The centenary of the birth of the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stepnansson (1853-1927)
STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON by Skuli Johnson
The centenary of the birth of the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927) falls on October third and will be celebrated in a radio broadcast. Meanwhile the poet's memory is being honored at Icelandic celebrations this summer; conspicuously so at the annual festival at Gimli on Monday. His name is fittingly associated there with the Toast to Canada; to the polyglot culture of Canada St. G. St. brought the riches of the saga and the lyre, and to the land where the cradle of his children stood he dedicated his aptitudes and his efforts.
No one has written more felicitously about the Canadian West: the prairies, the foot-hills and the Rockies live in his poetry. Beauty of phrase and figure abounds in his delineation of the land from the Red River to the Rockies. Indeed his poem on the latter with all its opulence and majesty made the expression "The Bard of the Rockies" a synonym for the poet in every place where Icelandic speech is spoken.
No writer is more responsive to the wide expanses of our Westland; indeed the open spaces of Alberta seemed to the poet to be essential for the freedom of men in the New World. With the poet's eye St. G. St. observes, and, with the artist's impulse, depicts all the seasonal aspects, all the moods and miens of his cherished countryside; under such influences the weather-sensitive mind of our Western Wordsworth moulded his verse.
But St. G. St. is not merely a great nature poet, nor can he on all counts be compared with any of the great English exponents of verse. Yet at times he reminds one of the social strictures of Robert Burns, at times of the philosophical austerity of Matthew Arnold, and often of the irrepressible optimism of Robert Browning and, alas, sometimes of his obscurity. St. G. St. however is as elemental as Walt Whitman, (but without his shortcomings), and is essentially sui generis and unique. Perhaps the chief characteristics of his poetry are three: imaginative force, commanding intellectuality and masculine power.
A definitive edition of the poet's works is now in preparation in Iceland under the competent direction of a diversity professor: the first volume of this series will come off the press before the close of his anniversary year. An earlier compilation of his poems constitute 6 volumes. The range and importance of this copious output cannot of course be discussed in a brief notice of this kind. Only a few additional points may be noted.
In technique St. G. St. is much influenced by the native poetry of Iceland, whose greatest glory is the quatrain, and also by the Eddic and Scaldic verse, whose variations and intricacies often puzzle even the experts. In addition to these St. G. St. evolves some verse-forms of his own.
In subject matter "St. G. St. draws frequently on his amazing memory of the saga literature; he is particularly fond of delineating potent personages of the Viking past, who faced great odds or who opened up new paths by patient endurance. Often too does the poet correlate some past event with the solution of some vital problem of the present. In general the poet puts to use for his contemporaries the precious ore which he has mined from the inexhaustible wealth of Iceland's literature and traditions.
St. G. St. cherished the lore of the past, but he was also an ardent and alert enthusiast of the dawning day. His attitude of mind and heart may well be expressed in the trite assertion of Terence: I am a man, nothing that pertains to humanity deem I alien to me. In short St. G. St. was a humanist with an international outlook.
To the great majority of Canadians St. G. St. is utterly unfamiliar. His poetry is extremely difficult to translate, and few indeed have had the venture-someness to attempt it. The sporadic version that have been made will not easily convince the Canadian public which is in any case rattier indifferent to verse— that Canada have, in the writings of Stephan G. Stephansson., an everlasting possession.
Yet among Canadian scholar-, there is an appreciation of his unique importance, as is shown by the monument set up in the poet's honor by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in the provincial park dedicated to him at Markerville, Alberta, September 4, 1950. It is to be hoped that the Canada Council promised for our precious imponderables will be presently inaugurated; assuredly the furtherance of the knowledge of St G. St, will come within its province.
WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, AUGUST 1, 1953.