Stephan G. Stephansson was an Icelandic-Canadian poet and farmer. His literary output was substantial and was certainly enough for him to be considered one of Iceland’s greatest writers.
He was born Stefán Guðmundur Guðmundsson on the 3rd October 1853 in Skagafjörður, Iceland. He had no formal education but was self-taught. His parents instilled into him the ethic of hard work and he continued with this all through his life. He was an insomniac and made good use of his waking hours by writing poetry. Perhaps, not surprisingly, his work eventually appeared in a collection that ran to six volumes called Andvökur (Sleepless Nights). Additionally he wrote extensively in the form of letters and essays, and these were published in four volumes.
Like so many Icelandic people before them, his family emigrated to the United States when Stephan was 19. They lived in Wisconsin and Dakota until 1889 when he moved north west to Markerville, a small town in the Canadian province of Alberta. He was married by this time but still travelled in a large family group, including his mother, sister and brother in law.
Once established in Canada, Stephan quickly settled to a routine of hard work on his farm while still finding time for extensive community work, including helping to found the first school in the district. He also served as a Justice of the Peace while fathering eight children. It is incredible that he managed to live such a full life while suffering from sleepless nights. He spent this time producing virtually all of his literary output in his native Icelandic language but, of course, much has been translated into English for a wider audience.
He wrote lyrically about his homeland and Canada, describing in detail the life of the immigrant and the land on which they lived. His life spanned the First World War and, as an alternative to the flowery descriptions of sweeping landscapes and great human achievements, he wrote some cutting pieces on the tragedy of war. The short poem In Wartime is a prime example, and is reproduced here:
Perhaps his anti-war views had reached the ears of people in his homeland and he was invited to conduct a tour of speaking engagements throughout Iceland in 1917. While travelling he continued to write. It is not clear when this appeared, but below is one of his poems of appreciation for his adopted land. It is simply called Canada:
He certainly made his mark on the world and a number of examples exist celebrating his life, including a monument in the place of his birth which was erected in 1953. In 1982 his family home in Alberta was restored and opened to the public under the name Stephansson House and is a popular site of historical interest. An annual prize has been awarded since 1982 by the Writers Guild of Alberta for up and coming poets. The Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry will ensure that his name lives for a very long time.
Stephan G. Stephansson died on the 10th August 1927 at the age of 73. He was buried in the family cemetery near his homestead.