17. Bjarni, Goodbye! (Skáldið mitt var skjótt í leik)

Lithograph of concert in kitchen of an Icelandic farmhouse, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

A concert in the kitchen of an Icelandic farmhouse.

Bjarni, Goodbye!

Skáldið mitt var skjótt í leik

Leaping upward like a spark,
light and fleet — none fleeter! —
my poet fled this dirty, dark
den of kitchen fetor.

Skáldið mitt var skjótt í leik:
skaust úr eldhúss pælu,
líkt sem flygi langt frá reyk
ljóss í veldis sælu.

Date:After 21 September 1841 (see KJH310).
Form:One stanza of four alternating four- and three-stress lines rhyming aBaB and with the alliteration pattern 22 (ferskeytt óbreytt).
Manuscript:Þjms. 12172 (a pencilled draft showing considerable divergence from the text published in 1847; facsimile KJH104; image).
First published:1847 (A123; image) untitled and with the text said to have been taken from a copy — written in Jónas's own hand — of his "official" elegy on Bjarni (this copy does not survive).

Commentary:        In this poem, which once again emphasizes the suddenness of Bjarni Thorarensen's death, Jónas uses the kitchen of an Icelandic farm as his image for life on earth. In Jónas's day this kitchen was ordinarily a small room with an earthen floor and an open hearth (hlóðir), constructed of large stones, over which food was cooked, often above a fire of dried sheep dung (tað). Smoke escaped through a smokehole (strompur or ljóri) in the roof above, which was also the only source of light (since there were no windows). Kitchens like this were always dim and sooty and often full of acrid smoke (Íþh454-8).

Nowhere else does Jónas take such an unabashedly dim view of life on earth, and it is natural to ask whether the poem and its homely domestic image are not somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Matthías Þórðarson, in his edition, placed it among Jónas's humorous poems (gamanvísur). Icelanders often took delight in hearing "earthy" language applied to "heavenly" things, as in the following apostrophe to God from a sermon by Reverend Bjarni Jónsson from Möðrudalur (ca. 1665-1715): "We dangle here, we dangle here like a horseshoe under some decrepit old nag. Oh grab your heavenly claw hammer, yank us out of this stinking world, and toss us into your scrap-metal bin, where there is bliss forevermore. Amen! Amen!" (1Íþs281-2n1).

It is likely, therefore, that there is a touch of deliberate self-parody in Jónas's stanza and that it was written in playful reaction to the seriousness and highfalutin solemnity of the "official" elegy on Bjarni Thorarensen, where souls go "winging their way" like swans up to "gatherings of spirits," while "armies in heaven sing anthems." Indeed, when Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason first printed this poem in 1847, they said they had found it written in Jónas's own hand on a copy of the official elegy (A123).

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

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