Today’s blog is a departure from my typical posts concerning the French and German language and literature. However, I am staying true to my Longfellowquest and therefore examining the Icelandic language, which was one of the many languages Longfellow researched and translated. Of course he did! He also studied Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf), Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch, French (Hugo!), Italian (Dante), Spanish and Portuguese. Each day I become more in awe of this 19th century Linguist and his scholarship.
I am referencing Longfellow’s The Poets and Poetry of Europe, a collection of poetry from the rich histories of these European countries. Each chronological section of Europe is introduced by Longfellow with cultural and linguistic history that, in most cases, he observed personally during his travels.
The first section recounts the Anglo-Saxon history and translated poems including Beowulf. The second section, “Icelandic Poetry and Language” is the section I will focus on for this blog.
The Icelandic language is that form of the Gothic which was once spoken in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. It is called in literary history the Dönsk Tunga ; Norræna Tunga; Norrænt MAI; Sueo-Gothic; Norse; and old Scandinavian. The name Icelandic has been given to it in modern times (1837!), because in Iceland the language has been preserved, unchanged, to the present day (Poets and Poetry of Europe, 30).
Longfellow researched the history and language of Iceland in Pilgrimage, written by Samuel Purchas in 1614. According to Purchas, “‘ Concerning the language of the Islanders, the matter itself speaketh, that it is the Norwegian ; I say, that old and naturall speech, derived from the ancient Gottish, which onely the Islanders now use uncorrupted ; and therefore we call it Islandish (31)'”.
Iceland was peopled in 874 and included multitudes of the Norwegians, who were poets and historians fleeing from the tyranny of Harald Harfager. Their written alphabet was called the Runic and they used this ancient language to record the achievements of their ancestors on wooden tablets. The long sunless winters of Iceland were spent in the writing of Saga and Song which documents the remarkable remains of King Olaf (1030) in the oral tradition of Norse poetry. “’ Ye shall be here,’” said King Olaf, “’ that ye may see with your own eyes what is achieved this day, and have no occasion, when ye shall afterwards celebrate these actions in song, to depend upon the reports of others.’” (31).
Longfellow observed that the most prominent feature in the Icelandic versification is alliteration. The Icelandic is remarkable for its abruptness, its obscurity, and the boldness of its metaphors. In this desolate land of lava, icebergs, geysers and volcanoes, the Poets, called Songsmiths, were filled with images of terror and dismay watching the flames of the Northern Aurora flash along the sky (31).
Much of the 1500 manuscripts which were written by the Icelanders are in Copenhagen in the Arne Magnusen collection (as of 1871—I’m not sure if this is still true today) and have been translated into Danish by Rafn and published by the Society of Northern Antiquaries.
As in most old languages, the visible works of Nature are the primary characteristics which include some form of the Divine. The Icelanders revered the dark, hostile Powers of Nature, or Jotuns, as huge, shaggy beings of demonic character: frost, fire, sea and tempest are in this category. The friendly Powers are summer-heat (very rare), the Sun and the Gods who dwell above in Asgard, the Garden of Divinities (35).
In contrast to the old Greek Paganism, however, the Icelandic people revered the system of Thought; thought of man opening himself with awe and wonder to a face-to-face and heart-to-heart inspection of things. In the center of this system of thought is the Tree of Life, Igdrasil. Its trunk reaches up heaven-high and spreads its boughs over the whole Universe. It is the Tree of Existence—the Past, Present, and Future. Every leaf of it is a biography; every fiber is an act or word. What was done, what is doing, what will be done—the conjugation of the verb “TO DO”. This is pretty cool! Its boughs are Histories of Nations which stretch through all lands and times; events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes.
According to Longfellow, “Considering how human things circulate, each inextricably in communion with all, — how the word I speak to you to-day is borrowed, not from Ulfila the Moesogoth only, but from all men since the first man began to speak, — I find no similitude so true as this of a Tree. Beautiful ; altogether beautiful and great (36)”.
The first Icelandic poem that Longfellow published is “The Voluspa” in which the Father of Nature decrees the actions and operations of the gods. The Prophetess Vola describes the formation of the world and of that of its various species of inhabitants, giants, men and dwarfs. This poem reminded me much of the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, where Moses describes the Creation of the universe, the expanse, planets, light and day, firmament, inhabitants, and finally, the creation of man. Was it possible that the Icelanders heard this account of Creation in 800AD from the Anglo-Saxons? (The Irish and Scottish adopted the Roman Catholic practices in 768AD.) Just a thought [Longfellow does not address where this story came from]
Vola next explains the employments of fairies, or destinies; the functions of gods; their most remarkable adventures and then concludes with a long description of the final state of the universe, or the End Times; the battle of the inferior deities and the evil beings and the renovation of world—”the happy lot of the good and the punishment of the wicked” (39).
The final poem is “The Hava-Mal: The Sublime Discourse of Odin”. Odin is the chief god of the Icelanders. This poem, according to Longfellow, is a great departure to Greek Paganism and distinguishes the Scandinavian system of “Thought”. Here, the infant Thought of man is opening itself with awe and wonder. This Norse system is very genuine, simplistic, rustic. It is a face-to-face and heart-to-heart inspection of the things, — the first characteristic of all good thought in all times. It is much akin to our book of Proverbs or Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Here are some lines from “The Hava-Mal”:
To him, about to join your board,
Clear water bring, to cleanse his hands ;
And treat him freely, would you win
The kindly word, the thankful heart…
Who comes unbidden to a feast
Should rarely and should lowly speak:
The humble listener learns of all,
And wins their welcome and their praise..
Happy is he whom others love,
His efforts shall at last succeed ;
For all that mortals undertake
Requires the helping hand of man…
The senseless, indecisive man
Ponders and re-resolves all night ;
But when the morning breaks on high,
Has still to choose his doubtful course :
Yet he believes the caution wise
Which baffles action by delay,
And has a string of reasons ready
On every question men devise…
If you ‘ve a friend, take care to keep him,
And often to his threshold pace…
Rise early, would you fill your store ;
Rise early, would you smite your foe :
The sleepy wolf foregoes his prey;
The drowsy man, his victory…
No sore so sad as discontent…
There are so many good stanzas in this poem.
I have not given much thought to the peoples of Iceland nor their poetry in my lifetime. I have seen pictures of the green, rolling hills and glacial mountains of Iceland and would love to visit it one day. Can you imagine living in 800AD and this is where you “settle”?
Longfellow quotes Carlyle’s Lectures on Heroes and Hero- Worship to describe this time:
“In that strange island, Iceland, — burst up, the geologists say, by fire, from the bottom of the sea ; a wild land of barrenness and lava ; swallowed many months of ever}’ year in black tempests, yet with a wild gleaming beauty in summer-time ; towering up there, stern and grim, in the North Ocean ; with its snow- jokuls, roaring geysers, sulphur pools, and hor- rid volcanic chasms, like the waste, chaotic battle-field of Frost and Fire, — where, of all places, we least looked for literature or written memorials, the record of these things was writ- ten down. On the seaboard of this wild land is a rim of grassy country, where cattle can subsist, and men by means of them and of what the sea yields ; and it seems they were poetic men these, men who had deep thoughts in them, and uttered musically their thoughts. Much would be lost, had Iceland not been burst up from the sea, not been discovered by the Northmen (35)”.
For my next blog, I will look at the Danish history and writings from Longfellow’s Poets and Poetry of Europe.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845.