Natural imagery in Icelandic poetry

Perhaps no country on the planet can rival Iceland’s cornucopia of natural wonders. Its harmoniously dichotomous landscape — fiery volcanoes and numbing glaciers, sublime peaks and sunken valleys— now invites tourists and Instagram likes in the millions each year.

But before the rest of the world opened its eyes to the country’s irrefutable allure, Icelandic poets were already penning their island’s sui generis beauty.

And they continue to do so today.

This compilation of poetry highlights some of my favorite examples of natural imagery in Icelandic works. Thank you to Bernard Scudder for his stunning translations.

Poem to the Sun (Sólarkvœði)by Bjarni Gissurarson (b. 1621)

Gissurarson often wrote poems about nature and weather in a straightforward manner, as if simply writing down what he saw. That manner is reflected in Poem to the Sun.

What sight is fairer than the sun

Soaring through the firmament?

It warms, it shines,

Brings joy and merriment.

Which fair upon the hilly world

The sacred son adorns the air,

Land and lakes and woods all stir,

It is majestic to behold.

It warms, it shines.

The Lord’s folk in delight

Gaze forth upon that light.

It warms, it shines, brings joy and merriment.

On mountainside it sheds its rays,

Ice melts upon the hills and bays,

Spreading warmth through narrow dales,

Glory’s gift like precious ales.

It warms, it shines.

Such wondrous fruits arise

In every continent.

It warms, it shines, brings joy and merriment.

Beasts sport, leaves hang,

Ships sail, lilies swing,

On land and sea all people spring,

The joyous birdsong never fails.

It warms, it shines.

The air and earth’s warm scent

To all is evident

It warms, it shines, brings joy and merriment.

Soon the lovely Earth will fade,

The ornate sky and mountainside;

Down into the ocean wide

The sweet sun sends its rays.

It warms, it shines.

Myriad creatures creep and slide

For shelter in every continent.

It warms, it shines, brings joy and merriment.

Travel Verses (Ferðavísur) by Eggert Ólaffson (b. 1726)

Ólaffson was a poet, nationalist, antiquarian, and general voice for Icelandic culture. He undertook a geographical survey in the 1750s in which he documented the country’s vastly different regions.

We have travelled far across the land,

Marshes, deserts, lava, sand,

Glaciers, rivers, mountains steep,

Caves, cliffs and chasms deep -

A comfortable journey from start to end.

Iceland (Ísland) by Bjarni Thorarensen (b. 1786)

Like Ólaffson, Thorarensen was a patriot whose poetry reflected a fervor for Icelandic pride and cultural conservation. At a time when many Icelanders seemed to look to Europe for cultural inspiration, Thorarensen reintroduced the Eddaic metres that comprised Old Norse poetry.

Thorarensen commonly wrote about nature and his love for Iceland.

O strange combination of frost and heat,

Mountains and plains of lava and ocean,

How beauteous you are, how awesome, when motion

Of fires from glaciers swamps your feet!

Fire, teach us vigour; frost, make us tough;

Mountains, show paths of trophies afar.

Like a cherub with brandished sword, ward off,

O silver-blue sea, our weakness and fear.

But if you cannot guard your children from ill,

If for want of virtue their mystery thrives,

To your ancient womb you should recoil,

Fatherland! — and sink back into the waves.

You Turn Black, O Cloud (Sortnar þú, ský) by Jón Thoroddsen (b. 1818)

Although best known as the father of Icelandic poetry, Thoroddsen was also a writer of drinking songs and poems. His work generally depicts life in the Icelandic countryside.

You turn black, o cloud,

in the southern sky

and let your brow sink.

Something disturbs you

as it disturbs me

I see you weep.

Yet your course seems

to lie clear

through the heaven’s bright paths,

while here below

darkness and hindrance

confront me ever.

Swift cloud,

hurry and flee

from this trail of sorrows,

on earth, for all

who venture too close

must often shed tears.

The Voice of the Waterfalls (Fossanður) by Þorsteinn Erlingsson (b. 1858)

Erlingsson worked as a journalist, criticizing the Danish regime’s mistreatment of Icelanders. Though his politicism was undeniably rebellious, his poetry reflected a much more gentle nature, often praising the likes of the environment and wildlife.

To the masterly music in the rocks’ throng

above all things I make reverence:

Trolls delivering their song,

the mountains their audience.

Bernard by Matthías Johannessen (b. 1960)

Johannessen is an avid writer of poetry, plays, translations, biographies, and essays. His poetry is praised for its free form.

We would have chosen

evening to the longest of days

from the yellow wood

to grave-deep sea

but the sound of saw follows

the sunset

and now there is silence

by this dark forest.

Northern lights (Norðurljós) by Matthías Jochumsson (b. 1835)

Also a playwright and translator, much like Johannessen is today, Jochumsson was best known as a lyrical poet. He famously penned the national anthem of Iceland, “Lofsöngur”, in 1874.

All of a sudden the magic lantern’s

wick burst into flame

And lo, God’s flaring torches

joined in a beautiful game.

Far and wide they soared through space

and waded the depth of blue,

and the darting flashes of colour

lit the path to Earth though.

No mortal tongue can truly

make God’s glory clear,

but my heart found at once

how holy heaven was near.

And there my weary soul lay down

by life’s estuary so bright

and drunk up in an instant

all those northern lights.

Volcanism (Umbrot) by Jónas Þorbjarnarson

Þorbjarnarson, a contemporary Icelandic poet, writes of travels and geography both within Iceland and abroad.

We are the ever-changing earth

always taking shape

new maps immediately misleading

new upheavals

I was someone and then I met you…

people change each other

even cause eruptions within each other

for deep down we are kindled, determined

by all kinds of magmatic associations

and a mountain of love rises-

lifting the landscape of our lives

we are the ever-changing earth

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