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Stephan G. Stephansson

A photo taken of Stephan G. Stephansson just prior to his departure from Iceland, ca. 1872. Stephan G. Stephansson was born in Iceland in 1853 and died at Markerville, Alberta in 1927. He emigrated with his parents in 1873 to northern Wisconsin. In 1880 he moved to Dakota and from there to a homestead near what was to become the village of Markerville in 1889. His life in Alberta thus spans a crucial period in the history of the province, from the pioneer years that were linked with the development of the railway to the modest recovery in the late 1920s from the severe recession that followed the Great War of 1914-18. His career also reflects the history of the Icelandic settlement in the Canadian West. At the same time, Stephansson achieved great distinction as a poet, recognized not only by the Icelandic community in North America but also in his native Iceland.

Stephan G Stephansson is one of the most notable poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so his desk and writing materials are a major part of his historical significance. Stephan G. Stephansson has been called the greatest poet of the western world. He was certainly a most prolific poet and most of his verse was of a very high standard. During the seventy-three years of his life, he published more than two thousand pages, more than the Canadian poets Bliss Carman, Charles Roberts and Wilson Macdonald combined. In sheer bulk of output, no other Canadian poet is comparable. That he was able to produce so much of such a high quality is all the more remarkable considering the conditions under which he wrote. Stephansson was a farmer: he had been born on a farm in Iceland and he died as a farmer in west central Alberta. Working from dawn to dusk clearing land, grubbing roots, ploughing, seeding, stooking, and threshing would have discouraged a lesser man, but Stephan Stephansson could not ignore the creative urge of his genius.

When he made his first attempts to compose verse even he could not remember. Certainly he experimented with rhymes and verses from his early youth. He continued to perfect his knowledge of the Icelandic language and the various poetic metres while he lived in Wisconsin and the Dakota Territory; but it was in Alberta, living in the Medicine river valley, that he achieved maturity both as a philosopher and skald. His mind was forever working on a new idea or an unfinished poem. Even though the "lousy barn work" claimed most of the daylight house he often composed poems while haying, milking the cows or taking slop to the pigs. It was not unusual for him to return hurriedly to the house to jot down a few lines before they escaped. Rainy days and Sundays he spent at his desk. But even this did not satisfy the urge to create. Despite his physical weariness at the end of the day, so faithful was he to his inner voice that the muse of poetry drove him from his bed to his desk to pour out his thoughts and feelings:

The long autumn night was approaching the day,And I in my wakefulness quietly lay.I stared in the shadows, my mind in a whirl Attempting the future to measure.What would my seventh new decade unfurl, All Sundays of joy and pleasure? I heard at my doorstep a footstep alightAs soft as the rustling leaves in the nightAnd I knew in an instant that visitor's call, Though darkness might seem to confound me;No matter what clattering noise might befall I knew her light footsteps around me. But fancy has always been part of her style.She opened my door which was unlocked the while.I rose from my pillow with gladness and pride,Her visit was such a rare pleasure. I figured my strings as she came to my sideWith her harp and her crowning treasure.

Although the house looks beautiful in the winter, it is only open to the public from mid-May to early September. Stephan G. Stephansson was the most remarkable of the Icelandic farmer-poets. A the time of his birth, Iceland was one of the backwaters of western Europe, the Icelandic culture and language stagnant. Stephansson, using his comprehensive knowledge of the language in his poems, has been credited with the revitalization of his mother tongue. Essentially a man of the nineteenth century he believed in the power of words. A true romantic, he was sure that ideas and ideals, given the wings of verse, could overcome the problems of the human race. He passed away in 1927. It was not until the centenary of his birth in 1953 that the Canadian government erected a cairn in his honour in the park at Markerville, and that same years Stephansson's youngest child, Rosa, travelled to Iceland to unveil a memorial overlooking the valley of her father's birth. Stephansson's poems are studied in the Icelandic school system for their linguistic as well as for their poetic merit. In 1976 the government of Alberta paid homage to her pioneer son by declaring his home a Provincial Historic Resource.

Reprinted from Stephan G. Stephansson: The Poet of the Rocky Mountains by Jane W. McCracken with permission from Alberta Community Development, Historical Resources Division.

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  • Stephansson House: Part One - Stephan Guthmundarson Stephansson was a famous Icelandic poet before he came to Markerville, Alberta. Hear about Stephansson and his little farmhouse near Red Deer.
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  • Stephansson House: Part Two - The Stephansson farmhouse, at Markerville, Alberta, grew with the Stephansson family, room by room. Stephansson House is now a historic site.
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  • Stephansson House: Part Three - Listen to the history of Stephansson House's unique architectural details, from its brilliant colours to its eight lightning rods!
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  • Stephansson House: Part Four - Stephan G. Stephansson has been called the Shakespeare of Iceland. Hear some of Stephansson's poems, and learn about the man himself.
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