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William Morris and Translations of Iceland

Andrew Wawn
Affiliation:
University of Leeds
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Summary

On 7 September 1871, a middle-aged Englishman stood on the railway station in Edinburgh. He was short, fat, red-faced, bull-necked, bush-bearded and ‘quite bewildered’. He had been away from Britain for the whole summer; everything now looked very strange and he hardly knew where to buy a ticket for. He had been to Iceland and enjoyed it. The last words of his journal account of that visit leave us in no doubt about this: ‘Iceland is a marvellous, beautiful and solemn place … where I had been in fact very happy.’ He was still happy enough when he arrived home to write out two short poems about Iceland which he had newly composed. He sent copies to Jón Sigurðsson, one of the two Icelanders who had stood with him on the railway station, having sailed with him all the way from Iceland. Jón had long been a major philological figure amongst the Copenhagen-based Icelanders; and by this time he was known as forseti (president) as a mark of his hugely influential role over three decades as a parliamentarian, diplomat and lobbyist, as Iceland inched towards a restoration of the national independence which it had surrendered to the Norwegian king in the middle of the thirteenth century. The idea was for Jón to have the poems translated into Icelandic and published in Ný Félagsrit, the Icelandic literary journal of which he was editor.

Jón received and read both poems, and then wrote to Eiríkur Magnússon, the other Icelander who had been with the portly Englishman in Edinburgh—and Iceland. Jón told Eiríkur that he did not much like the poems: the poet ‘regards our mother Iceland as rather pale and haggard, dismal and sad’. He would have much preferred heroic songs celebrating Iceland's saga-age glories, rather than gloomy lyrics by brooding Englishmen. Out of courtesy he chose to have just one of the poems translated, by Steingrímur Thorsteinsson, a major late nineteenth-century Icelandic poet also based in Copenhagen. This one poem was selected because it seemed marginally less lugubrious than the other, which was unceremoniously rejected.

The bulky and bearded English poet was, of course, William Morris and the two poems which he sent to Jón Sigurðsson were eventually published in England twenty years later—one was called ‘Iceland First Seen’ and the other ‘Gunnar's Howe above the House at Lithend’.

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Chapter
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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 253 - 276
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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