The Third Column - STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON
Great But Unnoticed
Across the Medicine River from the old Icelandic village of Markerville, Alberta, stands a tall monument that was erected in 1950 by Canada's Historic Sites and Monuments Board. Yet perhaps not more than one Albertan out of a hundred ever heard of the man it commemorates.
It was in the year 1873 that an obscure youth of 20 arrived in America from Iceland. He had never been to school. After making two unsuccessful attempts at settling in the U.S. he journeyed to Markerville in 1839 where he became the number one citizen and, in all likelihood, will always be remembered as such. His name was Stephan G. Stephansson and in the annals of Canadian literature it became one to conjure with. Before he died in 1927, many of the world's literary great were beating a path to his humble doorstep.
Stephansson was perhaps the finest poet to come out of Iceland. Despite the fact he wrote only in his native language, Professor Watson Kirkconnell once named him Canada's best.
Physically, he was far from imposing. Only five feet four inches in height and stooped, he was further handicapped by a delicate digestive system that forced him to go on frequent diets. When he came home to Markerville the community was only a year old, the land brush covered and the climate frosty. Yet this man was one of the first there to produce ripened grain, which he cut with a "cradle" and "threshed with a flail. He married and began rearing a family, finally consisting of eight children. Stephansson took an active part in almost all community affairs, and, while never seeking it, found leadership was always his lot. He supported every public cause save one: war. He sampled the various religious groups, but joined none; also went down the line of political parties, then virtually rejected all. He never saw a motion picture, went to town on business but twice each year and never paid casual visits for pleasure—there simply wasn't time.
Every moment of Stephansson's day was utilized. When he did have a little time to spare from his farm work and should have been relaxing, he spent it reading and writing. Only recently a surviving daughter informed "Many of his poems were not doing composed while at work. I can read seeing him come hurriedly home from the barnyard in cold winter weather, in order to jot down some lines." When the day's labors and the evening meal; were over, it was then this remarkable man really went to work. In a corner of his log house was a table with chair and kerosene lamp. Here he lit his huge pipe and, all but obscured by a cloud of smoke, with the common household affairs going on round about, forgot everyone and everything else and set down on paper over 2,000 poems, enough to fill six large volumes.
How could he concentrate thus? No ordinary writer can answer that one. Ask the ghost of Dumas, who wrote Monte Cristo sitting in a Parisian shop window, of Voltaire, who created his incomparable Candide in three days, and of youthful Jack London who turned his back on roistering miners in a one- room cabin and produced the most remarkable stories of the northland.
Stephansson wrote far into the morning hours and therefore titled his books of poems Andvokur, or "Wakeful Nights." He had ever a staunch ally in his wife who would rise quietly and build the morning fires, thereby enabling him to obtain a little more rest." Ten years were to pass before his first published poem appeared and ten more before the first volume rolled off the press. Yet when he visited his homeland in 1917, virtually the entire island's population turned out to greet him.
Few of Stephansson's poems were translated into English, and only one: "To Alberta," is found in our high school textbooks.
On August 10, 1927, a heart attack rolled down the curtain on his singular career — the "Wakeful Nights" were ended. At his request, writing desk, pen and ink-well were donated to the University of Manitoba.
Near a high bluff in Markerville's Icelandic cemetery, their well-loved poet was laid in eternal slumber. At his back the winding Medicine moves silently upon its way. It is a sombre spot. Glacial stones abound in the area, and Icelandic peoples from both the U.S. and Canada, gathering these together, built him a most distinctive monument.
It is maintained by some that Stephansson came to love Alberta more than his native Iceland. Possibly he did. But four lines from one of his later poems inscribed upon the plaque betray a yearning that is as old as life itself:
Though you have trodden in travel
All the wide tracts of the earth.
Bear yet the dreams of your bosom
Back to the land of your birth.
THE EDMON JOURNAL, 1960.