Poet's Magic Endures

It's just a little old house surrounded by big old trees, but maybe that's all it takes to make Stephansson House really magical.

Thanks to a bus tour early in the summer, I visited almost all the historic sites across the province cared for by Alberta Culture — but none impressed me more than the homestead of the poet Stephan G. Stephansson.

Stephansson (1853-1927) spent the last half of his life as a pioneer farmer near Markerville, a cluster of modest homes in the rolling hills about 20 kilometres west of Penhold. He was proud to be a Canadian — and an Albertan — but virtually all his poetry was in Icelandic.

He wrote so well, with intelligence and a lyrical line, that he is regarded as Iceland's finest poet since the saga bards of the 13th century. Children in Iceland grow up memorizing his verses.

Despite his international reputation, however, it is difficult for a non-Icelander to appreciate Stephansson's accomplishments. The interpretive centre erected by Culture at the entrance to Stephansson House certainly helps — the - illustrated story boards on display there describe his career and show what the man looked like in his prime.

The house itself offers a glimpse of the man's character — it was a sensitive soul that chose to put the humble house on top of a knoll and surround it with spruce and poplar trees. Stephansson even planted wild rose bushes in front of his favorite window.

Nonetheless, it is by his verses that the man wanted to be judged — and that, for the majority in Alberta who do not speak his language, is no easy task. That's why I'm glad my second visit to Stephansson House happened to coincide with the "finale festival" at the site on Sunday. Special guest was Richard White, an Edmonton folksinger who has taken translations of Stephansson's poems and put them to music.

It was wonderful. White stood with his guitar on a small stage (scarcely the size of a table-top) set against a stand of spruce trees planted by Stephansson himself almost a century ago. The air carried the faint scent of poplar perfume as the first yellow leaves tumbled down in the light breeze.

White is no shouter. His voice is light and clear and his guitar work is flawless. He has released an excellent album of eight songs based on Stephansson's poetry, called Sun Over Darkness Prevail, but among the songs he sang Sunday afternoon were a few I'd never heard before — it made me wish I'd brought a tape recorder.

Alas, he didn't sing my favorite Stephansson song, The Child Poet, which tells how Stephansson's anger at his daughter quickly subsided when she explained the reason why she was tardy in running an errand was because of her delight at the beauty of a fresh summer morning.

But White did sing songs based on two of Stephansson's strongest poems, The Exile and Evening. The first is a poignant examination of the emotional divisions in the poet's life — even though he found beauty and happiness in the Alberta foothills, he still was haunted by the fact that he'd had to move from Iceland.

Evening is a song of great depth. Stephansson would sit up all night composing poetry and fighting the fears that plagued him. No matter how terrifying his dark vision of the future of humanity could be, Stephansson always was optimistic that in the end, righteousness and enlightenment would triumph — as White sings, "the sun over darkness prevail."

Stephansson House is open for visitors each summer day from May 24th until Labor Day. Attendance doubled this summer over last year — more than 500 visitors showed up most weekends — but now the place is locked up tight. The household furnishings and personal artifacts which breathe life into the old farm house have been placed in secure storage.

That means, of course, that it's too late to visit the home of Iceland's most famous poet this year. In the meantime, we'll have Richard White's album — and that's just as good.


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