Published September 6, 2015
In 1936, a thirty-year-old poet from Britain travelled around Iceland. His name was Wystan Hugh Auden—you probably know him as W.H. Auden, one of the 20th century’s most influential poets.
Many perhaps thought that this great poet would want to stay close to awe-inspiring waterfalls and graceful mountains. But Auden didn’t show the slightest interest in such natural wonders. He said that he didn’t enjoy hiking mountains or watching rivers fall off cliffs, experiences that could be similarly had in other countries. He was, however, very interested in getting to know the people inhabiting the isle. Upon doing so, he described them thusly:
As a race, I don’t think the Icelanders are very ambitious. A few of the professional classes would like to get to Europe; most would prefer to stay where they are and make a certain amount of money. Compared with most countries, there is little unemployment in Iceland.
My general impression of the Icelander is that he is realistic, in a petit bourgeois sort of way, unromantic and unidealistic. Unlike the German, he shows no romantic longing for the south, and I can’t picture him in a uniform. The attitude to the sagas is like that of the average Englishman to Shakespeare; but I only found one man, a painter, who dared to say he thought they were “rather rough.”
The difficulty of getting any job at all in many European countries tends to make the inhabitants irresponsible and therefore ready for fanatical patriotism; but the Icelander is seldom irresponsible, because irresponsibility in a farmer or fisherman would mean ruin.
Auden, a great opponent of fascism, curiously kept running into Nazis on his way around Iceland, including Hermann Göring’s cousin (“He didn’t look in the least like his [cousin], but rather academic,” he wrote).
The Nazis have a theory that Iceland is the cradle of Germanic culture. Well, if they want a community like that of the sagas they are welcome to it. I love the sagas, but what a rotten society they describe, a society with only the gangster virtues.
I caught the nine o’clock bus to Myvatn, full of Nazis who talk incessantly about Die Schönheit des Islands, and the Aryan qualities of the stock “Die Kinder sind so reizend: schöne blonde Haare und blaue Augen. Ein echt Germanischer Typus.” I expect this isn’t grammatical, but that’s what it sounded like. I’m glad to say that as they made this last mark we passed a pair of kids on the road who were as black as night.
Auden often described the food he ate on his trip, but rarely with any enthusiasm (in Blönduós, for example, he was served “enormous hunks of meat that might have been carved with a chopper smeared with half-cold gravy”). In fact, Auden was an extremely picky eater, as his Icelandic guide Ragnar Jóhannesson recalled in a magazine article in 1960.
Ragnar wrote that Auden seemed to subsist nearly exclusively on coffee and cigarettes, drinking an estimated 1500 cups of coffee over the three months he spent in Iceland. Furthermore, Ragnar claimed to have on more than one occasion observed the poet sitting up in the middle of the night to light a cigarette, seemingly still asleep.
Ragnar also recalled a dinner feast he and Auden were treated to on a farm, where the host served them a chunk of steaming-hot hangikjöt (smoked lamb) of the finest and fattest sort. While the Icelanders in Auden’s entourage became excited and wolfed down this great delicacy, Auden himself only had a few bites. He did not like it. While certainly hungry after a long day on the road, the poet opted instead for a dinner consisting of a cigarette and five cups of coffee — later explaining to Ragnar that he felt he owed his good health to the principle of only ever eating food he liked.
The most famous product of Auden’s trip to Iceland was his poem:
JOURNEY TO ICELAND
Each traveller prays Let me be far from any
physician, every port has its name for the sea,
the citiless, the corroding, the sorrow,
and North means to all Reject.
These plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted
and on all sides: white wings flicker and flaunt;
under a scolding flag the lover
of islands may see at last,
in outline, his limited hope, as he nears a glitter
of glacier, sterile immature mountains intense
in the abnormal northern day, and a river’s
fan-like polyp of sand.
Here let the citizen, then, find natural marvels,
a horse-shoe ravine, an issue of steam from a cleft
in the rock, and rocks, and waterfalls brushing
the rocks, and among the rock birds;
the student of prose and conduct places to visit,
the site of a church where a bishop was put in a bag,
the bath of a great historian, the fort where
an outlaw dreaded the dark,
remember the doomed man thrown by his horse and crying
Beautiful is the hillside. I will not go,
the old woman confessing He that I loved the
best, to him I was worst.
Europe is absent: this is an island and should be
a refuge, where the affections of its dead can be bought
by those whose dreams accuse them of being
spitefully alive, and the pale
from too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.
But is it, can they, as the world is and can lie?
A narrow bridge over a torrent,
a small farn under a crag
are natural setting for the jealousies of a province:
a weak vow of fidelity is made at a cairn,
within the indigenous figure on horseback
on the bridle-path down by the lake
his blood moves also by furtive and crooked inches,
asks all our questions: Where is the homage? When
shall justice be done? Who is against me?
Why am I always alone?
Our time has no favourite suburb, no local features
are those of the young for whom all wish to care;
its promise is only a promise, the fabulous
country impartially far.
Tears fall in all the rivers: again some driver
pulls on his gloves and in a blinding snowstorm starts
upon a fatal journey, again some writer
runs howling to his art.
Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (It’s also the Icelandic word for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Web Awards, Lemúrinn.is covers all things strange and interesting. Go check it out.