37. Ólafsvík Headland (Ólafsvíkurenni)

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

Ólafsvík Headland.

Ólafsvík Headland


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?

Riðum við fram um flæði
flúðar á milli' og gráðs
fyrir Ólafsvíkurenni
utan við kjálka láðs.

Fjörðurinn bjartur og breiður
blikar á aðra hlið,
tólf vikur fullar að tölu,
tvær álnir hina við.

Hvurt á nú heldur að halda
í hamarinn svarta inn,
ellegar út betur til þín?
Eggert, kunningi minn!

Form:Three stanzas, each containing four three-stress lines with the rhyme scheme AbCb and the alliteration pattern 22.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II, which contains two copies, the earlier untitled (facsimile KJH274; image), the later bearing the title "Ólafsvíkurenni" (facsimile KJH287; image).
First published:1847 (A233; image).

Commentary:        Jónas rode beneath Ólafsvík Headland (Ólafsvíkurenni), on the north coast of Snæfellsnes, on 8 August 1841. The route traversed the sand and rocks at the base of the headland and could only be negotiated at low tide. It was an ominous and gloomy place, haunted until Doomsday by the ghosts of men and women who had drowned in Breiðafjörður (1Íþs283). As recently as 1830 a man had died of exposure beneath Ólafsvík Headland (1Ana420).

If one looks at a map of Iceland and imagines that the country resembles an animal facing west, then Breiðafjörður can be thought of as its mouth and the two peninsulas on either side of Breiðafjörður as "the jaws of the land" (kjálkar láðs).

In the third stanza Jónas represents himself as torn between two alternatives: vanishing into the cliff or sinking into the sea. The first of these alternatives has two possible resonances:

(1) In Icelandic folklore, Ólafsvík Headland — like many other rocks and cliff-faces in the country — was inhabited by elves.

Once, on New Year's Eve, a traveller got to Ólafsvík Headland just a little too late. The incoming tide reached the base of the bluff before he could get across the foreshore and it looked as if he was going to have to spend the night outdoors. Then he noticed eighteen dwellings in the bluff, all of them brightly lit; the elves were celebrating inside, playing music and dancing. (1Íþs24)

It is possible that Jónas had heard stories to this effect when he was travelling in the area and had connected them with his own ride beneath the bluff. The context of his allusion, however, and the reference to entering into the "black cliffside," make it clear that he is not planning on joining any elvish jollification. This brings us to the other resonance of this first alternative.

(2) In heathen times, in Iceland, it was believed that certain men were able to "die into" cliffs and mountains and continue to lead a posthumous existence there. The sagas recount a number of instances of this.1 The most famous account of all, and the one which Jónas may well have been thinking of here, occurs in Eyrbyggja saga, a work that was constantly on his mind — and in his hands — as he travelled around Snæfellsnes in 1841. The saga tells of a hill that stood on Þórólfur Mostrarskegg's land on Þórsnes (Thor's Cape): "He called the hill Helgafell (Holy Hill) and believed he would go there when he died, along with all his kinsmen on the cape." Þórólfur's son, Þorsteinn þorskabítur, was a precocious youth who "grew up to be a man of unusual distinction. He always had sixty freemen with him and was a great fisherman, constantly out at sea catching fish. He was the first person to build a house at Helgafell and he moved his farm there." This paragon drowned in Breiðafjörður at the early age of 25.

One evening in autumn Þorsteinn's shepherd was out looking for sheep to the north of Helgafell. He noticed that the north side of the hill was standing open. Inside the hill he saw great fires and heard the hubbub of men drinking; when he listened attentively to see if he could distinguish any words, he heard that Þorsteinn þorskabítur was being welcomed there along with his companions and told to take his place in the high-seat opposite his father. (4Ífr19)

The theme of revelry inside a cliff, occurring in the stories of both the elves in Ólafsvík Headland and the deceased humans in Helgafell, may have served to link the two incidents in Jónas's mind.

The other alternative presented in Jónas's last stanza reflects his admiration for and self-identification with Eggert Ólafsson, the subject of the "Lay of Hulda". But whereas, in the "Lay of Hulda," Jónas had seen himself and Eggert united by their love of Iceland and their optimism about its future, in "Ólafsvík Headland" the only thing that unites them is death. The fact that Jónas, earlier on the day he rode beneath Ólafsvík Headland, had visited Ingjaldshóll, with its strong associations with Eggert Ólafsson, and had stood there over the grave of his own old friend Jón Kjærnested, no doubt account for the fact that Eggert and death are so much on his mind in this poem.

Finally it is worth noting that there are a number of obvious parallels between the careers of Þorsteinn þorskabítur and Eggert Ólafsson, both of whom were personages of great distinction and magnificence (rausnarmenn) who drowned in Breiðafjörður at a tragically early age. This no doubt helps explain the complex web of associations in Jónas's final stanza.

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"Ólafsvík Headland" and the nine poems that follow in this collection belong to a cycle of twelve poems and share a number of common features.

Formally, each of the twelve poems in the cycle consists of three stanzas containing three four-stress lines and rhyming AbCb (the odd lines do not rhyme). This stanza form is derived from Heinrich Heine, who was, toward the end of Jónas's life, his favorite German poet. (He also uses the form in two Icelandic translations from Heine [see 1E232, 237].)

Heine's Neue Gedichte had been published in September 1844. Its appearance was delayed by the public censor and word of this had got around literary circles; consequently the book was everywhere eagerly awaited and the first printing sold out almost immediately. Both the excellence of the collection and the sensational circumstances of its publication seem to have caught Jónas's attention. He translated a number of its poems in 1844-5 (two of his translations, "Drudgery" and "Spring and Fall," are included here) and Heine's volume seems to have exerted a profound influence on his own original work. Its influence is subtly pervasive in the twelve poems under discussion here, not only in their form (already mentioned) but in the Stimmungsbruch ("shift in mood") that occurs at the end of a number of them and is a characteristic feature of Heine's poetry. Furthermore (as Hannes Pétursson has pointed out) the inner architecture of these twelve poems is also "in the style of [Heine's] short pieces. These are 'miniature poems,' that is, they are conceived as short poems are conceived, brisk and concise, and this is a new development for Jónas" (3And58). On the other hand, the restriction of the length of all poems in the cycle to exactly three stanzas — an obligatory ternary structure which allows for many different inner deployments of material — is not characteristic of Heine, and must be interpreted as a brilliant formal innovation on Jónas's part.

Jónas was acutely conscious of his debt to Heine and at one point even contemplated prefacing Capes and Islands (his collective name for the first four of these poems) with the epigraph: "He has begun to model himself on Heine."2

While acknowledging Jónas's debt to Heine, however, it is important to emphasize that his twelve poems are the product of a sensibility very different from Heine's. This is perhaps best seen in the complexity of allusion that occurs in some of them and in the total lack of staginess with which their "ironic reversals" give expression to Jónas's spiritual and psychological tensions.

With regard to the content of Jónas's twelve poems: the subject of many of them is places he visited — and people he met in those places, or incidents that occurred there — during his scientific travels in Iceland in the years 1840-2.3 There is no evidence, however, that any of the poems were actually composed during those years, and a good deal of evidence to suggest that all of them were written (as was first suggested in 1883 by Hannes Hafstein [B395]) after his return to Copenhagen in the fall of 1842. It was then that his work on the "Description of Iceland," and on topographical details of Björn Gunnlaugsson's map, led him to revisit many of these places in imagination and to pay purely imaginary visits to others to which he had never travelled in the flesh.

Unlike his various "Weather Songs," and topographical poems like "Gunnar's Holm" and "Mount Broadshield" (both of which were composed more or less "on the spot"), these twelve poems are poems of memory and homesickness, kindled and evoked in Denmark. Many of them can be thought of as personal addenda to the scientific information in the "Description of Iceland": affective (or subjective) glosses on the cognitive (or objective) details it would have contained.

Although it is possible to classify these twelve pieces as "travel poems" or "topographical poems," it is probably not (in the last analysis) very helpful to do so. For it is important to note that while all of them are about travel and topography, they are all — without exception — landscapes with figures. The human beings who populate the poems relate to their surroundings in different ways, but the particular relationship is always of fundamental importance and constitutes the real "occasion" of the poem.

The poems often reach for the meaning of places, their human meaning, and human meanings cannot exist at all apart from the "figures" in these "landscapes." It is remarkable, in the twelve poems in question, how various psychological moods find their objective correlative in certain Icelandic landscapes and the events that take place there. Remarkable, too, is the dark view the poems often take of nature. Whereas, in the "Lay of Hulda," life (the creative aspect of nature) had received greatest attention (although Jónas was careful not to leave death, her destructive aspect, out of account), in several of the poems that follow it is the "devouring element in the universe" that is uppermost in Jónas's mind. Like Robert Louis Stevenson — from whom that phrase is taken — Jónas "had heard some of the hollow notes of Pan's music. . . . Nature's good-humour was only skin-deep after all." Finally it is important to emphasize that these poems — as a group — are a unique phenomenon in European literature: a "genre" invented by Jónas, in which individual poems share a certain number of generic features but are capable of an extremely wide range of modes (comic-tragic-ironic) and moods (from buoyancy to existential despair).

It is not possible to date the composition of individual poems in the series, though their probable relationship to Jónas's work on the "Description of Iceland" allows something to be said about the date of the group as a whole. If the subjects treated in the surviving portions of the "Description" are a reliable indication, then Jónas seems to have begun that work by compiling information about "islands and offshore rocks" (which he naturally tended to associate with the capes and headlands near which they are situated) and "bodies of flowing water: rivers, streams, and brooks" (4D487-8). So it is interesting to note that six of the twelve poems in the series have to do with islands and capes, and two of the others with rivers. Matthías Þórðarson speculated in 1937 that the surviving prose materials on "islands and offshore rocks," as well as all twelve of these poems, were written in Copenhagen in the winter of 1842-3, fairly soon after Jónas's return to Denmark (1D360). Jónas's most recent editors (1989) think that "Islands and Offshore Rocks," as well as most of the other surviving fragments of the "Description," were written at Sorø in 1844 (4E488); they date all twelve poems to 1845 (4E245). Ólafur Halldórsson writes (1965): "Nothing can be said with certainty about the age of this group of poems. . . . Jónas had not completely finished them when he died, and one can assume that some of them were among the last things he wrote, i.e., from sometime in May 1845" (KJH316). The most likely date for the collection as a whole seems to be 1844-5.

Whenever individual poems may have been composed, and under whatever circumstances, Jónas clearly thought of the twelve poems as a group. All twelve are found together in a discrete section of manuscript KG 31 a II; none of them bears a title. But the manuscript also contains another copy of the first four poems by themselves, and here they not only bear individual titles ("Ólafsvík Headland," "Horn Crag," "Drangey," and "Kolbeinsey"), but the subgroup as a whole is given the collective title Capes and Islands (Annes og eyjar). This is the copy near the top of which Jónas one day pencilled the words: "With the motto: 'He has begun to model himself on Heine.'"


1 See 4Ífr9n4. Active belief in this superstition seems to have lingered on as late as the eighteenth century (Íþh419).

2 The twelve poems in question also seem indebted to Heine's prose Reisebilder (e.g., Die Harzreise), as Hannes Pétursson has pointed out (3And58).

3 Vilhjálmur Þ. Gíslason has pointed out that the poems in question, "as well as some of Jónas's earlier travel poetry, are productions of the same type that Eggert Ólafsson collected in his Ferðarolla and that have been composed [in Iceland] ever since the days of Sighvatur Þórðarson" (JHF266).

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