Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Poet in Jon Helgason

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Poet in Jon Helgason

Article excerpt

Old Norse Scholars in Iceland and abroad have always admired the peerless scholarship of Jon Helgason (on which see Jakob Benediktsson 5-16), but it is a little unsure just what his scholarly beneficiaries think about his poetry as a whole, above and beyond his two most famous poems, "I Arnasafni" and "Afangar," which everybody prizes. Was he a poet in his own right, notwithstanding his refusal to be one in the epilogue to the first edition of his poems (1939)? What were his leading themes; what were his literary sources? How does his scholarship impinge on his poetic composition, in particular, his archaic diction? Icelandic reviewers and scholars who know him best may raise these questions, but they have not answered them fully as yet. This poverty, of critical comment in his homeland is a clue, however, to the unspoken assumption of his Icelandic audience that their intimate knowledge of his poetry, together with his classic status, dispenses them from further discussion--which has been left to the continental Scandinavians (e.g. I. Knutsson and L.P. Andersen). In general, most Icelanders simply regard him as a fine nature poet, but one negative minority opinion still attaches to what is termed, rather euphemistically, his gamankvodi [light verse] and it cannot be brushed aside as mere prejudice for it points to the nid element, the libel, in his light verse.

It seems indeed as if this poet began his artistic career in high school as a cartoonist and a lampooner in verse (Sveinn Hoskuldsson 5). Some of his high-school cartoons, done in the rude Bakkabrodur style of Gudmundur Thorsteinsson, are reproduced in Sveinn Hoskuldsson's article; they depict beatings and the violence of a "six foot tryltur [wild man]," and are humanly and artistically repulsive. Most of his lampoons, for which he got some ill repute as a doctoral candidate and a professor in Copenhagen, have either not survived, or if they did as in the typescript Jonsbok, they were deemed unprintable for the general public. Nevertheless, an opinion of this nidskaldskapur is on record in a flyting poem of sardonic congratulations "on the fiftieth birthday of the professor" which was published anonymously in Mainudagsbladid (July 11, 1949: 5), the year after the second, definitive edition of his selected poems, Ur landsudri, came out. The author of this counterblast is unknown, but the late Askell Love who brought it to my attention suggested to me that he might be the dilettantish scholar and arquivist Gudbrandur Jonsson; in any case, it was someone who not only had read "the professor's" youthful literary indiscretions but also may have been the object of his attacks. I quote the concluding lines of the poem, which give the tone of it:

Menn undrudust skaldid vid langstundasetur a safni,

semjandi ymnalagsvisur med gudsmodurnafni,

og donann, sero loddist urn afgotur erlendrar borvgar

og orti um landann, sem drakk ser til vanza og sorgar.

Sagan mun langherma hamskipti professorsins

og halda vid nafni a blakkasta svani gorsins.

(People wondered at the poet who for long hours in the library, sat

composing hymnic stanzas [of his "Mariuvisur"] under the name of

God's mother--wondered too at the boor who prowled the side streets

of a foreign city [Copenhagen] and made verses about his countryman

[?] who drank himself to shame and sorrow. History will long remember

the shape-shifting of the professor and retain the name of the

blackest swan of filth.)

What this critic has seized upon, in short, in the poems of Jon Helgason is the perceived contradiction between his allegedly scabrous light verse (= "filth") and the high-minded lyricism of his "pure" poetry--"such creative handiwork," the scoffer adds, "from one and the same mug [slikt skopunarsmidi ur einum og sama kjafti!]" We shall look in vain in the editions of Jon's poetry (1939, 1948, and 1986) for evidence of any heavy mud-slinging on his part, but this does not necessarily mean that he did not lampoon his countrymen, nor on the other hand that the allegations against him were all some kind of private joke between him and his critic. …

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