“Europe Is Absent”: Iceland as the Happy Place in Morris and Auden, by Eveline de Smalen

“Europe Is Absent”: Iceland as the Happy Place in Morris and Auden

“Europe is absent” (Collected 25), muses W.H. Auden in the poem “Journey to Iceland.” It is perhaps the remoteness of the island from the events happening on the continent, as much as the country itself, that makes Iceland so appealing to Auden: “this is an island and should be / a refuge” (25-26), he continues. Removed from the political turmoil of the mid-1930s, with Hitler gaining power in Germany and civil war breaking out in Spain during Auden’s three-months stay in the north, he hopes to find a place of calm and peace, out of reach of the turmoil of modern life. However, Auden would be the first to recognise that what he hopes to find is a fiction, as he immediately questions his initial statement: “But is it … ?” (30).

Ernst Bloch notes that travel is an important element in the formation of Utopian ideas. The traveller, removed from the newly entered place because he does not belong to it and does not know it, can attach new meanings of a better place to the lands he encounters:

Of course it remains true that nothing is as exotic in a foreign country as the foreigner himself; but the latter as bourgeois enthusiast at first does not see the everyday life of foreign countries at all, least of all does he want to see the misery in it which does not cash the cheque for him made out in the name of beauty; he sees in foreign countries, often with incurable subjectivism, the personal wishful image of them he has brought with him. (371)

As in dreams, there is an element of fiction in travel, but instead of the subject’s imagination, it is the subject itself that is, at least partly, fictional.

Here, we get a sense of the different meanings of the word Utopia. Traditionally, utopia has meant both good place and no place or nowhere, but Gilles Deleuze notes that Utopia is as much a “no-where” as a “now here” (333 n.7). The works of the two British authors William Morris and W.H. Auden have an interesting relation to Deleuze’s conception of Utopia as now-here: both authors wrote about Utopia and visited Iceland twice in their lives, and echoes of Iceland can be identified in their writings on Utopia.

Morris was very interested in Iceland; he visited the country in 1871 and 1873, learnt to speak its language and published several translations of old Icelandic works. Peter Faulkner writes about his second voyage to Iceland:

Morris’s response to the stark simplicity of the country was even deeper than before. The image of the land and the lives of endurance of its people suggested an alternative to Victorian industrial England which appealed deeply to Morris’s imagination. The people of the island, it seemed to him, had a dignity and self-respect which were rapidly being destroyed in his own country by the profound and uncontrolled changes which were part of the Industrial Revolution (75).

In 1890, 17 years after his last trip to Iceland, Morris published the Utopian novel News from Nowhere. The novel follows William Guest, a well-to-do Victorian like Morris himself, as he wakes up one day to find himself in London in 2003, the place where he went to sleep the evening before, over a century ago. Guest is introduced to the Utopian society that London has become, and the customs and history of the place are explained to him. The landscape clearly recalls the Iceland Morris describes in his travel diary, which was published posthumously as Journals of Travel in Iceland. Both feature large, open, green fields with few and relatively small houses. Morris’s remark that “An Icelander always talks of going home to any stead on the road, whether he is living there or not” (Journals 50, n.2) echoes the fact that private property as such does not exist in the London in 2003 that is described in News from Nowhere.

People’s engagement with the land is similar in News from Nowhere and in Iceland as Morris describes it, especially for children. Morris writes that the children in Iceland are very able guides through the rough terrain. Travelling from Skerðingsstaðr to Búlandshöfði, his company

got a little lad of some eleven winters here to guide us on a bit and in half an hour come to a little stead by the waterside aforesaid, the last house before my dreaded Bulandshöfði [sic]; the cliffs are quite near the house on the one side, as the water is on the other, and there is a pretty hillocky tún in which we pitch our tents to the accompaniment of a rattling wind, for it is blowing again. (131)

Indeed, the children would have spent much of their time outdoors, as school “during the short Icelandic summer … was – and partly still is – a remote idea” (Karlsson 256) and relatively few children attended any form of institutionalised education (Karlsson 256). The children of News from Nowhere lead similar lives: “They often make up parties, and come to play in the woods for weeks together in summer-time, living in tents, as you see. We rather encourage them to it; they learn to do things for themselves, and get to notice the wild creatures; and, you see, the less they stew inside houses the better for them” (17). Institutionalised education is unheard of.

Still, both Morris and Guest, to their surprise, encounter exceptionally educated men. Children in News from Nowhere speak several languages, including Latin and Ancient Greek (19) and those who are interested have ample opportunities of pursuing any scholarly interests they may have. Morris in turn describes how he encounters a man who, despite Morris’s efforts to converse in Icelandic, addresses him in Latin (Journals 65). He also writes about a man named Jón, who in his small room has

a bed in one corner, and a bookcase in the other: there are plenty of books in the case, Icelandic, German, Danish, and English: the latter language he is very anxious to master, and has learned Danish, which as a true-born Icelander he hates of course, to help him to that knowledge: Shakespeare he has got, but says he finds him heavy: he puts two volumes of Chambers’ Miscellany into his pocket, if by chance he may get a lesson out of Magnússon this day (50).

Like Morris, Auden was very enthusiastic about Icelandic culture and like Morris, he visited the country twice, first in 1936 and again in 1964. Paul Beekman Taylor notes that stylistically, Auden’s poetry owes much to Icelandic literature (216). Auden himself writes: “In my childhood dream Iceland was holy ground” (Letters 8). Also like Morris, he would publish important texts in which he discusses the concept of a better world to come. By the time Auden rose to significance as a writer, however, the concept of Utopia had lost a good deal of its appeal due to the horrors of the First World War. Irving Howe writes: “God died in the nineteenth century, utopia in the twentieth” (qtd in Kohlmann 1).

Auden describes two different versions of the happy place; the Utopian, who envisions it as something to be arrived at in the future, and the Arcadian, who sees it as a paradise lost. Auden sees the first as more dangerous than the second. Whereas to the Arcadian, the happy place is a focus for happy musings of nostalgia, “The forward-looking Utopian … necessarily believes that his New Jerusalem is a dream which ought to be realized so that the actions by which it could be realized are a necessary element in his dream; it must include images, that is to say, not only of New Jerusalem itself but also images of the Day of Judgement” (Dyer’s Hand 410). Auden sees the two as irreconcilable and is wary of Utopianism because of its risks to turn violent.

Iceland as Auden describes it in Letters from Iceland, the travel journal he wrote together with Louis MacNeice, resembles an Arcadian place to some extent. The Fall is something that seems to have occurred outside of Iceland and therefore affects him and his fellow Europeans, and haunts him even while he visits Iceland, but does not have an effect on Iceland or its inhabitants. In “Iceland Revisited,” which Auden wrote upon his second voyage northwards in 1964, he writes: “Once more / A child’s dream verified / The magical light beyond Hekla” (37-39). This suggests that the Fall has not occurred in this place: not in the child’s dream, which is perhaps not surprising, but also not in the perception of the adult who reflects on the land as he imagined it once, and as he sees it before him now. The Arcadian aspect of the country is confirmed in the last stanza: “Fortunate island / Where all men are equal / But not vulgar – not yet” (40-42).

In different sections of his various writings on Iceland, Auden expresses the idea that Iceland means an escape from the chaotic continent of Europe; a place very much like Arcadia. In doing so, he describes not so much a society in which life functions perfectly, but rather one in which the horrors that occur in continental Europe have no effect. Beekman Taylor writes: “This is Auden’s island-ship Iceland, whose unique centricity affords a privileged and protected perspective over the city-civilization of Europe and America” (219).

Pastoral Icelandic life, however, cannot really be experienced by Auden, since, as he writes in The Dyer’s Hand: “Eden cannot be entered; its inhabitants are born there” (410). In “Letter to R.H.S. Crossman, Esq.,” he writes:

For that’s our vulgar error, isn’t it, When we see nothing but the law and order, The formal interdiction from the garden, A legend of a sword, and quite forget The rusting apple core we’re clutching still. (Letters 91)

Auden is not from Iceland but from a place where the Fall has indeed happened and is happening still. The Arcadian life of the Icelandic people are therefore not for him: as he writes in a letter to Christopher Isherwood:

But I had the feeling, also, that for myself it was already too late. We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able, or even to wish to escape. Though I am sure you would enjoy a visit as much as I did, I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics. (Letters 28)

Neither Auden nor Morris mistake Iceland for the happy place but their visions of the island do show the relevance of travel to Utopian dreams. For Morris, elements of what he encounters in Iceland come back in his Utopian dreams, and for Auden, Iceland seems a bridge between Utopia and Arcadia, a happy place not in the future or past, but in the present, the now-here. Despite the horrors the world has experienced between 1914 and 1945, the notion of the happy place, and even of Utopia, has remained relevant, both in imagination and in travel, and has certainly not disappeared – not yet.

Works Cited:
Auden, W.H. The Dyer’s Hand. 1948. London: Faber & Faber, 1962. Print.
“Iceland Revisited.” Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber & Faber, 1976. 727-728. Print.
“Journey to Iceland.” Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber & Faber, 1976. 149-151. Print.
Auden, W.H. and Louis MacNeice. Letters from Iceland. 1937. London: Faber & Faber, 1967. Print.
Beekman Taylor, Paul. “Auden’s Icelandic Myth of Exile.” Journal of Modern Literature.  24.2 (2000/2001): 213-234. Project MUSE. Web. 19 March 2014.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Vol. 1. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995. Print.  
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. London: The Athlone Press, 1994. Print.
Faulkner, Peter. Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980. Print.
Karlsson, Gunnar. The History of Iceland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.
Kohlmann, Benjamin. “Introduction.” Utopian Spaces of Modernism: British Literature and  Culture, 1885-1945.
Eds Rosalyn Gregory and Benjamin Kohlmann. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. EBL Reader. 1-104. Web. 31 March 2014.
Morris, William. Journals of Travel in Iceland. 1911. William Morris Archive. William Morris Archive. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
News from Nowhere. 1890. William Morris Archive. William Morris Archive. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

About the author:
Eveline de Smalen is a student of comparative literature at Utrecht University. She focuses on  English literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and is particularly interested in the relations between landscape and literature.

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