Matthías Johannessen was born in Reykjavík on the 3rd of January, 1930. He graduated with a Magister degree in Nordic Studies, with Icelandic Literature as a main subject from the University of Iceland in 1955. He studied literary history and theater studies in Copenhagen for some time but did not graduate. Matthías worked for the Morgunblaðið newspaper for most of his working life, as a journalist from 1951 – 1959 when he became an editor, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.
In his long writing carear, Matthías Johannessen has sent forward a number of poetry books, plays, essays, interview books, biographies and translations. He has also edited a number of books, written prologues for various works and published numerous articles in magazines and newspapers. He is well known for his many interviews with known and unknown people, among them Halldór Laxness, the poet Tómas Guðmundsson and composer Páll Ísólfsson. His first collection of poetry, Borgin hló (The City Laughed) was published in 1958 and gained immediate attention for it's free form. His poetry has been translated to many languages and he has received various awards for his work. Three of his books have been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literary Award.
Matthías Johannessen lives in Reykjavík with his wife.
Author photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson.
About the Author
An Invisible Hand by an Ancient Windharp: On poems and other works by Matthías Johannessen
Matthías Johannessen was born in 1930 in Reykjavík, where he has lived ever since.
He graduated from The Reykjavík High School (M.R.) and finished a cand. mag.degree in Icelandic from the University of Iceland in 1955. Matthías’ first book, Njála í íslenskum skáldskap (Njals Saga in Icelandic Fiction and Poetry, 1958), was based on his graduation project at the University. Matthías became a journalist at Morgunblaðið in 195l; he became the editor of the paper in 1959, a position he held until the age of seventy.
Matthías is a prolific writer. He has written books of various kinds, mainly fictional works, but also biographies, interview books, memoirs or fictional memoirs and collections of essays on literature and other cultural matters. Matthías is best known for his poems. As a poet he is a modernist of the generation which took over from the “atomic poets.” His first poetry book, Borgin hló (The City Laughed) was published in 1958; by now the number of his poetry books has reached 20, some of them illustrated by artists.
Matthías’ poetry is written both in verse and prose. He has written many sonnets, as well as variations on traditional verse forms. He has adopted the diverse poetic techniques of the modernists. Therefore his poems vary in their form and meter and are characterized by diverse imagery. Matthías has a great facility with words and his style ranges from concise to eloquent.
In his poems, Matthías often refers to the cultural heritage of Iceland, the country’s ancient tales, myths and literature, and sometimes links such references to the present. The group of poems, “Á skip skal til skriðar orka…” (“We set sail and go forth..”) describes a visit to the Viking exhibition in York in the last century but the poem also tells of Egill Skallagrímsson and the hardships he had to suffer in that place. Into this theme are woven references to Egill’s poem Höfuðlausn (Head Ransom): “bauð ulfum hræ / Eiríkr of sæ, /hlaut af konungi / hjálma klett / að höfundarlaunum, / eins og við sækjum líf okkar / í leyndardóm þessarar borgar / í líf þeirra og dauða / sem riðu með alvæpni / undir ótryggu tungli / Jórvíkur” (offered carcass to wolves / Eiríkr of sea, /received from king / helmet rock / as poet’s fee / as we fetch our life / from the mystery of this city / from the lives and deaths of those / who rode fully armed / underneath the treacherous moon / of York). (Tveggja bakka veður) (Unsettled Weather).
Matthías also writes poems about tales and stories from many eras and countries from his unique point of view.
Matthías has written many poems about bygone artists of many countries and their works and they often appear in his prose works as well.
One of his poems of this kind is “Munch” (“Munch”) in Tveggja bakka veður, in which the artist’s famous lithography, The Scream, is described and interpreted with these words:
og þessi andlitslausu
augu, full af þögulu
and these faceles
eyes, filled with a silent
Matthías’ subject matter varies greatly, but I will now list a few of the themes which are central to and most prominent in his poetry collections.
The Problems of Today, World Politics
In his poems, Matthías often writes about current problems, world politics. He was among the young poets who wrote about the terror of the Cold War, and the divisive effect it had on people who were on the run in some sense from the threat of war:
Við erum flóttamenn:
á löngum nóttum bíðum við þess
að hríðinni sloti og sólin
veiti nýtt skjól fyrir haglinu
ó land mitt, við sem erum hér á ferð
af einskærri tilviljun
og höfum kallað yfir okkur dóm
hlustum hlustum kemur gustur
af nýrri ísöld sem læðist að okkur
skóm: vindöld, vargöld.
(Jörð úr ægi, (Earth from the Sea, IV.))
[We are refugees:
through long nights we wait
for the blizzard to die down and for the sun
to provide new shelter from the hail
oh my country, we who are travelling through here
purely by coincidence
and have brought upon ourselves the doom
of the hydrogen bomb,
listen listen here comes the gust
of a new ice age which creeps up on us
boots: wind age, beastly age.]
Peace and trust among people and nations is an old, new and eternal subject matter, because generally the opposites of these notions, i.e. arms and the threat of war, seem to hold more power. The Cold War generation knew about the dangers, the political divisions and the arsenals of powerful nations and they also remembered the horrors of the Second World War. Matthías wrote a great number of poems about these facts and issues, for example in Jörð úr ægi and in the groups of poems “Sálmar á atómöld” (“Hymns in an Atomic Age”) and “Friðsamleg sambúð” “A Peaceful Co-habitation”, in the poetry book Fagur er dalur (Fair is the Valley). These poems empasize the value of peaceful interactions in harmony and peace. The group of poems “Sprengjan” (“The Bomb”), in the book Dagur af degi (Day by Day) is a harsh condemnation of the destructive force of the atomic bomb: “… wedded to life / we saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki / beneath the white flower of death and terror”. The cruelty of war is likened to the horrific frenzy on the bloody arena of the Colosseum in Rome.
The mundane and the daily grind sometimes inspire the poet, and at times the tone is ironic, as in the group of poems “Hversdagsljóð” “Everyday Poems” in Mörg eru dags augu (The Day Has Many Eyes). Irony is also manifest in the Reykjavík poems and his childhood memoirs from the war years and the occupation (by the British and later the U.S. army –trans.). Relatively few poems are directly about Icelandic society in the present time, but in various places it is briefly alluded to in poetic meditations, for instance in the groups of poems “Við” (“We”) and “Þið” (“You”) and “Undir regnhlíf” (“Under an Umbrella”) in the aforementioned book. However, no overt political views are expressed by the poet, with the exception of a long sequence of poems in Dagur ei meir (Day No More); where he sharply criticises the left in the context of the International Workers’ Day and also the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum for his protest poems.
Reykjavík city life, the nature which surrounds the city and the people who live in it are a common theme in Matthías’ poems. He has always lived in the city and has spent his entire life repaying it for fostering him with his poems. The first poem in his first poetry book was written to the city. The poem is entitled “Hörpusláttur” “Harp Music” and in it a young Reykjavík poet speaks to his nurse about their solid bond:
Ég syng þig borg og hús foreldra minna
og götur þínar sem liggja inn í hjarta mitt
og binda okkur saman
eins og dauðinn líf og eilífð.
Í brjósti mínu berst hjarta þitt
og ljóð þitt fyllir eyru mín,
þegar þú leikur á hörpuna
við lækjargötur og torg.
[I sing to you city and my parent’s house
and your streets which lead into my heart
and bind us together
like death life and eternity.
Inside my breast beats your heart
and your poem fills my ears,
when you play the harp
by river streets and squares.]
Matthías grew up along with the city. He lived in it during its greateast expansion period and he knows it from within. The city is the framework and existential space of many of the poems he has written about youth, love and memories. It is sometimes full of adventure, yet it is not a visitor’s unexpected discovery, it is neither a den of corruption nor a place of alienation. It is a welcoming home and the beauty of nature and its importance also extends to his home town. Many of the nature images are memorable, as for example in the poem “The Golden chain tree by Túngata”, which expresses the emotions of those who grew up underneath the shelter of this tree and who still meet there “although the tree has long since fallen down / its leaves flickering shadows.” (Tveggja bakka veður)
The poet’s equal feeling towards the city and the land is apparent for instance in one of the sonnettes from Vor úr vetri (Spring out of Winter), which contains these two lines:
Ljóð þín unna ey við nyrztu strendur,
unna þinni borg við björtust sundin
[Your poems love an island by the northern-most shores,
love your city by the brightest channels]
The nature images of the city are intimate and familiar, with their people, weather and trees, sorrows and hopes. For the first time in Icelandic poetry, a city youth has a pleasant hue.
Quie distinct from other city poems by Matthías are his childhood memories in prose style, particularly from the occupation years, in Morgunn í maí (A Morning in May). The experience of those year affected the lives of Icelanders dramatically, especially of those who were young then, and Matthías has also written about this in his prose works.
Nature and Human Lifetime
This city poet is very familiar with the natural diversity of this country, and has written many poems about its many faces. The most powerful nature poems can be found in Matthías’ big collection of poems. He has travelled widely and been a passionate explorer of his own country. This exploration in turn serves as inspiration for his other themes. Nature is shown through colourful images, landscape, the nuances of light, combined with familiar landmarks. One of these poems is entitled “Við Jökul” (“By a Glacier”) and it shows how the poet plays with traditional poetry forms:
eitt sinn stóð eldstólpi
upp af þeim gíg
auðmjúk er nóttin
sem nemur, ó drottinn,
við nóttlausa deigluna þína.
(Ættjarðarljóð á atómöld (A Patriotic Poem in an Atomic Age))
[The glacier vanishes
into its autumn-yellow
once a column of fire
rose from this crater
humble is the night
that studies, Oh God,
at your nightless crucible.]
Sometimes the technology and speed of modern life come into play, lending the imagery a fresh appearance, like in the following poem from ”Smákvæði úr næsta nágrenni I” (“Small Poems from the Vicinity I”):
eftir þúsund ára
hraun í mosapeysu
kemur hratt á móti okkur
þeir hittast á veginum
inn í kvöldbjart tunglskin
þannig hittum við skugga okkar
og fylgjum honum
með brunnin eldfjöll í brjósti
(Tveggja bakka veður)
[The craters rested
after thousand years
lava in a moss jumper
underneath the icy
The shadow of the car
approaches us fast ahead
they meet on the road
into an evening-bright moonlight
thus we meet our shadow
and follow it
with burnt volcanoes in our breast]
The nature poems are linked to every season and not least to people, their mentality and feelings. Sometimes the imagery unexpectedly guides the reader into an inner world. The poem “Melgresi” (“Lyme grass”) is an example of such a connection, expressed through clear images in a concise form:
í harmkvælum mínum.
(Vötn þín og vængur (Your Waters and a Wing))
[The lyme grass takes
in the eroding sands
of a dying wasteland
in my great suffering.]
The influence of man and nature is mutual; nature is sometimes personified and human thought gives it a human shape, as in the small poem “Eftirvænting” (“Anticipation”):
Hljóðlátt er kulið
og kvöldfölir skuggar
senn kemur blyshvítur
og drepur fingri
(Vötn þín og vængur)
[Quiet is the cool air
and evening pale shadows
by the lake
soon comes a torch-white
and taps its finger
on the dwarf-scrub.]
All the poems in Ættjarðarljóð á atómöld (Patriotic Poems in an Atomic Age) are about Icelandic nature or meditations connected to it. Some of the poems are written in a humorous tone and they are all very different from traditional 19th century patriotic poetry. The native soil is free from any message or adoration, and we enjoy nature because it is beautiful and it delights the mind. One of these small poems is entitled “Ættjarðarkvæði” (“A Patriotic Poem”). There we have Icelandic weather in a sunny heart; we breathe the ocean air and there is “the seagull / in your heart”. Nature or environmental images of the city and the country are also memorably combined by Matthías, as indeed elsewhere.
The poet shows an entire human life and the human condition reflected in the mirror of nature. The evolution and cycle of nature is furthermore likened to a human lifetime. There is Autumn in the life of man, just as in nature. A good example is the poem “Þegar veturinn nálgast” (“When Winter Approaches”) in Tveggja bakka veður, which begins with these lines: “Old age sets in / and the years drift yellow leaves / into an autumn-pale forgetfulness.”
Love Poems and Emotions
As the previous chapter suggests, the link between the experience of nature and emotions can also be found in many of the poet’s love poems, which are numerous, e.g. in the book Árstíðaferð um innri mann (A Journey of the Seasons through the Inner Self):
Það er vor
It is spring]
That was one of the poems in the group of poems “Haustið er hugmynd um dauðann” (“Autumn is an Idea of Death”). Anxiety can be the side effect of love, as in the poem “Þunglyndi” (“Depression”) from the same book:
ör af kvíðboga mínum
í djúpu sári
an arrow from my anxiety bow
in a deep wound
Feelings of love often merge with the beauty of nature, for example in the first “Viðljóð” (“We-Poem”) in Tveggja bakka veður, where love blooms “when the bird’s reflection caused ripples in the water / when the water was reflected in your eyes / when your glance was a ray in their ripples / when our roots entwined.”
The feelings of love in the poems are sincere and very visual, but not all are equally hot and in some circumstances they are subjected to sarcasm. Rarely has earthly love been displayed in a more colourful and concise poem than this one, from the sequence of short poems “Smákvæði úr næsta nágrenni I” (“Short Poems from the Vicinity I”):
nakin við hlið þér,
Þú tekur fyrstu
skóflustunguna . . .
(Tveggja bakka veður)
naked beside you,
You take the first
Many of Matthías’ poems have been translated into other languages and have appeared in books and magazines abroad. A great number of his poems have also regularly appeared in Icelandic publications.
Not only has Matthías been a prolific writer in the field of poetry, he has also written over thirty books on diverse subjects: novels, short stories, literary essays, plays, and many biographies and memoirs in various formats, interview books e.g., particularly interviews with artists.
Journalism was Matthías’ life’s work, but his fiction and other literary contributions are expansive. During his time as an editor, Matthías played a key role in strengthening Morgunblaðið (The Morning Paper) and sought to increase the cultural role of the paper, while lessening its political ties to the Independence Party.
Many of Matthías’ stories and accounts, which he called variously novels or short stories, could be called the artistic storytelling of a journalist. Incidents from the real world of the news appear both in his novels, short stories and memoirs and even his poems. Matthías does not either try to hide the fact that some of the stories in his books are autobiographical accounts. However, some of the short stories are pure fiction and many of them are written in a very poetic style. The books Hann nærist á góðum minningum (He is Nourished by Good Memories) and Vatnaskil (Diverging Streams) might on the other hand be called fictional memoirs or personal novels, which is how they were presented by the publisher. The author himself refers to the first one a novel but to the second one as a journal story. A couple of plays by Matthías have been published, and some have been staged or performed on television.
In his work as a journalist, Matthías placed among other things a particular emphasis on conversations and interviews with his contemporaries. Early on in his career this became a bit of a special area of his and he gained greater command of this genre than anyone had before him. The interviews were later published in five volumes. Matthías also wrote books which contained his conversations with individual artists; among them were Tómas Guðmundsson, Halldór Laxness, Gunnlaugur Scheving, Páll Ísólfsson and Þórbergur Þórðarson. The book with his conversations with Þórbergur, Í kompaníi við allífið (In the Company of the Universal Being), immediately garnered much interest and has been published twice, the second time with addendums describing the encounters of these two different authors. In addition, Matthías has written books on well known Icelandic artists whom he befriended; he also wrote a biography of the political leader Ólafur Thors.
In his latest book, Málsvörn og minningar (Case Defences and Memories), Matthías Johannessen writes, among other things, about his views on litererature, especially poetry. There he says that poetry is “a channel for our desires and emotions”. In earlier times, literature was heavy with the various goods that were loaded onto it, i.e. practical information, all kinds of facts, life philosophy and words of wisdom, and poetry was used as mass media. In our times, such goods have been unloaded from poetry writing, and he continues:
Not the least for this reason, it is an important artform, besides sharpening out visual sense, our powers of allusion and reactions to things that are remarkable, a new and fresh experience, and therefore a good poem can be memorable news in itself.
But first and last the poem is the reply of sensitive strings, which would be silent and lonely without it.
It is like an invisible hand by an ancient windharp.
© Eysteinn Þorvaldsson, 2005.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.
Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir: “Matthías Johannessen (1930- )”
Icelandic Writers. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 293, ritstj. Patrick J. Stevens, Detroit, Gale 2004, s. 260-267
See also: Neijmann, Daisy L., ed. A History of Icelandic Literature
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 483, 484, 486, 494
On individual works
The Naked Machine
Loftur L. Bjarnason: “Matthías Johannessen. The naked machine”
Scandinavian studies 1990, vol. 62 (no. 2, spring), pp. 261-3.
Vötn þín og vængur (Your Waters and Wings)
Sigríður Albertsdóttir: “Et digt er aldrig slut = A poem is never finished”
Nordisk litteratur 1998, pp. 12-14
2005 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Kjarval, ásamt Kristínu B. Guðnadóttur, Gylfa Gíslasyni, Arthur Danto og Silju Aðalsteinsdóttur
1999 – Verðlaun Jónasar Hallgrímssonar
1961 – The Icelandic Broadcasting Service Writer’s Fund
1998 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Vötn þín og vængir
1990 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Dagur af degi
1983 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Tveggja bakka veður