The Dakota Icelanders Project

The Poet KN Julius

The following article was featured in the Walsh County Press of Park River, North Dakota, in their issue of 2 Aug 1997. The Icelandic community is grateful to Kathy and the Press for acknowledging and remembering this remarkable man. This text only version is reproduced with the kind permission of the editor, Holly Anderson.

Pembina County Was Home To Renowned Poet K. N. Julius

by Kathy Miller

When you spend a lot of time with a person who happens to be a history buff, some of that interest and curiosity naturally rubs off on you. Such was the case when my friend and I sat around one evening discussing the fact that a famous Icelandic poet is buried near Mountain, ND.

It seems that there is a monument, located near Mountain, to a man whose poetry is renowned in his native Iceland as well as here in the United States. The work of K.N. Julius is an important part of Icelandic literature. But that's jumping ahead.

After the evening's discussion, it sounded like a fun idea to drive up to Mountain and visit the poet's grave. So, Memorial Day found us headed north, toward Mountain. After seeking directions from Duane and Lorraine Byron, at the couple's pub, we proceeded to the cemetery at Thingvalla Church, about five miles south of town.

Sure enough, we found the monument to K.N. Julius, as is pictured here. But it didn't tell us much, since the plaque is written in Icelandic. The only knowledge we gained about this man was that he was born in 1860 and died in 1936. Not enough to satisfy the curious. I thought it would be interesting to do some research about him.

After placing a call to Dorothy Novak at the Park River Library, and having Dorothy promise to try to find some reference books about K.N., I talked to Press editor Holly Anderson. Holly steered me towards Mike Olafson of Edinburg, aasuring me that Mike knows a lot about Icelandic history.

Well, Mike certainly did know about K.N. Julius. But he was reluctant to give too much information, because he knew of someone who grew up and had lived in the house where the poet lived for many years. That person was the one I should talk to about K.N., Mike said.

Meanwhile, Dorothy had come through, as usual, obtaining a book titled "A History of Icelandic Poets - 1800-1940", from the State Library. She copied the section about K.N., and even delivered it to The Press in person. The pieces of the poet's life were beginning to fall into place.

From this history, we find that K.N., (pronounced "kow en" in Icelandic) pen name for Kristjan Niels Julius, was born at Akureyri in Northern Iceland on April 7, 1860. It seems that the ability to write poetry was inherited from both sides of his family.

In 1878, K.N. emigrated to America. He first made his home in Winnipeg, and then Duluth; but most of his last 60 years were spent at the Pembina County, ND, Icelandic community.

Christine Hall, along with her sister Ann Bobollier, who lives in Chicago, related the following information regarding the poet:

When K.N arrived in the area around 1894, looking for employment, he asked if there was anyone in the area who needed help. He was told that there was a widow, Anna Geir, who had five children, and was struggling to make a living on a farm for herself and her family. K.N. approached her and offered whatever assistance he could give. It turned out to be his home for the rest of his life.

In December, 1895, three of Anna's daughters became ill with a fever. Although Anna and K.N. did everything they could for the the children (K.N. even walked more than eight miles one way in the cold and snow after medicine) the three died. The fourth daughter, who was being cared for by friends, and Anna's son, Kristjan, escaped the illness.

Later on, Kristjan married and had 11 children. Christine Geir Hall and Ann Bobollier were two of them. They and their siblings grew up with K.N. They remember him with much fondness and admiration.

"Each one of us, as small children, spent many hours on his knee, while he would "raula" (recite) his many verses," Christine wrote. Also, K.N. would watch over all 11 of the Geir children, when their parents were away from the house.

According to Christine, K.N. Ioved children. "Each one of us was special to him," she remembered.

Mike Olafson, who also remembers K.N. from his childhood, agreed with this. "When he went to town, kids flocked around him," Mike said. "Then he would entertain them, speaking in verses."

The poet's affection for children is illustrated in this short verse, which he composed for Christine. Mike Olafson translated the verse. It is as follows:

     About Little Christine Geir

Since the first I saw you near,
My need for sunlight dwindled;
The light for my life's path,
Is by the light in your eyes kindled.

Ann Bobillier had the opportunity to visit Iceland several years ago. During the visit, she rode on a bus on which the driver spoke no Endish. To entertain his passengors, the driver recited the poetry of K.N. Julius! The poetry of this man, who made his living as a farm laborer, chimney builder and a grave digger, who died more than 60 years ago, is still read and spoken today, both here and in Canada, in Icelandic communities and in his homeland.

KN.'s poetry is difficult, at best, to translate into English. In the early 1990's, a writer named Paul Sigurdson, writing for an Icelandic newspaper, published in Winnipeg, did a series of articles about K.N., translating several of his poems.

What has been written about K.N., including the articles by Sigurdson, has not always been flattering to the poet. He has been called a "boozer" and a "womanizer," to name a couple of things. Indeed, the subjects of many of his poems are often his bouts with liquor and of his exploits with the ladies.

However, Christine, Ann and Mike all feel such labels are unfair. "These criticisms were made by people who didn't know him," Mike stated. "They didn't realize his poetry was meant to be satirical," he added.

"I never remember him being down and out," Mike continued. "He had an eye for the ladies, but his poetry about them was always filled with humor. Basically, he was good and kind."

Christine and Ann couldn't agree with him more. Both ladies admit they knew that K.N. drank. But they were not affected by this side of him.

"We all remember him with much affection," Christine wrote. "It is only in looking back over so many years that we begin to fully appreciate him and to realize how greatly our lives were enriched for having him in our midst. He is remembered among Icelanders here and in his homeland for his wit and humor. We (her family) remember him for his loving kindness bestowed on us in a humble and unassuming way.

Other subjects explored in K.N.'s verse are as diverse as the different aspects of his personality. In his "History of Icelandic Poets", Richard Beck, Professor of Scandinavian Languages at the University of North Dakota says of K.N.:

"By holding the mirror up to people, he made them see themselves, and life, generally in a truer light. In a broader sense, his satire was directed at narrow mindedness, folly and superstition, hypocrisy and superficiality. ...one of his most attractive qualities was his delight in making fun of himself "

         August Second

Many left in drunken sail
Everywhere flows beer and ale;
Whisky? No one lacked a bit,
Cause Swain and Dor were selling it.
Women served their coffee swill;
Men ranted speeches at their will;
There was singing, there was dance.
There was I with Reverend Hans.

The above poem is said to have infuriated Reverend Hans Thorgrimsen, who was not at the party. In fact, the minister was dead set against drinking. K.N. thoroughly enjoyed poking fun at those he considered to be superficial and foolish.

On the other hand, his kindness and sympathy showed through, for those weaker or less fortunate than himself. He showed empathy, sharing the sorrows of his friends, composing many obituaries. Christine Hall remembers that K.N. had a poem for every occasion.

The following seems more of a prayer:

         The Sick Child

See this little fevered child!
Dewy brow revealing.
God of mercy, gentle, mild,
Grant your blessed healing.

Dr. Beck described K.N. Julius as "not only the greatest and most unusual humorist among the Icelanders in America; he was also without peer among the contemporary poets in his homeland."

Dr. Beck also wrote (in Icelandic) the inscription on the monument to K.N., which Mike Olafson translated for us. It reads:

The Satirical Poet

   Born to make tears few. The mocking flashes of your verses, lighten and renew the spirit. So dream about the beautiful fjord, and your beautiful childhood home in the countryside.

Special thanks to Christine Hall, Ann Bobillier and Mike Olafson, for sharing their memories of K.N. with us. If you happen to read this the day the paper comes out, August 2nd, you are probably aware that today is Icelandic Independence Day, also known as August the Deuce. Each year, the people of Mountain and the surrounding area celebrate with parades, laughter, dancing and merriment. I think K.N. would have approved, don't you?

We'll end with another of K.N.'s more humorous offerings.

            In The Barn

One day when all was quiet
I heard the moo-cows bawl;
I think that they were holding
A "Ladies Aid" for all.

For everyone was yapping;
But none were understood
They talked of all and nothing,
But most concerning food.

"Yes, we're full and chubby,
And we have lots of feed;
Like corn ond grinded barley,
And stacks of hay with seed ."

It's not my business really,
and I don 't care, 'tis true
But by the way dear Spottie,
What is the date you're due?'

"Come has the time for supper,
What will we get for treat?
Be damned! Her comes that K.N.,
And brings a straw to eat!"

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Some minor corrections: The proper name for the event is the 2nd of August Celebration; the pejorative term 'August the Deuce' is abhorred by all who value tradition. The female half of the couple that own Byron's Bar is Lauraine, not Lorraine. Thingvalla Church and Thingvalla Cemetery are both located about 3 miles south of Mountain, not 5. Iceland's independence is celebrated 17 June, not 2 August. The celebration on the 2nd of August was originally more of a 'thanksgiving' and is now strictly an American event which started with the earlier Icelandic settlers in Wisconsin. The 'first' celebration, in 1874, was scheduled to coincide with the delivery from Denmark to Iceland of the first documents giving the Icelanders a limited form of self-government, but actual independence for Iceland didn't come until almost 75 years later. Continuous formal annual celebrations started in Mountain about 1900. ADS

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