Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Letters from Iceland

Auden and MacNeice travelled to Iceland in 1936 and this joint publication, which came out the following year, is a scrapbook of original writing, quotations, travelogue and reflections on the difficulties of travelling round the saga island and the unbelievable awfulness of the food. Auden was of course a keen student of, and enthusiast for, all things Nordic. I am not sure if MacNeice fully shared these enthusiasms.

It is not always clear which author wrote which segment of the book, but the delight in the quirkiness of the Icelandic language which emanates from the following extract suggests Auden to me. The first four-line stanza (on the left) should of course be read from top to bottom (Falla .. daga), then it can be read in reverse (daga .. Falla) which replicates the stanza on the right.

In the second pair of stanzas, the one on the right is a translation (by Auden?) of the Icelandic original on the left.


They seem to have preserved a passion for ingenuity helped by their damnably inflected language, since the days of the Scald's [sic], whose verse would have broken St. John Ervine right up. Even now they write palindrome verses which can be read forwards or backwards, like this:

Falla tímans voldug verk Daga alla stendur sterk
varla falleg saga. Studla ríman snjalla
Snjalla ríman studla sterk Saga falleg varla verk
Stendur alla daga. voldug tímans falla.

Sentiment: Art is long and life is short or life is short and art is long. Or verses like this in which the second half is made up of the beheaded words of the first:

Snuddar margur trassin traudur Many a lazy idler lounger
Treinist slangur daginn And finds the day long;
Nudda argur rassin raudur The wicked one rubs his red bottom
reinist langur aginn. And finds discipline irksome.



David McDuff said...

It's interesting to note that there's also another book called Letters from Iceland - by Jean Young (1936), in which Auden is mentioned, as the author met him while he was in Iceland. The entire text of Jean Young's book, including photographs, is available as a PDF file at:

Young's book, like the one by Auden and MacNeice, also mentions the apparently common spectacle of bus tourists in Iceland being sick by the roadside!

Ævi said...

Falla tímans voldug verk Daga alla stendur sterk

varla falleg "saga".

The word saga is infact "baga"