A Field of Literature Awaiting Harvest: A Look2 Essay on Stephan G. Stephansson
“I am a farmer, all I own
is in the sun and rain.”
In the uncultivated prairies of central Alberta, Stephan G. Stephansson (1853–1927) grew life into the land, raised a large family, helped build a thriving community, and composed more than 2,300 pages of poetry and 1,700 pages of prose. After long days in the fields, Stephansson spent his nights writing poetry, speeches, short stories, and letters. By 1923, with the encouragement and funding of friends, Stephansson published five volumes of poetry, which are aptly titled Andvökur (Wakeful Nights). A sixth volume was published posthumously in 1938. In addition to his impressive output, Stephansson’s descriptive, intricate, and intelligent works earned him the title of “the greatest poet of the Western world” by Harvard’s Frank Stanton Cawley and “Canada’s Leading Poet” by Canadian scholar Watson Kirkconnell.
Stephansson’s oeuvre covers a wide range of subject matter, including Alberta’s nature and beauty; the immigrant experience; reflections on Iceland, Stephansson’s motherland; his antiwar and atheist convictions; and his beliefs in hard work and in community. Because Stephansson has produced such a large body of work and is praised by scholars and writers familiar with Icelandic literature, one may ask why North American audiences repeatedly overlook him. Although Stephansson spent many of his days farming in the fields of Alberta, where English prevailed, he wrote almost exclusively in Icelandic. Due to the intricacies of Stephansson’s writing, fewer than one hundred poems and even fewer works of prose have been translated and published to date. A Stephansson translator and contemporary stated, “You are so Icelandic that English won’t have you. But maybe the ‘Englisher’ will take you anyway.” While the number of English translations is meager, these unveiled treasures offer an intriguing and expressive look at the early pioneering life and immigrant experience in Canada. Migrant writing has become a popular genre in contemporary literature, and it is Stephansson’s topics of immigration and “finding home” that lead—yet await inclusion in—this growing and important field.
Iceland is a country proud of its literary heritage and high literacy rate. Dating back to the creation of the medieval sagas and Codex Regius (Royal Book), storytelling, prose, poetry, and verse-making have been customary in the lives of both the educated and self-educated Icelanders. In 1857, in a small turf house in northern Iceland, four-year-old Stephansson was taught to read and write by his mother and uncle. Although books were scarce, Stephansson’s father was an avid reader and admired by many as a storyteller. With the exception of aid from his family and a few early years of education, Stephansson was self-taught in Danish, English, history, and literature. Inspired by nature, local events, and the traditional Icelandic sagas, Stephansson began composing poetry at the age of eleven, and reports of his literary talent soon spread throughout the region.
Through his informal exposure to poetry, Stephansson learned many of the intricate conventions and complex forms unique to Icelandic verse. In her book The Icelandic Voice in Canadian Letters (1997), scholar Daisy L. Neijmann explains the importance of form in Icelandic literature: “…form [is] an integral and traditional factor in the Icelandic literary tradition. Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason once complained that ‘Icelanders will always be more infatuated with the frame of the picture than the picture itself…’” As Stephansson grew as a writer, he both followed and experimented with the literary traditions he had known from childhood. Icelandic audiences have greatly admired his use of complicated forms, skilled language, and eclectic subject matter. But his poetic talent, so impressive in the original Icelandic, has ironically contributed to the difficulty of translating his work for a wider audience.
In her book Stephan G. Stephansson: Selected Prose and Poetry (1989), Icelandic Canadian Kristjana Gunnars states that only a fool would take on the task of attempting to translate Stephansson. Gunnars writes,
I was most hesitant to take on the task. A translator of Stephansson has every reason to be hesitant. He is a difficult poet. His command of Icelandic was exceptional, but he used that language in unique and often esoteric ways. He mixed genres and styles and moods within individual works, and he subverted and complicated word order. He frequently made up new words to express eclectic juxtapositions. A skilled ironist, he played with tone until the poem could be read in opposition to itself. He was an obscurantist who delighted in double and triple entendres. Yet he was also passionate and direct, not one to mince words. Carrying over into English all these simultaneous qualities is for the translator a challenge.
Gunnars is not the only translator who found the task of translating Stephansson’s work difficult. In July 1900, Winnipeg friend and writer Eggert Jóhannsson attempted to translate a number of Stephansson’s poems. Once complete, Jóhannsson sent his translations to Stephansson requesting his comments. Jóhannsson wrote: “How do you like the product? The alliteration is the toughest but I would rather not drop it, for that is where Icelandic lyric poetry excels in beauty. Unfortunately, the alliterative sounds can at times only survive translation at the expense of meaning and tone, in which case they must be abandoned” (Kristjana Gunnars, trans.).
As Jóhannsson observes, translators must make important decisions in order to render Stephansson’s words in English. Regardless of one’s ability to read Icelandic, these complexities emerge when one of Stephansson’s poems, “Árferði í Alberta,” appears alongside Gunnars’ translation, “Seasons in Alberta”:
Við förum á skautum og skíðum,
við, skapléttu fjallanna börn!
Og fleygjumst um fannir í hlíðum
og flughála svellið á tjörn
On skates and skis we run,
light spirited mountain children,
hurl about snowdrifts on hills
and flying-slick ice of a lake
“Árferði ì Alberta” is a playful poem about the erratic seasons of Alberta, where it is possible to skate and ski in July and lie in green grass in the winter months. In the first stanza of his four-stanza poem, Stephansson incorporates a number of poetic devices in a manner unique to traditional Icelandic poetry. In many poetic forms, such as the Icelandic rímur, devices that are mandatory include structural alliteration, end rhyme, and internal word rhyme. The structural alliteration in Stephansson’s poem involves the pairing of odd and even lines: two words in the first line that begin with the same letter are followed by one more near the beginning of the second line.
In “Seasons in Alberta,” Gunnars chooses to translate the text literally and forgo the auditory and structural conventions of Stephansson’s carefully crafted Icelandic original. While tone and mood are often rooted in poetic sound and structure, Gunnars’ four-stanza translation captures the poem’s gaiety and youthfulness through the actions of the children and the personification of “this young Alberta.” In stanzas two, three, and four, Stephansson refers to the old Icelandic month of Thorri, which lasts—roughly—from mid-January to the end of February. Gunnars preserves this cultural reference in order to illustrate Stephansson’s poetic blending of his two countries:
We lie in green grass,
drink fine weather in draughts
by the augury of leaves in our grove,
fledged rainclouds sail the air
In Western Icelandic Short Stories (1992), Kirsten Wolf astutely defines the literary works of Stephansson and other non-English-speaking immigrants as a “new brand” of literature influenced by two cultures and two lands. Wolf claims,
Western Icelandic literature remains distinct from its literary ancestor in that it reflects as well the varying themes and cultural and literary trends of its new environment, sometimes uneasily yoked to its literary heritage, at other times—and with varying success—yielding a new brand of writing strongly marked by an awareness of the two cultural streams of Iceland and of a newly adopted country.
This new brand or genre of writing, which integrates two cultures and languages into single works of poetry and prose, has lately attracted interest as a significant field of literature. Although these works require translation, they are as relevant to North America’s literary heritage as the works of Canada’s great, early-immigrant writers, including Susanna Moodie, Robert W. Service, Fredrick P. Grove, and Martha Ostenso. Canadian philosopher and novelist John Ralston Saul argues that despite Canada’s two official languages, “[Canada’s] culture has been invented in many languages.” Furthermore, “Many of our greatest poets writing in the two national languages immigrated to Canada in their teens, just the way Stephansson did. And we rightly embrace them with enthusiasm. The difference is not one of experience or ideas or ethics or talent. It is merely one of language.”
In 1873, at the age of twenty, Stephansson and his family—along with 150 other emigrants—waited in the northern city of Akureyri to board the Queen for their journey to North America. Due to Iceland’s poor economy, harsh winters, sheep epidemics, and volcanic eruptions, the country experienced an exodus of nearly six hundred people between 1870 and 1874. Before departing Akureyri, Stephansson’s father submitted one of his son’s poems to the editor of Nordanfari, a local paper. With its August 9 publication, Stephansson became a published poet. Like several of his later poems, “Kveðja” (“Farewell”) expresses the relentless passage of time and the sorrow of leaving friends and country.
Although Stephansson was leaving his motherland and the traditions he had known since childhood, the young poet was moving toward a hopeful future. Daisy L. Neijmann writes, “If Canada stands for a glorious future…Iceland represents the glorious past with all its legends, myths and values.” Moreover, “immigrants find themselves in uneasy suspension between the two countries that claim their loyalties.” These conflicting elements, Neijmann argues, are repeatedly found in the literary works of Stephansson and other Western Icelandic writers. In his 1891 poem “The Exile,” Stephansson expresses this feeling of suspension between his native and adoptive lands:
Somehow it has come upon me,
I’ve no fatherland;
Though my heart with love is bounded
With a lasting band
To my native soil that blessed me
As a growing boy,
When the world its shining glory
Gave me hope and joy.
Never could my foster mother
Take my mother’s place;
Always there was something lacking,
She could not replace.
I have yet to know the meaning of her legacy,
Always there’s an awkward feeling
‘Twixt herself and me…
(Paul Sigurdson, trans.)
Stephansson’s unsettledness remains with him throughout his life; as his later works reveal, however, Stephansson learns to overcome this sentiment as he identifies and strengthens his beliefs, establishes familial roots, and provides significant contributions to his new community and country.
Upon his 1873 arrival in America, Stephansson and his family settled in Wisconsin, where he married his first cousin, Helga Jónsdóttir, and had his first of eight children. In 1880, the poet and his family relocated to Pembina County (later known as Gardar, North Dakota), and again engaged in the arduous work of building a cabin and clearing, sowing, and harvesting the land. Stephansson was acquainting himself not only with American farming techniques but also with American writers, such as Emerson, Parker, Thoreau, and Whitman. In his groundbreaking biography, Wakeful Nights, Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic-Canadian Poet (2012), Viðar Hreinsson writes, “[Stephan] must have turned the pages in astonishment, reading poetry with its suspicious lack of rhyme, fascinating licentiousness, strangely long lines, periods, exclamation marks, light kisses and hugs, individualism, and sexuality.” While farming, family, and community occupied much of Stephansson’s time, they also provided inspiration. In his poem “At Close of Day” (1883), Stephansson expresses his quiet content for his life as a farmer and poet. He is poor in earthly goods, yet rich in spirit and blessed by the beauty of his “golden” surroundings, even in the final stanza when he acknowledges his ephemeral place in this world:
When sunny hills are draped in velvet shadows
By summer night
And Lady Moon hangs out among the tree tops
Her crescent bright;
And when the welcome evening breeze is cooling
My fevered brow
And all who toil rejoice that blessed night time
Approaches now —
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And when the last of all my days is over,
The last page turned —
And, whatsoever shall be deemed in wages
That I have earned,
In such a mood I hope to be composing
My sweetest lay —
And then extend my hand to all the world
And pass away.
(Jakobína Johnson, trans.)
His Western Icelandic community often called upon Stephansson’s literary talents: he wrote and directed plays, presented lectures and addresses, and provided poetry readings at social gatherings. Perhaps one of the most significant literary enterprises initiated by Stephansson and other members of the community was the local, handwritten newspaper, Fjalla-Eyvindur. According to Hreinsson, Stephansson understood the importance of bringing local and national news to the community in the Icelandic language: “Since only a small minority of the Icelandic immigrants understood English…Icelanders in America were in peril of falling behind in the developing culture of the world.” Stephansson’s contributions included articles about education and the establishment of a local school, as well as women’s rights and new farming techniques. Of course, Stephansson also contributed poetry, which was often progressive and didactic in nature.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Winnipeg had become home to more than one thousand Icelandic settlers. In 1885, Stephansson traveled to the Canadian city to attend the first Icelandic Lutheran Synod conference. Stephansson hoped to discuss women’s rights, but was instead met with opposition and idle gossip. From the young age of fourteen, when he was required to learn and recite the catechism, Stephansson struggled with the rigid and seemingly nonsensical doctrine of the church. The narrow-mindedness that pervaded the Winnipeg conference, as well as the bickering between the local congregations and within his own congregation, drove Stephansson to find an alternative to the church. His sentiment toward religion is clearly stated in his 1914 epigram “God Under a Magnifying Glass”:
I quite expect that very soon
I’ll weary of this fussing
How holy men are splitting hairs
When God they keep discussing.
(Paul Sigurdson, trans.)
Stephansson’s readings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Green Ingersoll, and Felix Adler helped reinforce his beliefs in self-reliance, science-based logic, conservation of nature, and humanitarianism. In 1888, Stephansson and other Gardar residents established the Icelandic Cultural Society, which aimed to support humanity, research, and spiritual freedom. Members used the Winnipeg-based newspapers, Lögberg and Heimskringla, as a means to introduce their society and share their liberal beliefs. Before long, those in support of the church, particularly the Lutheran ministers, challenged the Cultural Society via these same newspapers. Furthermore, some members of the Cultural Society—those liberal in thought, though believers in God—shied away from Stephansson’s radical ideas. According to Hreinsson, Stephansson believed that one should decidedly “submit to the word of God or reject it.”
In 1889, Stephansson, Helga, three sons, and Stephansson’s mother sold the Gardar farm and moved to Alberta, Canada, where Stephansson hoped to begin a new life away from the constant religious battles and the narrow-mindedness (and often inebriation) of his neighbors. While their few belongings traveled to Calgary by ox and wagon, Stephansson’s family proceeded by rail. The journey across the Canadian prairies provided Stephansson with new topics for his writing, pieces that illustrate the migrant experience and the development of a new nation, and of the changes inflicted upon Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
Stephansson and other Western Icelanders from North Dakota, Winnipeg, Calgary, and northern Iceland scouted land along the banks of the Medicine River, one hundred miles north of Calgary. Stephansson built his home on a site with fertile soil, rolling hills, and a view of the Rocky Mountains to the west. The poet drew great inspiration from his natural surroundings, resulting in such poems as “The River” (1900), “Toast to Alberta” (1893), “The Spruce Forest” (1893), and “Plovers in a Field” (1895). Stephansson’s poems were seldom a mere description of the Alberta landscape, but, instead, a melding of nature and the human condition. In his allegorical poem “The Spruce Forest,” the sturdy, green spruce, which survives the winter “when the earth is deathly white,” is representative of the hardy men and women who transcend the hardships and solitude of pioneer life. Stephansson submitted his nature poems to Heimskringla, and with the well-received publication of “Klettafjöll” (“The Rocky Mountains”) he earned the befitting title of “Klettafjallaskáldið”—“The Poet of the Rocky Mountains.”
In addition to his new surroundings, the poet-farmer found joy in the hard work required to tame and till the land. Because of the extremely cold winters and unpredictable frosts, it took several years and numerous experimental crops to produce a successful harvest. Not only were the settlers cultivating the land, but they were also cultivating a community without the assistance of the church or government. Tindastoll School was built in 1891, and, in time, two more schools, a creamery, a library, a town hall, a hardware store, and a much-needed bridge across the Medicine River came to fruition in the settlement known as Markerville. While the settlement grew, so did Stephansson’s family and the poet’s collection of poems, short stories, and essays. Stephansson had become a regular contributor to the Winnipeg newspapers, Öldin, Lögberg, and Heimskringla, and with the support of Öldin’s editor, Jón Ólafsson, a collection of wilderness poems were compiled and published in a book entitled Uti a vidavangi (Out in the Wilderness). The poet-farmer sent his little book to friends and family in Iceland and in North Dakota, and some were even sold. According to Hreinsson, this book, which was written in Icelandic, “is the first volume of poetry in the literary history of Alberta.”
Reading and writing literature was not merely a pastime for Stephansson; instead, it was a compulsion that demanded his time and talent. While his farm, family, and community were priorities, he would wake at night or run in from the fields to write a verse, a letter, or a fleeting idea:
I started farming many years ago. At that time my only tools were an axe and a shovel and I had 75 cents in my pocket. This has improved: there are many more tools and the cash may be more or less. What is hard is having the urge to write with no tools to work with: no essential reference books to aid the memory; no modern literature to indicate what the trends are. And it’s regrettable at times to have to rush out and work just as poems are raining into one’s head; good ideas one wants to use while they are fresh. They have to be grabbed when they come, but circumstances don’t permit it. (Kristjana Gunnars, trans.)
In his 1906 letter to Eggert Jóhannsson—a Winnipeg friend, editor, and literary supporter—Stephansson focuses on the “regrettable” instances in which farm work must interrupt his ability to write. His description of good ideas “that have to be grabbed when they come” and his need for a private space in which to contemplate them may remind today’s readers of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she describes her frustration with losing an idea: “the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out…[And any distraction or delay then sends] my little fish into hiding.” In the small Alberta farmhouse, Stephansson in fact had a room of his own, a small study—quite unusual for a farmer at that time, and a sign of his dedication to writing—situated outside of his and Helga’s tiny bedroom. It is here that Stephansson spent his stolen moments among his books, framed pictures, and literary compositions and contemplations.
Stephansson was not alone in his passion for writing and analyzing literature; Eggert Jóhannsson, Jón Ólafsson, and the poet Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason had become part of Stephansson’s literary circle, albeit an epistolary one. While this small circle of Western Icelanders discussed their opinions and shared their works, critics and writers in North America and Iceland were beginning to take notice of the writer known as The Poet of the Rocky Mountains. In 1898, Stephansson wrote a long poem entitled “Á ferð og flugi” (“En Route”), which incorporates Icelandic folklore, Stephansson’s experiences in North America, morality, hypocrisy, heroism, sexual scandal, and the suspension or lack of identity experienced by immigrants. Stephansson sent his poem to Jón Ólafsson, who had since returned to Iceland. Again, Ólafsson recognized the promise of Stephansson’s work and published a book of this and other poems for the Icelandic readership.
“Á ferð og flugi” tells the life story of an Icelandic immigrant girl who is sent to a Canadian mining town to work and provide for her family. Ragnheiður’s beauty and innocence are quickly exploited as she is forced into prostitution. The town’s people turn against the young girl, while dismissing their own moral failings. After Ragnheiður loses her life to save an infant in a train crash, a hypocritical pastor and self-righteous mother (among others) choose, once again, to associate themselves with the selfless and heroic girl for their own personal gain. “Á ferð og flugi” encountered mixed reviews in both Iceland and North America. Stephansson’s pessimistic portrayals of materialism, self-importance, identity, and religion highlighted issues that many Western Icelanders did not want to acknowledge. Others found Stephansson’s subject matter refreshing, even daring, and thought his observations amounted to an astute account of society. As readers debated the publication’s merits, Stephan G. Stephansson quickly found himself at the forefront of Icelandic literature. According to Hreinsson, Ólafsson was “convinced that the future would acknowledge this unschooled farmer as one of the greatest Icelandic poets of the 19th century.” Ólafsson was right.
Stephansson found great pleasure in his work on the farm, particularly in the early days when physical strength and stamina were on his side. After years spent in the Alberta fields, however, Stephansson’s body began to show signs of age and fatigue: Stephansson’s slight frame began to stoop; his thick, black hair and large mustache started to thin and gray; and his youthful blue eyes were now sunken and tired. At the age of fifty-two, Stephansson received an act of kindness that gave not only repose to his weary body but also crucial encouragement to his literary career. In 1905, Stephansson’s good friend and literary supporter, Eggert Jóhannsson, proposed to raise funds in order to publish his works. When Stephansson came to terms with the remarkable offer, he humbly responded to Jóhansson with a few terms and requirements: Stephansson required one year to edit his poems and money in order to relieve him of his chores, and he requested that his poems be published in Iceland in a collection of smaller, less expensive books. Friends and supporters from the Icelandic Cultural Society, Gardar, and Winnipeg formed a committee that raised enough funds to support Stephansson and print two thousand books: one thousand for Iceland and one thousand for Canada. The project began in December 1906 and by the summer of 1909, Andvökur (Wakeful Nights) was printed in two volumes with a third printed in May 1910, a total of 880 pages. From November 1908 to February 1909, Stephansson embarked on a reading tour of twenty-two Icelandic settlements across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Minnesota, and in Gardar, North Dakota. Stephansson’s devoted publishing committee organized the well-attended tour.
Stephansson was a pacifist. When war hit Europe and 1,300 Icelandic Canadians enlisted to show their loyalty to their new country, Stephansson criticized the world’s leaders and their motivation for war. According to Hreinsson, Stephansson believed that those most courageous were able to “withstand the dominant mob mentality.” Lögberg and Heimskringla reported news from the battlefield in the form of letters, articles, and lists of casualties. Although both papers published Stephansson’s pacifist poetry, he believed that they also practiced censorship. Reports about casualty numbers and soldiers’ conditions appeared markedly more optimistic than the accounts of American newspapers: instead of cruelty and horror, the Winnipeg papers reported heroism and health. Stephansson’s short poem, “In Wartime” (1916), expresses the poet’s disgust for the atrocities and hypocrisies of war:
In Europe’s reeking slaughter-pen
They mince the flesh of murdered men,
While swinish merchants, snout in trough,
Drink all the bloody profits off!
(Watson Kirkconnell, trans.)
The 1915 poem “Vopnahlé” (“Ceasefire” or “Battle-Pause”) is one of Stephansson’s longest and most provocative poems. His poem, like war itself, follows little form or rhyme, and is seemingly unbalanced in the length of its lines and stanzas. This twenty-eight-page epic was inspired by the occasional ceasefires that humanity permitted in the battlefields. “Ceasefire” takes the form of a conversation between an older and younger soldier from opposing sides. The enemy soldiers quickly take on a father-son relationship and discuss their personal histories, the purpose and hypocrisies of war, church involvement, and their hope for peace:
“Your leading men have served you as our poets,
Who through the years have sung of peace on earth,
Of trust, compassion, love and all the joys
Of Christian virtue. But when the war broke out
They changed, shouting in unison to hold the cause,
From the first rousing shot and call to arms,
Until the battle spread to many lands.”
(Paul Sigurdson, trans.)
Because of the antiwar and anti-Christian sentiments in “Ceasefire,” Stephansson believed the poem would have been heavily censored if he had sought publication in Canada. Instead, he sent it to a friend in Iceland, who had it published in the prominent literary journal Skírnir. In 2011, nearly one hundred years after the poem was written, W. S. Jordan of Calgary, Alberta, composed an opera (overture and libretto) based on this momentous work. An emotional reading of “Vopnahlé” was performed at the University of Calgary on March 8, 2011.
Stephansson’s life abounded with contradictions: He was poor yet rich in spirit and intellect; uneducated yet literate, informed, and opinionated; disliked by many for his politics yet admired by many more; and small in stature yet large in his literary presence. Indeed, his formidable body of work may be what inspired Iceland’s scholars to call their poet back home during the Great War. In January 1917, Stephansson was invited to Iceland by Dr. Guðmundur Finnbogason, a friend and the Director of Iceland’s National Library. Finnbogason states in a letter to the poet, “what a great pleasure it would be for us, your compatriots, if we might just once see you here at home in your motherland” (quoted in Hreinsson). Stephansson humbly accepted the offer and, through the fundraising efforts of the Icelandic Youth Organization, intellectuals, friends, poets, and admirers, embarked on a nineteen-week journey through Iceland. The sixty-three-year-old poet visited more than thirty-three locations—primarily on horseback—where he gave speeches and readings, attended dinner banquets and social events, and visited with family, old friends, and new. Stephansson’s small and weathered appearance often surprised his audiences, but quickly his eloquence and intellect confirmed his identity as The Poet of the Rocky Mountains. Stephansson captured many of his experiences during this time in verse, including “From on Board Ship,” “Along the Coast,” “The Homecoming,” “By the Moorings,” and “Berry Moor.” Before leaving Iceland on October 24, 1917, Stephansson left a manuscript containing the poems he had written on his journey. Heimledis was published within the year.
Stephansson left another manuscript in Iceland that didn’t find its way to Canada until September 1920. Vígslóði (Trail of War) is a collection of Stephansson’s pacifist poetry written prior to his visit. Despite Iceland’s favorable reviews of the book, Lögberg and Heimskringla viciously condemned Stephansson. The Attorney General of Manitoba, Thomas H. Johnson, went so far as to report Vígslóði to the police in the hopes of having the imprint confiscated. According to Hreinsson, “the RCMP, finding it strange that an elderly farmer in Alberta, writing in Icelandic, would be that dangerous, accordingly did nothing.” Regardless of the personal attacks, Stephansson received many letters of support and the book sold out in North America. In the foreword to Hreinsson’s 2012 biography, John Ralston Saul contends, “The most important Canadian war poetry—or in his case antiwar poetry—was written in Icelandic by an Alberta farmer near Red Deer.”
The same committee that published the first three volumes of Andvökur encouraged Stephansson to publish his travel poems, war poems, and a long verse entitled “Kolbeinslag” that was already published in Iceland. Despite the committee’s previous success and the decision to print in Winnipeg, however, fundraising was difficult because of the prevailing controversy. In December 1923, two months after the poet’s seventieth birthday, two more volumes of Andvökur were eventually published. Hreinsson writes, “Andvökur I-V was now the largest anthology of poetry by an Icelandic poet, a fitting memorial to…a hard-working farmer’s compelling urge to express himself.” Both Lögberg and Heimskringla gave the new publications positive reviews and a sixth volume was published posthumously in 1938.
In February and March of 1927, upon the request of a Winnipeg composer, Stephansson wrote lyrics for the long cantata “Þiðranda-kvidða” (“The Lay of Þiðrandi”). Five months later, on August 10, 1927, the poet-farmer passed away. In his poem “At the Forestry Station,” Stephansson writes, “Monuments crumble. Works of mind survive / The gales of time.” One hopes that Stephansson’s artistic intellect will survive the gales of time in his remarkable collection of poems and prose, which tells the story of an Icelandic-Canadian immigrant, poet, farmer, father, and community leader. In 1953, a monument was erected in his honor on the Arnarstapi hill in northern Iceland, a complement to other memorials in Canada and North Dakota. In 1982, the Stephansson farmhouse was deemed an Alberta historic site and has since been renovated and opened to the public for viewing and interpretive programs. In addition to monuments and historic sites, Stephan V. Benediktson, Stephansson’s grandson, established the Stephan G. Stephansson award for poetry, which is awarded annually by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. Perhaps the most significant contribution to the memory and works of the poet-farmer is Viðar Hreinsson’s biography Wakeful Nights, Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic-Canadian Poet (2012). Originally written in Icelandic in two volumes, this book invites English-speaking audiences into the life and literature of Stephansson.
In the study of translation theory, the “bridge” is a common metaphor used in reference to translation: the connection or “carrying across” of meaning between one language and culture and another. Although the bridge between Stephansson’s oeuvre and English-speaking audiences has been slow in the making, there have been talented contributions and hope for advancement. Stephansson highly admired Seattle poet Jakobína Johnson for her translations. He stated in a letter written in 1918, “so far, she is the only one who translates like a poet” (Kristjana Gunnars, trans.). Presumably, Stephansson’s collaboration with Johnson and other translators indicates the poet’s desire to reach out to English-speaking audiences. In addition to Johnson’s translations in Northern Lights (1959), Gunnars’ Selected Prose & Poetry, and Wolf and Árny Hjaltadóttir’s collection of translated prose in Western Icelandic Stories, smaller collections and individual translations have been published. In 1982, the Stephan G. Stephansson Homestead Restoration Committee published Stephan G. Stephansson: Selected Translations from Andvökur, which offers the most comprehensive collection of Stephansson’s poems, addresses, and letters that date back to his early years as an Icelandic emigrant.
In April 2017, the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding (VIC)—under the auspices of UNESCO—was launched at the University of Iceland. The mission of this center is to help preserve languages, promote multilingualism, and gain a stronger understanding of cultural diversity and migration. In recognition of Stephansson’s instrumental contributions to Icelandic and North American literary and cultural history, the center announced the establishment of the Stephan G. Stephansson Endowment Fund. This new fund will finance the near-future Stephan G. Stephansson Professor position at the Vigdís International Centre. A key component of this position is the study of migrant literature, such as Stephansson’s works, to better understand the multifaceted experiences of North America’s Icelandic immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This particular area of study, in turn, will strengthen the bond between Iceland and North America, and contribute to today’s dialogue regarding worldwide migration and multiculturalism.
Stephansson spent forty-four years tilling the land in North America. He wrote the majority of his works in his small farmhouse amid the Canadian prairies, and his body is now resting in the Alberta earth. It is an unfortunate misconception that Stephansson’s works, because they were written in Icelandic, are to be shared only among Icelanders and their descendants. Through ongoing efforts in translation and education, and through the acceptance of non-English North American texts, Stephan G. Stephansson may finally be embraced as one of our own literary greats.