At Last, Homage to a World-Class Poet

It is a cloudy Saturday afternoon and, as usual, nothing much is happening in this central Alberta hamlet. A teenaged boy trots a grey gelding along the deserted main street, two children play in front of a shuttered gas station. Over at his neatly-kept bungalow, retired postmaster Clifford Gremm explains that Markerville has always been a drowsy place.

"The population's been the same since I got here in '39," he said. "Fifty or 60 people. The big difference is there used to be two stores, and now there's none."

While Markerville is unlikely to experience a steep population climb, it is expected to have a mini-tourist invasion. This month the provincial Government plans to reopen the restored farmhouse once occupied by the hamlet's most celebrated resident — a rebellious insomniac who, toiling beside a kerosene lamp, wrote world-class poetry.

His name was Stephan Gudmundsson Stephansson and, although his work has been ignored in Canada, it has made him a literary colossus in his native Iceland, where a 15-foot memorial statue rises over the valley where he was born, and where school children study his verse. After his death in 1927, he was proclaimed Iceland's Poet Laureate and his widow was invested in the esteemed Royal Order of the Falcon.

Between 60 and 70 Icelanders make a trek each year to Stephansson's grave site. With a $100,000 budget, Alberta Culture's Historic Sites Division has purchased the land and stocked the renovated house with his belongings: after the public opening this month (the official opening is set for August), a vigorous promotion campaign is expected to entice an estimated 6,000 visitors every summer.

"Stephansson deserves to be much better known in the English-speaking world," says Ron Goodman, president of Calgary's Leif Ericsson Society. "His reputation has been limited by the fact that so few of his poems were translated from the original Icelandic. Translations are now being prepared and these should create a wide new audience for him."

Most of the 150,000 Canadians of Icelandic descent live in Manitoba. Their ancestors began arriving in the 1870s, lured by promises of cheap, fertile land. Stephansson was 20 when he left Iceland in 1877. He stayed in Wisconsin and North Dakota for 16 years before joining a dozen Icelandic families at Markerville.

"He wasn't a real good farmer because he didn't like hard physical labor," says Stephen Stephenson, a 74-year-old grandson. "He dropped out of school early so there wasn't anything else he could do for a living except be a farmer like his dad."

Stephansson and his wife, Helga, had seven children; none of them followed their father's literary path. Between farm chores, the talkative, slightly-built poet helped construct the district's first school, establish a library and organize the community's profitable cheese factory. Yet he was far from a popular man. His socialist politics and his repeated charges that local clergymen were bigots and hypocrites angered many settlers. So did the pacifism that emerged in his First World War poems:

In Europe's reeking slaughterpen,
They mince the flesh of murdered men,
While swinish merchants snout in trough,
Drink all the bloody profits off.

Stephansson's work ritual was legendary. Sitting in a book-crammed study, he often wrote until dawn, sometimes wrapped in a heavy blanket. Even after drinking and arguing half the night at a neighboring farm or attending a Markerville dance, his insomnia would propel him to the desk where, through the bay window, he had a view of the distant Rockies. In all, Stephansson produced six books, comprising 1,800 pages. While his writing was influenced by ancient Norse myths and the structure of Ninth Century scald poetry (scalds were court poets of ancient Scandinavia), he frequently wrote about the Prairies:

The region itself like a limitless board,
All knotless, there to be seen,
Which nature had tilted a trifle on edge,
And planed, and then painted green.

Stephansson was always badly off financially," says Alberta Culture research officer Jane McCracken. "His furniture was home-made or the cheapest stuff available in the Eaton's catalogue. But that didn't bother him. The only possessions he really cared about were his 400 books."

In 1917 Stephansson started to receive recognition in Iceland. The government paid his way to Reykjavik for a public reading. He made two more trips there before a stroke took his life at the age of 74. A Canadian scholar who championed his work after he died, Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, said in the 1930's that Stephansson was not only as good as Bliss Carmen, E. J. Pratt and all other homegrown poets but he might ultimately be acclaimed as being even better.

Stephansson's 160-acre homestead was farmed by a bachelor son until the 1930s. The house, a two-story, Victorian-style log and frame building, fell into disrepair. When Alberta Culture bought the site in 1975, it had to put a foundation under it and obtain Stephansson's furniture from the University of Manitoba collection. As there are no hotels in Markerville, visitors will stay in Red Deer, 32 kilometres east, or in nearby provincial campgrounds.

Ex-postmaster Gremm says the tourist flow won't effect the hamlet's lifestyle. "Sure, there'll be more cars around, but other than that, things will be as they've always been in Markerville."

GLOBE & MAIL, JUNE 24, 1982.

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