Today is Icelandic Language Day (literally, “day of the Icelandic tongue”), a festival designed to coincide with the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson.
As well as an accomplished poet, author, and naturalist, Hallgrímsson was a committed Icelandic nationalist and founder of the journal Fjölnir. He died in 1844 at only thirty-seven, but to this day is considered one of Iceland’s most beloved poets.
It is said that Hallgrímsson’s poetry, which dealt often with Iceland, its landscapes, and its people, resists easy translation. Nevertheless, even in the following translation, the themes come through.
A Toast to Iceland
Our land of lakes forever fair
below blue mountain summits,
of swans, of salmon leaping where
the silver water plummets,
of glaciers swelling broad and bare
above earth’s fiery sinews —
the Lord pour out his largess there
as long as earth continues!
In 1945, Hallgrímsson was at the center of a rather bizarre controversy. A fan, one Sigurjón Pétursson, spearheaded a campaign to move the poet’s body from Copenhagen, where he died, to his childhood home of Öxnadalur, Iceland. The Icelandic government disagreed: they wanted him reburied at the national burial ground at Þingvellir. Undaunted, Pétursson raised the funds himself, supervised the excavation (which involved digging up four other bodies), and escorted the coffin, defiantly, to Öxnadalur. Once there, however, he couldn’t get any priest to perform the service, and the coffin stood in the church for a week before the government had it moved to Þingvellir, where it was buried and remains to this day.
The poet’s legacy, however, is a happier one. Every year, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Award is given to someone who has contributed to the language.