Stephán G. Stephansson: "The Greatest Poet of the Western World"

"A man never lives so innocently that he never gets into trouble," Stephán G. Stephansson mused in 1910 in a letter to an old friend. Stephansson, a farmer and poet in west central Alberta, indeed had been in trouble much of his adult life.
"A man never lives so innocently that he never gets into trouble," Stephán G. Stephansson mused in 1910 in a letter to an old friend. Stephansson, a farmer and poet in west central Alberta, indeed had been in trouble much of his adult life.


"A man never lives so innocently that he never gets into trouble," Stephán G. Stephansson mused in 1910 in a letter to an old friend. Stephansson, a farmer and poet in west central Alberta, indeed had been in trouble much of his adult life. His reputation for religious and political controversy was well established. Yet, he would find himself soon embroiled in a debate in which he would narrowly escape being charged with treason.

Dubbed "the poet of the Rocky Mountains," Stephán Stephansson became the foremost Icelandic poet in Canada (courtesy Glenbow Archives).

His reputation as a "troublemaker" aside, Stephán G. Stephansson has been called "the greatest poet of the western world." He was certainly a most prolific poet, publishing more than 2000 pages of poetry, most of a very high standard. His poetic skills were recognized in reading tours across western Canada and the United States, and to Iceland in 1917. Some of his poems have appeared in Canadian textbooks; others were set to music. In 1924, he was invited to join the Canadian Author's Association, but refused the honour, feeling that he was unqualified. So, why have most Canadians not heard of this man?

Born into poverty in northern Iceland in 1853, Stephansson immigrated first to the United States in 1873 and then, in 1889, to raw land west of present-day Innisfail, Alberta. A farmer by day, he devoted his evening hours to composing verses, not in English but in his native Icelandic. Although many of his poems relate the struggles of homesteading, Iceland never relinquished its hold. "I know why that homeland has held me so close; / For hued with the memories of yore / Each vista of earth bears a voice from the past / By valley and mountain and shore."

Having little formal education, Stephansson had a deep desire for self-improvement. He saw it as a responsibility both to himself and to all humanity. This sense of responsibility meant self-imposed hard work, a prerequisite for all progress. As a young man, he delved into the mind-exploding ideas of the American freethinkers of the late 19th century. Also appealing was the Unitarian Church with its emphasis on the personal nature of belief and the need for scientific verification.

These ideas landed Stephansson into his first major controversy. The Icelandic Lutheran Church was outraged, accusing Stephansson of godlessness. Stephansson, in turn, attacked the church and its ministers for their hypocrisy, superficiality and vanity. By the late 1880s, Stephansson was held to be beyond the pale of the church and considered himself an agnostic. Never intimidated by the church, Stephansson, during the First World War, blasted churchmen who preached the "oily worlds of... The Prince of Peace," while they "...opened up the Scriptures / To prove that he who would not shoulder musket...had sadly misinterpreted the Gospel."

Stephansson House, the homestead where Stephansson wrote much of his famous poetry, was restored in 1927 and has been declared an Alberta provincial historic site (courtesy Provincial Archives of Alberta).

His criticism of the church's stance during the war was matched no less by his ardent pacifism. A humanist and poet, Stephansson spared no ink or paper denouncing the imperialistic war. He condemned the ruling classes for having plotted the massacre, the church for supporting it, the army for its bungling sacrifices of human lives and the industrialists who reaped the profits from wartime production and inflation.

At a time of rampant nationalism, his views incensed Icelandic Canadians. When he wrote Vopnhale (Armistice) in 1915, Stephansson had to look to Iceland for a publisher as no Icelandic Canadian press would touch it. Labelled an outcast in his own community, Stephansson continued his scathing assessment of the war effort over the next two years. It was his bitter railing against the American entry into the war in 1917 that pushed some Icelandic Canadians to threaten to take him to court on the charge of treason. The threat did not materialize, but the incident reflects the measure of anger directed towards Stephansson.

The cessation of hostilities did not change the poet's opinion of the war effort. Europe lay in ruins; war debts crippled the nations; inflation soared and labour unrest manifested itself in a wave of strikes across the country. "You're going to think I'm Red," wrote Stephansson in 1922, convinced that only a complete social revolution would save mankind. He viewed the October Revolution as the practical application of the theory of scientific socialism. At home, he supported the United Farmers of Alberta whose idealism and honesty appealed to him.

Despite the war and its aftermath, Stephansson remained eternally optimistic about the human race. Its progress could not be contained. In At the Forestry Station (in translation) he wrote: "Monuments crumble. Works of mind survive / The gales of time. Men's names have shorter life. / Forgetful time may mask where honour's due / But mind's best edifices live and thrive."