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Review: Bard of Iceland: Jónas Hallgrímsson, Poet and ScientistBy Dick Ringler, published by Forlagið Publishers, Iceland

When this book first arrived in the mail, I felt immediately overwhelmed.
It was 474 pages long, and about a subject in which I have never taken an interest.
However, I had just returned from Mountain, where I had been reminded of the importance of poetry to our people throughout centuries.

So, I picked it up. That was it. I could not put this book down. It opens with a chapter briefly outlining Icelandic history from the time of the Danish occupation.

It was, bar none, the best short history of that time period I had ever read. It perfectly set the stage for the appearance of Jónas Hallgrímsson in 1807. Hallgrímsson was an interesting, brilliant, complicated, and very troubled man. How could a biography of such a person ever be boring?

In Iceland, he is known as the ástmögur pjóðarinnar (darling of the nation). He was one of the favourite poets of the famous author Halldór Laxness. Born in the north of Iceland on the farm Hraun in Öxnadalur, Jónas loved to write, especially poetry, from a young age. Although his family suffered from poverty like most others in Iceland at the time, he studied in Denmark. He socialized with a group of other Icelanders there for the same purpose. Among that group were other poets who also became famous. Jónas had no tolerance for poetry that he felt was poorly written. He hated rímur poems, very popular in Iceland when he came on the scene. He was brutal in his criticism, and he and his friends started a literary journal called Fjölnir. The journal was extemely controversial. Especially controversial at the time were Jónas’outspoken criticisms of writing that the Icelandic public had long held dear.
He became very popular with some, and the bane of others’ existences. Jónas’ other main interest was science, which, at the time, was a subject in its infancy. He loved so many types of science that it is hard to believe or to describe. While still a very young man, he decided to write a massive work entitled Description of Iceland, which would include measurements of volcanic activity, descriptions of geology in every area of Iceland, natural history, and measurements of human populations, among many other topics. While he was young, he actually believed that this was something that one man, with sponsorship, could accomplish in a lifetime.

As he became older, he was afflicted with severe depression and alcoholism, which had an extreme effect on his ability to carry on his work, especially during the winters when his depression always worsened. All the while, he continued his creative writing. The loss of almost all of his friends to tragic deaths at young ages did nothing to help his state of mind or his general health. He never finished Description of Iceland. Sadly, toward the end of his life at the young age of 38, he realized that his work was a pipe dream, and he hoped that someone else would be able to take it over. The work was never completed.

The biography is written almost like a novel in that it is so easy to keep reading, except for the fact that huge amounts of research were conducted before the writing of it. It is full of references to others’ writings about Jónas, bits of Jónas’ poems, quotations from famous people of the time, and many other things. This research does not interfere in the least with reading the book. In fact, as you read, you appreciate the opinions of others, and the many other things included in the story.

I was so disappointed that the biography ended on page 75. There were then several pages of colour plates. The entire biography was illustrated in black and white. The greater part of the book is devoted to selections from the prose and poetry of Jónas Hallgrímsson.
With delight, I realized that the selections were all those that had been referred to in the biography. I read on, and, at great surprise to myself. I actually enjoyed it – both the prose and the poetry. He was a brilliant man and one worthy to get to know. The two poets of Mountain, North Dakota, and Jónas Hallgrímsson´s biography have completely converted me.

Now, I finally understand. I understand the huge importance that even the immigrants to Canada and the United States put on poetry. One of the appendices is very interesting, as well, if you have been a student of literature. The first appendix is a complete explanation of the various strophic forms that Jónas used in his poetry, as well as his stanzaic forms. The notes have been meticulously done, and the indexing is very good. For a former librarian like myself, that index seems very important. It’s well worth a read, is Bard of Iceland. It is worth discovering the poetry of our people and its history. There are still poets among us now. My ancestors brought trunks of poetry books with them from Iceland. The family still owns many of them. Now I am actually going to go and read them, in my slow learner-Icelandic way. It may take me hours, but I know it will be worth it. A few translations thrown in won’t hurt either. The book is available directly from the publisher at http://www.forlagid.is/ if you look at the left under Foreign Rights, you will be able to find their catalogues of books in English. There is a great selection. You can also purchase this book from Tergesen’s Store in Gimli, 204-642-5958.

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