STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON
The Skald of the Foothills
For almost 40 years (1889-1927) Alberta harbored a man who has been called the greatest poet of his time in Canada — and most Albertans didn't know it.
The remission was not an unnatural one, for Stephan G. Stephansson of Markerville wrote all his poetry in his native Icelandic. And he wasn't altogether without recognition in this country. An English translation of his ode "To Alberta" was included in a reader, "Poems Worth Knowing to Alberta", used in provincial schools for many years. In 1950 a provincial park was dedicated in his honor at Markerville and a monument was erected by the federal government.
Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, probably the most outstanding linguist in Canada who has translated from as many as 14 languages, once prophesied, "It is quite possible that he will some day be acknowledged as the earliest poet of the first rank, writing in any language, to emerge in the national life of Canada. No other Canadian poet presents a comparable picture of Western Canada."
Among his own people, recognition came fast and un-restrained. In Iceland, where every second citizen is some sort of rhymer, he has been acclaimed the greatest poet since the middle ages. In 1917, 45 years after he emigrated, he was invited back to Iceland as guest of honor at the annual Jon Sigurdsson celebration, June 17. That year the whole celebration centred upon Stephansson while Jon Sigurdsson, Iceland's liberator, faded into the background.
Yet this was no pampered darling of classical academic classrooms. The son of impoverished parents on a remote Icelandic farmstead, he had no opportunity for formal education. But he was raised on an island where books were man's alter-ego and literature his constant companion through the long northern nights. The sagas were his primer and the eddas his university degree. After emigrating at the age of 19, he was three times a pioneer; first at Shawano County, Wisconsin, then at Pembina County, North Dakota, and finally at Markerville, where he homesteaded in 188 and remained until his death in 1927.
Pioneers at MarkerYiile, like pioneers everywhere, were resourceful people. They had to be to carve a home out of the wilderness. Theirs was not an age of claiming luxury as a right or demanding handouts from a benevolent government as a reward for having elected it.
Rosa Benediktsson of Red Deer, sole survivor of the poet's eight children, recalls the settlement's first school built on her lather's homestead. To build it, logs were floated down the Medicine River from Rocky Mountain House and all the men of the neighborhood helped in its construction. To start with, teachers were volunteers without formal qualifications, the first being Jon Gudmundsson, who i later moved to Calvary and was employed by Calgary Malting for many years. After Alberta became a province in 1005, regulations required certified teachers who had to be imported from the east. Coming to an Icelandic settlement, Mrs. Benediktsson recalls, the teachers rapidly learned that language.
The Stephansson home was unique among pioneer farmsteads in that it had a room devoted to the other world of its owner. Mrs. Benediktsson recalls childhood scenes of her father rushing from the stable to his study to get a line down on paper before it eluded him. And midnight scenes when her mother rose from her bed to prepare coffee for the poet still writing at his desk.
Though phrased in Icelandic language and based on Icelandic tradition, Stephansson's poetry transcended the limitations of both geography and language. His themes were humanistic and applied to mankind everywhere. Allying himself always with the underdog, in numerous social satires he poured out his condemnation of capitalistic exploitation and the unfair distribution of wealth. At the same time, he remained a thoroughgoing individualist and was too independent in his thinking to join any political group. Though popular, he . never courted popularity. In religion a free-thinking agnostic, in wartime a vehement pacifist, he engendered much contention, but he outlived all the rancor without compromising his convictions.
It took three generations and a couple of intermarriages before the poet's heritage appeared in his descendants. At a Markerville picnic last June 17 a song was sung composed by his great-granddaughter, 24-year-old Marie Chaumont (nee Bourne). Its theme: "I Want to Visit Iceland".
On an old Alberta homestead, slowly rotting with the years.
Stands a house wherein the spirit of a man long dead appears.
Through this long-abandoned remnant of another day the themes
Of the poet of the foothills come re-echoing, it seems.
Think not in years, but in ages.
Claim not at once, but in stages.
Only then life on earth will endure.
It is not the overpraised present
But a future more wholesome, more pleasant
Thai visions eternal ensure.
An exile from his native land, an alien to the new,
He lyricized a language understood by but a few.
While toiling in the fields of grain, he taxed his brawn and thews.
By day he tilled Alberta soil, by night Icelandic muse.
Sitting in a cloistered study while his wife and children slept,
A captive to poetic thought, a midnight tryst he kept.
And when the rays of rising sun began to break the dawn.
At the table in the window still his pen went scratching on.
The distant grandeur of the Rockies mesmerized his gaze,
Reminding him of homeland scenes and far-off childhood days.
He sought to find a parallel 'twixt each divergent land.
He loved them both; he praised them both in lilting lays and grand.
Though you have trodden in travel
All the vast tracts of the earth.
Bear yet the dreams of your bosom
Back to the land of your birth.
The mountains, the geysers,
The clear ocean blue.
The falls and the valleys
Are kindred to you.
His thoughts returning from the past to scenes of present days.
He gave to his adopted land full many lines of praise.
Although his words were ancient Norse, the sentiment still took
In clasp of cordial fellowship the land of the chinook.
Thy glorious valleys widen down
Through straths and shining passes.
By shelter-belts of forest brown
And hollows warm with grasses.
To a mighty plain of green that wakes
In a wind that laughs and quivers.
Fringed with a hundred azure lakes,
Embroidered bright with rivers.
When sons of his adopted land went marching off to war,
The poet's pen could never praise the thund'ring cannon's roar.
Though patriotic passion was the fashion of the times,
Defiantly he spoke his mind in pacifistic rhymes.
In Europe's reeking slaughter pen
They mince the flesh of murdered men
While swinish merchants, snout in trough.
Drink all the bloody profits off.
About the graves in No-man's-land
May peace be with the slain.
And may the strains of clotted gore
Conceal the marsk of Cain.
But oh, to see the human wrecks
That wander home again
Repletes a mother's pain.
And when at last they laid him down, a grizzled pioneer,
And clods of rich Alberta soil had covered up his bier.
The government bestowed a cairn to mark the mortal bone.
His soul went back to Saga Isle, at last returning home.
But Stephan smiles from heaven's gate at all their plaints berserk
His monument he built himself within the poet's work.
But every martyr, man or saint,
Has made in turn the same complaint:
That when his heart and hope were spent
The harvest seemed a punishment.
THE SCANDINAVIAN CENTRE NEWS, NOVEMBER 1972.