On Ode to Iceland’s National Poet: Bard of Iceland – Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and Scientist Skip to content

On Ode to Iceland’s National Poet: Bard of Iceland – Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and Scientist

I first came across Dick Ringler’s translation of Icelandic national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson’s work shortly after the economic crisis hit. I was writing a column on how the poet’s words about the Icelandic parliament, Althingi, being vanished and gone are as true today as they were when he wrote them in the 19th century.

I remember thinking how excellent the translation was and how the translator must be a poet himself since he was able to bring both the form of the poem “Iceland” as well as its meaning across so that it leaves the reader almost as awestruck as when reading the original.

Later I received a copy of Ringler’s book Bard of Iceland – Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and Scientist and discovered to my delight that the author, a professor emeritus in English middle-age literature and Nordic studies at the University of Wisconsin, not only provides a translation of Hallgrímsson’s poetry but much more.

Ringler’s book contains an in-depth account of Hallgrímsson’s life, describes in detail the circumstances of when he wrote his poems, dwells on his ambitions and achievements as a natural scientist and includes translations of his most important scientific essays.

The book also includes stories and fairytales by Hallgrímsson, most notably Grasaferd (Gathering Highland Moss), which is considered the first Icelandic short story.

Ringler also covers Hallgrímsson’s poetic inspirations, both regarding topic and form, and explains all about the different meters which Hallgrímsson used.

I was amazed to discover that Ringler remains loyal to these meters in his translations, follows the strict rules on alliteration and rhyme, which I imagine must be extremely difficult.

Even in the case of poems which later acquired melodies and have become popular songs in Iceland, Ringler made sure that his translations could also be sung.

This dedication struck me as truly remarkable and I deeply respect Ringler for his efforts.

When television presenter Egill Helgason of RÚV’s literature program Kiljan asked Ringler why he went to such lengths while translating Hallgrímsson’s poetry, Ringler explained that while studying the Icelandic language, he read Hallgrímsson’s poet “Ferdalok” (“Journey’s End”) and thought it was the best poem ever written.

True, Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845) was an extraordinarily skilled wordsmith and he is also my favorite Icelandic poet.

His brilliance lies in his way with words and the topics he covered. Patriotic like few other Icelanders of his time, he sought to restore Iceland’s independence through ancient glory and upholding the Icelandic language in prose.

He was one of the authors of Fjölnir, a periodical which played an important role in Iceland’s fight for independence.

As mentioned earlier, Hallgrímsson was also a natural scientist who studied the geology, flora and fauna of Iceland. He traveled around the country on expeditions, collected samples and wrote essays on phenomena like the northern lights and geysers.

Although he was appreciated by few of his countrymen in his lifetime, Hallgrímsson later earned the status of national poet. His remains were brought back from Copenhagen and are now buried at Thingvellir, the site were Iceland’s parliament was founded. Hallgrímsson’s birthday, November 16, is now Icelandic Language Day.

Ringler provides the best possible English translations of Hallgrímsson’s poetry, although there are words that simply cannot be translated without sounding flat.

Ringler mentioned an example of that in the aforementioned interview. Hallgrímsson’s poem “Alsnjóa” is simply called “Snow” in English because there is no single word in the English language which captures the true meaning of snow everywhere, snow all around.

Yet the poem “Snow” is one of Ringler’s best translations, as Helgason mentioned on his show. To give you an example, here is the first stanza of “Snow”:

Infinite snow dazzles my eyes out to the northern and southern skies. eastwards, westwards, endless and cold. Individual—now be bold!

There is not much to criticize in Ringler’s book, although he himself writes in his preface: “There are undoubtedly many errors, misapprehensions, and inconsistencies in the presentation in this work.”

I couldn’t find many of those, but Ringler does use the words “undoubtedly” and “no doubt” often while theorizing how Hallgrímsson’s poems came to be.

Apart from being a little repetitive, these are strong words to use for events that are not certain, however likely they may seem.

This minor detail aside, Bard of Iceland – Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and Scientist is a must-read for everyone who is interested in Icelandic history and literature.

It is a valuable source about the patriotic awakening which occurred in Hallgrímsson’s days, ultimately leading to Icelanders reclaiming their independence.

I salute Ringler for making Hallgrímsson’s story and poetry accessible to non-Icelandic speakers in such a profound way. Although people can never fully enjoy the beauty of Hallgrímsson’s words without learning Icelandic, this is as close as they can get.

First published in 2002, Bard of Iceland – Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and Scientist was republished by Icelandic publishing house Mál og menning in 2010. It is available in the webstore forlagid.is, on amazon.com and in bookstores in Iceland.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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