« Prev Preface Next »


This book represents what is, I believe, practically a pioneer attempt to do some such work in the field of Icelandic Hymnology as that already done so admirably in the Latin, Greek, and German fields.

Icelandic sacred song is worthy of study, as well for its own sake, as because it is the flower of the spiritual life of a people and of a church so nearly akin to our own, and yet situated in such a different environment. The closeness of this relationship is not often realized. Iceland was largely colonized by Norse settlers from our islands as well as from Norway. Even the Celtic element was not absent from the blood of the new nation. The greatest of Icelandic Sagas, Njáls Saga, is simply "Neil's Saga." And the Icelandic language itself, so unintelligible to us now, was spoken over half England a thousand years ago by the Norsemen, spoken, too, by some of our Kings. It is our language that has changed, not theirs. The modern Icelander still speaks what is practically the tongue of the Sagas.


The Icelandic Church may claim our interest, as one of those Lutheran Churches which possess the allegiance of so large a part of the Teutonic Race, Churches closely connected with our own Royal Family, Churches whose history, at the period of the Reformation, was entwined with that of the Church of England.

But while the Icelandic people are thus closely related to ourselves, under what vastly differing conditions have they passed the thousand and odd years of their national life! Inhabiting "Ultima Thule" itself (a land containing some of the wildest and weirdest scenery on the globe), speaking the most northern of civilized languages, and forming the far-flung outpost of Europe to the north-west, this people have braved the rigours of a sub-arctic climate, and survived the loneliness of isolation, the wasting of famine, the violence of volcanic action. The life of such a people has an interest of its own to all. The hymnologist asks, "What type of sacred song did such a life develop?"

The story of the hymns of Iceland centres largely round two names, that of Hallgrim Petursson in the seventeenth century, and that of Bishop Valdimar Briem at the present day. Not that either of these singers stands alone, but each towers above his contemporaries in the domain of sacred song, as Mont Blanc over the neighbouring Aiguilles. The majority of the present translations xi are made from the hymns of these two writers.

I hope that the translations from Hallgrim Petursson will give some idea of his peculiar power. I have chosen passages which illustrate his method of drawing comfort from special incidents of our Lord's Passion, passages which illustrate the prayers with which his hymns abound (prayers which have a wonderful power of haunting the memory), and also one passage which will give an example of his bursts of praise—a stanza often sung by itself in Iceland as a doxology.

From the hymns of Bishop Valdimar Briem I have chosen those which seem to me interesting by their originality, or by their fulness of reference to Nature, although a selection made on such a principle will scarcely represent the ordinary devotional simplicity of Icelandic hymns.

I have closed this collection with a translation of the hymn written by Matthías Jochumsson on the occasion of the thousandth anniversary of the landing of the first settlers—an occasion marked by the gift to the island of the privilege of "Home Rule" from the King of Denmark. The hymn well mirrors the feelings of the people emerging from a period of struggle and isolation into the dawning brightness of a freer and a wider life.

I am aware that my translations may appear to Icelandic eyes somewhat too paraphrastic, at least xii in certain parts. But I venture to think that, upon the whole, this is inevitable. I have always tried to make as good an English hymn as I could, and to do this the Icelandic original must at times be treated with some freedom. The reasons for this English scholars of Icelandic will understand. The great majority of the translations are in the same, or very nearly the same, metres as their prototypes.

Only portions of the long hymns of Hallgrim Petursson have been translated. This is true also of some of the other hymns.

As to the anglicizing of Icelandic names, I have used my judgment in each case.

I should like to suggest Gounod's tune, "Redemption," as suitable to the "Easter Hymn"; Barnby's tune, "St. Sylvester," for "The Divine Guest"; and the old chorale, "Attolle Paulum," for the two stanzas on "Our Lord's Cry from the Cross." The "Whitsuntide Hymn" goes well to a Danish tune by Bergreen, one of the few modern tunes in the Icelandic Hymn Book which really please English ears.

I should like to call particular attention to the longer translations from Hallgrim Petursson, especially to the Hymn on the Stream from Our Lord's Wounded Side, as representing some of his best work. From the Hymns of Bishop Valdimar Briem, I would select, in addition to those already mentioned, "The Voices of Creation," xiii "The Good Shepherd," and "Labourers in the Vineyard."

I have used the eleventh edition of the Icelandic Sálmabók," and the edition of the "Passíusálmar," edited by Jónas Jónsson in 1907. The whole of these books I have gone over, as well as the hymns of the Icelandic Sunday School Hymn Book, published in Winnipeg, choosing those hymns for translation which made a personal appeal to me. I have also, besides the invaluable dictionaries of Zoëga, made use of Grímur Thomsen's edition of the Works of Hallgrim Petursson; of the article on Hallgrim Petursson appearing in the first number of the Icelandic Paper, Bjarmi; of Matthías Jochumsson's "Ljothmæli"; of Vigfusson and Powell's "Icelandic Prose Reader"; of Annandale's, "The Faroes and Iceland"; and of Collingwood and Stefansson's, "The Saga-steads of Iceland."

I most gladly acknowledge the encouragement and help which I have received from friends, and especially the unfailing kindness of the Rev. Jón Bjarnason, D.D., Pastor of the leading Icelandic Church in Winnipeg. Not only have I gathered much information from various numbers of the Icelandic Church Paper, Sameiningin, of which he is Editor, and received valuable knowledge by correspondence, but I have had the privilege of being his guest at Winnipeg, when he put at my disposal his unique library, as well as xiv his own profound knowledge of Icelandic Literature.

If these translations from the hymns of Iceland are able to draw out the brotherly interest of English-speaking Christians towards that Church and people, whose best spirits are fighting the battle against twentieth-century rationalism and materialism without the encouragement which we derive from our numbers, and without the inspiration of our unique constructive and devotional religious literature, I shall not have worked in vain.


St. James Cathedral,
January 1, 1913.

« Prev Preface Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection