16. Bjarni Thorarensen (Bjarni Thorarensen)

Portrait of Bjarni Thorarensen, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Bjarni Thorarensen.

Bjarni Thorarensen

Bjarni Thorarensen

Suddenly summer is over,
the swans are all leaving —
white as the snow, they are winging
their way to the sunlands.
Singing is echoed by silence
in sad mountain valleys.
Birds of ill-omen sit brooding
above our house gables.

Suddenly God turns your good friends'
gladness to sorrow,
faithful defender of Iceland
and friend of its people!
Once you sat merry among us,
admired and loquacious;
sorrow now hosts in our houses
and haunts all our roadways.

Only one comfort: the ugly
owls cannot triumph,
jeering an age-stricken eagle
whose eyes must watch ravens
holding a caucus on hummocks —
not hawks on the cliff-tops!
Well, you have winged to the sunlands —
the world has grown darker.

Seeing the sudden departure
of souls that we cherish,
let us be blithe and light-hearted
and look toward our homeland!
Armies in heaven sing anthems
each time their general
summons from this world's ensnarements
a soul that he treasures.

Men here below will remember
how many you gladdened,
gentle and kind, energetic,
genius in verses!
God give you gladness yourself, now,
in gatherings of spirits;
Bjarni, goodbye! The Lord keep you,
who brought us salvation.

Skjótt hefir sól brugðið sumri,
því séð hef eg fljúga
fannhvíta svaninn úr sveitum
til sóllanda fegri;
sofinn er nú söngurinn ljúfi
í svölum fjalldölum,
grátþögull harmafugl hnípir
á húsgafli hvurjum.

Skjótt hefir guð brugðið gleði
góðvina þinna,
ástmögur Íslands hinn trausti
og ættjarðarblóminn!
Áður sat ítur með glöðum
og orðum vel skipti,
nú reikar harmur í húsum
og hryggð á þjóðbrautum.

Hlægir mig eitt það að áttu
því uglur ei fagna,
ellisár örninn að sæti
og á skyldi horfa
hrafnaþing kolsvart í holti
fyrir haukþing á bergi;
floginn ertu sæll til sóla
þá sortnar hið neðra.

Glaðir skulum allir að öllu
til átthaga vorra
horfa, þá héðan sá hverfur
oss hjarta stóð nærri;
veit eg þá heimtir sér hetju
úr harki veraldar
foringinn tignar, því fagna
fylkingar himna.

Kættir þú margan að mörgu —
svo minnst verður lengi —
þýðmennið, þrekmennið glaða
og þjóðskáldið góða!
Gleðji nú guð þig á hæðum
að góðfundum anda,
friði þig frelsarinn lýða.
Far nú vel, Bjarni!

Date:28/29 August 1841.
Form: Five eight-line strophes in which each pair of lines resembles a single line of dactyllic hexameter, broken in two by a fixed caesura and with its last three feet replaced by an adonic. The alliteration pattern is 2222. Many of the lines in Jónas's original contain an internal rhyme or consonance; these follow no regular pattern.
Manuscript:Three manuscripts survive, a draft in pencil in Jónas's notebook from the summer of 1841 (Þjms. 12172) (facsimile KJH90-1; image) and two fair copies made later that fall (Lbs. 3402 4to [facsimile KJH92-4; image] and Ny kgl. saml. 2004 fol. II [facsimile KJH95-7; image]). A copy of the third strophe was also contained in Jónas's letter to Steenstrup of 5 November 1841 (see below), which cannot now be found (see 4E299).
First published:1843 (6F20-1; image) under the title "♰ Bjarni Thórarensen."

Commentary:        Bjarni Vigfússon Thorarensen (b. 1786), the Deputy Governor of northern and eastern Iceland, died unexpectedly of a stroke at his residence at Möðruvellir in Hörgárdalur in the night between 24 and 25 August 1841. Along with Jón Þorláksson, he was one of the two most important poets of the generation before Jónas. Jónas had admired Bjarni's work immensely, and studied it carefully, during his school years at Bessastaðir, and his own earliest poetry is deeply influenced by it. Bjarni was a loyal ally of the Fjölnismenn, supporting them in their effort to re-establish the Alþing at Þingvellir. He and Jónas came to know each other fairly well and had great respect for each other's work (see 2BTL328-9).

"Once you sat merry among us," Jónas addresses Bjarni, "admired and loquacious":

Men here below will remember
how many you gladdened.

A pleasant light is thrown on these words by Benedikt Gröndal's report that

Bjarni was a great one for partying. . . . After becoming Deputy Governor he was often obliged to attend weddings up there in the north. It was his habit to wear his uniform during the ceremony and the first part of the banquet. Then he would disappear, coming back in ordinary formal dress and saying: "The Deputy Governor asked me to bid you all goodnight" — after which he would join in the revelry like everyone else. (4BGR293)

In the single strophe of fornyrðislag with which this poem once began, and which Jónas later cancelled, he tells us that Bjarni had promised to write an elegy on him, if Jónas should die first, which — given Jónas's chronic ill-health — may well have seemed likely to both men:

You promised to write
a poem in my honor,
should I gain the harbor
of heaven before you. (4E160)

Hence the suddenness of Bjarni's death, only 55 years old, came as a terrible shock. Jónas received the news on 28 or 29 August when he was travelling in Húnavatnssýsla and reached Möðruvellir in time to attend Bjarni's funeral on 4 September (and perhaps to read this poem at it). "I had promised Deputy Governor Bjarni to visit him if I got as far as Möðruvellir," he wrote Finnur Magnússon, "and I arrived just in time to see him lowered into his grave" (2E100).

Color photo of grave, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Bjarni Thorarensen's grave.

In a letter to Japetus Steenstrup written later that same year (5 November), Jónas described the poem's origin and reception:

Bad luck continues to dog me. On 28 August, for instance, on the road to Reykir in Húnavatnssýsla, I ran into a courier who told me of the sudden death of Bjarni Thorarensen the Deputy Governor. Later that same day, on horseback, I composed a poem, and not a bad one. But people are persecuting me on account of it, saying I have insulted "future generations" — the idiots!

Here is what happened. Bjarni Thorarensen fought for establishing the new Alþing at Þingvellir, but the majority voted in favor of Reykjavík and their opinion prevailed. Now what I wrote was: "I'm glad the owls won't make fun of the eagle, who otherwise might have had to sit — in his painful old age — watching a coal-black 'parliament of ravens' perched on humps of lava, instead of a parliament of hawks on the cliffs, etc." (You know what a "parliament of ravens" is like, don't you, my friend!). . . .

This is what they're making such a big fuss about. And I know all too well that our wise and mighty government is putting it in the scales, to weigh against my modest merits. But enough of this. (2E117)

Appropriately enough, Jónas's elegy on Bjarni is composed in a form that Bjarni seems to have invented and used in three of his own elegies. Only the year before, in 1840, he had used it in an elegy on Sveinn Pálsson which is five strophes long, like Jónas's poem, and shows a number of similarities in content as well as diction. Bjarni also used it in a love poem, "Kiss me again" ("Kysstu mig aftur"), published in Fjölnir in 1837, which Jónas cited — and the form of which he imitated — in a poem of his own written probably in 1843. Had Bjarni lived to write an elegy on Jónas, as he had promised, he would probably have employed this form. So it is appropriate — and poignant and ironic too — that Jónas should have used it instead to commemorate Bjarni.

The bird imagery introduced in Jónas's first strophe is sustained throughout the poem and the comparison between souls soaring to heaven and birds going south for the winter is worked out consistently and effectively. Bjarni is called an eagle because he was a poet. Owls are birds that hate light, whether literal or metaphorical. The "birds of ill omen" who "sit brooding above our house gables" are ravens as prophets and messengers of death (see 1Íþs616). "Ravens' councils" (hrafnaþing) are notorious for being accompanied by "great racket and screeching" (see 1Íþs614 and 4Íþs8). Bishop Steingrímur Jónsson thought that this stanza, "where owls, eagles, ravens, and hawks are all described," was the most successful part of Jónas's poem (GR29).

Bjarni Þorsteinsson provides a traditional tune to which the poem can be sung (Íþl566).

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

Jonas' MS flourish for the end of a poem For technical assistance:
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