Horchend stehn die stummen Wälder
Hlustar hinn dimmi
The dark depths
"Jónas was a big man of average height," Konráð tells us,
stocky and with well-shaped limbs, tending toward fat in his last years because of ill health. He walked upright, had large broad shoulders, a somewhat stubby neck, and an unusually large head with fine brown hair. He had a small beard and dark eyebrows. His face was attractive, manly and easily identified, and had a high forehead (like others in his family). His nose was straight and somewhat fleshy. He had broad jaws (as is common among Icelanders) and broad cheeks, but his cheekbones were not as high as is usual in our country. His mouth was handsome, his lips a little fleshy. He had big brown eyes — and it is absolutely indescribable how much warmth and life flooded into those eyes when he was in a good mood, especially when he was discussing some subject he cared about deeply.95 (9F5)
"He was definitely not a hail fellow well met," Páll Melsteð told Hannes Hafstein.
There was no deceit in his nature, and his temper was generous, but he wouldn't put up with slights any more than the next man. He was blunt and sharp-spoken with people he disliked. . . . He was buoyant and playful — but depressed even so. (4E44)
Hannes Hafstein adds: "He was cheerful and witty when talking with his friends, and very vehement. But he was introverted and kept his feelings to himself" (BX). Bitter experience had no doubt taught him that this was the safest way to operate. He wrote in "The Lay of Hulda":
"He was stand-offish with strangers," Hannes continues, "so it was easy for them to conclude that he was stiff and unsociable, even arrogant. And he certainly did not suffer fools gladly. He was warm-blooded and therefore naturally somewhat given to pleasure, corpulent and inclined to take it easy. But when he was of a mind to work, he could work like a man possessed" (BX).
Hannes gives us a wonderful picture of Jónas in action:
In addition to the citizens of Reykjavík, there were people all around the country who had it in for Jónas because he was one of the editors of Fjölnir. . . . He frequently found himself involved in arguments, since he was often challenged to defend his opinions — which he was always more than willing to do. He was very adept at sensing where other people were coming from and talking them round to his own point of view. And he was not reluctant to use the method that often works best with uneducated people: taking them by the shoulders and shaking them. Professor Steenstrup recalls that once when they were lying in their tent, a well known parish manager dropped by and started harassing Jónas about Fjölnir. Jónas got to his feet and — bracing himself against the tent-pole with one hand and grabbing hold of the farmer's shoulder with the other — proceeded to tell him what was what in no uncertain terms. (BXXVII-XXVIII)
When he returned to Copenhagen in November 1842, Jónas was in such desperate financial straits that he could not even afford to buy new clothes. In mid-February 1843 he wrote Finnur Magnússon: "It is (as you can imagine) an unpleasant and unseemly situation that I should have to avoid visiting people — because of a lack of clothes! — when the best houses stand open to receive me" (2E151). In March he wrote a humiliating letter to Forchhammer explaining that this was the reason he had put off calling on him since his return to Denmark (2E152).
The publication of Fjölnir had been suspended during Jónas's residence in Iceland. After his return to Copenhagen, and no doubt largely at his prompting, a larger group of collaborators was formed — the "Fjölnir Society" (Fjölnisfélag) — which held regular meetings and superintended the publication of the last four issues of the periodical (of which about 500 copies were printed [BPÆ85]). Extremely detailed minutes of these meetings were kept96 and exchanges among the members were sometimes reported with such verbatim accuracy that one fancies one can still hear their voices today: during their second meeting, for example, in December 1842, when they were discussing the first article of their new society's proposed bylaws. This had been drafted by a subcommittee chaired by Brynjólfur Pétursson and stated: "We all want to be Icelanders."
Thorlacius: I'd like to see it spelled out what we mean by "Icelanders." Jónas: Well, we members of the society all understand what the word means. How we interpret it is nobody else's business. So there's no need to explain it in the bylaws. Thorlacius said there was a need, however, for the benefit of people who might want to join the society. Konráð: There's an advantage in having bylaws that are as explicit as possible. The members of the other society are Icelanders, too — and we don't want to be them.97 Brynjólfur: As far as I can see, the article is perfectly clear and everybody here understands what it means. Konráð: I propose — here's another example of something that ought to be added to the article — that our Icelandic language be kept as pure as possible. Brynjólfur said he agreed, adding that he had felt the same way himself when the draft of the bylaws was being prepared. Thorlacius: Well, I don't speak pure Icelandic — so I suppose I'm not qualified to be a member!98 Brynjólfur: All the article says is, "We want to be Icelanders." Jónas: I don't think there's any need to add anything to the article. The word "Icelander" implies all these things for us. They say that when O'Connell utters the word "Ireland" in the British Parliament, both the British and the Irish can hear all his passionate conviction in that single word.99 Konráð: Well, I think we're a long way behind the British and Irish! (32Eim89-90)
In the first issue of the revived Fjölnir, Jónas published a large number of poems: sixteen altogether, eight original pieces (including "The Pipit" and "Bjarni Thorarensen") and eight translations and adptations from Goethe, Schiller, and Heine (including "The Maiden's Lament"100 and "The Vastness of the Universe").
Jónas prized the art of translation very highly and devoted a good deal of time, energy and talent to it.101 The lion's share of his translations are from German (since most of his countrymen needed no help reading Danish), and among these translations his renderings of Heine take pride of place. Jónas is a master at turning Heine's generalities into Icelandic specificities, for example the following four lines from Heine's "Sterne mit den goldnen Füßchen" (Neuer Frühling XXXVII), which Jónas translated under the title "Night Stillness" ("Næturkyrrð"):
Horchend stehn die stummen Wälder
Jedes Blatt ein grünes Ohr!
Und der Berg, wie träumend steckt er
Seinen Schattenarm hervor.
Hlustar hinn dimmi
öll eru blöð hans
sefur nú Selfjall
og svartan teygir
of skeiðum fram. (6F40)
The dark depths
of Dalewood hearken,
its leaves are green
the shadow finger
of Shieling Hill
on tranquil plains.
Bärbel Dymke has pointed out that both Jónas's frequent practice of transforming Heine's stanzas into fornyrðislag strophes (on the model of earlier translators of foreign poetry like Benedikt Gröndal the Elder and Jón Þorláksson), as well as his frequent "Icelandicization" of the content of those stanzas, had the effect of naturalizing Heine's work in Iceland (HHi54, 136-7).
In 1843-4 Jónas devoted a good deal of effort to correcting topographical details and place names and reading proof for Björn Gunnlaugsson's great map of Iceland: preparations for publishing it were now well advanced (see 5DCXLIXn). This was time-consuming work, Jónas complained to Steenstrup, because Björn, "for all his skill as a surveyor, has a wonderful talent for overlooking — and failing to make note of — any topographical details" (2E155).
Progress on his own "Description of Iceland" was disappointing, as Jónas confessed to Steenstrup in the same letter:
My work goes slowly. There's an enormous — absolutely overwhelming — amount of material that I am obliged to root around in. And there's the added annoyance of knowing that it was I myself who tied this big stone around my neck. (2E155)
Not only had the Literary Society's questionnaire produced a mountain of data: in addition Jónas felt it necessary to consult all previous written accounts of Iceland.
In midsummer 1843 he left Copenhagen and moved to Sorø, a small town in mid-Sjælland, located next to a peaceful lake (the Sorø Sø) some 75 kilometers southwest of the metropolis.
Here Jónas lived for nine months with Steenstrup and his family. Steenstrup — who regarded his Icelandic colleague as a "brilliant and perspicacious natural scientist" (Ín150) — was at this time a lector at Sorø Academy.102 Jónas and Steenstrup had a number of joint projects to work on, including an account of the sulfur mines in Iceland.
For a time, now, Jónas was freed from financial anxieties. Life in Sorø seems to have been carefree and idyllic, involving both new activities and new interests (as attested by the poem "After the Ball," written in Danish). New acquaintances included two of the most important Danish literary figures of the day, the poets B. S. Ingemann (1789-1862) and Carsten Hauch (1790-1872).103
In September Jónas wrote Páll Melsteð:
I'm living here as contentedly as the yolk in an egg. I'm staying with Steenstrup and we're working together on things Icelandic, planning to put together a book that will have real value. For relaxation I take walks, ride horseback, or drive around the countryside and nearby woods. Sometimes I go rowing on the lake with the ladies, or visit Hauch or Ingemann to enjoy a bit of instructive and entertaining chat. It's enormously gratifying to be invited to visit these men, and cordially welcomed by them at any hour of the day.
Of course I haven't forgotten our Literary Society or the "Description of Iceland." But — with regard to that project — it's no exaggeration to say that I've saddled myself with an enormous burden. Not only is writing the book going to be a daunting task; so is laying the groundwork for it. And worst of all, the Society isn't able to pay me a reasonable wage and I'm not in a position to do the work without remuneration. If I could find some way — or rather, if I could find some other person who would be capable of doing the job, I'd turn it over to him. (2E158)
It did not help his peace of mind that Brynjólfur and Konráð had become teetotallers and were trying to badger him into abstinence,104 nor that the Fjölnir Society was being turned into the flagship of the Icelandic temperance movement. Jónas was torn between loyalty to his virtue-stricken friends and ironic disapproval of their activities; he himself was of the opinion that a moderate use of alcohol made more sense than total abstinence (2E203).105
He was often in good spirits at Sorø, as evidenced (for example) by a poem he wrote Konráð, who had playfully misspelled his name on a package addressed to "Hr. Cand. Philos. Jónash Hallgrihmsson":
Who has defiled my famous name,
flecking it with pollution?
I owe the author of this shame
G will attack him, O will too,
T, and another O as well;
H and E will make him rue,
as will nasty L and L.
Am I upset? Of course I am!
And if these curses don't suffice —
kiss the ass of an old grey ram,
eat my shit and chew my lice!
Hvur hefur garfað heitið mitt,
hraður til slíkra efna?
vort fordjarfað fóstursnitt;
fús skal ég þess hefna.
B og Ö eru bókstafir tveir,
bæti ég L-i þarna við.
V, A, Ð er varla meir,
vil eg U-ið stytti grið;
R-i meður endahnút
á þá stöku bind eg fús;
kysstu rassa, hreddu hrút,
hræktu skít og éttu lús!106
There is a good deal of this sort of thing in Jónas's letters to his old Bessastaðir cronies — and this example will suffice.107
A serious note — or at least a half-serious note, guarded by irony — is frequently struck in the friends' letters to one another. On Good Friday 1844 Konráð glanced back ten years to the heady days when they were all engaged in founding Fjölnir, and wrote Jónas:
Rev.Tómas is in his grave — you are in Sorø — Brynjólfur has heart trouble (and is about to become a sýslumaður). And the sun is not as bright or the weather as warm or the world as beautiful as it was in 1834. For God's sake, Jónas, console me! I have lost the whole world. Give me back the world, Jónas my friend! (BKG70)
Jónas sometimes divested himself altogether of irony and spoke in perfect earnestness. In a letter to Konráð in March 1844 he expressed his deepest and most heartfelt thoughts about his own future. There were plans afoot to close Bessastaðir and open a new and somewhat different kind of school in Reykjavík. Jónas desperately wanted to be the natural science teacher at this new school.
You say there will soon be a gymnasium established at home, and I can stop having to go about in rags. Are you making fun of me? . . .
I would like to become a teacher at a good school in Iceland more than anything else. I could work there for a short or long time, who knows, maybe twenty years, God willing. And who knows how much brighter, by then, Iceland's pitch-dark night might not have become — that damnable high-country fog that disfigures both body and soul!
Didn't we say the country is attractive and beautiful? Didn't you actually say it yourself?108 But who can really appreciate this beauty, unless he is capable of approaching nature with intelligence and understanding? The stirrings of human emotion we felt as youngsters die out, later on, as our bodies age, unless reinforced by knowledge and profound love for the outer integuments of the spirit.
I could teach natural history and natural science (naturhist. and fysik), geology, and as much surveying and mathematics as necessary. I have familiarized myself thoroughly with one of the best schools in Denmark [i.e., Sorø Academy] for more than half a year, now, and have a year or more ahead of me to get to know the schools in Copenhagen. . . .
What is essential is to create the job. Then I will be the natural man to fill it. Please note — among other things — that I am familiar with the whole of Iceland and with a large number of people there. I have many friends in the country and am the only person — at the moment — capable of establishing a natural history collection. (2E198)
While it is true that he had many friends in Iceland, he also had many enemies — and he knew it.
In Sorø, in addition to working on his treatise on Icelandic volcanos, Jónas composed his burlesque "The Queen Goes Visiting" as well as a number of important poems: "Mowing Song," "Valley Song," "I Send Greetings" (the first sonnet written in Icelandic), and perhaps "The Beast." "Mowing Song" is a poem about a typical Icelandic agricultural activity — and about the Man with the Scythe:
All the flowers have fallen,
fairest grasses perish:
life is brief, aborted
by the ripper's stripping.
Haft is humming softly,
hefted firmly, deftly;
iron edge is tireless;
under him, earth thunders.
Totally different in character and mood is "Valley Song," in which Jónas celebrates Öxnadalur (and all the similar valleys in Iceland):
Summer valley, blissful, blest,
brimmed with sunlight now and ever,
slowly sweeping east to west!
Summer valley, gorgeous, blest!
Childhood's idyll, age's rest
after years of long endeavor!
Summer valley, blissful, blest,
brimmed with sunlight now and ever!
Jónas returned to Copenhagen in May, 1844, fully expecting to remain there only briefly and then go back to Sorø to continue his work with Steenstrup. But this plan came to nothing when Steenstrup was invited to accompany Prince Frederik (soon to reign as Frederik VII) on a voyage to Scotland and the Faroes. As far as is known, the two friends never met again.
Street scene in Copenhagen, July 1844, as reported by Jónas in a letter to Konráð (who was in Germany undergoing treatment for eye trouble):109
Gísli [Thorarensen] left me a good while ago and I just got back from a trip outdoors, where I ate some plaice on credit — since G. never wants to lend me any money. (Which is only natural.)
As I came into Studiestræde, a prostitute held her hand out of a window and said: "Sweet sir!"
"Thank you, hello," I said and took her hand.
"You promised to come up to visit me sometime."
"Ein Wort ein Wort," said I, "ein Mann ein Mann."110 (But of course I'm not foolish enough to have made any such promise.)
Konráð tells us that in Copenhagen, during the last year of his life, Jónas "composed more poetry, comparatively speaking, than at any time before" (9F3). Hannes Pétursson calls it Jónas's "most remarkable period as a poet" (Kf212); it was certainly his most productive. To this year belong "Bósi," "Journey's End," "Quatrains," "On New Year's Day (1845)," "Above the Ford," "Hell," "The Solitary," "Spring and Fall," and "Home"; the twelve poems in the cycle By Land and Sea (represented here by ten poems, "Ólafsvík Headland," "Horn Crag," "Drangey," "Kolbeinn's Isle," "Moon Island," "Southlands," "Sheepfold Tarn," "Eagle Mountain Glacier," "The Sog," and "Tómas's Meadow"); the fragment "Öxnadalur"; and translations from Ludwig Feuerbach and Heinrich Heine ("Feuerbach's Nihilism" and "Drudgery"). "Shankbone and Seashell," Jónas's adaptation of H. C. Andersen's "The Sweethearts" ("Kjærestefolkene") also belongs to the last year of his life.
"Ólafsvík Headland," the first of the poems in By Land and Sea, can serve as a specimen of Jónas's work from this period. In this poem he relives a moment from his summer travels of 1841, when he rode the narrow foreshore between Ólafsvík Headland and Breiðafjörður, where Eggert Ólafsson had drowned in 1768:
The glad sun gleamed in the shallows
as we galloped along the sand
under Ólafsvík Headland,
out near the jaws of the land.
Blazing and broad, the fjord
basks there calmly enough:
twelve leagues' travel across it,
two short yards to the bluff.
Ought I to turn and enter
into this black cliffside?
Or sink down beside you, Eggert,
in the sunless depths where you died?
The poem suggests, as do a number of Jónas's other late works, a changing attitude toward nature. More and more, nature is seen as dangerous and even openly hostile to human beings ("Horn Crag" and "Moon Island" are particularly striking examples of this tendency).112 It also suggests, like a number of other late poems by Jónas, a bleak — even morbid — state of mind. Einar Ól. Sveinsson writes: "I think I sense an atmosphere of desolation in and around Jónas's best poems from his last three years: a desolation which gives them a deeper resonance than anything yet written by this great master of language" (Vu283). These late poems are often highly personal, even semi-confessional.
When he had finished making a fair copy of the four poems that he called (collectively) Capes and Islands (Annes og eyjar) — and this may well have been one of the last acts of his literary life — he jotted down a ferskeytla in the margin of the manuscript. It was not a poem of his own, but one that seems to have interested him because of the sentiment it expressed:
Most men hide their secret smart,
sorely though they're aching.
Under easy smiles the heart
oftentimes is breaking.
Margur sundurmolar stinn
mein svo lund ei kvartar;
getur undir glaðri kinn
grátið stundum hjarta.113
Jónas was "very reluctant to display his sorrows and emotions," Hannes Hafstein writes.
His health was poor and he continued to be afflicted by seasonal depression.115 In mid-December he wrote Jón Sigurðsson to apologize for his failure to attend a committee meeting, pleading indisposition.
And furthermore I have been very badly depressed, these days, and did not even want to think about the matter at issue. . . . The winter darkness has always bothered me terribly, ever since that winter I lay ill. But I know from experience that my mood will change for the better after the solstice — and then I will be up for anything. (2E225)
That, at least, is what he prayed in December 1844 as the solstice approached:
Triple God, now guide me!
Give me the strength for living!
Soon the sun will mount higher,
sending its endless blessing.
Bright eye of God, shine gladly;
glide from your winter hiding;
comfort each of your creatures,
king of the flaring chariot!
Eilífur guð mig ali
einn og þrennur dag þenna!
lifa vil eg, svo ofar
enn eg líti sól renna.
Hvað er glatt sem hið góða
guðsauga? kemur úr suðri
harri hárrar kerru,
hjarðar líkn og jarðar.116
More and more he seems to have suspected that the "Description of Iceland," at least in the form originally proposed, was a task beyond his powers — perhaps beyond the powers of any single human being. Travelling around Iceland had been exhilirating and deeply satisfying. So was recalling places and incidents from those travels in verse. But collating and sifting through mounds of data was a chore, and an intolerable chore when he was depressed. In February 1844 he had written Brynjólfur from Sorø, only half joking:
His initial enthusiasm had flagged and the project was becoming mere drudgery: a Grettistak at which he strained and strained but which it became harder and harder to budge. Hannes Hafstein wrote, no doubt drawing on the memories of Konráð Gíslason:
The winter deepened. He was struggling with the "Description of Iceland" but making only slow progress. He would start working on one chapter, then another, abandoning them in midstream and starting over again somewhere else. It is clear from this that he was getting sick and tired of being obliged to work in this fashion and forced to read a multitude of books on a single narrow subject. His mind started straying to other things. (BXXXVII-XXXVIII)
The "other things" included bittersweet memories of the past, painful religious speculation, and agonizing premonitions of approaching death. "More and more," Hannes Hafstein wrote,
his spirit began to turn in upon itself. Ancient sorrows revived and depression deepened around him. The memory of forgotten love affairs from his school days revived. . . . He felt totally isolated. . . . It seemed to him that life was unbearable. (BXXXVIII)
Gloomy religious speculation contributed to his depressed state of mind. Jónas never ceased to believe in God, however he may have come to define that term; Konráð assured Björn M. Ólsen in 1890 that "Jónas was no atheist [guðníðingur], as some people suppose" (BKG294),118 and this is borne out by a late poem like "Christmas Song":
Christmas! bright as days gone by!
Though brazen men have routed
highest God from His own sky
I have a brace of reasons why
the blessèd truth cannot be truly doubted.
Jólum mínum uni ég en,
og þótt stolið hafi
hæstum guði heimskir menn
hef eg til þess rökin tvenn
að á sælum sanni er enginn vafi.119
On the other hand Jónas appears, at least in certain moods,120 to have lost all his early faith in God as a loving father who watches over individual creatures and takes an interest in their suffering and death.121 And it seems extremely likely that he had lost all belief in any sort of individual consciousness or personality beyond the grave,122 bitter as it may have been for one who valued friendship so highly — and had seen so many friends and relatives die at an early age — to think that he might never journey "to the bright world of meetings" ("fundanna skært í ljós") and see them again. Jónas seems to have reached the conclusion that living one's life on earth with energy and authenticity is the best that one can hope for (see "On New Year's Day " and "Above the Ford").
"Give what you get!" they urge 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.
In memorial poetry written by Jónas after spring 1842, Christian consolation ceases to play any role.123 He made a very moving translation of a poem about metempsychosis by the Danish writer P. M. Möller, however, and toward the end of his life he was reading and translating — apparently with approval — passages from a poem by the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, a poem attacking the Christian belief in immortality ("Feuerbach's Nihilism"):
O mighty God!
O monstrous desolation!
Our end is Nothingness,
O my blithe soul,
this burden of truth —
bitter as it seems.
At about the same time, he turned some sardonic verses by Heine into a statement of universal futility and despair ("Drudgery"):
strains at his rock,
the Danaids' jar
and earth whirls herself
out of light
and into darkness.
Perhaps this is how Jónas felt — in his blackest moments — about the "Description of Iceland."
A late poem like "Earth," finally, suggests his poignant grasping at life in the face of what he sensed to be approaching death:
Earth, you endlessly
offer men pleasure,
filling field and sea
full beyond measure.
It hurts to see you sink from under me.
In my infancy
I came out of you, creeping;
broken, I soon shall be
back in your keeping.
It hurts to see you sink from under me.
Ó þú jörð, sem er
blessuð jörð sem ber
sárt er að þú sekkur undir mér.
Hef eg mig frá þér hér
og hníg til þín aftur,
mold sem mannsins er
sárt er að þú sekkur undir mér.124
The combination of heroism and desperation in Jónas's late works is very moving.
Spring seems to have brought some remission of his depression, as he expected. There are signs of buoyancy and returning energy, even of concentrated activity.125 His popularity among fellow Icelanders in Copenhagen, and the trust they placed in him, is shown by the fact that he had been elected to serve on all three committees formed by the General Assembly of Icelanders (Almennir fundir Íslendinga)126 to prepare petitions to the restored Alþing. Jónas was particularly active on the education committee, which wanted to see a national school (þjóðskóli) created — and even proposed that a university be established.127 There can be little doubt that Jónas played a major role in drafting the committee's petition, which stated:
The more general that education becomes among all classes of men, the closer we will be to realizing the chief goal of human society, which is to ensure that every individual person attains as much fulfillment and happiness as possible — this being something to which all people have, from the beginning, an equal right. (51TMm27)
In mid-April Jónas moved to new rooms on the third floor of Sankt Peders Stræde 140.
In his last surviving business letter, written on 19 April to the Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society, he says optimistically — or perhaps only resolutely — that he expects to finish his part of the "Description of Iceland" within a year (2E265).128
I have made a certain amount of progress on my portion of the "Description of Iceland," though not as much as I wished. I have had to spend much more time on preliminary research in various scientific fields than on the actual compilation of the work. I intend to see that it is as carefully done as possible. . . .
I plan to spend one more year on this project. I cannot devote any more time to it. I know that a good deal will still be wanting at the end of that period, and I ask you in advance to excuse me. (2E265)
Jónas seems very determined, here, to rid himself — as soon as he can — of what he had come to regard as a nightmare burden. Two days later, in his last letter to a close friend, he wrote Þórður Jónasson:
At last I'm feeling pretty good, as far as health is concerned — God be praised! Everything wrong with me seems to be clearing up, except for a touch of hypochondria — bringsmalaskotta — whatever you want to call it, the devil that plagues so many of us Icelanders. I'm gorgeously fat — a delightful creature! But I'm not dressed as well — or as elegantly — as I deserve to be. (2E227)
The eighth issue of Fjölnir contained nine poems by Jónas, among them "Mount Broadshield" and "Journey's End." It was in print by 6 May (see BPB77). Brynjólfur Pétursson wrote his brother Jón that the poems were "pure gold, this time."
But what use is that? No one derives any benefit from it except maybe one man per sýsla. No one wants to write anything for Fjölnir any more, so this issue will probably be the last. And the reason they don't want to write is they feel it's a perfect waste of time — since nobody reads it. Well, no point in saying anything more about that! (BPB77)
In his letter to Þórður Jónasson, Jónas mentioned his poems in this issue of Fjölnir: "There aren't many of them and they aren't very important. I would always be a happy man if I could write better poetry" (2E227). On 19 May, at a meeting of the General Assembly of Icelanders, he spoke once again — as so often before — in favor of reestablishing the Alþing at Þingvellir (BPÆ95).
In the night between 20 and 21 May, returning home to his new quarters in Sankt Peders Stræde, Jónas lost his footing on the stairs — either because he was not yet familiar with the staircase (which was steep and fairly narrow, as is common in old houses in central Copenhagen), or because he had been drinking, or both129 — and broke his right leg very badly above the ankle. "Even so," Konráð tells us,
he managed to get to his feet and make it up to his room, where he lay down fully clothed and waited for the night to pass. When they came to him in the morning and asked why he hadn't called for help, he said he had seen no point in disturbing people in the middle of the night when he knew he wasn't going to live anyway. (9F3-4)
He was taken to Royal Frederik's Hospital.
When he arrived there and was put to bed, the leg was examined. The bones were jutting out through the flesh. While this injury was being attended to and the leg bound up, he lay perfectly still reading a book and did not even wince.
He lay there four days, talking as brilliantly as ever and looking the picture of health. But on the evening of the fourth day, when the head doctor visited the ward, he said to his assistants after leaving Jónas's bed, "Knives in the morning, gentlemen. That leg is going to have to come off." He had seen that the leg was gangrenous. What he hadn't seen was how quickly the gangrene would spread through the whole body.
Jónas asked that a light be left burning by his bed. He stayed awake all night, reading Jacob Faithful — a novel by an Englishman named Marryat — until late the next morning. Then he asked for some tea and drank it. Suddenly he gave a great shudder. And he was gone. (9F4)130
The date was 26 May 1845, and Jónas was in the middle of his thirty-eighth year.
"As I end this letter," Konráð wrote his father,
my thoughts are in absolute chaos. My beloved friend Jónas Hallgrímsson has just died and was buried today. He broke his leg last week (today is Saturday), dying on Monday of gangrene that developed in the foot. I don't hold onto my friends for very long! I miss them both — Jónas and Reverend Tómas — more than I can possibly say. (BKG136)
Jónas's funeral and burial took place on 31 May "in good weather and bright sunshine," according to Konráð.131 The Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society treated their late employee to an elaborate send-off costing 27 rixdollars, 5 marks, 6 shillings (51TMm32).
All the Icelanders in Copenhagen who had any connection with him were present and helped carry his coffin from the hearse to the grave, saddened by his fate and by the tremendous loss that had befallen his fatherland. Those who knew him best — and best knew his true worth — grieved the most.132 (9F4)
At the request of Finnur Magnússon, who was president of the Copenhagen Division of the Literary Society, Brynjólfur and Konráð collected and sorted through the "documents, letters, and books" in their dead friend's possession (20SkíVIII). They turned all materials pertaining to the "Description of Iceland" over to Finnur, who enumerated them the following April in his report to the annual general meeting of the society, and then said:
The items just mentioned demonstrate clearly, in my opinion, that the late Jónas Hallgrímsson, since his return to Copenhagen, richly deserved the salary our society was paying him for his work on its behalf, even though the ill health and nervous illness with which he had to struggle during the last years of his life may have hindered and frustrated his efforts to complete that complex project as rapidly as possible. (20SkíXI)
Konráð Gíslason's memorial words about his friend, printed in the final issue of Fjölnir in 1847, may be taken as representing the feelings of all Jónas's friends and associates about his early and tragic death:
His surviving work will keep his memory alive in Iceland for a long time to come, testifying to his powers far better than we are able to do. And yet — excellent as much of this work is — we venture to assert that most of it does not even begin to compare with what he was really capable of. And it is totally incapable of suggesting what he was like as a person.
It was true of him, as of many another Icelander, that promise was one thing — achievement another. And yet it is important to remember that men like him experience many moments of ecstasy of which the ordinary run of mortals know nothing. (9F4-5)
Equally moving, in a different way, is the memorial poem by Benedikt Gröndal published in the same issue of Fjölnir. Benedikt compares Jónas and the brief astonishing blaze of his genius to the northern lights:
High overhead their torches kindle,
holding a dance of radiant bliss.
Swiftly, alas! they dim and dwindle,
dying away in the cold abyss.
Where do they come from? Where do they go?
We here on earth will never know.
Ljómar um stund á himni háum
hverfula blysið norðurheims,
lítur til vor frá brautum bláum
og burtu flýr í dimmu geims.
Hvaðan það kom og hvert það leið,
hylst oss um jarðar daga skeið. (9F8)
95 A good idea of what Jónas looked like (or would have looked like in time if he had lived) is provided by a photograph of his sister Rannveig in her old age. Their facial structures were very similar. See JHF, the third image between pp. 16 and 17.
97 Konráð is referring to the "rival" society of Icelanders in Copenhagen, which had been established in 1841 by Jón Sigurðsson and published the journal Ný félagsrit (on this society and its origins see KG40 sq. and BPÆ75-7). The two groups disagreed about the character and siting of the restored Alþing. Jónas and his Fjölnir colleagues, dazzled by an image of Iceland's past glory, wanted to reestablish the Alþing in a form as close as possible to its original form under the old Icelandic commonwealth: a sort of annual town meeting held (for historico-sentimental reasons) at Þingvellir. "I think I know," Jónas wrote Páll Melsteð's father in 1841, "that you are fully able to appreciate the 'spiritual power' possessed by Þingvellir more than by any other place in the country" (2E67).
Jón Sigurðsson, on the other hand, a very pragmatic, realistic, and forward-looking statesman — a practitioner of Realpolitik in the best sense — understood that what the future required was a representative assembly meeting in Reykjavík. "Although thought and emotion may speak in favor of Þingvellir," he wrote, "it is my opinion that both reason and prudence argue for Reykjavík" (BPÆ169). Everything was coming to be more and more centralized there, and Bishop Steingrímur Jónsson asked reasonably enough: "why should a place out in the country, remote and 'cultureless' (if I may call it that), serve as the most suitable assembly-site for the nation, instead of the place where it has now centralized its intelligentsia, its records, and its administrative offices?" (GR28). In the end, when the Reykjavík site was a fait accompli, even Jónas seems to have grudgingly accepted it. In one of his very latest poems, "A Guidelight for Mr. Jón Sigurðsson, Member of the Alþing" (1E48-50), he urges Jón — with perhaps just a residual touch of bitterness — to at least pause at Þingvellir and contemplate its historical lessons before proceeding to the meeting of the Alþing in Reykjavík.
On the disagreement among Icelanders about the Alþing, see the chapter "Skoðanaskipti um alþing," EAþ78-90.
98 Skúli Thorlacius (1806-1870) had a Danish mother and half-Danish father and left Iceland at an early age.
100 The poem published in Fjölnir is a revised version of a poem contained in the prose piece "Gathering Highland Moss" (which was itself not published until after Jónas's death).
101 On the one hand he found translation a challenging way of extending and developing his own poetic skills, on the other hand a way of providing his countrymen with what he regarded as superior poetic models. Sometimes, in his translations, he strove to remain faithful to an original in both form, content, and tone (see, for example, his translation of Schiller's "Des Mädchens Klage"); sometimes he made such radical changes in form, content, and/or tone, that the result must be regarded as an "adaptation" or "imitation," not a translation (see "Spring and Fall"). The importance Jónas attached to his activities as a translator emerges clearly in an exchange recorded in the minutes of the Fjölnir Society for 4 February 1843, when Jónas and his associates were discussing the sixth issue of Fjölnir:
Jónas said he had both original poems and translations to offer but had not brought any of the original poems with him tonight, only some translations from Schiller. . . . Brynjólfur Pétursson expressed his disappointment that Jónas was not submitting the original poems first, since people would have preferred to have them, if there were a sufficient number of them. Jónas said it was his decision what to submit first, and people could either take it or leave it. Brynjólfur said he had only brought the matter up in case someone was present who might cast a vote against the translations in the hope of getting original poems instead. This prompted Jónas to reply, "Then that's the way it will have to be." (32Eim269)
102 Steenstrup later (1846) became Reinhardt's successor as Professor of Zoology at Copenhagen University and went on to make a name as one of Denmark's most distinguished scientists.
103 Ingemann is much the better known figure. But Jónas found Hauch equally interesting: like Jónas himself, he was both "poet and natural scientist and wrote (among other things) about the natural sciences and philosophy, and also about the interface between the natural sciences and aesthetics. After his days in Sorø, Hauch became Profesor of Aesthetics at Copenhagen University" (50TMm342-3).
104 Brynjólfur wrote in January 1844:
There's no way you could make me happier than by telling me you hadn't tasted liquor since we last met — except by telling me you never intend to taste it again. Which is what I have vowed myself. Aren't you convinced that abstinence societies are useful — indeed essential — for the improvement of mankind? And if you are convinced — and yet aren't willing to join such a society — is it out of pure pride, or do you have some other reason? Aren't you willing to close ranks with us Icelanders? Oh, what rejoicing there would be in Israel! (BPB41)
See also Konráð's letter of 6 March (BKG59).
106 The word encoded in the original is BÖLVAÐUR ("[YOU BE] DAMNED"). Date: Summer 1843-April 1844. Form: Three stanzas; the first is a ferskeytla (four alternating four- and three-stress lines rhyming aBaB); the two that follow are gagaraljóð (four four-stress lines rhyming abab). All three have the alliteration pattern 22. Manuscript: KG 31 a (no facsimile available). First published: 1989 (2E172) under the title "Til ónefnds viðtaka."
107 It is worth citing here Jón Sigurðsson's defense of his decision not to exclude poems of this character from his edition of Jón Þorláksson's collected works:
Many people will no doubt think it inappropriate that inferior or obscene poems should be included, feeling that they dishonor the poet's memory. They are included here for the reason that I — for my part — believe it is the most proper procedure to include everything composed by a major poet. Readers can simply ignore what strikes them as too gross to recite. And besides, what is gross should not be excluded unless what is poor-quality or frivolous is excluded too, and here the "middle way" would be so narrow and so hard to find that I don't trust myself to do so without disaster. And anyway, these poems are no grosser than a lot of what has been printed elsewhere in the world by distinguished poets like Horace, Ovid, Pope, and others. (2ÍlVI)
109 Konráð was at Kreischa near Dresden. He was worried about Jónas's increasing tendency to overweight and wrote Brynjólfur on 29 July: "Jónas would benefit from hydropathy [Vandkur, i.e, a water cure]. There's a merchant from Dresden leaving here tomorrow, he's been here 4 weeks and has been cured both of his excess fat and his heart disease" (BKG99).
111 There is an interesting discussion of the sex life of unmarried Icelanders in Copenhagen (including Jónas and his friends Brynjólfur and Konráð) in 50TMm346-9. The author discusses such subjects as their resort to prostitutes and their fear of contracting diseases from them. In this connection it is worth noting that the subject of the second stanza of Jónas's late poem "Thrift" ("Sparnaður") may well be masturbation.
112 See, on this, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, ". . .það sem menn kalla Geni," 46TMm416-30, esp. 424-9. It is important to note, however, that "nature red in tooth and claw" had put in a striking appearance in Jónas's work as early as "Plover Song" (1836?) and that the "Lay of Hulda" takes very explicit account of what Robert Louis Stevenson once called "the destructive element in the universe." It is probably not far-fetched to suppose that the shocking circumstances of his father's death, which occurred suddenly and unexpectedly in idyllic natural surroundings, underlie — at least on its affective side — Jónas's ambivalent attitude toward nature.
Critics have called attention to the difference between the world of nature in Jónas, usually bright and sunlit, and its counterpart in Heine, often twilit, shadowy, misty, dreamlike — an ideal setting for various kinds of psychological melodrama (see Kristján Árnason, "Sæunn hafkona," 51TMm39). But it is precisely in the bright midday world that genuine disaster suddenly and inexplicably occurs, as Jónas had good reason to know.
114 The quotations are from Jónas's poem "Skipper's Songs."
115 "Depression is my worst enemy," he confided to Brynjólfur in April 1844; "it would be perfectly happy to do me in" (2E206). Jónas's phsyical and psychological difficulties were no secret to his friends and acquaintances in Copenhagen. After his death Finnur Magnússon referred to the "poor health and nervous illness [heilsuleysi og eins konar sinnisveiki] with which he had to struggle during the last years of his life" (5DCLXXXII).
116 Date: 22 December 1844. Form: A single strophe of a modified type of draughent (see Bbk37-41). Manuscript: ÍB 13 fol. (facsimile KJH224), where it is entitled "Sólhvörf (22. Dec. 1844)." First published: 1847 (A220).
117 Evidently some grandiose project that never came to anything. Halldór Kröyer (1808-1873) had been a fellow-student at Bessastaðir. Already in school he showed signs of eccentricity. He lived in Copenhagen 1836-45, accomplishing nothing, and in the summer of the latter year returned to Iceland completely insane.
118 Interesting in this connection is a somewhat ambivalent passage in a letter to Páll Melsteð from Rev. Ólafur Indriðason (1796-1861), a Fjölnir supporter who met Jónas in 1842 during his travels in the east of Iceland:
In truth he is a good and gentle soul, though some people — sometimes — find him a little hard to take. Furthermore, judging from the poems by him that I have read, it is not possible to draw any other conclusion than that he is a religious person, yes, that he has deep and pure devotional feelings. It cannot easily be shown — on the evidence of the poems — that these feelings are an imposture. (4E46-7)
119 Date: Christmas 1844. Form: A single stanza consisting of one four-stress + one three-stress + two four stress + one five-stress lines, rhyming aBaaB and with the alliteration pattern 221. Manuscript: ÍB 13 fol., where it has the title "Jólavísa" (facsimile KJH224). First published: l847 (A220).
120 Like many human beings, Jónas was subject to mood-swings that profoundly altered his view of the world, though the evidence does not allow us to draw firm correlations between these mood-swings on the one hand and oscillations of faith and doubt on the other. It is interesting to note the variability evident in his friend Konráð, who could write on one occasion (1846): "My belief in both God and immortality has always been weak" (BKG145) and on another (1884): "God be praised! It seems to me that the most important evidence suggests there must be a life after this one, whatever is claimed by the atheists — of whom there are plenty nowadays" (BKG217).
121 A very different view of the evidence is taken by Matthías Johannesen in his book Um Jónas (Reykjavík: Bókmenntafélagið Hringskuggar, 1993). Central portions of this book appear to have been written in order to combat the view that Jónas was inclined to pantheism, and to argue that his orthodox (Lutheran) Christian faith — including belief in a personal God, the immortality of the soul, etc. — remained unshaken all his life.
The "Father and Friend of all that lives" was a personal God to whom it was possible to turn, who could be directly praised and worshipped. He is at once Father and Father-image: Creator and Ruler. But above all else he is Friend, not any impersonal natural force or blind power. (P. 79; see also p. 69)
But the interpretation of Jónas as a lifelong orthodox Lutheran fails to allow him any space for spiritual questioning, or to fully acknowledge his commitment to science and the search for truth. It is also forced (see pp. 63-4) to dismiss certain of his poems (e.g., the early "Physica Necessitas" and the late "Feuerbach's Nihilism") as mere aesthetic exercises, not windows opening on an interior landscape of religious query.
Was Jónas Hallgrímsson a poet of settled faith and religious certainty? Was he a poet of anguished doubt and constant spiritual questioning? It is possible (indeed it is likely) that those who hold contrary views on this subject are looking in opposite directions around curved psychological space at the same star.
122 Jónas's doubts on this score are perhaps illuminated by a moving letter from one of his closest friends (Konráð Gíslason) to their Bessastaðir schoolmate Rev. Stefán Þorvaldsson (1808-1888). In this letter Konráð, who — in an autobiographical fragment intended for public consumption — assures us solemnly that his Christian views have never been shaken despite his admiration for Heinrich Heine (KG6), writes agonizingly about his real spiritual life, which is harrowed by angst:
If God existed — eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, all-merciful, totally benign and just — then everything would be fine, and nothing that happens in life would be unbearable. For there would be another life after this one. And it would be appropriate to use phrases like "in this world and the next." And friends would meet again "on the great day of human rejoicing."
But that everything — including everything that is best and dearest in the world — should simply be extinguished, going out like a flame and turning to nothing — oh, that is heavier to bear than any human tongue can express. Sometimes it seems to me that it just isn't conceivable! But then that lightning flash of faith vanishes away again, like any other will-o'-the-wisp, though I search for God every day from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep. How can I find him? I perceive nothing but darkness in my soul and coldness in the world. But if God exists, he is neither darkness nor coldness. Alas! quantum mortalia pectora caecae noctis habent!
I don't think I'm a suspicious person, at least not unduly so. But I have never really been able to trust anyone who claims he believes in God or another life. How can anyone believe in God unless he sees God in spirit? If a man's eyes aren't blind, if they are capable of seeing anything at all, then they see the sun. Similarly the soul (since it, too, can see things) ought to be able to see her sun: God. Why can't I see God? Why can't I say with any conviction:
Wenn ich zu Dir im Geiste trete,
Kann ich Dich, Gott, im Geiste schau'n.
Blessed are they who have faith — or at least think they have faith! What Ovid says about Jason and himself is often on my mind:
Illum tutata est cum Pallide regia Juno.
Defendere meum numina nulla caput.
Yet I cannot give up my quest for what is so ultimately important, no, not as long as I have any intelligence or strength left! And if God does exist — omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good — I am confident that one day he will send me help. (BKG197-8).
123 The only exception to this is the first of Jónas's two memorial verses on Maren Havsteen (1E258), which are among the last things he wrote. But since the verse in question is put in the mouth of Maren's son Pétur, and the poem was clearly a commissioned piece (see 4E229), its religious statements are likely to be pro forma, merely a function of the genre.
124 Date: 1844-5 (see KJH312-3). Form: Two stanzas of five lines each (lines 1 and 3 with three stresses, 2 and 4 with 2 stresses, 5 with five stresses), and with the alliteration pattern 221. The poem as a whole rhymes aBaBa aCaCa. Manuscript: KG 31 a II, a pencilled draft, not easily legible, and with no title (facsimile KJH186). First published: Partially in 1847 (A254) and 1913 (C255-6) under the title "Brot" ("A Fragment"), completely in 1929 (1D140-1) under the title "Ó, þú jörð —" ("Oh, you earth —").
126 This group was active between October 1843 and January 1846. It was "the common meeting-ground of all the Icelanders in Copenhagen, both those who published Fjölnir and those who allied themselves with Jón Sigurðsson and helped produce Ný félagsrit" (51TMm26). See further BPÆ94-5.
127 This was 66 years before the University of Iceland became an actual fact (in 1911).
128 This judgment was undoubtedly too sanguine. But if one studies the list of materials pertaining to the "Description of Iceland" that were either found in Jónas's rooms after his death, or had been left in Sorø with Steenstrup (and were subsequently turned over by the latter to the Literary Society) (see 20SkíVIII-IX), one perceives that Jónas had not only, as he claimed, nearly completed his preliminary research, but that in the materials just mentioned — plus (1) his account of Icelandic parishes (already completed), (2) the sýsla and parish descriptions (the lion's share of which had already arrived in Copenhagen), (3) the weather records from all over Iceland, and (4) the archaeological reports already sent to Finnur and the Royal Nordic Text Society — the greater part of the raw data needed to compile the "Description" was already in hand. Furthermore the parts of the work that had actually been completed by the time of his death (seventy-five pages in a modern printed edition [3E127-201]) show very clearly how he intended to proceed. Given the extreme rapidity with which he was able to work when he was in good spirits, it does not seem wildly improbable that — even allowing for bouts of depression (and pace Þorvaldur Thoroddsen [4LÍ19]) — he would have been able to complete the task in two to five years. In the event, the entire project collapsed after Jónas's death, since there was no one with the expertise or energy to carry it forward. See further 4LÍ17-20.
129 Rumor has it that he had been drinking that evening at Hviid's Vinstue ("Hvítur"), a favorite haunt of Icelanders in Copenhagen, still in business today at the same site on a corner of Kongens Nytorv.
A young Icelandic medical student at the hospital, Helgi Sigurðsson (1815-1888), made two sketches of Jónas's face as he lay dead (these are reproduced 1E4 and 4E13; the originals are in the National Gallery of Art in Reykjavík). One of these drawings served as the basis of the portrait of Jónas that was printed as the frontispiece of the second edition of his poems in 1883 (B) and has been — ever since — the most familiar representation of him (see 5DCLXXX, CLXXXIIIn).
The November after his death, Jónas's Fjölnir colleagues decided to ask Helgi to polish this sketch; they hoped to use it as the basis of a lithograph in the last issue of Fjölnir (33Eim189). In January 1846 Gísli Thorarensen was deputed to contact the artist Déssington about producing a portrait from the sketch (ibid.). A year later Brynjólfur and Konráð were considering using Helgi's image as the frontispiece in their collected edition of Jónas's poems (A), if they decided it was suitable; because of this, the plan to publish it in Fjölnir was dropped (33Eim191-2). Ultimately it was not used in the edition, either.
Benedikt Gröndal, who was no admirer of Helgi's draughtmanship, thought the sketch of Jónas was among his better efforts.
When the portrait of Jónas based on Helgi's sketch was finally published in 1883, the editorial committee of B felt called upon to apologize for it:
The committee anticipates that people are not going to be terribly pleased with this portrait, but since there was no chance of a better one, we had to use what was available. (BVI)
132 Three days after the funeral Japetus Steenstrup wrote Finnur Magnússon:
Many things about [Jónas's] earlier, less admirable way of life diminished him in my regard. But there was always much about him that I valued highly, and I always felt deeply attached to him. His death grieves me on more than one account. Perhaps, as regards his role in producing the "Description of Iceland," he can be replaced. As regards my own geological work, however, he is always going to be sorely missed. (4E47)
Many years afterward, in his final lectures at Copenhagen University, delivered when he had acquired the reputation of being one of the greatest scientists in Denmark, the aged Steenstrup referred to Jónas several times, calling him "the distinguished Icelandic poet and brilliant and perspicacious natural scientist" ("den berömte islandske Digter, og den skarpsindige, geniale Naturforsker Jónas Hallgrímsson") (Ín150).