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Hulda: Pioneer of Prose Poetry

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

By Natalie Guttormsson

Portrait of Hulda
Hulda Unnur Benediktsdóttir

Unnur Benediktsdóttir (I241694) was born in 1881 in Laxárdalur to parents Benedikt Jónsson and Guðný Halldórsdóttir. Benedikt was a nationally renowned, cultural figure, and his home was a cultural center in Northern Iceland, housing the county library as well. Subsequently, Unnur was well educated in her childhood, receiving private lessons in Danish, English, and German. By the age of twenty, Unnur had already had poems published in women’s literary magazines using the name Hulda, which she then used as her pen name for the rest of her career. She was a prolific writer, publishing more than 10 works of poetry, prose, fairy tales, short stories, and sketches in her lifetime. She also wrote a two-volume novel, Dalafólk, which was written partly in response to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People (Sjálfstætt Fólk). She believed his book was an attack on the morals of the farming community, and that her novel was a more accurate depiction of rural life. Although in turn, her novel was criticized as romanticizing rural life.

Hulda’s first collection of poems (Kvæði) was published in 1909 and received both praise for her richly detailed descriptions of nature and criticism for focusing too much on nature as a subject matter. She was also patronized by her male contemporaries for writing too much about “feminine concerns”, such as the yearning for foreign places and the feelings of constraint and obligation. A recurring theme in her work is the constant battle between the perceived freedom of childhood dreams and the duty and expectations of family life. Hulda’s characters often find joy and peace while outside in nature, true lovers meet in secret in the woods, and freedom is only felt while in the wilderness. It is the duties of the home, and society that tear her characters away from their fantasies and longings. These themes were probably pulled from Hulda’s own life, the struggle between wanting to travel, to write more, to be free from responsibilities of the home, while maintaining the proper role in society as a dutiful mother and a wife. Hulda had four children, one daughter who died within a few months of being born, and three boys. It is not difficult to imagine why Unnur chose the name “Hulda” meaning the “hidden one” (huldafólk) as her pen name.

Hulda's House in Reykjavík
Hulda's Reykjavík Home

Hulda lived most her life in the North of Iceland, her childhood in Laxádalur and her adulthood in Húsavík, but she spent the last years of her life in Reykjavík. Her last house of residence was at Mímisvegur 4, present day location pictured above, but unlike other historic homes of writers and poets, there is no plaque or marker... yet?

Hulda is credited as reviving the poetic form Þurlur, which was seen as a more feminine form of poetry. Her collection of poems, Myndir, was one of the first examples of prose poems in Icelandic, but her contribution to this new genre is often overlooked. Throughout her work she both uses traditional forms and more experimental forms of poetry. To read more about Hulda, see the links in the Sources section below.


English / Enska

Icelandic / Íslenska

1 Comment

Such an interesting article. I had not heard of this woman before. Good research!


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