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The Power of Icelandic Poetry

by Sverrir Sigurdsson

Works of art, such as music, literature, and paintings, have been known to move a country to action, change social attitudes, or lift the human spirit to a higher plane. In Iceland or wherever its people roam, poetry is the spark that fires up the nation.

On July 18, 1888, a poem appeared in Lögberg, a newspaper serving the Icelandic diaspora in Canada. (At the time it was separate from Heimskringla). The first line of the poem, which is about Iceland, is Volaða land (Miserable land). Its provenance is uncertain, but it is sometimes attributed to Matthías Jochumsson, the author of Iceland's national anthem.

Here is my loose translation of the first stanza:

Miserable land

Its hunger-laced pathetic paths.

Are paced by processions of beggars.

Miserable land.

The ten stanzas that follow are an elegant piece of dark art. They depict a pitiable country with useless lava fields, iceberg-filled fjords, and scores of starving people too helpless to seek a better future.

The opening stanzas of  Volaða land  as published in 1888
The opening stanzas of Volaða land as published in 1888

All hell broke loose after the publication. Icelandic papers pounded on the newly established Lögberg for exaggerating the harshness of life in Iceland. Writers on both sides of the ocean lambasted each other with unforgiving articles either for or against emigration. A scholar in Iceland wrote an essay asserting that the emigrants to the West were criminals and hoodlums anyway, so good riddance to them! An Icelandic Member of Parliament who promoted emigration responded by saying the scholar should be stripped and fastened to a pillory for public ridicule and abuse. Defamation lawsuits from both sides ensued.

What perhaps smarted most was that there was a large kernel of truth in the poem. Iceland in the 19th century was indeed a challenging place to live. The volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783 killed off most of the livestock, causing a quarter of the human population to perish from starvation. Before the nation had time to catch its breath, new volcanic blasts continued their devastating blows: Eyjafjalljökull in 1821, Hekla in 1845, Katla in 1823 and 1860, and Askja and Mývatnsöræfi simultaneously in 1875.

Giving Iceland the name “land of fire and ice,” the two opposing elements joined hands to wreak havoc on the island. During the early parts of 1802 and 1803, vast flotillas of icebergs locked much of the country in their grip, leaving only Faxaflói in the west open for shipping. Snow and ice covered the hayfields well into the summer, resulting in severe shortages of winter fodder for farm animals. Livestock starved to death, and famine for humans followed. Variations on this theme played out every few years for the remainder of the century.

Throughout the ordeal, the mother country, Denmark, failed to come to the aid of its subjects. Furthermore, it continued to strangle Iceland’s economy by monopolizing the colony’s trade. Until 1855, Iceland was allowed to trade only with Denmark and, of course, on terms advantageous to the Danes. A major blow came during the English-Danish War of 1808 when British raiders halted all trade between Iceland and Denmark and looted the Icelandic Treasury. These events drove the population further into destitution.

The population endured and endured, suffering not only poverty but also diseases. An endemic plague of intestinal worms sapped the health of the population. Tuberculosis ran rampant in rain-soaked dwellings. A measle epidemic in 1846 killed 2,000 of the country´s 70,000 inhabitants.

The country´s misfortunes reached a new low in the 1870s. A fresh cycle of icebergs and volcanic eruptions pushed the country deeper into the tunnel of misery. Finally, some had had enough, and thus began the exodus to North America, starting with 1,400 in 1876. Overall, it is estimated that 6,000 Icelanders emigrated to North America during the 1870s and 1880s.

At the same time, a faint glow began to appear at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the activism of nationalists such as Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845). A scientist and poet, he and his fellow Icelandic students established a periodical called Fjölnir while studying in Copenhagen. It carried many of Jónas’ poetry and short stories rallying Icelanders to look with optimism toward the future. He reminded Icelanders of the great deeds of their forefathers. In his words, those first settlers made the island flourish. He was hopeful their descendants could do the same once they had regained independence and were free to steer their own destiny.

Like most Icelanders of my era, I can recite by heart the first stanza of his best-known poem, which is commonly called Ísland Farsælda Frón (Iceland, Fortunate Isle).

Iceland, fortunate isle!

Our beautiful, bountiful mother!

Where are your fortune and fame,

freedom and virtue of old?

This poem became the torch that lit the way for Iceland’s revival. Earlier, much of the country's population had accepted its place as a downtrodden Danish outpost. Danish became the language of the elite, and many prominent Icelanders changed their surnames from an Icelandic patronymic to a Danishized family name. Þovaldsson became Thorvaldsen, Jónsson became Jensen, and so on. But after Jónas´s lofty poetry, attitudes began to change. Powerful voices filled with pride and nationalism demanded change. Jón Sigurðsson (1811 – 1879) led the country's political fight for independence during the middle of the century. At a meeting of Alþingi in 1851, he led the assemblymen to reject the imperious demands of the Danish Crown unanimously. Every Icelander knows the battle cry “Vér mótmælum allir” (We protest in unison). These struggles resulted in the adoption of a new constitution in 1874, which gave Iceland legal and fiscal autonomy, an important step toward the country’s independence 70 years later.

The year of the “Miserable Land” poem, 1888, became a turning point in the country’s emigration history. Although 1,160 persons left Iceland that year, the discussion spurred by the poem had inflamed public opinion. In 1893, when two North American immigration agents arrived in Iceland, extolling life in North America, the two never managed to address the assembled audiences in Reykjavík and Akranes. Shouts and blaring trumpets shut down the meetings before they started. The poem that excoriated Iceland in Lögberg had backlashed.

In the 20th century, the only emigration item that I can find is the permanent return to Iceland of 29 disappointed emigrés in 1907.

While poetry can divide, it can also unite. One person’s poem soured the relationship between West Icelanders and their cousins back home, but soon after, another person’s poems sweetened it again. In the year 1900, Icelandic newspapers noted that the revered skáld, or poet, Stephan G. Stephansson from Markerville, Alberta, had published a booklet of poems called Á ferð og flugi (On the go). In 1917, when Stephansson visited Iceland, the authorities and population welcomed him like royalty. Local papers were ablaze with details of his homecoming. A decade later, the papers printed a most laudatory obituary upon his death.

Poetry and its creators are indeed powerful forces in Iceland.


In writing this article, I have consulted a book series on Icelandic events that the publisher Iðunn began publishing in the 1950s. The title of the two books in this series covering the 1800s is Öldin Sem Leið (The Past Century). The 20th Century is covered in several volumes of Öldin Okkar (Our Century). Each book is a digest of annual news.


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