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The "Poet of the Rocky Mountains" is Born

For the week of Monday October 3, 2005

On October 3, 1853, Stephàn Gudmundsson Stephansson was born at Kirkjuholl, Skagafjordur, Iceland. He came to Canada in 1889 as one of the earliest Icelandic settlers to farm Alberta, and was the first in Markerville, Alberta, to successfully farm grains. While notable as a pioneer settler and farmer, he earned his acclaim as a poet. Stephansson is the “poet of the Rocky Mountains.”

Stephàn Gudmundsson Stephansson
Stephàn Gudmundsson Stephansson
© Glenbow Archives / NA-270-1

In the 19th century, Iceland was plagued with volcanic eruptions, floods and epidemics. Consequently, Stephansson’s family joined the wave of Icelandic settlers immigrating to Wisconsin, in the United States, to escape the worsening conditions in Iceland. The Stephansson family reached Wisconsin in 1873 and was soon on the move again. They reached North Dakota in 1880 and then moved on to Alberta in 1889.

Throughout his life away from Iceland, Stephansson preserved his culture through membership in the local Icelandic community. Icelanders boasted the highest literacy rate in the world in the 19th century, so it is of no surprise that Stephansson’s main interest was literature.

Stephansson was able to express his philosophical and political views through poetry. Some of his most profound works came out of the First World War where he used cutting language to express himself as a pacifist and a humanist. In poetry, he compared war profiteers to swine, and soldiers to murderers. An example of his anti-war poems is Vígslodi (1920).

But Stephansson’s work was by no means confined to pacifism. He found poetry an excellent medium to explore his spirituality. He felt that the Christian God he was raised to believe in could never be proven to exist, so he pursued his own beliefs. His decision to reject Christianity was greatly influenced by Western rationalism, a philosophical view of the world. The beliefs he adopted included the equality of women in all domains, the evil of ignorance, and the goodness of self-improvement.

Stephansson House has been restored to its 1927 appearance and is a provincial historic site
Stephansson House has been restored to its 1927 appearance and is a provincial historic site.
© Alberta Community Development
The self-educated poet was a prolific writer in his native Icelandic tongue. His command of this language to sculpt cutting satire and poems drenched in realism earned him much acclaim both in Canada and in Iceland.

Stephàn Gudmundsson Stephansson is a National Historic Person, and a plaque was erected in his honour in 1950. Stephansson House, the poet’s home in Markerville, Alberta, is a provincial historic site and a museum.

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