42. Southlands (Suðursveit er þó betri)

Color photo of Southlands, small version.
[larger image]



Suðursveit er þó betri

recording available

Southlands is so much nicer
than Seltjörn or Reykjavík.
The moon is much the same here,
and man! our hay's unique.

The heat? It lacks all limit
but I love it anyway,
though the kids sure pant like puppies
and play in the shade all day.

Sheep? We got so many sheep here,
sheepbones are our décor:
Sigfús has seven thousand
sitting round his front door.

Suðursveit er þó betri
en Seltjarnarnesið var;
taðan er töluvert meiri,
og tunglið er rétt eins og þar.

Hitinn úr hófi keyrir,
en honum uni ég þó;
börnin hér bograst í skuggann
og blaðra sem hvolpar í mó.

Og bæjardyraburstin
ber um hvað margt sé féð —
sex þúsund sauðarleggi
er Sigfús minn búinn með.

Form:Three stanzas, each containing four three-stress lines with the rhyme scheme AbCb and the alliteration pattern 22.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II, where it has no title (facsimile KJH280; image).
First published:1847 (A237-8; image) under the title "Suðursveit."
Sound recording:Yenna Phillips reads "Southlands." recording available [0:40]

Commentary:        Southlands (Suðursveit) is the sparsely settled stretch of coast west of Hornafjörður in southeast Iceland. Jónas travelled through the area on 28-29 July 1842, en route to the East Fjords.

In Jónas's day, people living in the Hornafjörður area had the reputation of country bumpkins because of the isolation of their situation.

Out east there are lots of stories going around about the Hornafjörður men. People in the East Fjords credit them with every imaginable silliness and stupidity. . . .

Once some Hornafjörður men came to town. It was their first visit and everything in these new surroundings struck them as marvellous — not a bit like what they were used to in Hornafjörður. Among other things they caught sight of the moon shining in a clear sky. "Now there's a real moon!" they said. "What a difference from our goddam Hornafjörður moon!" (2Íþs504)

Jónas alludes to this joke in the poem. But his own method of poking fun at rural simplicity is much subtler. As the speaker's description of Southlands proceeds, with approving emphasis on its tropical heat and the incredible abundance of its sheep, we perceive that the poet's stance is highly ironic.

The third stanza of this poem reads literally: "And the gable above the main door of the farmhouse (bæjardyraburstin) bears witness to how many sheep you find there: my friend Sigfús has polished off six thousand sheepshanks."

Using the shankbones of sheep (once they had been eaten) for construction or decoration was not uncommon in Iceland in earlier days. In 1881 the English traveller John Coles observed, at Galtalækur (near Hekla), that the farmer "had ornamented his house outside with the bones of sheep's legs, which were stuck in layers round the doors and window frames" (STI41). At Brú in Jökuldalur, the next year, Þorvaldur Thoroddsen noted that there is extensive sheep-rearing in the area, "and in some places clear evidence of this could be seen in the farmhouse walls: layers of sheepshanks in between the layers of turf. At Vaðbrekka in Hrafnkelsdalur there was, until recently, an entire wall built out of sheepshanks" (Þorvaldur Thoroddsen, Ferðabók: Skýrslur um rannsóknir á Íslandi 1882-1898, 4 vols. [Kaupmannahöfn: Hið Íslenska fræðafelag, 1913-5], I, 41).

The Sigfús of Jónas's poem — whether he was real or fictive — seems to have gone in for this sort of decoration in a big way. But Jónas wondered if readers would be able to visualize Sigfús's magnificent gable, and added a note in the margin of the manuscript: "There needs to be an explanation here if anyone is going to get the point."

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

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