions of dandification ("he got himself clothes of the latest fashion from Copenhagen and made a great impression in Reykjavík when he walked the streets on Sundays in his sky-blue frock-coat with its glittering gilt buttons" [BXIV]). This frivolous behavior distressed his friend Tómas Sæmundsson.45 And the poet Bjarni Thorarensen, who later became a friend and supporter, was not impressed when he met Jónas for the first time during these years: "Jónas Hallgrímsson is the most supercilious creature — but it's a trick of the times" (2BTL327-8).

In March of his last year in Reykjavík, Jónas wrote his old schoolfellow Magnús Eiríksson:

For the most part the winter has gone by in work. Still, I have amused myself from time to time. I've never missed a ball, for instance — we had six balls here this winter and they were all lively and enjoyable. I'm not going to tell you anything about my other little pleasures, all of them pretty innocent — you know me! — and in any event I know you don't want to hear anything about girls. I've spent a free evening now and then playing cards, or singing, or chatting and joking with friends. (2E11)

He also composed a good deal of light society verse in Danish — six poems altogether (compared to a mere seven in Icelandic during the same three-year period). Danish was the prestige language in a city filled with Danish administrators and merchants. Some of this verse was apparently addressed to Christiane Knudsen (1814-1859), a young lady to whom Jónas may have proposed marriage at one point in 1832, only to be rejected.46 One of his Icelandic poems — a free adaptation and expansion of Goethe's "Nähe des Geliebten" — was later regarded highly enough by its author to be revised and published among his mature verse. Only one poem from Jónas's early Reykjavík years, "A Ship Comes In, 1830," is included in the present collection.

In the summer of 1832 Jónas at last felt in a position to sail to Denmark and continue his studies at Copenhagen University, "even though his academic equipment had grown a bit rusty and he was not exactly flush with money," Konráð Gíslason tells us (9F2). He sailed from Reykjavík on 23 August. His journal of the voyage contains a poem that neatly suggests both his excitement at going abroad and his regret about leaving home. An adverse wind was holding up the ship's progress, blowing impetuously from the east, eager to reach Iceland. The wind says to the poet:

"I am filled with longing
to enfold her hills,
crown them with golden clouds,
and down in deep
dales to kiss
girls with gorgeous hands."

"Langar mig þar
um ljósan tind
gullnu skýi skauta,
og í djúpum
dal að kyssa
mundarfagra mey."

The poet urges the wind to change direction and speed the ship toward Denmark. But he cannot forget what he is leaving behind:

"Blow from the west,
oh wind! laden
with airs from Iceland's valleys!
Waft me the kisses —
cordial and sweet —
of the dales' lovely daughters."

"Heyr þú hafræna
in himinborna
flýt þér Fróns úr dölum,
kysstu samt fyrst,
og kossinn færðu
mér frá dalanna dætrum."47


43 Quot homines, tot sententiae. Describing the same scene a few years later, Benedikt Gröndal wrote: "I remember how exciting it seemed to glimpse that glorious place with its red-roofed houses — which was the style then. There were green yards with fences everywhere. I thought it must be a veritable paradise" (4BGR288).

44 On this see especially BPÆ31-48.

45 He wrote Jónas from Copenhagen in June 1830: "No doubt your mind is entirely occupied with what a fine fellow you seemed when — after leaving school — you settled down in the capital as secretary to the magistrate (a Dane, no less!). And when the pack-trains come in from the country you let the yokels stare at you as you saunter along the street and step into that big timber building where you live. Oh, Jónas, how good you've got it! The farm girls gaze after you — they don't dare look you in the face because they realize their own inferiority when they behold the graduate with his Danish shoes and that green cap on his head! And so you squander your youth in riot and pleasure, not even aware of what you're doing." (BTS76-7)

46 Tómas Sæmundsson was horrified at the prospect of this match, which would have put an end to his hopes for Jónas's future and the important role he thought Jónas was going to play in Iceland's rehabilitation:

If you get yourself engaged, Jónas, I will pity you and weep for you, though I will not cease to be your friend. I will weep for you because you will then have made it perfectly clear. . .that you do not intend to take advantage of your good fortune — you with your truly unique gifts! — and be a help and ornament of that poor old lady, our mother [i.e., Iceland]. (BTS78)

47 These are strophes 4 and 6 of the poem beginning with the line "Hví viltu andsvala." Date: 31 August 1832. Form: Ljóðaháttur. Manuscript: KG 31 b III (facsimile KJH60-2). First published: 1847 (A47-9) under the title "Í spánska sjónum" ("In the Spanish Sea").

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

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