Jónas Hallgrímsson

Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845), Icelandic naturalist and Romantic poet.

Hallgrímsson is the single most influential poet of modern Icelandic literature. Along with the other members of the group associated with the Copenhagen-based periodical Fjölnir, issued 1835–39 and 1843–1846, he defined Icelandic national romanticism for decades to come, and after his premature death became its poetical icon.  


The son of a parish priest, Jónas Hallgrímsson was the third of four siblings, born at the farm Hraun in Öxnadalur Valley in northern Iceland on November 16, 1807. After Hallgrímsson’s father drowned in 1816, he was fostered by an aunt and uncle at a neighbouring farm in Eyjafjörður. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to study with the parish priest at the farm Goðdalir in the Skagafjörður district, and later he became a student at the grammar school at Bessastaðir, in the south-western part of the country. After graduating from there in 1829, Hallgrímsson worked as a scribe in Reykjavík for three years before leaving for Denmark where he studied law and later natural science at the University of Copenhagen. He concluded his studies in 1838 and spent the following years primarily carrying out research in Iceland. In 1842 he moved back to Denmark, with the intention of writing an extensive book on Icelandic nature and geography. During his travels in Iceland, often far from any home comforts, Hallgrímsson started to experience some health problems. He died on May 26, 1845, after falling down the stairs leading up to his Copenhagen apartment, and was buried in the Assistents churchyard (Assistent kirkegård)

“Deeds and merits”

During his university years, Hallgrímsson had begun to publish his own poems and translations in the cultural journal Fjölnir, which he edited along with three fellow students: Konráð Gíslason, Tómas Sæmundsson and Brynjólfur Pétursson. The journal and Hallgrímsson’s poetry became a great inspiration for the Icelandic independence movement. Nature is always a prominent motive in Hallgrímsson’s poetry, especially its more pleasing aspects, but also sublime elements. His poetry also ranges from elegy to convivial festive songs. In the early part of his live, the poetry features nationalistic and medieval motives but in the last years of his live he wrote a more personal kind of pieces, modern in diction and elegantly balanced between dark broodings and a romantic irony. In addition, Hallgrímsson wrote af few short stories, Heine-style travel accounts, fairy tales in the fashion of H.C. Andersen, gothic tales and mock-heroic pieces, but these were only published after his death. Hallgrímsson also tried his hand at translation of Horace, Schiller, Chamisso, H.C. Andersen and especially Heine.  

Hallgrímsson’s introduced classical metres into Icelandic literature, such as the hexameter and the pentameter, along with romantic metres like the terza rima and the ottava rima, although the fornyrðislag, based on the Old Norse Eddic poems, always was his favourite metre. Later on he was to introduce the sonnet and the triolet to his fellow countrymen. Hallgrímsson’s 1837 attack in Fjölnir against the traditional poetical genre known as rímur (epic rimes) constituted his own aesthetic manifesto. One of Hallgrímsson’s great local influences was Eggert Ólafsson (1726–1768), natural scientist and poet and a man of the Enlightenment. That admiration shows that Hallgrímsson’s interests were not exclusively romantic, as also is evident in the Fjölnir group’s declaration, that their periodical was committed to usefulness, beauty, truth and “that which is good and moral”.


There are two scholarly editions of Hallgrímsson’s works, a five volume edition edited by Matthías Þórðarson in 1929-1936 and a four volume edition edited by Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, Haukur Hannesson and Páll Valsson in 1989.  The last volume of Þórðarson’s editon is a biography of the poet . Páll Valsson’s biography of Hallgrímsson was published in 1989. Böðvar Guðmundsson’s biography of Hallgrímsson published in 2007. In 2007, the Icelandic National Library opened a comprehensive web-site devoted to Hallgrímsson.

A statue of Jónas Hallgrímsson by Einar Jónsson was consecrated in the center of Reykjavik in 1907. In 1945 it was moved to a new location in a park down-town. The physical remains of Hallgrímsson were translated from a Copenhagen church-yard to the Icelandic pantheon at Þingvellir in 1946. Since 1997, Hallgrimsson’s birthday, November 16, has been celebrated publically as the Day of the Icelandic Language.  The Jónas Hallgrímsson’s award are annually given out by the minister of culture on November 16 to an individual who has been exemplary in cultivating the Icelandic language. At Hallgrímsson’s birthplace, Hraun in Öxnadalur, there is an exhibition devoted to the poet. The farm has been a nature-preservation area since 2007.

Certain lines from Hallgrímsson’s poetry are commonplace in Icelandic cultural and political discorse, such as “Hvað er þá orðið okkart starf (í sex hundruð sumur)? / Höfum við gengið til góðs (götuna fram eftir veg)?” (How have we treated our treasure (during these six hundred summers)? / Have we trod promising paths, (progress and virtue our goal)?” Many Icelandic poets have composed poems about Hallgrímsson or poems that refer to his works. Many Icelandic composers have also written music to his poetry, Atli Heimir Sveinsson being a recent example. One may also refer here to works such as the novel Atómstöðin (1948) by Halldór Laxness, dealing with the relics of the poet, and the play Ferðalok (1993) by Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir, inspired by Hallgrímsson’s best known love-poem.

Lyrics by Megas (Magnús Þór Jónsson) describing Hallgrímsson as a drunkard and a recent photographic art work of Ragnar Kjartansson of girls in bikini on Hallgrímsson’s grave at Þingvellir are examples of desacralization but the lasting rumors suggesting that there a Danish butcher or a baker was translated to Iceland from the Copenhagen church-yard in 1946 are even more interesting in this respect.

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