3. Iceland (Ísland)

Lithograph of Þingvellir in 1836, small version.
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Lithograph of Axe River Falls in 1836, small version.
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Þingvellir in 1836.

Axe River Falls in 1836.



Iceland, fortunate isle! Our beautiful, bountiful mother!
Where are your fortune and fame, freedom and virtue of old?
All things on earth are transient: the days of your greatness and glory
flicker like flames in the night, far in the depths of the past.
Comely and fair was the country, crested with snow-covered glaciers,
azure and empty the sky, ocean resplendently bright.
Here came our famous forebears, the freedom-worshipping heroes,
over the sea from the east, eager to settle the land.
Raising their families on farms in the flowering laps of the valleys,
hearty and happy they lived, hugely content with their lot.
Up on the outcrops of lava where Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing convened every year.
There lay old Þorgeir, thoughtfully charting our change of religion.
There strode Gissur and Geir, Gunnar and Héðinn and Njáll.
Heroes rode through the regions, and under the crags on the coastline
floated their fabulous ships, ferrying wealth from abroad.
O it is bitter to stand here stalled and penned in the present!
Men full of sloth and asleep simply drop out of the race!
How have we treated our treasure during these six hundred summers?
Have we trod promising paths, progress and virtue our goal?
Comely and fair is the country, crested with snow-covered glaciers,
azure and empty the sky, ocean resplendently bright.
Ah! but up on the lava where Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing is vanished and gone.
Snorri's old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys — and the ravens — a feast.
Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers' fame faltered — and passed from the earth!

Ísland! farsældafrón og hagsælda hrímhvíta móðir!
Hvar er þín fornaldarfrægð, frelsið og manndáðin best?
Allt er í heiminum hverfult, og stund þíns fegursta frama
lýsir, sem leiftur um nótt, langt fram á horfinni öld.
Landið var fagurt og frítt, og fannhvítir jöklanna tindar,
himininn heiður og blár, hafið var skínandi bjart.
Þá komu feðurnir frægu og frjálsræðishetjurnar góðu,
austan um hyldýpishaf, hingað í sælunnar reit.
Reistu sér byggðir og bú í blómguðu dalanna skauti;
ukust að íþrótt og frægð, undu svo glaðir við sitt.
Hátt á eldhrauni upp, þar sem enn þá Öxará rennur
ofan í Almannagjá, alþingið feðranna stóð.
Þar stóð hann Þorgeir á þingi er við trúnni var tekið af lýði.
Þar komu Gissur og Geir, Gunnar og Héðinn og Njáll.
Þá riðu hetjur um héröð, og skrautbúin skip fyrir landi
flutu með fríðasta lið, færandi varninginnn heim.
Það er svo bágt að standa' í stað, og mönnunum munar
annaðhvurt aftur á bak ellegar nokkuð á leið.
Hvað er þá orðið okkart starf í sex hundruð sumur?
Höfum við gengið til góðs götuna fram eftir veg?
Landið er fagurt og frítt, og fannhvítir jöklanna tindar,
himininn heiður og blár, hafið er skínandi bjart.
En á eldhrauni upp, þar sem enn þá Öxará rennur
ofan í Almannagjá, alþing er horfið á braut.
Nú er hún Snorrabúð stekkur, og lyngið á lögbergi helga
blánar af berjum hvurt ár, börnum og hröfnum að leik.
Ó þér unglingafjöld og Íslands fullorðnu synir!
Svona er feðranna frægð fallin í gleymsku og dá!

Form:Fourteen elegiac distichs. In the even (pentameter) lines the alliteration pattern is invariably aa|a; in the odd (hexameter) lines it is aa|a about half the time and aa|bb the other half (line 17 is anomalous: a|abb). See Bbk47-51 for detailed discussion.
Manuscript:None surviving.
First published:1835 (1F21-2; image) under the title "Ísland."

Commentary:        This famous poem was published in the important first issue of Fjölnir, where it immediately follows the editors' long programmatic essay about the aims and goals of their new periodical. The essay is largely the work of Tómas Sæmundsson; Jónas's poem is conceived as complementary to it, and sometimes even echoes it.1 The piece is thus a poetic manifesto of the ideals and aims of Jónas and his Fjölnir colleagues: cultural and economic revival for Iceland, based on a greater measure of political independence and restoration of the Alþing at Þingvellir.

By emphasizing the extent to which Icelanders have declined in freedom, greatness, and glory since the days of their ancestors, Jónas indirectly exhorts and challenges his countrymen to wake up and repossess their inheritance. Readers who fail to perceive the exhortation and challenge (and some of Jónas's contemporaries did fail to perceive them, either inadvertently or deliberately) will find the poem unrelievedly grim and pessimistic — "an inscription for Iceland's grave" (grafskrift yfir Ísland), as a hostile reviewer in the periodical Sunnanpóstur called it.

Indeed, Jónas probably intended the poem to read like the inscription that might one day appear over Iceland's grave, if her people did not change their ways. This, at least, is suggested by his choice of form: the poem is written in elegiac distichs, a solemn and serious meter that was widely used in classical antiquity for epitaphs and memorial inscriptions (as Jónas had no doubt learned at Bessastaðir) and had occasionally been employed for this purpose in Iceland, too, prior to Jónas's day. Each distich (i.e., couplet) consists of a line of hexameter followed by a line of pentameter. The form is well exemplified in a modern accentual-syllabic language by Schiller's

Im Hexameter steigt des Springquells silberne Säule,
       Im Pentameter drauf fällt sie melodisch herab (1SWN285)

or by Coleridge's imitation of it in English,

In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column,
       In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

In Jónas's usage in this poem (and in the present translation of it), all the distichs conform to the following pattern:

/ ⏑ (⏑)   / ⏑ (⏑)   / ⏑ (⏑)   / ⏑ (⏑)   / ⏑ ⏑   / ⏑
/ ⏑ ⏑   / ⏑ ⏑   /   |   / ⏑ ⏑   / ⏑ ⏑   /

The position of the caesura in the odd (hexameter) lines is variable, usually occurring somewhere in the third (more rarely the fourth) foot. In the even (pentameter) lines its position is invariable, occurring where indicated by the vertical line.

Jónas's poem seems to have been inspired by — and to have been in some respects a deliberate response to — a work very familiar to him and his Icelandic contemporaries in Copenhagen, a work that bore the same title and was also written in elegiac distichs: "Iceland" ("Island"), by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850).2 Oehlenschläger's poem was originally published in 1805 and began with the phrase "Island! hellige Øe!" ("Iceland! holy isle!"). It was republished in a revised and severely truncated form in 1823, beginning now with the phrase "Island! Oldtidens Øe" ("Iceland! Antiquity's isle"). Here is Oehlenschläger's first distich (1823 version) for purposes of comparison with Jónas's poem:

Island! Oldtidens Øe, Ihukommelsens vældige Tempel,
Hen til din fiernede Kyst vifte Gud Bragi min Sang.

Oehlenschläger, in his poem, draws a brightly-colored picture of the glory of Iceland's past in order to suggest — rather trivially — that this glory has been restored in the work of the celebrated sculptor Albert Thorvaldsen (1768-1844), the son of an Icelander who had moved to Copenhagen.

There is no question that Jónas's poem is closely dependent on Oehlenschläger's.3 But at this point the story of its origins becomes more complex. In a note in the second edition of Jónas's collected poems (1883), Hannes Hafstein wrote:

Konráð Gíslason had a dream in which a man appeared to him, huge and impressive, and addressed him in poetry. When Konráð woke he remembered this verse:

Comely and fair was the country,
       crested with snow-covered glaciers,
azure and open the sky,
       ocean resplendently bright.

He told the dream to Jónas, who built his poem around these lines. (B390)

Hannes may well have heard this story from Konráð himself, who — by then a very old man — was a member of the editorial committee responsible for the 1883 edition.

But some version of the story was current even in Jónas's lifetime and seems to have been actively promoted by him. In a letter of March 1844, nine years after "Iceland" was written and published, Jónas earnestly told Konráð how much he wanted to teach young Icelanders natural science at the proposed gymnasium in Reykjavík:

I would like to become a teacher at a good school in Iceland more than anything else. I could work there for a short time 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 comely and fair? Didn't you even say so yourself? But who is ever going to perceive this comeliness unless he can approach nature with intelligence and understanding? (2E198)

The relevant portion of Konráð's reply (16 March), written in a characteristically abrasive and anti-sentimental vein, starts out with slighting references to an old Icelandic poem about black rams' testicles and cod-liver oil lamps:

Oh, how Icelandic! "Island, Oldtidens Ø!" — This is where a big gob of snuff plopped out of my nose as a sign that I was starting to sniffle — a gob of that truly legendary snuff from Groot (or is it Groth?) on East Street. You charge me with having said — supposedly — Comely and fair is the country. If I said it, it was a damned lie. And how foolish of you to bring the matter up, you who based a poem on such crap. To my shame. And your glory! (BKG67; see also 139Skí91-2)

By quoting the beginning of Oehlenschläger's poem in the same breath in which he quotes Jónas's poem, Konráð makes it very clear that he understands the latter to be based on the former, and that his own role (and the role of his dream-visitor — if he ever had a dream-visitor!)4 was only intermediary (see Bbk110).

There is no record of whether Jónas had visited Þingvellir before 1835, when he wrote this poem. (He later paid two visits, in August 1837 and July 1841; the second of these visits resulted in his poem "Mount Broadshield").

As regards the identity of the persons mentioned in the seventh distich of "Iceland": Þorgeir is Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði ("the chieftain of the men of Ljósavatn"), the law speaker who played a critical role in the conversion of Iceland to Christianity; this took place at the Alþing in the year 1000 and is described by Ari fróði ("the Wise") in his Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók). The five other figures mentioned by Jónas are major characters in Brennu-Njáls saga (The Saga of Burnt Njáll), the best known and most loved of the Icelandic family sagas.

Jónas's poem (or at least the beginning of it)5 is still popularly sung in Iceland to a melody in the Lydian mode that goes back to the Middle Ages (for the notation see Íþl522). This melody is usually accompanied by a second voice that moves along with it in parallel fifths in the manner of organum (for the notation see ibid., pp. 775-6). The solemn, majestic tune — especially when sung in this traditional way — gives an impression of seriousness and high antiquity that wonderfully complements Jónas's text.

There is a prior English translation of the poem by Guðmund J. Gislason (IL49, 51).

Bibliography:       There is an excellent brief analysis of the poem (including its structure and rhetoric) by Oskar Bandle (see OB230-3).


1 Compare, for example, the poem and the following passage from the essay:

Any attentive reader of the Icelandic sagas who does not find them filling him with a burning love for his country, cannot be said to understand them properly. And many other things, too, serve to remind an Icelander of this love, when he lets his eye rove through the green valleys, their slopes alive with cows and sheep and horses, or gazes down into the streams — clear as heaven — where trout and salmon flick their tails. The offshore islands are not at all an unpleasant sight, the waters around them teeming with fish, their cliffs and skerries thick with seafowl. The sky is clear and comely, the air clean and healthy. And when the setting sun turns the hills red on a summer evening, and smoke from the farms rises straight up into the air, how still — how lovely! — it is in our countryside. (1F2-3)

2 Oskar Bandle has pointed out that in electing to use this particular form, Jónas has made — vis à vis the Icelandic poetic tradition — an extremely "bold innovation, by means of which he identifies himself with the world of Danish Romanticism and Weimar Classicism" (OB231).

3 I.e., as regards title and form. As regards content, on the other hand, Jónas may have taken more than a hint from Sigurður Breiðfjörð's "Fjöllin á Fróni" ("Iceland's Mountains"), with which "Iceland" shares a number of striking features. Sigurður's poem had been published in 1833 and would one day leave its mark on Jónas's "Til Herra Páls Gaimard" (or so, at least, thought Benedikt Gröndal [4BGR300]). Both "Fjöllin á Fróni" and "Iceland" are in the tradition of Hallgrímur Pétursson's "Aldarháttur," a poem that Sigurður and Jónas can be counted upon to have known.

4 There is naturally something suspicious about the way in which Konráð's experience reproduces the widespread folk motif in which poetic inspiration is due to a supernatural visitant who appears in a dream; accounts of such experiences are legion in Icelandic folktales. (Bede's famous story of the cowherd Cædmon will be familiar to many English readers; so will Samuel Taylor Coleridge's account of the dream-origin of his poem "Kubla Khan.")

5 Sunt tempora, sunt mores. Bjarni Þorsteinsson (1861-1938) says that when he was at school it was customary to sing the poem all the way through to the end (Íþl522). At Bessastaðir in Jónas's day students used to sing the Æneid (well, at least the beginning of it) to the same tune (see Íþl574)

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

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