11. The Lay of Hulda (Hulduljóð)

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

Waterfall near the farm Eyvindarmúli.

The Lay of Hulda


No poet I. Yet here is Hulda calling,
hailing me gently, urging me to sing,
to share my song with shadows gently falling
and shepherds driving flocks from pasturing,
while tumbled waters wash the hills' foundations
and wake the elves to nighttime occupations.

My heart is sad. The evening vapors eddy
upward to veil the chilly falls and me.
But soon Flint Mountains' peaks will pour forth steady
pastoral song, like curlews' melody,
flooding the hills and highlands so completely
that Hulda will be wooed to kiss me sweetly.

Oh sunbright lass! my life and soul forever!
Slip from the purple heights where you reside!
Here, far below the lofty cliffs you favor,
linger a moment by your comrade's side!
Your beauty, dewed with dusk, will make me fonder
as daylight fades and ghosts begin to wander.

What must be kept a secret? All our anguish,
which only brings us scorn if poorly hid.
What must be treasured? Lofty aims that languish
unless we cherish them as Eggert did.
He found our monstrous misery so galling
he made "to educate the land" his calling.

Educate! But who thinks of education?
Everyone here is custom's mindless slave.
Dead are the poems that adorned our nation,
now doggerelists and caterwaulers rave —
sheepsheads who fill the land with fatuous bleating
the foolish people cannot help repeating.

My mocking language makes poor Hulda tearful
and must not soil these verses any more.
But send those wretched rhapsodists some fearful
retribution, Njörður, Freyr, and Thor!
May every god they smirch with gabbling verses
grimace with rage and drown their souls in curses.

Oh sunbright lass! I have no thought of laughter,
looking on one who spread his sails off Skor,
never to know an hour on earth thereafter.
Oh Eggert, have you sought our land once more,
moved to commune with us in our bereavement,
a moral hero armed in bright achievement?

Hulda! The world is life and ghost and glory,
with God in different shapes in different souls,
wherever blossoms chant their blazing story
or battered whales lie dying in the shoals,
wherever souls ascend to truth or near it —
he saw all this, whom we behold in spirit.1

Eggert! you were your people's proudest treasure,
the peerless light and glory of the land.
Oh blessèd moment! if your footsteps measure
once more the plains along our ocean strand!
Oh sunbright lass, with longing and devotion
he looks around him, salt-stained from the ocean.

Why has this great heroic soul decided
to seek our darkened shores and leave the deep?
When once their daytime dreams have all subsided,
the dead enjoy eternities of sleep.
Yet here is Eggert — wide awake — returning
to walk the land for which his soul was burning.

My Hulda! pearls of ardent passion quiver
upon your lashes, glittering through your hair.
Oh sunbright lass, your lustrous gaze has never
looked on a hero more sublimely fair!
Your eyes are fixed with love and admiration
on Eggert, steadfast pillar of his nation.

Eggert! how glorious your gait, your features!
Grievous and long your exile in the sea.
Come to me, father, come to all your creatures,
and kiss our Hulda's soil on bended knee.
Oh sunbright lass, with longing and devotion
he looks around him, salt-stained from the ocean!

Ah yes, you love him. Yet I feel no sorrow.
You are love's deity, and love is free.
But let me sit beside you till tomorrow
when the sun rises from the weeping sea.
Incline your head and let your lustrous tresses
lie on my breast — and grant me chaste caresses.

He looks around, but all the land is resting.
Our loving Mother stills the hills and fjords,
the fish in drowsing rivers, ravens nesting,
the rich in beds of down, the poor on boards.
He looks and listens, hears the nightwind calling,
the lapping waves, the distant waters falling.

Hulda! restrain your tears, and let your tresses
trail on my breast, exulting, free from pain.
For now we know what all the world confesses:
nothing that Eggert did was done in vain!
A thriving spirit wakes within our nation,
thanks to his work of love and dedication.

With step so still that not a soul can hear it
he strides along. A thousand blossoms smile,
forgoing sleep to gladden Eggert's spirit.
He gazes at them tenderly a while.
The flowers of Iceland found his absence grievous;
"Eggert," they whisper, "stay and never leave us!"


"You star-strewn flowers that flash and shine,
filling the meadows everywhere!
Blue and red daisy — dandelion —
what dazzling memories we share!
Long may you deck this gorgeous land
a living God formed with his hand
and set here with its smiling meads
to satisfy all human needs.

"Lights of the moors! the man who strides
among you is your dearest friend.
You were my lodestars, living guides —
I lingered with you hours on end.
Now I dwell in the icy deep
where dim little beings ooze and creep.
The world is one, and all things bear
witness to life, both here and there.

"Father and Friend of all that lives!
Foster this land in sun and shower,
blessing it, for your blessing gives
beauty and grace to every flower.
Bright little buttercup, go to sleep!
Bundle your leaves up, slumber deep,
drowsing through all the dewy night
in dreams of peace and returning light.

"You star-strewn blossoms, red and blue,
blazing away in every glen,
God has given more than a few
gifts to Iceland! But foolish men —
treating them with contempt — do not
tend or improve this garden plot,
loathe to admit, or realize,
they live in an earthly paradise."

Hulda! your clutching fingers clasp me tighter,
quaking in mine. Your tears descend in showers —
you who make every field in Iceland brighter,
whose elfin home is always red with flowers!
Eggert could never feel that you offended —
his fields have been most diligently tended.

But look! his image leaves the meadows, gliding
along the fertile plains he knew so well.
Upright and energetic he goes striding,
eager to visit farms where people dwell,
hurrying to behold them and know clearly
how the men live he toiled for so sincerely.

He sees a sight to gladden and astound him:
a smiling farmstead, trim and tidy, where
a kinsman lives, his loving family round him,
leading a model life and free from care,
pattern of trust and patient joy, possessing
the peace of God and every noble blessing.

Realized here in actual operation
are all the hopes the poet once expressed
writing his Rural Cantos for our nation,
his rhapsody of farm life at its best.
Oh sunbright lass! behold the hero faring
home to the farm, with triumph in his bearing!

Orange and opalescent dawn is wheeling
over the highlands, washed by distant seas.
The ocean sends a scented zephyr stealing
softly across the fields, a gentle breeze.
Could earth, our Mother, love her morning clearness
more than I loved my Hulda's nightlong nearness?

Hulda, farewell! Though hidden from me always,
you haunt my spirit every living day.
Farewell! for waves of daylight flood the valleys,
the waterfall is urging you away,
curling its coils of spray around your shoulders,
calling you home to sleep among its boulders.

Hulda! though morn forever mounts the highlands,
making night's phantoms vanish at a bound,
may you not cease to fill the moors and islands
with myriad forms, wherever life is found —
and death — those designations framed by creatures
who dream about, but never see, your features.

(going to his flock, singing):

"That was our Eggert Ólafsson,
ardent and young and very wise,
happy with hope when — summer done —
hideous blizzards lashed the skies.
Later, when spring's beguiling glow
gladdened the earth and thinned the snow,
he celebrated man and maid
in merry songs that cannot fade.

"He sang of flowers and their flirting words,
the foolish sheep that roam about,
the bashful darting of the birds,
the brisk zigzags of tiny trout;
mostly he sang of sunny farms,
safe from injustices and harms,
where wise old farmers and their wives
watch over others' precious lives.

"That was our Eggert Ólafsson,
honored and loved and truly good;
Iceland has never sired a son
who served her better, or ever could.
Once he abandoned us to woe;
wiser and braver, now, we know
he has reached the port of peace, and trod
paths of light by the grace of God."

Skáld er eg ei, en huldukonan kallar
og kveða biður hyggjuþungan beim,
mun eg því sitja, meðan degi hallar
og mæddur smali fénu kemur heim,
þar sem að háan hamar fossinn skekur
og hulduþjóð til næturiðju vekur.

Þrumi' eg á bergi, þýtur yfir hjalla
þokan að hylja mig og kaldan foss,
nú skal úr hlíðum hárra Tinnufjalla,
svo huldumeyjar þægan vinni koss,
óbrotinn söngur yfir dalinn líða,
eins og úr holti spóaröddin þýða.

Þú sem að byggir hamrabýlin háu,
hjartanu mínu alla daga kær,
sólfagra mey! djúpt undir bergi bláu,
bústu að sitja vini þínum nær;
döggsvalur úði laugar lokkinn bleika,
ljós er af himni, næturmyndir reika.

Hvurs er að dyljast? harma sinna þungu,
hlægja þeir öld, er ræður þeim ei bót;
hvurs er að minnast? hins er hvurri tungu —
huganum í svo festa megi rót —
ætlanda væri eftir þeim að ræða,
sem orka mætti veikan lýð að fræða.

Að fræða! hvur mun hirða hér um fræði?
heimskinginn gjörir sig að vanaþræl,
gleymd eru lýðnum landsins fornu kvæði,
leirburðarstagl og holtuþokuvæl
fyllir nú breiða byggð með aumlegt þvaður,
bragðdaufa rímu þylur vesæll maður.

Háðungarorð, sem eyru Huldu særa,
ei skulu spilla ljóði voru meir;
sendið þér annan sanninn heim að færa
söngvurum yðar, Njörður! Þór! og Freyr!
Og hvur sá Ás, sem ata þeir í kvæði
eirðinni gleymi og hefni sín í bræði.

Sólfagra mey! eg sé — nú leit minn andi
þann seglið vatt í byrnum undan Skor
og aldrei síðan aftur bar að landi —
Eggert! ó hyggstu þá að leita vor?
Marblæju votri varpar sér af herðum
vandlætishetjan sterkum búinn gerðum.

Hvað er í heimi, Hulda!? líf og andi,
hugsanir drottins sálum fjær og nær,
þar sem að bárur brjóta hval á sandi,
í brekku þar sem fjallaljósið grær;
þar sem að háleit hugmynd leið sér brýtur,
hann vissi það, er andi vor nú lítur.

Ó Eggert! þú varst ættarblóminn mesti,
og ættarjarðar þinnar heill og ljós;
blessaða stund! er fót hann aftur festi
á frjóvri grund við breiðan sævarós.
Sólfagra mey! hann svipast um með tárum,
saltdrifin hetja stiginn upp af bárum.

Hví er hinn sterki úr hafi bláu genginn
á hauður sem í næturfaðmi þreyr,
veit ég að þegar værðin góða' er fengin
vinirnir gleyma' að birtast framar meir;
ó hve hann hefir aftur þráð að líta
ástarland sitt með tignarfaldinn hvíta.

Tárperlur bjartar titra þér í augum,
tindra þær gegnum fagurt lokkasafn,
sólfagra mey! því sjónar þinnar baugum
séður er aldrei kappi þessum jafn.
Þú elskar, Hulda! Eggert foldarblóma,
ættjarðar minnar stoð, og frænda sóma.

Ó Eggert! hvursu er þinn gangur fagur!
útivist þín er vorðin löng og hörð;
kær er mér, Faðir! komu þinnar dagur;
hann kyssir Hulda! þína fósturjörð;
sólfagra mey! hann svipast um með tárum,
saltdrifin hetja, stiginn upp af bárum.

Þú elskar hann, þess ann eg honum glaður,
ástin er rík, og þú ert hennar dís;
hér vil eg sitja, hér er okkar staður,
ó Hulda! þar til sól úr ægi rís.
Hallaðu lokkahöfði bjarta þínu
mín Hulda kær! að vinarbrjósti mínu.

Hann svipast um, nú sefur allt í landi,
svæft hefir móðir börnin stór og smá,
fífil í haga, hrafn á klettabandi,
hraustan á dúni, veikan fjölum á;
hann svipast um í svölum næturvindi
um sund og völl að háum fjallatindi.

Hallaðu lokkahöfði bjarta þínu
að hjarta mér sem nú er glatt og traust,
hallaðu þér nú hægt að brjósti mínu;
hann hefir ekki starfað notalaust!
seint og að vonum svo fær góður njóta
sín og þess alls er vann hann oss til bóta.

Hann líður yfir ljósan jarðargróða,
litfögur blóm úr værum næturblund
smálíta upp að gleðja skáldið góða,
gleymir hann öðru' og skoðar þau um stund;
nú hittir vinur vin á grænu engi.
"Velkominn Eggert! dvelstu með oss lengi."


"Smávinir fagrir, foldarskart,
fífill í haga, rauð og blá
brekkusóley! vér mættum margt
muna hvurt öðru' að segja frá;
prýði þér lengi landið það
sem lifandi guð hefir fundið stað
ástarsælan, því ástin hans
alls staðar fyllir þarfir manns.

"Vissi ég áður voruð þér,
vallarstjörnur um breiða grund
fegurstu leiðarljósin mér,
lék eg að yður marga stund;
nú hef eg sjóinn séð um hríð
og sílalætin smá og tíð,
munurinn raunar enginn er
því allt um lífið vitni ber.

"Faðir og vinur alls sem er!
annastu þennan græna reit,
blessaðu, faðir! blómin hér,
blessaðu þau í hvurri sveit.
Vesalings sóley! sérðu mig,
sofðu nú vært og byrgðu þig;
hægur er dúr á daggarnótt,
dreymi þig ljósið, sofðu rótt.

"Smávinir fagrir, foldarskart,
finn eg yður öll í haganum enn;
veitt hefir Fróni mikið og margt
miskunnar faðir en blindir menn
meta það aldrei eins og ber,
unna því lítt sem fagurt er;
telja sér lítinn yndisarð
að annast blómgaðan jurtagarð."

Hulda! hví grípa hendur þínar ljósu
um hendur mér og hví svo viknar þú?
veit eg þú elur eyrar fagra rósu,
alsett er rauðum blómum Huldubú;
Eggert er þér um ekki neitt að kenna,
annast hefurðu fjallareitinn þenna.

Sjáðu! enn lengra svífur fram um völlu
svásúðleg mynd úr ungum blómareit,
sterkur og frjáls og fríður enn að öllu,
Eggert að skoða gengur byggða sveit;
hann fer að sjá, hve lífi nú á láði
lýðurinn uni, sá er mest hann þráði.

Brosir við honum bærinn heillagóði
í brekkukorni, hreinn og grænn og smár;
þar hefir búið frændi hans með fljóði
í flokki ljúfra barna mörg um ár;
þar hefir sveitasælan guðs í friði
og sóminn aukist glöðu bæjarliði.

Þar hefir gjörst að fullum áhrínsorðum
allt sem hinn mikli bóndavinur kvað
um dalalíf í búnaðsbálki forðum,
um bóndalíf, sem fegurst verður það.
Sólfagra mey! nú svífur heim að ranni
sæbúinn líkur ungum ferðamanni.

Sólfagra mey! nú seilist yfir tinda
úr svölum austurstraumum roði skær,
nú líður yfir láð úr höllu vinda
léttur og hreinn og þýður morgunblær;
svo var mér, Hulda! návist þín á nóttu
sem nú er ljósið jörð á votri óttu.

Vertu nú sæl! þótt sjónum mínum falin
sértu, ég alla daga minnist þín;
vertu nú sæl! því dagur fyllir dalinn,
dunandi fossinn kallar þig til sín;
hann breiðir fram af bergi hvítan skrúða,
bústaður þinn er svölum drifinn úða.

Vertu nú sæl! því sólin hálsa gyllir
og sjónir mínar hugarmyndin flýr;
Ó Hulda kær! er fjöll og dali fyllir
fjölbreyttu smíði, hvar sem lífið býr
og dauðinn, sem að svo þig löngum kallar
sá er þig aldrei leit um stundir allar.

(fer að fé og kveður:)

"Það var hann Eggert Ólafsson,
ungur og frár og viskusnjall,
stóð 'ann á hauðri studdur von,
stráunum skýldi vetrarfall;
meðan að sól úr heiði hló,
hjúkraði laukum, eyddi snjó,
kvað 'ann um fold og fagra mey
fagnaðarljóð er gleymast ei.

"Kvað 'ann um blóma hindarhjal
og hreiðurbúa lætin kvik,
vorglaða hjörð í vænum dal
og vatnareyðar sporðablik;
þó kvað hann mest um bóndabæ
er blessun eflir sí og æ,
af því að hjónin eru þar
öðrum og sér til glaðværðar.

"Það var 'ann Eggert Ólafsson,
allir lofa þann snilldarmann,
Ísland hefir ei eignast son,
öflgari stoð né betri' en hann;
þegar 'ann sigldi sjóinn á
söknuður vætti marga brá;
nú er 'ann kominn á lífsins láð
og lifir þar sæll fyrir drottins náð."

Date:1841 and after (see below).
Form:Sixteen stanzas, each containing six five-stress lines with the rhyme scheme AbAbCC and alliteration pattern 222 + four stanzas, each containing eight four-stress lines with the rhyme scheme ababcdcd and alliteration pattern 2222 + seven more of the six-line stanzas + three more of the eight-line stanzas.
Manuscript:KG 31 b V, where it has the title "Hulduljóð" (facsimile KJH132-48; image).
First published:1847 (A257-67; image), where it is given the subtitle "Brot" ("A Fragment") and printed with the last six stanzas in a different (and probably incorrect) order.

Commentary:        Jónas seems to have begun work on the "Lay of Hulda" in Reykjavík during the winter of 1840-1. We first hear about it in a letter from Páll Melsteð to Jón Sigurðsson (2 March 1841). Jónas himself mentions it to Konráð Gíslason a few days later (6 March) in a way that suggests the habitual interface of his scientific and poetic pursuits:

I'm doing "surgery" at present, that is, spending every day dissecting fish stomachs, also cutting up eagles and ravens and lots of other beasties — and in between times composing the "Lay of Hulda." It is going to be a marvellous poem. (2E66)

Completing the marvellous poem, however, proved to be a frustrating undertaking. Jónas was still working on it three years later when he wrote Brynjólfur Pétursson (25 February 1844): "I never quite manage to come to grips with Eggert (I mean the 'Lay of Hulda') so there's no hope of sending him to you this year — though I would certainly have liked to do so" (2E190). Brynjólfur replied (on 11 March): "It's a great pity the 'Lay of Hulda' isn't finished — but what's the use of talking about that?" (BPB47).

In fact Jónas never finished the "Lay of Hulda" to his total satisfaction. The text contained in the surviving manuscript gives evidence of having been written and revised sporadically between late 1843 and winter 1844-45.2 When the poem was published posthumously in 1847, Jónas's friends Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason subtitled it "A fragment," which is potentially a little misleading, since the surviving manuscript version is a fully coherent text, obviously in something approaching final form.

The "Lay of Hulda" is a conscious and ambitious essay in the ancient, traditional genre of pastoral elegy. This makes it less than surprising that it is in a number of ways the most "artificial" poem Jónas ever wrote. Turning to this genre, adopting and adapting it, was a natural move on his part when he wanted to commemorate an admired fellow-poet whose own most important poem (the Rural Cantos) was a discussion and celebration of Icelandic agricultural life.

A "pastoral elegy" can be defined as a lament for a dead person — often another poet — that is imagined as being uttered in an idealized rural world of shepherds. "Its traditional machinery included the invocation, statement of grief, inquiry into the causes of death, sympathy and weeping of nature, procession of mourners, lament, climax, change of mood, and consolation" (NPE885), and recognizable variations of all these features (except the procession of mourners) can be found — in the usual order — in Jónas's poem. It departs from the tradition in not being "allegorical," i.e., in not representing the dead fellow-poet under a feigned classical name like "Daphnis" or "Lycidas" or "Thyrsis" — a device which Jónas properly rejected as artificial and un-Icelandic. It is not clear whether Jónas was familiar with the first of Theocritus's Idylls (the fountainhead of the tradition) or with the celebrated pastoral elegies traditionally ascribed to Bion and Moschus. But he certainly knew Virgil's Eclogues, which he had studied at Bessastaðir,3 and although it is likely that they were his first introduction to pastoral poetry and its traditions, they have left no discernible trace in the "Lay of Hulda." It is possible that Jónas knew Milton's "Lycidas," either in the original or in a German translation (of which there were more than one). Whether they result from design or coincidence, there are a number of striking similarities between "Lycidas" and the "Lay of Hulda".4

Very impressive is the way in which Jónas has retained many of the traditional features of this ancient classical genre — including rich doses of "pathetic fallacy" (i.e., the attribution to nature of human feelings and emotions), and even a digressive outburst of moral indignation (directed, in Jónas's case, against the rímur-poets he so heartily despised) — and yet has assimilated these conventional elements so fully to the Icelandic situation and Icelandic folk-traditions that the poem seems in the end to be a totally indigenous product, a native plant.

The action of the "Lay of Hulda" takes place between dusk (when shepherds drive their flocks home for the night) and dawn (when they lead them forth to fresh pastures). The interval between is the hour when spirits wander the earth, in this case Hulda and the shade of Eggert Ólafsson. These two figures — the central figures of the poem — represent, respectively, Icelandic nature and human beings who relate to it in what Jónas conceived to be the proper way.

Hulda ("the hidden one") is at one level, the level of traditional Icelandic folk-belief, an elf-woman who lives in the cliffs near a waterfall. She is one of the "hidden people" (hulduþjóð), whom the poet identifies by name in the first stanza. But she is also (and more importantly) the Weltgeist, the invisible and intangible force animating the universe of life and death, whose outward manifestations we perceive but whose inner workings (as Jónas had put it in 1829) "must be forever hidden [huldir] from the eyes of mortals" (1E341). She is the "life-force" which (as Jónas wrote in 1835) creates and then abandons "countless varied bodies. . .in its unending, hidden [huldu] progress through nature". This explains why, toward the end of the poem, Jónas bids her farewell in the following terms:

Hulda! though morn forever mounts the highlands,
making night's phantoms vanish at a bound,
may you not cease to fill the moors and islands
with myriad forms, wherever life is found —
and death — those designations framed by creatures
who dream about, but never see, your features.

Jónas's conception of this figure is clearly influenced by Plato's notion of the invisible World Soul, with which Jónas was quite familiar and which he had introduced to Icelandic readers in his 1835 Fjölnir essay "On the Nature and Origin of the Earth." There he described this "World Soul" (alheimssálin) as having been formed by God "half from his divine essence, half from the prime matter" and subsequently "infused. . . into earth, water and air," the "vesture, which veils her from our eyes [búningi, sem skýlir henni fyrir vorum augum]."

The poem's other protagonist, Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768), was an idealist and reformer, the earliest representative in Iceland of the European Enlightenment. Descendant of a long line of farmers, he had gone to Denmark in 1746 to study natural science and philosophy at Copenhagen University. In the summer of 1750, in the company of an older fellow-student named Bjarni Pálsson, he returned to Iceland to collect books and natural objects. In the course of their travels, Eggert and Bjarni made the first recorded ascent of Mount Hekla, doing so in the face of widespread popular belief that Hekla was one of the mouths of hell. This famous exploit was symbolic of the triumph of rational scientific investigation over the repressive constraint of ancient fear and superstition. Eggert and Bjarni subsequently spent six years (1752-57) travelling through the length and breadth of Iceland, exploring and inventorying the country's physical geography and mineral resources on behalf of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences, liberally funded by the Danish crown. The fruit of these travels was their monumental and enormously influential Journey through Iceland (Rejse igjennem Island), the first comprehensive account of the country, its natural features, and its inhabitants — mainly Eggert's work, completed in 1766 (but not published until 1772). Between 1760 and his death in 1768, Eggert lived mostly at Sauðlauksdalur (on the south shore of Patreksfjörður in northwest Iceland) with his brother-in-law Björn Halldórsson, who ran a remarkably innovative and progressive farm. Eggert was greatly impressed by this model agricultural establishment and described it in glowing terms in his Rural Cantos.

In autumn 1767 Eggert was married to his cousin Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir in an elaborate and sumptuous ceremony that attempted to revive the traditions of Icelandic weddings of the 15th and 16th centuries. The next spring he and his bride left Sauðlauksdalur to move to a farm of their own at Hofsstaðir (Miklaholtshreppur) on the Snæfell Peninsula. On 30 May 1768 they set sail from Skor, a landing place on the north side of Breiðafjörður, in two open boats overloaded with cargo (including many of Eggert's unpublished manuscripts). They steered directly south across the fjord into ominous-looking weather and were never seen again.

Color image of engraving, small version.
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Color photo of sculpture, small version.
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The death of Eggert Ólafsson.

Eggert and Ingibjörg.

Eggert's tragic drowning in the prime of life shocked the entire nation and he was universally mourned. His death stimulated the production of a large number of elegies and commemorative pieces, not only among contemporaries but in the generations that followed (see 342n). Jónas's "Lay of Hulda" is the crowning achievement of this tradition of reminiscence and homage.

As a poet, Eggert's own major contribution lay in making love and admiration of the physical beauty of Icelandic nature, in all its manifestations, a major theme of verse. He thus inaugurated a tradition that would characterize a good deal of Icelandic poetry down to the present day. All of Eggert's typical concerns and preoccupations are on display in his most important poem, the Rural Cantos (Búnaðarbálkur), a work of 160 stanzas, divided into three cantos, in which he analyzes the causes of widespread lethargy, superstitiousness, and hopelessness in rural Iceland, then goes on (as Jónas and his colleagues had emphasized in the first sentence of the first issue of Fjölnir) "to remind his countrymen of the natural wealth and delightfulness of their native land and to instruct them how — through industry and the rational deployment of their energies — they could live a profitable and useful, pleasant and fortunate life in Iceland" (1F1).5

Late in life, Jónas referred to Eggert as "the greatest man Iceland has produced in recent centuries" (1E376). He regarded Eggert as his most important spiritual ancestor (which is why he calls him father in the twelfth stanza of the "Lay of Hulda"). And in fact the lives and interests of the two men parallel each other at a remarkable number of points. Both were distinguished poets who made an effort to reshape Icelandic poetry in their day; both were natural scientists whose chief professional activity lay in compiling a description of Iceland and its natural resources, based on extensive travel; and both were ardent patriots who loved the land, its people, its language and traditions, and who admired the nation's past glories (which they held up as something to be emulated by contemporaries) and shared a robust confidence in the possibilities of the future.

Not surprisingly, Jónas's "Lay of Hulda" is rich in allusions to Eggert and his work. Eggert's ill-starred departure from Skor is mentioned in the seventh stanza. The Rural Cantos are referred to by title in stanza 24 and their hero (Björn Halldórsson) is the "kinsman" of Eggert toward whose model farm Eggert's phantom is walking when it vanishes. In further allusion (and homage), Jónas has adopted the stanza form of the Rural Cantos (AbAbcc) for the greater part of his own poem, modifying the rhyme scheme slightly (AbAbCC) and — in most of the text — rejecting Eggert's sing-songy tetrameter in favor of his own more spacious and lyrical pentameter.

In interpreting Jónas's poem it is important to recognize the vital role played in it by religion. The "Lay of Hulda" is Jónas's most serious and sustained effort, in poetry, to harmonize the claims of science and religion. It thus continues the campaign initiated in his 1835 Fjölnir essay "On the Nature and Origin of the Earth," with which it shares a number of key concepts. It also expresses a religious idea that Jónas shared deeply with Eggert: the idea that God has given Icelanders a world of blessings which, sunk as they are in the anxiety, apathy, and gross pleasure of day-to-day existence, they neither appreciate, nor are grateful for, nor understand as coming from God and constituting a means whereby men can ascend to recognition of God. Eggert writes, near the conclusion of the Rural Cantos:

Many the roads we mortals travel,
many our blessings here below,
and when our bodies' bonds unravel
blessings await us where we go,
up dizzy heights of dazzling flame
to dwell with God from whom we came.

Grant that we not be gulled by pleasure,
grubbing for acorns in the ground
like rooting sows who lack the leisure
to lift their eyes or peer around
or even once have wit to see
what the acorns' source might be.

Vèr höfum ótal varða vegi,
vèr höfum ótal gæða kyn,
og þá líðr af lífsins degi,
liggr fyrir oss sælan hin
uppá hæðum, sem aldrei þver,
í guði, hvaðan komum vèr.

Látum oss ei sem giltur grúfa,
gæta þær aldrei neitt á svig,
akarn við rætr eikar stúfa,
umhyggjulausar fylla sig;
en uppá trèð þær ekki sjá,
akarnið hvaðan kemr frá. (KEO49)

Jónas once asserted that the second of these two stanzas "contains the kernel of all Eggert Ólafsson's poetry and all his activities" (1E376). Its message is obviously something that Jónas, too, took very seriously and infused into much of his work.

Critics have noted that the "Lay of Hulda" seems to strike a balance (an uneasy balance, some feel) between the objectivity and pragmatic, progressive idealism of the Enlightenment and the subjectivity and dreamy idealism of Romanticism. But surely, whether we like the mixture or not, this is just what we should expect from an early 19th-century poet-scientist paying homage to a mid 18th-century poet-scientist.

From the point of view of style, three points deserve mention. First, Jónas deliberately set out to write the "Lay of Hulda" in a very high style, including the use of such "epic features" as ornamental epithets ("Oh sunbright lass!"). The translation attempts to imitate this stylistic heightening by employing a slightly more elevated and artificial diction than is usual elsewhere in this collection.

Second, the "Lay of Hulda" is considerably more dramatic than Jónas's other work in verse, making unrestrained use of such "theatrical" devices as rhetorical questions and (most notably) apostrophes. These features may owe something to the fact that, about the time he began work on the poem, Jónas actually wrote two plays, both now lost, The King's Island (Kongens Eje) (which we may conjecture to have been a political work about Iceland's subjection to Denmark) and The Bookseller's Shop (Bókasalan).

Third, the strategy of providing variety and contrast by using different meters and stanza forms for the main text on the one hand and the inset speeches on the other, is found elsewhere in Jónas's work, occurring for the first time as early as 1832 in "On the Death of Guðrún, Wife of Privy Councillor Stephensen." Particularly effective in the "Lay of Hulda" is the contrast between the five-stress lines in the main body of the poem, lines that are highly formal and almost uniformly iambic (except for frequent first-foot inversions), and the four-stress lines of the inset speeches, in which any unstressed syllable can be replaced by two unstressed syllables, with the result that these lines sound much more lilting and spontaneous. Moreover in the last three stanzas of the poem, spoken by the shepherd, Jónas has emphasized the speaker's low-keyed colloquiality by six times writing "'ann" instead of "hann." Three of these six occurrences have actually been "corrected" in the manuscript from earlier "hann," which shows how determined Jónas was to give a colloquial flavor to the words of this speaker.

In the surviving manuscript of the poem, which seems to have begun life as a fair copy and then turned into a working draft, Jónas has numbered some (but not all) of the six-line stanzas, partly no doubt to ensure that he would be able to keep track of them as he moved them around during composition and revision,6 but without ever finalizing the number system. None of the eight-line stanzas is numbered and there is no indication that Jónas ever intended to number them. It is most unlikely that the stanzas of this poem would have been numbered if Jónas had completed it and published it in Fjölnir, where none of his other poems contain stanza numbers.7 The word "conclusion" (niðurlag) written by Jónas in the manuscript above stanza 25 is assumed here to be — like the stanza numbers — a memorandum from the poet to himself, hence it is not reproduced in the text of the present translation or its Icelandic original.

Bibliography: For Eggert Ólafsson's biography and writings, see 317-56 and Halldór Hermannsson, "Eggert Ólafsson: A Biographical Sketch" (16Isl1-56; in English). For an analysis of the rhetoric of Jónas's poem, see Dagný Kristjánsdóttir, "Skáldið og konan: Um Hulduljóð Jónasar Hallgrímssonar" (166Skí111-32). For a discussion of its relation to the pastoral tradition, see Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, "Hulduljóð sem pastoral elegía" (36And103-11).


1 This stanza was one of Jónas's latest additions to the poem. The notion expressed in the first two lines may be Platonic, probably derived from Plato's dialogue Timaeus, portions of which Jónas had translated in 1835.

The last two lines of the stanza gave Jónas a good deal of trouble. At first he wrote: "he [i.e., Eggert] knows that best, and desires only one thing: that the world should perceive God and itself in every blade of grass." Later he deleted this passage, perhaps feeling that it smacked too much of pantheism, and opted for the flatter statements in the revision.

The first line of this revision originally read "þar sem að háleit hugmynd leið sér brýtur" ("wherever a sublime idea opens a pathway for itself"). Jónas later appears to have altered "leið" to "lið," thus producing the much darker reading "wherever a sublime idea breaks its limb (i.e, breaks its neck, comes to nothing)." But there are problems with this reading (see 4E150).

2 See KJH311 on the manuscript . Its text of the poem has been extensively corrected and contains many second and even third thoughts. In several instances, Jónas's latest intention is not self-evident. For a convenient list of the manuscript changes, see 4E150-1.

3 An Icelandic translation of the Eclogues, read to the students at Bessastaðir by their Latin teacher Hallgrímur Scheving, survives in a copy by Jónas's friend and fellow student Tómas Sæmundsson (Lbs. 624, 8vo; see Kf211).

4 Jónas was familiar with Paradise Lost in Jón Þorláksson's Icelandic adaptation and will have been well aware of Milton's reputation as a poet of international stature.

5 Eggert's poem was first printed at Hrappsey in 1783. In 1829, in the first issue of Ármann á alþingi, Baldvin Einarsson reprinted it in its entirety. When Jónas arrived in Copenhagen in 1832, the first comprehensive edition of Eggert's poetry had just been published (KEO). One of its three editors was Jónas's intimate friend Tómas Sæmundsson.

6 Notice what happens in the two surviving manuscripts of his poem "Hugnun" ("Compensation"): in the earlier of the two, Jónas added stanza numbers to the text after it had been written out, because he wanted to indicate a changed ordering of the stanzas. In the later manuscript the new stanza order is adopted and the numbers are omitted. See KJH190, 193, and 313; also 229-30).

7 See 1E116-23 for a printed text of the poem in which all the stanzas are consecutively numbered.

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

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