Saturday, March 12, 2022 — The Unquiet Spirit That Dreamed Best

I’ve always believed in the dig­ni­ty of “qui­et patri­o­tism”. The more some­one waves a flag or shouts slo­gans, the more sus­pi­cious I tend to be that their “patri­o­tism” is half-baked or fraudu­lant. I do not, for exam­ple, think that any Trump sup­port­er can claim to be a patri­ot­ic Amer­i­can, no mat­ter how much red-white-and-blue they paint on them­selves. They are trai­tors to their coun­try, plain and sim­ple. Sim­i­lar­ly, the spec­ta­cle of the fake “truck­ers” in the ludi­crous Karen Kar­a­van that ter­ror­ized Ottawa wrap­ping them­selves in Cana­di­an flags (along with their Nazi Swastikas and Con­fed­er­ate Bat­tle Flags) were the exact oppo­site of patri­ots. But now and then an inci­dent ― such as 14-year old Kiya Bruno singing “O Cana­da” in the Cree First Nations lan­guage at Blue Jays and Oil­ers games ― strikes me as a gen­uine and apt expres­sion of love of one’s coun­try. Some­times a poem, a paint­ing, a sym­pho­ny or a song will cap­ture the feel­ing. It’s hard to lis­ten to Neil Young’s “Help­less” or to look at a Tom Thomp­son can­vas with­out being touched by it. After all, I do feel that I am part of my coun­try, that I owe it some­thing, and that it’s part of my bones. And I’m well aware that one does not have to be born in Cana­da, or to aban­don or belit­tle one’s roots else­where to feel this way.

So I was delight­ed to find an exam­ple of “qui­et patri­o­tism” in a col­lec­tion of the poems of Stephan G. Stephans­son. He did not write in Eng­lish. He wrote poet­ry and prose in his native Ice­landic, but was for the bet­ter part of his life a Cana­di­an. He was born on a farm in the dis­trict of Sey­luyhrep­pur, Ska­gafjörður, Ice­land, in 1853. He moved with his fam­i­ly to Wis­con­sin in 1873, and after a stint as a lum­ber­jack he moved to Alber­ta in 1888, where he owned a small home­stead near present-day Mark­erville, Alber­ta until his death in 1927. This was a tiny Ice­landic com­mu­ni­ty about 1,250 kms west of the prin­ci­pal Ice­landic set­tle­ment at Gim­li in Man­i­to­ba. Now there are two things to remem­ber about this loca­tion. The first is that it is one of the most beau­ti­ful places in the world. His lit­tle farm was on the Cana­di­an Prairies just on the cusp of the foothills of the Rock­ies, and not far from this lit­tle bit of landscape:

These moun­tains appear con­stant­ly in his poems. The sec­ond is that this was no place for the faint of heart, or for seek­ers of lux­u­ry. Pio­neer­ing in the Cana­di­an West in the 1890s was hard­er work than any Cana­di­an is like­ly to expe­ri­ence today, a world where every triv­ial jour­ney was on horse­back, where the tem­per­a­ture can plum­met to ‑50C, and soar to +40C, where tor­na­does, hail­storms, ter­ri­fy­ing bliz­zards, and tor­ren­tial thun­der­storms abound, and where a drought or a rise in freight rates at the rail­head could quick­ly bank­rupt a farm or ranch. Elec­tric­i­ty did not arrive until long after Stephan died. The lit­tle Ice­landic set­tle­ment still exists, in the form of a “ham­let or des­ig­nat­ed place” with a pop­u­la­tion of 38. The dairy he helped found is still there. The Luther­an church, paint­ed a bril­liant white like most wood­en prairie church­es, is still kept up. And, the house he built by hand is still there, real­ly very charm­ing in design, for­tu­nate­ly now cared for as an Alber­ta Provin­cial His­tor­i­cal Site.

Stephan had com­plex and mixed feel­ings about Cana­da, as he did about Ice­land. I know the region he was born in, and it too is a land of nat­ur­al beau­ty with a harsh cli­mate. Those won­der­ful Ice­landic ponies, no doubt descend­ed from the one he loved as a child, roam about on grass­lands strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those of Alber­ta. But Ice­land was soul-crush­ing­ly poor when he was born there, espe­cial­ly in a remote cor­ner of the island like Ska­gafjörður. The coun­try is wealthy now, but the prim­i­tive lit­tle sod-huts, bare­ly dif­fer­ent from those of the Viking Sagas, remain scat­tered across the bar­ren land­scape to charm the tourists. Many Ice­landers chose to risk all to start a new life in Cana­da, con­fi­dent that their tough upbring­ing would fit them to take on any chal­lenge it could throw at them. In the end, it seems the hard but free life in Alber­ta suit­ed Stephan, and he found some peace and sat­is­fac­tion in the great blue skies and wind-blown grass that shim­mered on the foothills of the Rock­ies. This he cel­e­brat­ed in the poem “Kana­da”:

Menn trúðu því forðumm, um staum­barða strönd
þó stor­murinn heima við bryti,
að fjarst úti í vestrinu lægju þó lönd,
þar logn eða sól­skin ei þryti,
því þar hefði árgæzkan frið­land sér fest
og frel­sið og man­núðin ― allt sem er bezt.

It was for­mer­ly believed, on a sea-bat­tered shore
though the storm at home blasted,
that in the dis­tant west there still lay lands,
where calm and sun nev­er ended,
for there the good sea­son had found its retreat
and free­dom and com­pas­sion ― all that is best.

Þeim lét ekki sigling, en hug­suðu hátt;
við hafið þeir drey­man­di stóðu,
er sól hné að viði í vestriny lágt
í vorkveldsins bláköjjyrnóðu,
þá von manns og lan­ganir líða með blæ
út lognslét­tan, sól­gyll­tan, víð­fað­man sæ.

They set no sail, but thought high,
by the ocean they dream­ing stood,
as the sun slid into the low­est west
in the evening’s blue-mist­ed spring dusk,
then hope and desire glide out with the breeze
on the still-bank, sun-gilt, wide-armed sea.

Þó enn flæði höf, þau sem aðskil­du lönd, 
er auð­farin leið yfir sæinn.
Og Mark­land vort, Kana­da, hug sinn og hönd
þér heimurinn rét­ti yfir æginn.
En Hel­lenum aðeins í óð gaz­tu birzt ―
en íslen­zkum sæko­nung bauðs­tu þig fyrst.

Though oceans still food, that sep­a­rate lands,
the pas­sage across is effortless.
And our Mark­land, Cana­da, its genius and care
the world held out to you over the sea,
To the Greeks you could only appear in a poem ―
but to an Ice­landic sea king you gave your­self first.

Og enn ren­nir von man­na augunum þreytt
að aus­tan, um þig til að dreyma ―
þú góð reyn­dist öllum, sem unna þér heitt,
sem eiga hér munuð og heima.
Og allt á þér rætist og rót geti fest,
sem reiku­la mannsan­dann dreymt hefur bezt!

Still human hope turns its tired eyes
from the east, to dream about you ―
you proved good to all, who loved you fervently,
who pos­sess here rap­ture and home.
And all with you is ful­filled and able to root,
which the unqui­et spir­it has dreamed best.

Krist­jana Gun­nars has trans­lat­ed a selec­tion of Stephan’s poems that read very well in Eng­lish. I can sound out the Ice­landic from often hear­ing the lan­guage spo­ken, but of course, I have no idea what this poem sounds like to mod­ern a Ice­lander. Does it’s style seem quaint or old-fash­ioned? Does it betray in its style Stephan’s dis­tance from the Ice­landic writ­ers of his time? I would be delight­ed if some­one famil­iar with Ice­landic poet­ry would give me their opinion.

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