Stephan G. Stephansson

Presented by Moorea Gray, October 17, 2017

To a small, discerning group of scholars and readers of Icelandic literature, Stephan G. Stephansson is known as “the greatest poet of the Western world,” “Canada’s leading poet”, and “the most important Canadian war [poet].” Because Stephansson wrote almost exclusively in Icelandic, the majority of his descriptive, intelligent, and carefully crafted works are inaccessible to English audiences. Less than one hundred poems and even fewer works of prose have been translated to date; however, each translation offers an entertaining and enlightening view into the life of an Alberta settler and contributes to the growing and important field of migrant literature.

Stephansson was born in 1853 in northern Iceland and immigrated to North America in 1873. Stephansson married his first cousin, Helga Jónsdóttir, and, after sixteen years in Wisconsin and North Dakota, he and his family settled along the Medicine River in what is now known as Markerville, Alberta. Stephansson found great pleasure in farming, raising his family, and contributing to the growth of his community.

This self-educated farmer-poet worked in the fields during the day and spent his free moments and late nights writing poetry, prose, speeches, letters, and short stories. Stephansson’s oeuvre includes topics on Alberta’s nature and beauty, the immigrant experience, reflections on Iceland, his anti-war and atheist convictions, and his beliefs in hard work and community. Titles of his translated poems include “The Exile,” “Seasons in Alberta,” “God Under a Magnifying Glass,” “The River,” “The Mountain,” “Plovers in a Field,” and “En Route.”

With the encouragement and financial support of friends in North America and Iceland, Stephansson published six volumes of poetry entitled Andvökur (Sleepless Nights). In addition, Stephansson published smaller collections, which were sold in both North America and Iceland.

The Icelandic-Canadian poet passed away in 1927; yet, his memory lives on through his writing, the restored Stephansson House in Markerville, the Stephan G. Stephansson award for poetry (Writers’ Guild of Alberta), and in Viðar Hreinsson’s biography, Wakeful Nights, Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic-Canadian Poet (2012).  Books of translations include Stephan G. Stephansson: Selected Prose & Poetry (1989) by Kristjana Gunnars and Stephan G. Stephansson: Selected Translations from Andvökur (1982) published by the Stephan G. Stephansson Homestead Restoration Committee.

The Mountain (1893)

You towering mountain that once had your birth
In ancient convulsions of old mother earth:
You catch every morning the sun’s early rays
And turn to each sunset your snow-mantled face.

At dawn every morning the deep valleys thirst
For the rays of the sun that illumine you first,
And read from your face in the sun’s early glow
The omens for sunlight or rainfall or snow.

But weatherwise mountain, the years have left trace
Of the keen tooth of time on your glorious face.
The glacier’s flow and the hurricane’s rage
Have worn on your features the furrows of age:
And the grandeur of granite that gloried your prime
Will be ground into dust in new eons of time.

That your grandeur will level to lowland I know
And sadly acknowledge that this must be so!
But a nation of men will enjoy the new land
Bequeathed by time’s busy, unhurrying hand,
And they will rejoice that your crag-gendered soil
Gives gainful rewards for their hours of toil.

And is it an unworthy fate to bestow
Your substance on life in the lowlands below?

Translated by Thorvaldur Johnson