Books and Reading in Iceland
ALMOST the first building that attracts the eye of a stranger in Reykjavik is the solidly built stone structure that overlooks the little green square in the centre of the town. This is the Althing-House, the only building in Iceland of any architectural pretensions, and one that would do no discredit to Berlin or Paris. The upper story contains the National Museum, the middle story is occupied by the two branches of the Althing, and on the ground floor is the National Library, the largest collection of books in Iceland. Here are between twenty-five and thirty thousand printed books, and thirteen hundred manuscripts. The collection is miscellaneous, with unexpected riches in some directions, and equally unexpected poverty in others. The richest department is naturally that of Icelandic history and literature, though even this is not complete. The British Museum and the National Library at Copenhagen have more than one Icelandic treasure not found at Reykjavik.
A few steps from the Althing-House, on a gentle grassy slope, is the ugly, barnlike building of the Latin College, where all Icelandic students are prepared for the University of Copenhagen. Near by is an unpretending stone building containing the college library, a general collection of about six or eight thousand volumes. Some smaller private libraries are scattered about Reykjavik, but of these more hereafter. The public libraries in other parts of Iceland are few. The one at Akureyri numbers several thousand volumes, and there are some other isolated collections. These moderate-sized libraries furnish the working capital of Icelandic scholars, except as individuals have gradually accumulated the materials for investigation in their own departments. The mere statement of these facts indicates that great original scholarship can scarcely exist in Iceland. The investigator is hampered at every turn by the lack of the scholarly apparatus necessary for his work. Some of the private libraries are surprisingly large ; but as books are dear, and as the largest private incomes in Iceland do not much exceed fifteen hundred dollars, poverty puts a check upon original scholarship, except along certain narrow lines.
A glance at the booksellers and their shops may be suggestive. Nearly every visitor to Iceland begins his acquaintance with the country at the capital, Reykjavik, and I was no exception. A very few minutes after I had been rowed ashore from the little steamer, and had engaged rooms at the hotel, I went in search of a bookseller. I soon learned that the most successful way to find books was to look in unlikely places. Scarcely a dealer keeps a stock of any size, and he seems to hide it as much as possible. The photographer has a few volumes, and the postmaster a few more. One can buy text-books at the office of one of the little newspapers published at Reykjavik ; and by going upstairs in a stone schoolhouse and knocking at the proper door, one can find a very tolerable miscellaneous collection of text-books and other works for sale at the published prices — with a slight increase for strangers. One of the largest shops is beside the Althing-House, where I found a greater variety of books and more courtesy than anywhere else in Reykjavik. In fact, the cordiality of the proprietor, who is also a publisher, became slightly embarrassing, after I had made some considerable purchases of him; for toward the close of my stay in Reykjavik I was never sure that I should be able to finish my dinner without being told that the bookseller was waiting to see me. He usually brought a pamphlet or book which he had published, and which he insisted on presenting to me. Among his gifts was an Icelandic translation of Hamlet, — the first ever made, —■ a volume of travels in England, a book of modern Icelandic poems, and various pamphlets. I may add as an aside that he seemed to care nothing for the payment of my bill, and showed not the slightest hesitation in letting it run till I could send him a draft from America.
The thought that most impresses one, in looking through these little bookshops, is that readers are shut out almost entirely from the inspiration and suggestion of seeing large quantities of new books exposed for sale. Small opportunity is afforded for testing a book before buying it, and nobody except a scholar in constant touch with the outer world can realize what is doing in the various departments of literature and research. The books ordinarily on sale are schoolbooks, isolated specimens of Danish, English, French, and German works, and a number of the better known Icelandic publications. Very popular is a recent reprint, in three volumes, of the shorter Icelandic sagas. Some modern Icelandic poems, a fewmodern Icelandic romances, and treatises of more or less scholarship comprise the greater part of the stock. Whenever books are wanted from abroad, they are usually ordered from Copenhagen ; but communication with the outside world is slow and expensive, and during certain months impossible.
The number of volumes printed in Iceland is limited ; but a few appear every year with “ Reykjavik ” or " Akureyri ” on the title-page. Several newspapers are published at Reykjavik, all ridiculously small in comparison with English or American papers, yet serving to keep up a slender connection with the far-away world, and to chronicle the events of a country where little or nothing happens. One weekly sheet, the Ísafold, has an extensive circulation in the remote country districts. Literary production in Iceland is not large, and until the industrial conditions are radically changed it must always be small.
A glance at these conditions will show how unfavorable they are to the diffusion of books and to literary fertility.
First and foremost, we must note that the country is little better than a desert. The peculiar configuration renders intercourse difficult, and along with the barrenness of the soil makes the conditions of existence strangely hard. People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive. The size of Iceland is greater than that of Ireland, and the population numbers seventy thousand souls ; but the only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. Grass is the only considerable crop. The hills and valleys are treeless, and afford at best but scanty pasturage for horses, cows, and sheep. Roads and bridges scarcely exist. A Danish merchant at Reykjavik has a wheeled carriage; but in the interior such a conveyance is unknown, and would be useless if known. The backs of horses are the only means of transportation across country. Small boats carry travelers over dangerous rivers, while the horses Swim on ahead. Hardly anything that ministers to comfort, to say nothing of luxury, is produced in Iceland. Every nail in an Icelandic house, every pane of glass, every bit of wooden flooring, every insignificant bit of furniture, has to be transported laboriously from one of the seaports to its destination.
That the Icelanders are poor goes without saying. There is little or no home market; for almost every Icelander has the same products to sell as his neighbor. The circulation of money is therefore very small. If a farmer has direct dealings with the agents for foreign markets, and is sufficiently prosperous to have a little surplus each year, he may handle actual money, but in general the trading at the seaports is literally trading. An Icelander barters a certain number of horses or sheep or rolls of dried fish or balls 1 of hay for a supply of groceries and other necessaries of life. If he buys books under such conditions, he must want, them more than do the rural inhabitants of most countries.
All these hindrances would appear to be sufficient to check literary production ; but there are still other obstacles. Take, for instance, the writing of novels. The first drawback is that the population is more scattered than almost anywhere else in the world. Even the largest towns are mere villages. The novelist must know his world, and paint it as he sees it. If he lays the scene in Iceland, and is faithful in depicting the people he knows and has studied, he runs the risk of portraying too closely the people whom he has been observing, and who have been in turn watching him. His characters, if at all true to life, cannot easily remain unrecognized ; and they must be more than human if they enjoy their notoriety. The number of copies that the writer can hope to sell is small; and he may well question whether it is worth while to set the community by the ears for the sake of publishing a probably unsuccessful story. I do not mean that a great writer cannot produce a great novel even under such conditions; but the chances are against him. The few native Icelandic novels thus far written cannot be pronounced an eminent success. The most popular, and perhaps the best of all, is Piltúr og Stúlka, which has been recently translated into English ; but even this cannot be called a great novel.
If the novelist deserts actual experience, and introduces abstract and purely ideal types, his work will almost certainly fail to win popularity. If he goes outside of Iceland for his subject, he ceases to be distinctively national and representative. Nor ought we to forget that the Icelandic temper is very sluggish, and that the people are law-abiding. Now of course the material for literature of the highest order is passion. The strongest passions are those that concern the relations of men and women. Passion, when at its strongest, leads to sin and jealousy and remorse. Iceland is by no means a country of Pamelas and Josephs; but Icelandic society as a whole is so simple and peaceable that the complicated plots of crime and adventure which many novelists delight in would appear absurd. The native Icelandic novel must therefore move, I think, along very narrow lines, and it has small chance of reaching the highest excellence.
The drama is still more hopeless. The Icelandic temper is too cold and stolid to enter with quick sympathy into another nature so as to catch its spirit. Genuine dramatists are rare enough in any country, but one may look for them almost anywhere with more prospect of success than in Iceland. The Icelanders are too impassive — I might say, too honest — to be good actors. They are the poorest mimics in the world. An Icelander makes fewer gestures in a month than an Italian in an hour. Moreover, there is no place and no demand for the drama. The largest town, Reykjavik, has only three or four thousand inhabitants, and cannot furnish the public to support a theatre. The actors, if found at all, must be amateurs. Theatricals cost money; and it must be emphasized at every turn that Iceland is poor. In so far, therefore, as the drama exists at all, it must be a book drama. A few plays have been translated into Icelandic, such as King Lear and Hamlet; but even in translation Icelandic dramatic literature makes a very inconsiderable showing.
The modern Icelandic literature takes refuge in poetry ; and in this field the best work has appeared. The hymn, the love-song, the idyl, the lines that let us look into a man’s own heart, the verses that kindle with patriotism and liberty, — all these have been found possible. Some of the modern work takes very high rank, though lacking the exquisite delicacy of the best Danish poetry, and the fire and abandon of the old songs of the Edda. The Icelandic epic is yet to be written ; but the old Edda measures are peculiarly fitted for the loftiness of a great poem, as may be seen in the masterly translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, perhaps the finest version existing in any language.
From this rapid survey we see the natural limitations of literature in Iceland. Personal satire might flourish, were the Icelanders more quarrelsome and more malicious. But they seem to spend their malice in petty gossip, and do not try to elevate their tittle-tattle to the rank of literature. Yet there is considerable literary activity. The critical essay, travel sketches, religions works of various sorts, annotations of old Icelandic texts, investigations of the history of Iceland and of the Icelandic language and literature, compilations in various departments of science, translations from the leading languages of Europe, in a word useful books of all sorts, seem to have taken the greater part of the literary energy of the country, Great works of creative imagination are, however, as good as non-existent. From their books the Icelanders seem to have absorbed the soothing and restful part of culture, the part that gives help and comfort; but their modern writers appear to have no burning message for the world. Reykjavik is not a Weimar ; and the intellectual life there, though attractive and to a certain degree stimulating, does not stir one to the depths.
We have glanced at the general conditions of life in Iceland, and at the number of books collected for the purposes of the scholar. We have found the conditions on the whole unfavorable for great original scholarship or great literary productiveness. But, on the other hand, Iceland can boast an unusually high standard of intelligence, and can justly be called a nation of readers. The people in the remote country districts have caught the reading habit, and during a considerable part of the year they have every excuse for indulging it. In winter they cannot travel, for they are shut in by drifted snow. They may feed the sheep and cows and horses, and attend to the dairy products. They may spin and weave wool. But otherwise they have little to do except to read and talk and play chess. Fortunately, they have no manufacturing and no business; for mental exertion is almost the only activity that they do not dread. Culture is popular in Iceland, and cultivated men receive due recognition. One of the most respected men in the country is Jón Thorkelsson, the accomplished rector of the Latin College. He is emphatically a man of books, and has for long years set the standard of education for the entire country. The people have got into the way of being educated, and they send every year a large contingent of students to the University of Copenhagen, where at least a part of their expenses are paid from the public purse. The tradition of culture is very old in Iceland. Scholars have at no time failed, even in the darkest days of political humiliation. With the historical development of Icelandic culture and education, however, I cannot here deal. More to our immediate purpose is it to consider the extent of the reading habit, and the kind of books that one may find in the little towns and in the more remote country.
Large private libraries are not very common, but several are surprisingly good. Jón Thorkelsson has four thousand volumes on philology, history, and literature. Páll Melsteth, the venerable historian, has perhaps a thousand volumes. During one of my calls on the governor he showed me his books, numbering several hundreds, some of them rare and interesting. The bishop has a number of handsome bookshelves, containing perhaps a thousand volumes. All these are in Reykjavik, which is in comparatively close touch with the outer world.
In the better houses of the towns, books, when once bought, are a possession for a lifetime ; but in the country they have to share in the struggle for existence. The Lutheran priest at Stathr, on the coast of the southwestern peninsula, handed me a tattered and mildewed copy of an Icelandic translation of Bunvan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with the remark that it was one of sixty or seventy volumes which had been spoiled by the snow and rain. “ Bad roofs,” said he, " are the greatest enemies of books in Iceland. Worms and insects do little damage. Our climate freezes them to death. Wood is dear, and the turf roofs are spongy and damp. Even where the roofs do not actually leak, the long, wet spring usually turns the books mouldy, so that they rot before one’s eyes. That is one reason why people are discouraged at the thought of making a great collection of books.”
Yet in spite of poverty and difficulty of transportation, and the certainty that in most cases the handsome book of today will be the mouldy volume of to-morrow, many Icelandic farmers have very creditable libraries. For security against dampness, they frequently keep their books in chests. The Lutheran priests are nearly all farmers, and in many cases their mode of living differs but slightly from that of their parishioners. Some of the priests are desperately poor, and can scarcely furnish bodies to go with their souls. New books are for them a luxury almost unknown. I recall one gaunt, haggard priest who was eking out a pitiful existence on the lava - bound southern coast, and who had only a Bible, a psalm-book, and a handful of other half-decayed volumes. At. one corner of the parsonage, where we spent the night, a pile of whale’s blubber made the air fragrant, and emphasized the poverty of the possessor. Yet this priest had been educated at the Latin College, and he even knew some English.
While at Reykjavik, I asked the bishop of Iceland what number of volumes the average clergyman would be likely to possess. He hardly ventured to guess, but thought that few priests would have less than fifty or sixty volumes, while many would have from one hundred to eight hundred, or even more. One clergyman in the northwest is said to have a library of several thousand volumes.
One Sunday I spent at Reynivellir, a day’s ride from Reykjavik. After the service in the little weather - blackened wooden church, I went over to the priest’s house. The hungry and thirsty parishioners were swarming in all the rooms except the parlor, and sipping fragrant coffee. As I was left alone for a moment, I glanced round the pleasant parlor, about twelve or fourteen feet square, the floor covered with oilcloth, and the furniture comfortable. A small glass case containing about forty books stood in one corner. There, side by side, were poems and prose works in Icelandic and Danish, Ibsen’s plays ill Norwegian, Korner’s poems in German, Channing’s essays in English. After a little, the priest conducted me across the narrow entry and through a bedroom to his study. lie pointed to about four hundred volumes on the shelves, and as many more in great wooden chests. He had a good selection of the Greek and Latin classics, a long list of the Icelandic sagas, several Icelandic histories, his professional theological treatises, some miscellaneous works, and a fair sprinkling of English books. Shakespeare, Milton, and some other standard poets he handed down one after another, expressing his admiration of each as he took them from the shelf. An octavo volume in black he held out with the remark, “ Here is an author I greatly admire, your American channing.” He showed me also an English Unitarian journal which he read with great interest. This priest has some reputation as an author, and has written two or three books on Icelandic history.
At Thingvellir I inspected another clergyman’s library. The room where I slept contained two beds, and at the foot of one of them were half a dozen wellfilled bookshelves. Many of the books were bound magazines, religious and general. But there were also historical works on Iceland, a copy of the Diplomatarium Islandicum from the year 834 A. D. to 1264 A. D., lives of the Icelandic bishops, collections of the sagas, a book on political economy, an Icelandic translation of the Vicar of Wakefield which figured as Presturinn á Vökuvöllum, and so forth. This collection was evidently nothing but the overflow library, stored in the guestchamber for the sake of saving space. One book that interested me contained the records of the little school that used to be kept at Thingvellir. Each of the pupils was carefully graded, and the exact amount that each knew about reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion was neatly recorded in figures.
One naturally expects the clergy to be more or less educated, and to have books as a necessary accompaniment, but one hardly dares to expect much of the ordinary farmers of so poor a land as Iceland ; yet in spite of all drawbacks the Icelandic farmer manages to have at least a few books, and sometimes a remarkable number. On my trip to Hecla and Ivrlsuvlk, I omitted no opportunity of looking over the books in the farmhouses. Sometimes I found nothing but the Bible and the psalm-book, or an old treatise on farming, or some practical religious work, but a little inquiry usually brought out a few volumes of the old sagas. At a farmhouse almost under the shadow of Hecla, I found, on the chest of drawers in my bedroom, several schoolbooks, — one for learning Danish, — a volume of tales, and the usual psalmbook. Against the wall hung a portfolio partly filled with Icelandic newspapers. The members of the family appeared to be very intelligent, and by no means to have limited their reading to the few books in sight. A day or two later we were at Skúmstathir, on the southern coast. As we had just come from some of the places most famous in Icelandic story, I asked our host if he had a copy of the Njálssaga. He was a tall, shrewdlooking man of over sixty, with a strong face, a mighty, hawklike nose, a little fringe of heard under his chin, and sharp, penetrating eyes. He thought there was a copy in the house, and presently returned with a well-worn volume published in Copenhagen in 1772, having a part of the title-page printed in vermilion. Other books were lying about the room. A bunch of newspapers published at Reykjavik hung against the wall, and the first number of a new religious newspaper was handed about as a specimen copy.
Books turn up in unexpected corners. While we waited for the wind to subside, so that our horses could safely swim the Olfusá, we stayed at the house of the ferryman. He opened a bottle of port wine for us; and when I asked for a book to while away the time, he brought a small armful for me to choose from. My guide told me that he was worth sixty thousand crowns, though I should never have suspected such wealth from the appearance of the house or the owner.
One day, as I was busily at work in Reykjavik, just after my Icelandic teacher had gone, I heard a knock at the door. A moment later a large man entered. dressed in farmer’s costume, — untanned pointed shoes, homespun woolen coat and trousers, and a fringed brown woolen neckcloth. “ Good - morning,”said he. offering his hand. It was not so clean as I could have wished, but I looked at his enormous frame, his great head with its shaggy mane of tawny hair and beard, and I shook hands with him, at the same time offering him a seat. He tossed into a chair his black felt hat, which had strings for tying it under the chin, and sat down. “ I understand,” began he in a deep voice, “ that you are learning Icelandic.” I admitted the charge, and he continued. He talked slowly, but very well, on a variety of topics, and told me all about himself. He lived three or four days’ ride from Reykjavik, and came up once or twice a year. In 1873 he was guide for William Morris, the poet. He told me that Morris spoke very good Icelandic, and had been twice in Iceland, each time for about two months. Suddenlv my visitor turned the conversation, and began to ask about the pronunciation of a few English words he knew, such as “judge,” “general,” “George,” which he struggled to pronounce. Then, without warning, he seized his great black hat and started for the door, saying as he rolled out, “ I ’ll come back soon.” A quarter of an hour later he reappeared with several books. One of them was Jules Leclercq’s La Terre de Glace. The old man had been the Frenchman’s guide, also, and he pointed out with great pride the passage in which the author had described him as a possible descendant of Gunnar. Three other books by William Morris, — his translation of Virgil, the Grettir Saga, and Three Northern Love Stories, — all bearing the autograph of the poet, he held up for inspection, and offered for sale. I bought two of them. The old man shook my hand heartily, and at my request wrote his name on the fly-leaf of each. He had over a hundred volumes at home, he said, mostly Icelandic and Danish, but he now needed money more than books.
My story is growing long, but I must take space enough to tell of the books in the farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight. Háls is a single farmhouse, distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea. Before going to Háls I had only the vaguest notions of the kind of life to be expected on an Icelandic farm ; and it was with some misgiving that I set out, three days after my arrival in Reykjavik, for this out-of-the-way corner of the country. Many of the details of the farm life are exceedingly interesting, but I can take space for nothing but the part that books played in the household.
My chief purpose in leaving Reykjavik was to secure a complete Icelandic environment, so as to acquire the language rapidly. Very shortly after my arrival, the farmer picked up a volume of old Icelandic tales, and began to look over the book with me. He did not know a word of any language but Icelandic. We got on very well, with the help of some pantomime. After a halfhour I was left to myself, and to the bookshelves. Imagine my surprise on finding, as I began to count, more than a hundred and fifty volumes in Icelandic, Danish, and English. The list was so interesting that I took down the titles of the entire collection. Icelandic books were naturally in the majority,— textbooks on physics, chemistry, astronomy, Icelandic law books, modern Icelandic poems, two or three modern Icelandic romances, books of travel, English grammars, reading-books, and lexicons, and a number of volumes of old sagas. One ancient book proved to be the entire Laxdælr Saga copied in a hand almost like copperplate. Especially interesting were the translations from English into Icelandic. One little unpretending book was Shakespeare’s King Lear ; another was Herbert Spencer’s tract on Education ; and still another was .John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. Robinson Crusoe appeared in condensed form, while Samuel Smiles’s Thrift was translated and printed without abridgment.
The farmer’s daughter had spent a year in Copenhagen, and had a considerable number of Danish books. Many of these were translations of novels from English, French, and Russian. There were Marryat’s Peter Simple and Trollope’s Marion Fay, George Sand’s Valentine and Daudet’s L’Immortel. Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Turgenieff, Tolstóy, were each represented by one or more volumes.
A list of books so varied as these cannot be duplicated in most American farmhouses that I am acquainted with, though I believe there are many farmhouses in Iceland with a collection at least as large. These books, as I soon learned, were not merely for show. After the language began to lose some of its terrors, I asked endless questions of the farmer and his family about the books that I saw and about the old Icelandic tales, and was constantly surprised at their familiarity with history and literature and the world in general. And little wonder that they were well informed ; for most of the spare minutes seemed to be given to reading. Time and again, a little before dinner, the farmer would come in from the hayfield, with spears of dried grass still tangled in his hair, and, without waiting to make a toilet, drop into a convenient seat and lose himself for a half-hour in a book. He knew most of the old Icelandic tales. The Saga of Eric the Red he had at his tongue’s end, and he was ready to discuss the probability of the Icelandic discovery of America. His conversation was an engaging mixture of goodnature, shrewdness, and simplicity such as the peculiar conditions of existence in a country like Iceland could alone produce. The great development of America was a constant wonder to him, but he never lost his balance at any marvels I ventured to recount.
The daughter was not brilliant, but respectably well read and sensible. With her I read the story of Burnt Njál and some of the other sagas. She made no preparation for instruction, and had had no experience in teaching, but she rarely failed to know the meaning of the words of the old literature, and to appreciate the better passages. Cultured in some degree she certainly was, though not exactly according to our standards.
The second son was in attendance at the Latin College at Reykjavik, and was making his way through Latin and one or two modern languages. He was reasonably slow in his motions and his thinking, but he had some taste for reading and music, and used to play chess with his sister by the hour. When he was dressed for Sunday, he appeared much like a New England country boy.
A visitor to Iceland naturally falls into the way of comparing these isolated folk with the rest of the world. He asks : Have they caught the modern spirit? Or do they measure the world by the standard of their own barren island, and are they still living in the Middle Ages ? These questions are capable of very different answers according to the matter to which they are applied, and if answered in full would compel a study of Icelandic culture as a whole.
In material things the Icelanders are far behind the rest of the world. One may question whether, in most parts of the island, counting out a few of the towns, the material civilization was not on as high a plane a thousand years ago. On any other assumption, one can scarcely understand the old sagas, with their tales of the long ships with dragon prows ; of feasts in the great halls, through which marched warriors and queenly women to the carved high seats ; and of the glitter of gold and precious stones on garments of red and purple and blue. Barbaric display is certainly not the crying sin of the Icelander of to-day. He is contented with a surprisingly short list of the necessaries of life. Diogenes and Thoreau would have felt at home in Iceland, though Diogenes would have been cold in his tub, and Thoreau might have tired a little of dried codfish.
Politically and socially, the Icelanders are working out their own salvation. They are so far from the sweep of modern political and social questions that they are not perplexed with socialism and anarchism ; but the liberal party is progressive, and is now urging the complete emancipation of women. Icelanders appear for the most part to have little appreciation of foreign politics. Those who have been abroad and have returned to Iceland rapidly lose their grasp of current facts ; while those who have remained at home have never had the facts to lose. The great majority of the people have so few facts to deal with at any one time that they do not generalize well on the world at large. Nearly every one with whom I talked had singular ideas concerning England, Germany, France, Italy, to say nothing about America. The standard is lacking for measuring a country like the United States. The income of our government for a single day would support the government of Iceland for ten years. Other comparisons would yield a similar result. A civilization so simple as the Icelandic does not furnish the rudimentary data for understanding an organism so wonderfully complex as a great modern city like Berlin or Paris or London. Books of the sort that Icelanders can afford to buy can give no adequate idea of the outside world. The false impressions are in few cases corrected by travel; and the natural result is a distorted view of the unIcelandic world. Yet I hasten to add that the Icelander has a more correct idea of America than most Americans have of Iceland ; for the average Icelander has at least a glimmer of the truth about America, while the average American takes for granted an imaginary Iceland, as unlike the real one as possible.
The great and almost necessary defect in the reading of most Icelanders is that it is too fragmentary. As already observed, books in most families are an accidental possession, and have not been accumulated according to any guiding principle. The chances are that most of the books are instructive, but somewhat out of date. If thoroughly mastered, they may give a sound basis for intelligent opinions on a variety of topics, so that one may pass for a man of tolerably correct information. But the desultory way in which books are gathered leads to desultory reading rather than to scholarship. In many cases, the educated priests have kept up their reading in the ancient classics and become excellent scholars of the second class; that is, of the class that absorbs and enjoys, but does not produce. Within the last five generations there have been scores of Icelandic priests able to converse with ease in Latin ; but not one has contributed anything of marked value to Latin scholarship. The possession of a few good books naturally leads an eager student to study them in every way possible with the helps at his disposal ; but he has little stimulus to attempt, with his scanty apparatus, to do work imperfectly that has already been done well. One thing he can do, if he lias received a critical training: he can master the old Icelandic literature, and make accessible to bis less scholarly neighbors the wealth of the older poetry. This work is necessary enough ; for except among the most carefully educated the old poetry is scarcely read. The songs of the Jidda fall on dull ears, for the old poems are too difficult to be understood without long, patient study. The old prose sagas are universally read, but the vísur, or short poems, with which they are thickly sprinkled, are slurred over with only a half-understanding. A few Icelanders have made a life study of the old poetry, and have won a reputation far outside of their own country. But the vast majority of the Icelanders who read much are in no sense students. They have a respectable acquaintance with matters within the range of their reading and experience, and they are agreeable if not demonstrative companions; but they are not leaders of thought, unless it may be in their own little communities.
We may, as we take leave of them, divide the people of Iceland into classes, according to their attitude toward books. In the first group stand a few genuine scholars, who would be recognized as such in any country. A considerable proportion of these live at Reykjavik, orare in tolerably close connection with the capital. The younger generation of scholars has been educated in the University of Copenhagen, and under more favorable conditions could place Iceland well to the front among the competitors for recognition in Europe. A much larger body consists of those who have been well educated, but who have never been distinctively recognized as scholars. The majority of the clergy and the magistrates, the physicians and the members of the Althing, — many of whom are clergymen, — would be included in this class. Still more numerous are those farmers who have received only a moderate education in the schools, but have grown up with an inherited liking for books. On some farms there can be very little reading. The fishermen - farmers of the southern coast are generally too wretchedly poor to be able to own any but chance volumes. I suspect that throughout Iceland a large proportion of the farm servants, both men and women, read very little. They have slight inducement to improve their minds, and they show no disposition to thwart nature by forcibly dispossessing the beneficent stupidity in which they have been reared. The towns contain a population that in winter, at least, can find leisure enough for reading. This they do according to their lights, but under the limitations that I have more than once pointed out.
When all deductions have been made, the surprise is, not that the Icelanders have little acquaintance with books, but that an intelligent appreciation of literature and of the value of learning is so universally diffused. Scarcely any country can parallel the tenacity with which the Icelanders have struggled to become familiar with “ the best that has been thought and said in the world.” We may estimate a little more fairly how well they have solved the problem of culture by asking a single question : How many cities of seventy thousand inhabitants have we in America that surpass Iceland in literary production and acquaintance with recognized classics of the world’s literature ? To be perfectly just, we ought to compare the Icelanders with the inhabitants of our remotest and most inaccessible country districts. W hen we have made such a comparison, we cannot but wonder that, in spite of poverty and famine and pestilence and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the inheritance and tradition of culture should be what they are. That the Icelanders are not the leaders of European thought and culture is exactly what we might expect; but that they should constantly strive to make that thought and culture their own may excite more than a passing surprise.
William Edward Mead.
- These balls of hay are two or three feet in diameter, and are slung like panniers on the backs of horses.↩