Stephansson House near Red Deer preserves memory of Canada's 'earliest poet of the first rank'


EDMONTON - On the highway just south of Red Deer's Gasoline Alley, the official blue sign for Stephansson House stands discreetly on right-hand shoulder.

A short drive west, away from the bustling traffic and into the beautiful rolling hills, a pink-and-green house sits on a hill — the original home of one of Alberta's most remarkable pioneers, a hidden gem in province's history.

Stephan Stephansson, among the first Icelandic settlers west of the Red Deer River, was a radical, independent thinker, a prolific poet and arguably the province's most important early literary figure.

Like many of his neighbours, Stephansson arrived by ox cart in 1889. He cut trees to build his house, planted crops, raised sheep, fought fierce prairie fires and survived cold, long winters with his wife, Helga, and eight children (two of whom died in childhood).

Unlike his neighbours, the short, intense, self-taught farmer with the bushy moustache was an insomniac whose mind never seemed to rest. He stayed up late at night with candles, pen and ink and a precious cup of coffee to help stir his thoughts.

In later years, a neighbour built him a writing desk that still sits in the old house, next to the tiny bedroom. Some mornings, Helga would wake to find her husband asleep at his desk.

His muse, it seems, was always at his side. He would rush in from cutting hay or caring for cattle to put down his thoughts — in all, six volumes of poetry and countless letters.

Day after day he worked the land, but when evening fell his mind was finally free, as he demonstrated in this poem written in 1899.

"And Care on my doorstep sits drowsy at last,

Who guards all my movements by day,

Who startled my songs — all the lightest of wing —

And silent they fluttered away,

Who bruised the wing of a thought as it soared

Its heavenward call to obey.

His subject matter was in front of him — an approaching storm on Snake Lake (now Sylvan Lake), the northern lights, the distant Rocky Mountains, the bitter winter cold.

The new land offered space for new political thinking. An egalitarian and early advocate of women's suffrage, Stephansson never shied from controversy. He had little time for the dogma of a church that preached women's subordination. A sympathizer of the Unitarian movement, he often found himself in hot water with the Winnipeg hierarchy of the Lutheran Church that served the Icelandic community.

As a pacifist, Stephansson wrote powerful antiwar poetry when Europe and Canada plunged into the devastation of the First World War. Some speculate he might well have been arrested had he written those poems in English.

Though he'd never been to school, he was a firm believer in education. He taught himself to read and write English and rallied his neighbours to build a school on land he donated. (The building still stands.)

In Iceland, his poetry was quickly hailed as among the best of the modern era and is still studied in classrooms. Some call him the T.S. Eliot of Iceland. But he garnered little attention in Alberta outside the Icelandic community, because little of his work was translated into English.

As early as 1936, however, the president of Acadia University, Watson Kirconnell, fluent in Icelandic, recognized his talent as possibly "the earliest poet of the first rank" in Canada.

This fall, a new biography in English arrives, finally making Stephansson's life and literature accessible to a wider audience. The book, Wakeful Nights, is an abridged version of Icelandic scholar Vidar Hreinsson's early two-volume biography.

Stephan Benediktson published the book, eager to bring his grandfather's work to a wider audience.

"The world has never been more in need of Stephansson's philosophy — his pacifism, his progressive views on education — all of this from a man who was never able to go to school," said Benediktson, an engineer in the oilpatch who worked around the globe before setting up his own oil company.

Benediktson's mother, Rosa, was the poet's youngest daughter. She was born in Stephansson house, now an official historic site and repository of all things Stephansson. After she married, she moved just a few kilometres away, where Benediktson and his sister, Helga, grew up. Helga Iris Bourne still lives in the area.

Benediktson was born too late to meet his famous grandfather, who died in 1927. There was little talk of his grandfather's poetry as the family struggled through the Depression. It was years later that Benediktson got interested in his grandfather's remarkable legacy in literature, his progressive views and his impact on life in the Icelandic community in the early days of the Northwest Territories.

Stephansson emigrated in 1873 with a group of Icelanders who first settled in the U.S. His time in Wisconsin and North Dakota was critical to his intellectual development. He discovered free thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and read progressive periodicals that published Darwin, Hegel and writings from Karl Marx.

"American thinkers had freed themselves of the strictures of religious dogma earlier in the century. Now, with their help, Stephan did the same," wrote his biographer.

Just a year after arriving in Alberta, Stephansson began to write poetry. By 1894, he had enough poems for his first volume, Out in the Wilderness, published in an Icelandic magazine in Winnipeg.

It was a literary milestone for Alberta, Hreinsson wrote in his biography. Until then, the new land had been chronicled in First Nations oral tradition and in travel diaries from early explorers and missionaries. But never before in poetry.

About the same time, the first volume of English poetry written in Alberta was underway. But the subject of Lethbridge lawyer Charles Coynbeare's writing was King Arthur, not the Canadian West.

"Alberta was therefore first pioneered in a literary sense by Stephen Stephansson, though Canadian literary histories are reticent to acknowledge a farmer who captured the wilderness in alliteration and rhyme while driving his oxen and wagon back and forth between Calgary and Red Deer," Hreinsson wrote.

In his poem Summer Night in Alberta, Stephansson wrote: "To me this wilderness is a thousand times dearer/ Than crowded districts though larger and richer/Where space for life is so constricted in every way/ And a third of mankind is trampled underfoot."

In one of his best known poems, a 28-page epic called Battle Pause, two enemy soldiers, one a battle-hardened veteran and the other a young recruit, discuss war. The poem is startling for its graphic detail about the horrors of war and the politics that send young men to their deaths while industrialists profit.

Stephansson he lived his philosophy, said Leah Strand, interpreter at Stephansson House. His marriage was a true partnership, husband and wife sharing the decisions on the farm.

Strand tells a story about Helga once confiding to a friend: "Stephan kissed seldom and badly."

But the partnership endured.

Stephansson travelled on the occasional book tour and encouraged his wife to travel when she needed a break from the farm — as happened after the death of their 16-year-old son, Gestur.

The two brothers, Gestur and Jakob, were running toward the house during an evening storm. Suddenly there was a great clap of thunder and Gestur was struck by lightning as he jumped across a fence after his brother. Stephansson wrote a moving poem about the loss.

Benediktson is impressed with how his grandfather's legacy is still growing and is eager to translate more poetry (about 10 per cent is available in English). A 1990s play based on his poetry morphed in to an opera with music composed by William Jordan, a University of Calgary music professor. Based on the poem Battle Pause, the opera has yet to be performed, said Jordon. "With any luck, Canadian school kids will one day be studying his poems as they are in Iceland," he said.

As Benediktson rediscovered his grandfather's legacy, there was one more surprise waiting. After his mother died in 1994, he was packing up her library. The youngest daughter (born in 1900), Rosa came back to the farm after attending Olds Agriculture College and helped her father on the farm until he died in 1927. But she was also learning at her father desk, as it turns out.

As he sorted through her papers, Benediktson came across a faded old file.

"I had no idea my mother also wrote. I opened an old file and there was a manuscript my mother had written. It was like my grandfather was there, looking over my shoulder."

Hreinsson will be in Edmonton on Sept 18 to discuss the book. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Dutch Canadian Centre at 13312 142 St. The book can be ordered from local book stores. (Hreinsson will speak in Markerville on Wednesday night. )