All heroes have feet of clay. Or, in the case of a lot of male heroes, it’s not their feet that are a problem, it’s usually a problem with keeping their flies buttoned. As the latest tell-all book on John Kennedy, “Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath,” by Mimi Beardsley Alford makes clear, as busy as a president is with deciding on whether or not to start a nuclear war, there’s always time for a little nooky with the hired help.
That was Jón Þorláksson´s problem. He was a Lutheran minister but it didn´t keep him from getting Jórunn, daughter or Brynjólfur Bjarnason, a wealthy and influential local farmer, pregnant. Given his poverty and his need to work night and day getting in the hay, you wouldn´t think Jón would have time to lie down in the meadow with Jórunn. Of course, there are those long Icelandic winter evenings when one might meet in the dairy. Given living conditions in Iceland, it´s hard to imagine where a couple found the privacy for sex. According to Laxness in Paradise Reclaimed, a butter box would do for a momentary moment of passion.
Jón Þorláksson would have made the farmer´s daughter an honest woman but her father considered Jón such a hopeless case that he wouldn´t agree to her marrying him. It must have been a hot affair because they started it up a second time.
Jón got tossed out of the ministry, then got let back in. He would have been better off to have gone to the farmer and said, give me the fare to Denmark and your daughter will never again be tempted. Life in Denmark couldn´t have been worse than Jón´s life in Iceland. He ended up with a lousy job, an unhappy marriage and dreadful pay.
Why do we care about the love life and living of some country preacher living in a hovel? Why is he a part of the Icelandic heritage of which I´m proud?
When he quit messing around with the farmer’s daughter, he got busy making hay, tending to his flock (both the sheep and the parishoners), he also got busy translating Milton into Icelandic. He did it brilliantly. So brilliantly that he was revered in England. In spite of his moral lapses, he was highly intelligent, gifted, talented, dedicated.
To England’s credit, an English literary society raised the equivalent of six year´s income and sent it to him. The fact that an English literary society knew about Jón and his work, revered both him and the work, makes it clear how interested the English educated class was in Iceland. They held Iceland and the accomplishments of Icelanders in greater esteem than the Icelanders did themselves.
In 1814-15, the Scots divine, Ebenezer Hendersen lived in Iceland. His passion was the distribution of Bibles. He travelled extensively in Iceland, selling Bibles, giving them away, always engaging the Icelanic clergy in theological discussions.
In his travels, he came he says, to “Bægisá, the dwelling of the poet, Sira Jon Thorlakson. Like most of his brethren at this season of the year, we found him in the meadow, assisting his people in haymaking. On hearing of our arrival, he made all the haste home which his age and infirmity would allow and, bidding us welcome to his humble abode, he ushered us into the apaprtment, where he translated my countryman into Icelandic. The door is not quite four feet in height, and the room may be about eight feet in length, by six in breadth. At the inner end is the poet´s bed, and close to the door, over against a small window not exceeding two feet square, is a table …. On my telling him, that my countrymen would not have forgiven me, nor could I have forgiven myself, had I passed through this part of the island without paying him a visit, he replied, that the translation of Milton had yielded him many a pleasant hour, and often given him occasion to think of England but as his residence was so far north, and he had now lived so long without seeing any of Milton´s countrymen,he had not entertained the most distant idea that ever he was to be favoured with such gratification.“
„Of his translation of Paradise Lost, only the three first books have been printed. They are inserted in the xiii, xiv and xv. Volumes of the publications of the Icelandic Literary Society but as this society closed their labours in the year °1796, our poet was deprived of a channel through which he might communicate the remainder of his translation to the public. To print it at his own expense was altogether out of the quesiton, as the whole of his annual income from the parishes of Bæisá and Backa does not exceed thirty rix-dollars (Danish dollars), and even of this sum he must give nearly the one half to Sira Halgrimr, who officiates for him in the latter parish.“
In 1834, John Barrow visits Iceland. Jón is dead by this time but Barrow feels compelled to mention the dreadful poverty in which Jón lived and, in spite of his poverty, the magnificent work he did in his translating. He says, ” This venerable pastor, when nearly seventy years of age, had just completed a translation of Milton´s Paradise Lost into his native tongue, having previously translated Pope´s Essay on Man.”
Barrow then quotes from Henderesen:
“This description of the deplorable condition of so superior a genius as Thorlakson unquestionably was, being fully corroborated by inquiries made of Mr. Bourke, then Danish Minister at the Court of London, was not unheeded by our countrymen. At the instigation of one of the most active members of that liberal, humane, and highly beneficent Society known as the ‘Literary Fund,’ the case was immediately taken up, and having, as the committee state, ‘discovered the venerable bard of Iceland where he patiently reclined beneath the shed of poverty,’ they at once resolved to raise money to help Jón. The contribution was 30 pounds, “equal to five years´ income of his miserable pittance” .
According to Hendersen, the richest living in Iceland didn’t produce 200 rix dollars, and some paid twenty or thirty a year with a few paying as low as five. This meant that the ministers, like Jón, had to support themselves with farming and the success of that depended on the land the minister was given. How little Jón´s pay was can be seen in that a good riding horse cost five pounds sterling. That would translate into Jon´s yearly salary.
It may be that he had a difficult personality, that his sometimes scathing verse made enemies, that, more importantly, in a society where family connections were all important, he wasn´t connected to the important people in Reykjavik, but in a country that claimed that literature was all important , that the love of poetry was supreme, it is passing strange that not a penny could be found to publish Jón´s translation. Genius is often unrewarded but that it should go so unrewarded is shocking when it is foreigners who recognized Jon´s genius and accomplishment and raised money to help him in his old age. It is true that the stranger often has a keen eye.
So, yes, when I say, I´m proud of my Icelandic heritage, Jón Þorláksson, in spite of his faults, is part of that which I am proud. And I’m proud that, today, his accomplishments are recognized and celebrated.
(Quotes from Iceland, or the Journal of a Residence in that Island (2 vols, 1818) and A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem in the Summer of 1834)