Stephan Stephansson plowed fields near Markerville by day, and by night penned what are considered by writer John Ralston Saul to be Canada’s most important war poems — “or in his case, antiwar poetry.”
That the Central Alberta pioneer wrote the works in his native Icelandic language a century ago perhaps explains why he wasn’t arrested as an agitator during the First World War, states Saul in a forward to Wakeful Nights, Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic-Canadian Poet.
“It also explains why he is absent from our anthologies and our conscious cultural memory. Yet his verse, like that of the great West Coast First Nations sagas, is somehow recognizable as the voice of our collective unconscious,” added Saul, an author, essayist and President of PEN International. (He’s also married to past Canadian governor general Adrienne Clarkson).
Wakeful Nights is the first English biography of the self-educated immigrant farmer who, despite the odds, became a world-class writer and something of a legend in the country he left behind.
While Stephansson isn’t a household name in Canada, his grandson, Stephan Benediktson, who funded the book project, believes the biography’s publication is timely.
“The world has never been in more need of Stephan and his philosophies,” said Benediktson, a retired oilfield engineer who lives near Calgary.
Besides being a pacifist who lived during the Boer War and the Great War, Stephansson was a free-thinker who taught himself three languages and championed women’s rights, political and economic reforms, and environmentalism.
His biography was written by Icelandic scholar, environmentalist and political activist Vidar Hreinsson, who previously edited the Icelandic sagas and published a two-volume biography of Stephansson in his native language.
Wakeful Nights is an abridged version at 600 pages. It starts by recounting Stephansson’s 1853 birth and hard-scrabble childhood on various small farms on the unforgiving north side of Iceland.
After emigrating to the new world at the age of 20, Stephansson spent 16 difficult years farming unsuccessfully in Wisconsin and North Dakota before travelling to Central Alberta with his wife Helga their oldest children, and a group of fellow Icelanders in 1889.
Benediktson is still awed by the implications of “heading north of Calgary with a young family, by ox cart, where there are no roads, no bridges, no houses . . . ” He believes the move was spurred, in part, by disagreements between Stephansson and the Lutheran Church in North Dakota over women’s rights.
While farming wasn’t much easier north of the border, the mostly empty Canadian Prairie offered Stephansson freedom from interfering societal conventions. And once settled within sight of the Rocky Mountains, Stephansson seized the opportunity to became a community leader, spearheading educational and economic initiatives, including co-founding the Markerville creamery.
The father of eight (six of whom survived to adulthood) also served as justice of the peace and earned a reputation as a satirical essayist, humourist and social commentator.
But his most astounding achievement was finding the inspiration at the end of long days of farming to write by candlelight more than 2,000 pages of poetry on topics that were both personal and global.
Unlike many poets, Stephansson was recognized as a leading literary figure in his day. He was invited on speaking tours of his native Iceland. In 1917, he took the train from Innisfail to New York, where he caught a freighter for the long and arduous ocean crossing.
Benediktson noted that five out of six anthologies of Stephansson’s poetry were published during his lifetime, including his strongly worded anti-war poems that describe rotting flesh and other carnage.
One of his works celebrates a pacifist who chose to go to prison rather than the battlefront. “Yet I am victorious, Mother!/ In that no innocent widow/ Mourns the loss of a son/ Caused by me.”
Stephansson wrote more nostalgically for his daughter Rosa, Benediktson’s mother: “Grief steers my verses, my little girl/ When I see abandoned the toys of your childhood/ May you never outgrow building palaces to live in from small belongings/ That would be a change: certainly harmful for you/ And the world would lose a poet.”
Although Stephansson died in 1927 before Benediktson was born, his grandson attended several memorial ceremonies for the writer over the years, including a monument unveiled on his homestead near Gardar, North Dakota in 2003.
In Central Alberta, the Markerville homestead was opened as an Alberta Historic Site in 1975.
Benediktson believes Stephansson’s memory lives on because his words are still worth reading.
Not only was his international outlook ahead of its time, but “he expressed things that are seen to be just as valuable these days.”
The book is available for $38.50 from Amazon.com or from www.StephanGStephansson.com.