Loving Iceland in the 19th Century

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Loving Iceland in the 19th Century

This was an unusual entry in the Why I Love Iceland project. We learn why a visitor 150 years ago loved the country.

Why A. J. Symington loves Iceland

It is 1862 and A. J. Symington has come to Iceland. He’s traveled to the usual places Thingvella and the Geysers. He’s a good artist and has made many sketches of the priest’s house at Thingvalla, of crossing the Bruara, of Mount Hekla, and Snaefell Jokull, among others. On August 3, he has returned to Reykjavik and is back on board the Arcturus, the ship that brought him to Iceland. The ship has lifted anchor and is heading for the “east of the island.”

On the Iceland Review site today, there is a request that people write in and tell them why they love Iceland. Since A.J.S. is not able to do that, I’ll do it for him. Here is what he has to say about the Reykjavík bay.

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Snæfellsjökull seen from Reykjavík. Photo: Benedikt Jóhannesson/Iceland Review.

“The bay at Reykjavík is very lovely. Every crevice of the Esian mountains is distinctly shown; while the positive colours and delicate tints of these and other heights rising far inland, which the eye takes in, in sweeping round the semicircle from Snaefell to Skagi, are bright, varied, and beautiful beyond description. Deep indigoes dashed with purple, violet peaks, pale lilac ranges; and, relieved against  them, cones of dazzling snow and ice glittering like silver, side by side with rosy pinks and warm sunny brown, all rising over a foreground of black lava. The sky overhead is blue; and the northern horizon lit up with a mellow glow of golden light.

The frigate Artemise, the brig Agile, the Danish schooner Emma and several trading vessels lying at anchor, animate the scene.

Snaefells Jokul—rising to the north-west on the extreme of yonder narrow ridge that runs out due west into the sea for nearly fifty miles separating the Faxaflói from the Breidafiord—dome-shaped, isolated and perpetually covered with snow, is now touched with living rosy light.

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Snæfellsjökull. Photo: Páll Stefánsson/Iceland Review

At its foot lie the singular basaltic rocks of Stapi (Arnarstapi), somewhat like the Giant’s Causeway, or the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Indeed, stapi is the same word as staff, and indicates the character of the columnar formation.

For the first time, since leaving home, we see the stars. One or two, only, are shining in the quivering blue overhead, with a quiet, subdued, pale golden light. I made a sketch of Snaefell as it appeared from the quarter deck of the steamer at a distance of fifty miles; it seems a low cone rising from the sea. As the evening was calm and beautiful, ere retiring, we walked the deck till a late hour, musing on the structure and marvelous phenomena of this half-formed chaotic island, where Frost and Fire still strive for the mastery before our very eyes."

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