Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Magnus Stephensen: Precursor of the "Fjolnismenn" and Icelandic Romanticism

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Magnus Stephensen: Precursor of the "Fjolnismenn" and Icelandic Romanticism

Article excerpt

MAGNUS STEPHENSEN (1762-1833) was unquestionably one of the most powerful and influential men in Iceland during the last decade of the eighteenth and the first two or even three decades of the nineteenth centuries. Through his various public offices,(1) he set the course for educational, legal, and social progress, and as one of the founders of and the publisher for the Icelandic Society for Natonal Education (Hid islenzka landsuppfraedingarfelag), he maintained almost absolute control over all secular ad religious publications until the founding of Hid islenzka bokmenntafelag in 1816. In addition to publishing the major periodicals during the Icelandic Enlightenment, he wrote articles and books on meteorology, geology, biblical historiography, children's education, music, law, and fictional literature and was seminal in bringing foreign literatures to Iceland in the form of translations. With missionary zeal, Magnus sought to reform and modernize Icelandic culture by publishing works which he hoped would promote virtue, expose vice, champion reason, and improve literary taste by replacing the irrational elements of traditional Icelandic literature with themes popular during the height of the Danish and German Enlightenment movements. In the introductory essay in his major Enlightenment periodical, Skemmtileg vinagledi (1797),(2) and the controversial 1801 hymnal, Magnus promoted himself as the herald of European Enlightenment, and since his death, historians and men of letters have accorded him that singular honor: "Magnus Stephensen er i hud og har barn 18. aldarinnar. Hann er einn af hennar `upplysingarmonnum'" (Kvaran xviii) [Magnus Stephensen is through and through a child of the eighteenth century. He is one of its "men of the Enlightenment"]. As Ingi Sigurdsson points out in the most thorough treatment of the Icelandic Enlightenment to date (34-5), the quotation marks around "men of the Enlightenment" in Einar Kvaran's statement not only underscore the reluctance of nineteenth-century scholars to associate Icelandic men-of-letters with literary labels such as "Enlightenment" or "romanticism" but also suggest that the term upplysing met with considerable resistance in Icelandic literary circles and remained a foreign import in the eyes of most nineteenth-century historians. Both Helga Gunnarsdottir (Upplysingin 226) and Stefan Einarsson (History 222) imply this when they characterize Magnus Stephensen's philosophy of enlightenment as "cosmopolitan" and along with Hannes Petursson (Bokmenntir 36, 83) contrast Stephensen's "rationalistic universalism" with the strong nationalistic focus of writers beginning with the "Fjolnismenn."

One of the early reasons for the opposition of Stephensen's contemporaries to his view of the upplysing was the very missionary zeal with which he sought to bring the movement to Iceland. As Porkell Johannesson (Saga 425) explains, Magnus Stephensen's frequently vitriolic and defiant intolerance of conservative ideas, both secular and religious, played a significant part in the negative reception of his place in cultural history.(3) In addition, his contemporaries held him responsible not only for the loss of the episcopal see at Holar (1801), its printing press (the major press for religious works), and the cathedral public school--of which losses were perceived as consequences of his anti-orthodox rationalism--but foremost for the abolishment of the Alpingi (1800).(4) More important are the many accusations during and after his lifetime that he was negligent about the cultivation of the Icelandic language and the belief that the purification and cultivation of the Icelandic language began after his death: "This campaign for the purification of the language [by the "Fjolnismenn"] set an epoch of linguistic nationalism which lasted unchallenged for nearly a century" (Einarsson, 222).(5) The general opinion of Magnus's place in literary history and its relationship to the epoch of the "Fjolnismenn," who are considered by most historians to be the primogenitors of modern Icelandic linguistics, criticism, and aesthetics, is best expressed by Porkell Johannesson: "En i fang honum ris ny old, med nyjum skodunarhaetti, nyjum markmidum, frabrugdnum peim, er hann keppti sjalfur ad" (4-26) [But within his very grasp arose a new age, with a new point of view, new goals, different from those for which he strove]. …

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