Stephan G. Stephansson can be regarded as Alberta’s first poet of international repute. He is renowned in Iceland as the greatest Icelandic poet since the 13th century. Icelandic heads of state recurrently visit the Markerville gravesite to honour his memory and literary contribution. Although fluent in both Icelandic and English, he wrote poetry solely in the former. Stephansson’s anti-war poetry appeared soon after the beginning of the war in Icelandic periodicals published in Canada, most notably Heimskringla and Lögberg. He escaped censorship largely because the authorities did not understand Icelandic, and because major pacifist works were published in Iceland, often in Skírnir. The long poem Volpnahlé (Cease-fire) was inspired by a 1915 report published in Lögberg about 8 days without shooting between the English and German trenches, permitting exchanges of talk, views, newspapers, food, and tobacco. On the ninth day, hostilities resumed.
Biographer Viđor Hreinsson describes the poem as being “about two enemy soldiers, one young and the other elderly …. [whose] conversation … first conjures up the horrors of war and then gradually reveals its causes and implications, analyzing the societies and mindsets behind the war.” Pointed observations are made regarding the suppression by authorities of the power of citizens who act in alliance, and that the objective of politicians is the retention of power. Victory is another’s defeat, and its bestowal of power merely comes to incite revenge as the cost of that victory. The poet in another context, in 1917, noted that, in addition to the matter of power, “silence about national problems,” which is a secrecy habitual to and a curse of governments, is also a major inducement to war. As recruitment by invocation declined as the war continued, conscription was declared in August, 1917.
From Volpnahlé (in Paul Sigurdson’s translation, in the selections from Andvökur, published by the Stephansson Homestead Restoration Committee):
It is not possible that mankind’s end
Will come about by his own handiwork?
What state is neutral, for it’s everyone
That antes up the pot for butchery?
I know that you and the others will work out
A similar calculation. All the world
Must pay a toll for the wreckage we have worked.
The story’s garbled, yet there’s never been
A single spot in all of mankind’s warfare
Where one could find a shred of kindness.
Mostly we pray for those who meet their death
Killed in the field. For them it’s over quickly.
The hatred and the misery which follows
In the wake is many times more saddening.
Jane McCracken’s 260 page 1982 Occasional Paper on Stephan G. Stephansson, published by Alberta Culture, is excellent. She concentrates her research on Stephansson’s origins in Iceland, the emigration to Wisconsin, the resettlement in Pembina County of Dakota Territory, Stephansson’s atheism, approach to farming, and work as its own reward, acculturation and assimilation of the Icelanders, his world view, his work as a poet, and his place of repute in Icelandic literature.
She recounts tellingly that in 1924, when Stephansson was 71, he was invited to join the Canadian Authors Association. He declined. “We see in each fact, not the fable, / As feebly we search and appraise, / That law, if illucid is stable / And leaves but one prospect to face; / To think not in hours but in ages, / At eve not to claim all our wages / Will bring out the best in the race.”
On a Sunday in July of 2014, I drove from Edmonton to the Stephansson House historical site, near Markerville, to participate as a reader in the annual poetry event held there, which is organized and hosted by Alberta Culture. The Province’s facility supervisor, Olga Fowler, was also on site. I was delighted to meet her, as she is also responsible for Rutherford House in Edmonton, the Father Lacombe Chapel in St. Albert, and the Historic Dunvegan site on the Peace River south of Fairview.
It took a little while to locate the house, to discover that it was some several kilometres from Markerville. The House, however, is located in a beautiful spot and the weather was magnificent. I wanted to see the Creamery in Markerville, intrigued by its historical role in the economics of the region, in the purchase of cream and milk, and the production of butter and cheese, from 1899 to 1972 (when it produced 120,000 pounds of butter), as so well documented by Jane McCracken in her 1982 occasional paper of some 260 pages, published by Alberta Culture. So I drove to it, and from its kaffistofa had a fine early lunch of roast beef on Icelandic brown bread, and joined the farmers enjoying their Sunday coffee in the shade of a canopy over a row of picnic tables. I was promptly brought up to date on rain, seeding, heat, mowing, and who was still drinking too much. I was reminded of the pleasant times I enjoyed when I was on my quarter section next the Athabasca River near the town of Athabasca.
Later on, I toured the Creamery, which is an excellent museum; and then the village. Fenstala Hall was unfortunately locked, but the Icelandic Lutheran church was not—and a fine church it is. When I went into the pulpit, I saw that the Bible was open at the Magnificat—and as I am working on a poem with it as its theme, I felt a fine sense of serendipity. I sat on one of the pews, considering that Stephan Stephansson would at one time have sat in the same place.
I returned to the House around half past noon, toured the house itself, chatted with people, and around 1:45 recited my prepared texts. It went exceedingly well. The audience was small but responsive, and the magnificence of the setting and the day was perfect. I left to return to Edmonton immediately after.
I had thought to take the back roads, as I often do, and so inched my way through the summer crowds at Sylvan Lake, and when I reached Bentley, a town I much like, stopped for a light, late lunch at the Cross-eyed Giraffe on the main (and newly paved) street of Bentley. I had intended to continue by way of Gull Lake; but there was an accident at the junction of the turn, with traffic slowed to a crawl, so I elected to continue on to the next range road. And so I travelled the gravelled way taking in the beauty of the Albertan landscape; and time passing by, I decided to head for Highway 2, and reached it at a point between Lacombe and Ponoka. But just north of Ponoka there had been another terrible accident, and traffic crawled for an hour. So a trip that normally takes about two hours was doubled in time, but it did not dim the sheer beauty of the land.
Perhaps Stephannson thought the same when his team of oxen, in thirst, waded into the nearest stream and overturned the cart and all those in it. The story goes that everyone dried their clothes at the next farm, and then continued on to the local holiday celebrations.
Images © Hendrik Slegtenhorst