33. Above the Ford (Að vaði liggur leiðin)

Color photo of horses at ford, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Horses crossing a ford.

Above the Ford

Að vaði liggur leiðin

The cliffs on life's swift current
are cleft by shallow valleys.
Masses have queued to cross there —
crowds of billy-goat milkers.
We'll go upstream, God willing,
to walk the hawk-high ridges
and pitch ourselves — impetuous —
plumb in the roaring torrent!

Að vaði liggur leiðin,
lífs á fljótið, en brjóta
háa bakka hvekkir;
hafurmylkingjar fylkja;
yfir ættum að klifa
ofar þá, ef guð lofar;
drögum ei par að duga,
og dengjum oss í strenginn!

Form:A single strophe in a modified type of draughent (see Bbk40).
Manuscript:ÍB 13 fol., where it has no title (facsimile KJH226; image).
First published:1929 (1D143; image) under the title "Að vaði liggur leiðin —" ("The road leads to a ford —").

Commentary:        A literal translation of the poem is: "The road leads to a ford on the river of life, where gullies cut into the steep banks. Ranks of he-goat milkers gather there. Therefore we ought to mount up higher, God permitting. Let us not hesitate a moment to show our courage and dash ourselves into the current." On the possible significance of the central images of the poem, see the commentary to "On New Year's Day (1845)."

Male goats (hafrar) cannot be milked. "Billy-goat milkers" (hafurmylkingar) are therefore people who attempt to do something that is foolish because it is impossible. In classical antiquity the phrase "to milk goats" (mulgere hircos) was a proverbial expression for futile effort;1 Jónas knew it either from Virgil's Eclogues (III.91), which were sometimes read in Hallgrímur Scheving's Latin class at Bessastaðir,2 or from Lucian of Samosata's Demonax (28), which may have been among the unnamed dialogues by this author read in Sveinbjörn Egilsson's Greek class.3 (According to Lucian, the philosopher Demonax once observed two absurd philosophical disputants arguing and remarked that one of them was milking a he-goat, the other catching the milk in a sieve.)

The "river" in Jónas's poem is probably not simply "death" but "life/death," i.e., the challenge of living and dying with energy and authenticity. People who hope to find a safe and easy way across this river, one that keeps them from getting their feet wet, are trying to milk he-goats, i.e., to do what cannot be done — and is cowardly besides.

Hannes Pétursson has argued that this poem was written to criticize the abstinence frenzy that gripped Jónas's Fjölnir colleagues in 1844, and this explains why Brynjólfur and Konráð omitted it from the first collected edition of Jónas's poems in 1847. The suggestion is plausible (and it is certainly pleasing to think of "billy-goat milkers" as a sort of code-phrase from their school days, aimed here by Jónas at his two wayward friends) but it severely limits the meaning of the poem.

Bibliography:        Hannes Pétursson's chapter "Ofar vaðinu" ("Above the Ford") in his book Kvæðafylgsni (Kf) is essential for understanding the background and significance of this poem.


1 I.e., "thöricht, unvernunftig handeln"; see A. Otto, Die Sprichwörter und sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von B. G. Teubner, 1890), p. 164 (s.v. hircus). In modern European languages the phrase is attested in German, Danish, and Swedish (see Kf210).

2 An Icelandic translation of the Eclogues, made by Hallgrímur and dictated by him to his students, survives in a copy (Lbs. 624 8vo) made in 1826 by Jónas's friend Tómas Sæmundsson.

3 See EPM28. Hannes Pétursson is wrong, incidentally, in thinking that Virgil derived the phrase from Lucian (Kf210).

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

Jonas' MS flourish for the end of a poem For technical assistance:
Library Technology Group
University of Wisconsin-Madison
General Library System