THE PEN WIELDER, THE POET AND THE ROGUE - The Reykjavik Grapevine

THE PEN WIELDER, THE POET AND THE ROGUE

THE PEN WIELDER, THE POET AND THE ROGUE

Published June 17, 2011

On June 17, Jón Sigurðsson will be the man of the day. This is Iceland’s ‘Independence Day’ with festivities all around the country, parades and the waving of flags, but this day also marks 200 years since the birth of Jón Sigurðsson—for our national celebrations take place on his birthday. Jón Sigurðsson is Iceland’s number one independence hero—however, he is all the same a strangely remote person.
FACING PARLIAMENT
The statue of the stern man standing tall opposite the parliament on Austurvöllur square in downtown Reykjavík, looking at the doings of Alþingi with stern, perhaps indignant eyes—that’s Jón Sigurðsson. The sculpture was made by the artist Einar Jónsson—who did much to fashion the nationalistic imagery of early 20th century Iceland—and it also includes a relief where a muscular, prophetic looking man is moving boulders of rock from a mountain road, with a group of people coming behind him, not really helping, just gazing at him in wonder.
But reality is not so dramatic. Jón Sigurðsson worked in an office his whole life. He never lifted a stone in his struggle or wielded a sword—even if his obituary remarked that he was Iceland’s pride, sword and shield.  It is often said that the pen was his weapon. This can be a bit problematic, for as a national hero he seems distant, difficult to relate to, and most people have a very vague idea about who he was and what he really did. It could even be said that most Icelanders are not particularly interested. His 200 years birthday is not an event that garners much excitement.
PURGING ICELAND OF DANISH INFLUENCE
Most European nations that were under the rule of other countries—Iceland was under Denmark for many centuries, until 1944—have their 19th century nationalist heroes, coming in the wake of the romantic nationalist awakening in the beginning of that century. Iceland basically has two. One of them is very typical; he has his equivalents in many countries: This is Jónas Hallgrímsson, the national poet, a romantic idealist who dreamed of resurrecting the old Alþingi and waking the people and the language from a long period of apathy. There is a statue of Jónas Hallgrímsson, also by sculptor Einar Jónsson, in the Hljómskálagarður park, just by the pond—statues of such poets exist in cities all around Europe.
Jónas wrote poems, published a magazine called Fjölnir with his friends and he was also a naturalist—creating Icelandic names for many natural phenomena. Jónas wanted to revive pride in the nation’s cultural heritage and expunge the language of Danish influence. Danish was then becoming the language of towns like Reykjavík and Akureyri. In this he was very much the child of the romantic nationalistic ideals of that period.
THE FAVORITE CHILD OF MISFORTUNE
Jónas, like Jón Sigurðsson, lived in Copenhagen for most of his life—at the time, the city was the real capital of Iceland. Born in a beautiful valley in the north of Iceland in 1807, he had a short, unhappy life. His father drowned when he was a young boy, and even if he wrote many beautiful love poems, he never found love himself. In Copenhagen he became an alcoholic like many of the Icelanders who went there to study, and in 1845, when he was just 37 years of age, he fell down the stairs when drunkenly returning to his home and broke his leg. A few days later he died, presumably from blood poisoning, in a Copenhagen hospital. It is rumoured that his body was in terrible shape when he died—that he had pneumonia, liver damage and perhaps Delirium Tremens. In his last years Jónas had occasionally started to disguise himself as a Danish labourer to be able to move about the city without meeting fellow Icelanders.
Jónas is still a greatly beloved national hero. Many of his poems are extraordinarily pure and beautiful. He always fascinates. He is a poet who wrote beautiful things and then poured beer all over the words. He has been referred to as the favourite child of misfortune, the good poet, the darling of the nation. In 1946, his bones were even disinterred and moved to Iceland to be buried in a National Graveyard for the greats of Iceland that was being planned in Þingvellir, the site of the old Alþingi. Sadly the National Graveyard soon became a butt of jokes, not least because the presumed bodily remains of Jónas were rumoured to be those of a Danish butcher. But the graveyard is still there and it is well worth a visit—the only other grave is that of poet Einar Benediktsson (1864–1940).
“WE ALL PROTEST!”
Jón Sigurðsson was just a few years younger than Jónas Hallgrímsson. He was born in the Westfjords of Iceland on June 17, 1811. He was a philologist by education, working in the Arnamagnaean Foundation, which housed and preserved the manuscripts of the old Icelandic Sagas—the most precious things to come from Iceland. These old books were kept in Denmark for many centuries, but in 1971 the Danes started giving them back. Soon, Jón was devoting more time to political and economical matters and he became the undisputed leader of the nascent independence movement. It was he who fashioned its arguments, even if he didn’t go further than calling for a sovereign country under the Danish king.
But momentous or dramatic events were few in Jón Sigurðsson’s life—and thus it is rather difficult to explain his importance to schoolchildren. The most famous was in the summer of 1851, during a conference with the Danish authorities in the large timber house of the Reykjavík Gymnasium on Lækjargata. The Danes proposed that the Icelanders would become citizens of the Danish state with six representatives in the Parliament in Copenhagen—Jón and his followers staged a minor revolt, shouting “we all protest!” and leaving the room.
This is a milestone in the independence movement, and there is a large painting depicting these events in the hallway of Alþingi, but they cannot be construed as being terribly dramatic. Rumours that the Danes planned to murder Jón Sigurðsson also proved to be without foundation—the truth is that as colonial masters go the Danes were rather lenient towards Iceland.
JÓN AGAINST AND FOR THE EU
Jón Sigurðsson’s grave is to be found in the old Reykjavík cemetery, just up the hill from the pond. This is well worth a visit, for the garden is old and mysterious, full of history and quite beautiful in its Nordic way. Jón died in 1879. His body was moved from Copenhagen with the remains of his wife, Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir, who passed away only nine days after his death. Their story is a bit strange. Ingibjörg was Jón’s cousin, seven years his senior. They met when he was a shop assistant and a scribe in Reykjavik. Then Jón went to Copenhagen to attend university. She waited for many long years, during which time it is said that she lost her teeth, but they finally married in 1845 and set up a rather bourgeois household in Copenhagen. There has been much speculation about this, but in later years it has been discussed openly that Jón probably had syphilis. The couple had no children.
Long before Iceland became a republic people had started celebrating 17th of June as a day of national festivities. The University of Iceland was founded in 1911 on Jón Sigurðsson’s 100th birthday. When Iceland severed its ties with Denmark during World War II—under the auspices of the US military—the date of independence was set on June 17, 1944. Jón Sigurðsson was celebrated as a national icon, his pictures were everywhere, on platters, paper bills and mass-produced prints that were found in many homes. Today antique shops are full of this merchandise, while Jón is still on the 500 ISK bill.
Jón is often referred to as Jón forseti—“President Jón”—but he never was a real president. In fact, he just was a president of the Copenhagen branch of the Icelandic Literary Society, admittedly a very prestigious association, founded in 1816. But in the political debate he gets mentioned a lot, especially when matters of sovereignty and the relationships of Iceland with the world are on the agenda. Those who are against Iceland joining the European Union quote him as their ally as do those who want Iceland to join. Of course this is pure fantasy—simply Jón can be said to have been a follower of 19th century bourgeois ideas of free trade.
THE DOG DAYS KING
It might be said that Jón Sigurðsson is a rather boring independence hero. Basically he was just a well-educated man with an astute legal mind. But then, Iceland has been said to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The last real battle fought here was in the 13th century. There have been no Viking heroes here since the time of the sagas. So maybe Jón is the right man. But then we have another, mostly unsung independence hero. This is the Danish rogue and adventurer Jörgen Jörgensen, who occupied the country for a few months in 1809, during the Napoleonic wars. Jörgen, “the Dog Days King”, came here with a handful of men, originally to buy fat for soap making, but he took charge of the country with his handful of men and declared it to be free of Denmark. He even designed a new Icelandic flag—it was blue with three dried and flattened codfish in the corner.
However Jörgensen’s reign didn’t last long, and after he was driven away he ended up in the penal colony in Tasmania where he died in 1840. There is still no statue of Jörgensen in Iceland.

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