Steinn Steinarr’s life story is an extreme manifestation of the social and ideological changes that were taking place in Iceland the first half of the 19th century. The son of impoverished farming folk, by the end of his life he was the leading light of modern poetry in Iceland. He was a pioneer of modernism in Icelandic poetry in the mid-20th century, while also composing verse in traditional form. He was a revolutionary poet, who gained an education and grappled with an existence which was sometimes friendly, at other times hostile, but as a rule unfathomable. His verse reflects his political, spiritual and existential struggles; his viewpoint is introspective, and his conclusions are often ambiguous. Steinn Steinarr’s poems have acquired classic status in Icelandic literature. He is sometimes said to have been influenced by T. S. Eliot, especially The Waste Land. Surrealism is also cited as an influence on his work.
Time and water
Time and Water marks a turning point in Icelandic poetry, and its impact was widespread and lasting. His poems have much in common with abstract art: line, colour, shapes, but no objective representation of reality. The poet is not possessed by pessimism, nor by Weltschmerz in the classic sense — but he faces an emptiness which he stoically portrays. The poet said, in a midnight conversation with Matthías Johannessen, that Time and Water was a much misunderstood work, or not understood at all. He had originally conceived the series of poems as the text for a ballet, closely related to certain myths and folklore. Apparently nobody had realised this, probably not even the poet himself.