Canada's Plowman Poet

Canada's Plowman Poet - Stephan G. Stephansson

The lack of formal education was not the only obstacle for Stephan G. Stephansson who overcame bad health and proverty to give the world the joy of his rich talents.

WHEN Stephan G. Stephansson was a young boy he once encountered two youths crossing the Icelandic hills where he was tending sheep. The lonely youngster ran to meet them and asked where they were going.

"We are going to the city to enter school, they said proudly."

Stephan pondered this a while, then hurrying home even before the grazing hours were over, he rushed to his mother and cried breathlessly:

"Other boys are leaving for school in the city. I want to go too, Mother."

Years later the mother was to recall this as one of the unhappiest days of her life. She had always accepted without resentment the poverty that held the family in bondage, but now she looked upon it with bitterness. She realized her son had a rendezvous with greatness, yet feared that lack of education would stop him.

Some biographers have said he obtained an elementary education, this boy who grew up to become one of Iceland's greatest poets, but Stephan G. Stephansson never went to school a day in his entire life! He was educated by his devoted mother, and his own insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Nor was lack of formal education the only hurdle this amazing man had to surmount. Dogged by poverty and indifferent health, his majestic outpourings that filled six volumes were, for the most part, written at night after an exhaustive day's work on the Alberta homestead where he reared eight children.

Born at Kirkjuholl on a small farm on the north coast of Iceland, October 3, 1853, Stephan was cousin to the famous Icelandic poet, Benedikt Grondal. Life was hard for the Islanders, and many emigrated to more promising areas. Giving up their unproductive farm the family emigrated to the United States. Stephan was 19 at this time, and he was happy that his beautiful 14-year-old cousin Helga Jonsdottir who was to become his bride a few years later was aboard the same boat.

Stephan worked as a farm-hand near Milwaukee, and then tried his luck at pioneering in Shawano County, Wisconsin. Here he and Helga were married before they tried pioneering in Pembina County, North Dakota. In 1889 the couple joined a group of 30 Icelandic families for Alberta and settled, at Markerville, 80 miles north of Calgary.

A good farmer who knew the value of fertile land, Stephansson was still unwilling to sacrifice the inspiration that a setting with hills and stream could mean for the thousands of acres of flat, rich farmland available.

"Father would have made life much easier if he had been more practical," the poet's daughter, Rosa Benediktson told me as she looked out across the rolling, sandy hills beside Medicine River. "Father by-passed some of Canada's richest land to settle on this farm. It reminded him of his homeland. But Father was never discouraged, never moody. Even though frost and too much rain made difficult the growing of potatoes those first years, Father cheerfully composed his poetry as he followed the walking plow and he, wrote until the small hours of the morning as he waited for a better year."

A Farmer and A Poet

Stephansson was a born pioneer in spite of his romantic nature. He was the first farmer to produce grain in the area, cradling and flailing the oats and barley that he fed his livestock. He was a natural leader to whom the people turned in building the community. He helped build the school and presided over the literary society to which his people are such avid subscribers. He took the census, was notary public, served on every board that was formed and despite his financial problems was known for his generosity in helping anyone in need.

"Our house always overflowed with guests," Rosa recalls. "Friends came to spend a few days and stayed for months. Children made their home with us to be near the school, but the din of his own large family coupled with necessary adjustments for visitors, never disturbed Father. He almost never had time to visit friends or go into town, but he warmly welcomed all who came to our home."

Twin daughters were born to the Stephanssons shortly after their arrival in Alberta — a joyous event, for up until that time they had only boys. But heartbreak came too. A few years later 16-year-old Gestur was killed instantly as he was crossing a fence during an electrical storm:

"That was a dreadful day," Rosa said. "Stunned with grief, Father walked to the home of a carpenter friend who spared us the pain of building the coffin. Remembering this tragic time, Father saw to it that his family would not be burdened with a similar situation in the event of his own death. He had his coffin made and stored in the attic of a relative's home. While some may have felt he was preoccupied with thoughts of death, it was only his thoughtfulness of family and friends that prompted him to this action. He was too much a lover of Nature to have feared death."

His wife realized the sacrifices the family made would benefit posterity, and she carried heavy responsibilities without complaint. She started the fires in the morning so that her husband might have more rest.

Dan Morkeberg, a lifelong friend of the poet came to set up a creamery for this Icelandic community in 1899, intending to stay two or three months, but he was so captivated by these people he stayed on. From that first Alberta creamery Mr. Morkeberg revolutionized Canada's butter-making industry, and was elected to the Alberta Hall of Fame for his efforts.

A Kindly Neighbor

"How did we feel about Stephansson?" this 90-year-old pioneer mused. "Some of us couldn't read the Icelandic language, so we didn't know exactly what kind of poetry Stephan was writing, but I don't think any of us doubted he was a great man. He was certainly a great friend and neighbor to all who knew him."

During their emigration to Canada, the Stephansson family befriended the mother of Chester Thordarson, an inventor of electrical appliances who became a millionaire. When Stephansson's poetry began to appear in the Icelandic newspaper issue at Riverton, Manitoba, and in the Winnipeg papers, Logberg and Heimskringal, recognition came almost at once, and Thordarson helped finance a collected edition of his poetry,

In 1917 the government and the Young People's league of Iceland invited him to return home as guest of the nation. He spent that summer on a triumphal tour of towns and villages of the island. In 1953 his daughter, Rosa Benediktson, flew to Iceland to unveil a monument to her father's memory at Arnastapa.

"It was an experience I shall never forget," Rosa declared. "I was treated like a queen, and returned home laden with gifts of many kinds. It made me feel all his efforts had been rewarded as his work had brought pleasure to so many people."

The Icelandic people nave not only erected monuments to his memory in their country, but have built a magnificent cairn in the Stephanssons private cemetery above the Medicine River.


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