A broader question
G. And what have you found in Iceland?
C. What have we found? More copy, more surface,
Vignettes as they call them, dead flowers in an album –
The harmoniums in the farms, the fine-bread and pancakes,
The pot of ivy trained across the window,
Children in gumboots, girls in black berets.
R. And dead craters and angled crags.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Eclogue From Iceland’
This sign greeted me when I arrived in Iceland just before Christmas. I heard no harmoniums, ate no pancakes and wore no beret, but the landscape and twenty-hour nights disarranged my vision and so my economy.
William Morris made two crotchety, determined journeys around the country in the 1870s, which he documented in his remarkable Icelandic Journals. His biographer Fiona MacCarthy describes how he ‘returned to England with an altered sense of scale.’
Ah! what came we forth to see
that our hearts are so hot with desire?
Is it enough for our rest,
the sight of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death
but for winds that may sleep not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth
through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice,
and record of scarce hidden fire ...
William Morris, ‘On First Seeing Iceland’
As the lights go out, perhaps we will see further into the dark.
Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...