Harry Martinson: Catching the Dewdrop, Reflecting the Cosmos
by Ulf Larsson*
In October 1974 it was announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for that year had been awarded to Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. In the pages of several Swedish newspapers, the announcement provoked indignant reactions. The Swedish Academy had awarded the Prize to two of its own members! The international impact of the two recipients was questioned, and there was concern that the award would be seen as a case of embarrassing provincialism.
Reactions abroad were not as indignant as those within Swedish cultural circles. On the other hand, the Nobel Prize brought no great upswing in popularity for Martinson or Johnson on the international literary scene. While they were, and still are, two of the great names in 20th century Swedish literature, Martinson and Johnson are still relatively unknown abroad.
In part, this is because their books are difficult to translate. In particular, Martinson’s unique treatment of the Swedish language, using unusual constructions and words he had created, makes his work difficult to render into other languages. Yet neither Martinson nor Johnson can be said to be provincial in their authorship.
Martinson received the Nobel Prize for writings “that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” This is a fitting observation. Although his depictions of the Swedish natural environment and Swedish society are firmly anchored on Swedish soil, Martinson was also a world traveller and a stargazer. Through nature, Martinson opened perspectives into the microcosm and outward to the dizzying reaches of space. His authorship covers nature as well as culture, and science as well as art.
Harry Martinson – world traveller and stargazer.
Martinson’s writings mirror many of the great issues of the 20th century. These are social injustices and dictatorships, war and peace, commercial culture and the culture of the automobile, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. Motifs from modern science find their way into his poetry. Martinson’s realm of ideas is enriched by scientific theories, and the language of science is evident in his poetry. In this respect, he is an innovator, even in an international perspective.
This article deals with Martinson’s life and authorship under the headings Childhood, The Sea, Earth, and Space, each of which points to themes in his authorship. Since these headings can also be traced as themes in Martinson’s personal life, this article also takes a certain biographical slant.
Harry Martinson was born in 1904 in the parish of Jämshög in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge. He was the only boy in a family of seven children.
His father, Martin Olofsson, was something of an adventurer who was infamous for his drinking. He died of tuberculosis when Harry was six years old.
|Betty Olofsson with five of her six daughters and only son Harry (standing, foreground).|
After her husband’s death, Harry’s mother, Betty, left her children and went to America. As foster children, Harry and his sisters were placed with farmers who received payment from the local parish funds. Harry’s growing up years were filled with difficulty and insecurity. More than once, he ran away from homes and schools. Betty never returned to Sweden. Harry’s longing for his absent mother left deep emotional scars upon him.
Martinson tells about his childhood in his autobiographical novel Nässlorna blomma (1935), “Flowering Nettle” (1935) and Vägen ut (1936), “The Way Out.” These books tell of the bleak reality and marvellous dreams of a parish orphan. The Swedish edition of “Flowering Nettle” begins with a poem:
I was small in the listening days.
At late harvests toothless mouths told
of leprous marsh-spot in the seed and
the bitter bloom of ergot on the rye.
I grew cold at my childhood hearth
Translation, Stephen Klass
“Flowering Nettle” tells of how the author’s alter ego, Martin, is mistreated and runs away from the farms where he lives and works. Yet it is not bitter indignation that gives the presentation its power, nor is there any self-pity in the portrayal of Martin. At some points, Martin is described as false, cowardly and fawning.
“Flowering Nettle” is a book about the feeling of being an outsider, experiencing guilt, and being worried and afraid. It is also a book about discovery and about finding ways to interpret and understand the world.
“Flowering Nettle” tells not only about social ills and unhappiness, but also about how Martin’s curiosity about the world around him is awakened. At school, the classroom’s maps, prints and books awaken his desire to make new discoveries and to achieve new knowledge. There, tales of the wide world and news of science and technology reach him and put his thoughts in motion. A weekly magazine conveys scientific achievements to Martin, who ponders how the world is constructed:
“‘Illustra’ says that there are atoms. It explains what they are like, and how they are to be found in everything.
He turns this over for a long time: they are to be found in everything. In Joel, and Paul, and that flower. Yes, in everything. In everything beautiful and in everything ugly. Then how can things be as they are? He still believes in God a little, especially when it thunders. In thundery weather God gathers himself together, and gets solid and near. The thunder rolls about like a heavy iron ball on attic floors.
Then is God made of atoms, too? Hardly. ‘Illustra,’ which comes every week, serves up nebulae in the late summer; and now he stands mid-way between nebulae and atoms, weighing them up.”
Young Harry dreamed of becoming a sailor, and this was a dream that he was able to pursue. From 1920 to 1927, he travelled at sea and on land. At sea, he eventually became a ship’s fireman, and on land, he earned his living as a laborer at short-term jobs.
Martinson left the life of the sailor in 1927. His years as a vagabond on land and at sea had been hard. He had fallen ill with tuberculosis and spent several periods of time in sanatoriums.
Martinson tried to survive mostly through short-term labor and by begging. He also began to write, and eventually had many of his poems published in labor movement newspapers.
In 1927, Harry Martinson met Helga Johansson. Helga, who called herself “Moa,” earned her living by farm work, but she, too, wrote for labor movement newspapers. In 1928, Harry came to Moa’s small crofter farm in the province of Sörmland in central Sweden. They were married in 1929.
In 1929, Harry Martinson’s first collection of poems, Spökskepp (“Ghost Ship”) was published. For the most part, it consisted of poems that employed motifs of the ocean and the life of the seaman. In 1930, he contributed to the anthology 5 unga (“The 5 Young Ones”). This book became one of the ground-breaking works of modern literature in Sweden.
Modernism praised life. It affirmed the modern era, its machines and its pulsating power. It represented a freer view of love and sexuality. It battled against clichés in all areas of life. The intention of poetry was not to provide enjoyment and unreflective calm, but rather to free humanity and bring it closer to real life. The young poets even wanted to discard the traditional forms of poetry, and wrote in free verse, without being bound to pre-ordained parameters.
Young Harry dreamed of becoming a sailor.
Drawing by Harry Martinson in a manuscript.
The impulses for modernist literature came from many places. Russian poets such as Sergey Yesenin and Vladimir Majakovsky were important for the young Swedish modernists, as were American poets such as Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters. Within Swedish-language literature, Swedish-speaking Finnish authors such as Edith Södergran, Elmer Diktonius and Rabbe Enckell first promoted the cause of modernism. Among Martinson’s literary contemporaries, poet Artur Lundkvist was an important source of inspiration.
The new poetry utilized rich imagery, which Martinson mastered brilliantly. His poetry is often grounded in precise, concrete observations which emphasize details. Despite a slight degree of sobriety in Martinson’s poetry, his precise observations give a sense of being present at the event. His bold associations contribute to his poetry’s capacity to elicit strong moods. A melding of great visions and exact detail are typical for Martinson. In the short poem “Out at Sea” from the 1931 collection Nomad, Martinson’s vigorous and precise, yet simultaneously mysterious language is fully developed:
Out at sea one feels a spring or a summer merely as a passing breeze.
Sometimes in the summer the drifting Florida seaweed blooms,
and on a spring evening a spoon-bill stork flies in towards Holland.
Translation, W.H. Auden
In Resor utan mål (1932, “Aimless Journeys”) and Kap Farväl! (1933), “Cape Farewell” (1934), Martinson relates memories from his wandering life at sea and on land. For Martinson, the years as a ship’s fireman had been hard and strenuous, but as he wrote in “Cape Farewell,” they were also important for his development:
Why do my thoughts turn so readily to stoke-holds? Perhaps because my life began there—there lie the years of my youth: dreamy hard-fisted years that stood their watch backwards across the seas; the years when muscles “
Those years of drudgery were a time of maturation in which his life took form: “In the stoke-hold fragments of my life were jumbled together, which by my thoughts have been kneaded to unity.”
The years at sea left permanent impressions upon Martinson’s authorship, but as he left the life of the seaman further behind him, depictions of the earth and nature became increasingly important in his writings. During the 1930s, he developed a mastery of describing the natural world in both poetry and prose. Throughout his life, nature was a place of refuge and contemplation where Martinson could find peace. Many of his poems convey a mood, rather than describing natural scenery. The poem “Dusk in the Country,” from 1945, is one of the finest examples of Martinson’s evocative nature poems:
The riddle silently sees its image. It spins evening
among the motionless reeds.
There is a frailty no one notices
there, in the web of grass.
Silent cattle stare with green eyes.
They mosey in evening calm down to the water.
And the lake holds its immense spoon
up to all the mouths.
Translation, Robert Bly
Short nature poems became one of Martinson’s great contributions to Swedish literature. These poetic nature miniatures are characterized by immediacy and concretion, combined with the strong capacity to create a mood. Precise observations are recurrent in Martinson’s depictions of nature in prose, as well. There is an almost scientific approach to his careful method of observation. In fact, Martinson had a strong interest in science.
|Throughout his life nature was a place of refuge and contemplation.
Drawing by Harry Martinson.
Yet he also felt it was the poet’s responsibility to emphasize the approximate and the less tangible, and to counter the concrete and factual reported by technical expertise. In the face of modern technology, Martinson was critical and often skeptical.
Fascination with and praise for machines and technology was otherwise one of the most prominent elements of the literary modernism of the 1920s and 30s. In Martinson, this motif was not especially pronounced, even though he exhibits traces of it. A dream of reconciliation between nature and technology emerges in the poem “Power” from 1931:
The engineer sits by the big wheel,
all through the June night, reading.
The power station mumbles introverted in the turbines,
its leafy, embedded heart beats calm and strong.
The timid birch stands tall by the concrete mouth of the dam;
not a leaf quivers.
The hedgehog slobbers along the river bank.
The guard’s cat listens hungrily to birdsong.
And the power whistles away along a hundred miles of wire
before it suddenly rumbles down into the braggart cities.
Translation, Robert Bly
Even in his views on the social and political tasks of literature, Martinson was somewhat outside the movements of his own day. A number of his Swedish contemporaries, like Martinson himself, had humble origins. They called themselves “proletarian authors,” and many of them viewed the political and social struggle as their common cause. Martinson, however, refused to allow himself to be lumped into a particular political category. Nonetheless, he was engaged in the world events of his time. He hated all dictatorships and all oppression—Nazism as well as Communism. The Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939 convinced Martinson to actively involve himself in recruiting Swedish volunteers to fight in the war on behalf of Finland. Together with Eyvind Johnson, he travelled around Sweden and spoke in churches. In 1940, he also went to the front.
While the novel Verklighet till döds (“Reality to Death”) from 1940 is a reaction against the Second World War, it is also Martinson’s coming to terms with conditions in Sweden. The book deals with the tension between city and countryside, and provides a critique of social and technological developments.
Criticism of industrial society and modern culture is also a theme in Martinson’s vagabond novel Vägen till Klockrike (1948), “The Road” (1950). Outwardly, this book is about hoboes in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, but its plot is not its most important element. It is sooner a collection of philosophical tales and ramblings on life and the world. The life of the vagabond is an existence on the fringes of society. Those who live it must face exclusion, small-mindedness and closed doors. Yet it is also a life lived closer to nature. “The Road” is rich in praises of the natural environment of Sweden. In the opening chapter, a friend of Bolle, the main character, remembers a summer spent on the move:
“So I went, and all that summer I tramped round the country, heard the birds sing, bathed in quiet streams and lakes and roamed through glens and valleys where the grass was dewy and clean. Clouds drifted, winds moved in the woods, flowers bowed and gleamed, bumble-bees buzzed in the clover, girls sang in the hay-fields.”
For Harry Martinson, the period around 1940 was one of upheaval on a personal level. In 1939, he separated from Moa Martinson. In Stockholm, he met a woman he would spend the rest of his life with—Ingrid Lindcrantz. During the 1940s, they had two daughters.
In Martinson’s writings, a new theme was developing: outer space. The motif of the cosmic occurred in some of his earlier poems, but came to its most distinct expression in the poetic suite Aniara. The first of the Aniara songs were released in Martinson’s 1953 collection of poetry Cikada, and the entire epic was released as Aniara in 1956 (new English edition, 1999). Aniara is the name of a spaceship that has gone off course and has been thrown into outer space on a journey of no return. This work may also be interpreted symbolically as a tale of humanity’s journey toward an uncertain fate, or of humanity’s journey in an inner, spiritual space. In one of the songs in Aniara, the spaceship’s travels in space are compared to the slow movement of an air bubble through a bowl of glass.
In the sixth year Aniara fared
with undiminished speed toward Lyra’s stars.
The chief astronomer gave the emigrants
a lecture on the depth of outer space.
In his hand he held a splendid bowl of glass:
We’re slowly coming to suspect that the space
we’re traveling through is of a different kind
from what we thought whenever the word “space”
was decked out by our fantasies on Earth.
We’re coming to suspect now that our drift
is even deeper than we first believed,
that knowledge is a blue naiveté
which with the insight needful to the purpose
assumed the Mystery to have a structure.
We now suspect that what we say is space
and glassy-clear around Aniara’s hull
is spirit, everlasting and impalpable,
that we are lost in spiritual seas.
Our space-ship Aniara travels on
in something that does not possess a brain-pan
and does not even need the stuff of brains.
She’s traveling on in something that exists
but does not need to take the path of thought.
Through God and Death and Mystery we race
on space-ship Aniara without goal or trace.
O would that we could turn back to our base
now that we realize what our space-ship is:
a little bubble in the glass of Godhead.
I shall relate what I have heard of glass
and then you’ll understand. In any glass
that stands untouched for a sufficient time,
gradually a bubble in the glass will move
infinitely slowly to a different point
in the glazen form, and in a thousand years
the bubble’s made a voyage in its glass.
Similarly, in a boundless space
a gulf the depth of light-years throws its arch
round bubble Aniara on her march.
For though the rate she travels at is great
and much more rapid than the swiftest planet,
her speed as measured by the scale of space
exactly corresponds to that we know
the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass.
Translation, Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg
This song is an example of how scientific theories influenced Martinson’s poetry. The choice of a bowl as an image of the cosmos was probably inspired by “curved space,” as expressed in Einstein‘s general theory of relativity. Martinson also claimed to have gained inspiration from Paul Dirac‘s hole theory.
Aniara became Martinson’s best-known work. The book was transformed into an opera, with a score by Karl-Birger Blomdahl and lyrics by Erik Lindegren. The Royal Swedish Opera’s production of Aniara in 1959 was a great success, and during the 1960s, the work was also staged in Hamburg, Brussels and Darmstadt.
In later years, a new theme gradually emerged in Martinson’s writings: outer space.
Drawing by Harry Martinson.
The criticism leveled against modern society and its technology in Aniara came to new, stronger expression in Martinson’s 1960 poetry collection Vagnen (“The Wagon”). His coming to terms with the culture of the automobile was not well-received by all of his readers. Some saw Martinson as a reactionary anti-progressive. Martinson had received criticism before, but the reception of Vagnen was more noticeably negative than for any of his previous works.
In later years, Martinson was ill for lengthy periods. However, in 1971, he undertook work on the collection Dikter om ljus och mörker (“Poems of Light and Darkness”) with new enthusiasm and creativity. The collection contains a number of poems inspired by science. The poem “The Electrons” directs its focus inward, toward the microscopic spaces:
With their round dance the electrons spin
chrysalises of that which abides,
the inmost cocoons
which do not open of their own accord
but are of that which abides.
There it is not a matter of hatching out.
There it is a matter of tending and protecting
the metamorphoses of the inmost
the innermost playing of women in dance.
Translation, Stephen Klass
Swedish criticism over the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Literature to Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson was directed not against the literary qualifications of the two authors, but rather against the fact that the Swedish Academy had named two of its own members as recipients. Nonetheless, the criticism hurt the two writers deeply. Martinson had been ill for a long time, and his outlook became even darker. When he was admitted to the hospital in 1978, he inflicted severe injuries upon himself, and died a few days later.
Martinson’s writings are deeply anchored in the times in which he lived. Yet they are more than just a reflection of their era and the literature which developed then. They also raise many questions which are just as relevant today: the role of science and technology in the development of society, and the need to care for our world. The poem “The Great Trouble” from 1971 expresses agony, but not hopelessness:
Nature’s laws are already on the way
to stand us all against the wall.
That wall is law’s own nature.
It is missing an evangel.
That great trouble all of us must share.
Then it will be possible to bear.
The great trouble is to take great trouble.
That is what all of us must learn.
Amid all shoulds and should have beens
there is one must for all.
All must learn to take great trouble with the world.
Now that man has gotten power enough
to bring about the trouble of the world
the time is now
to heal the trouble of the world in time
before all nature has become
everybody’s troubled child.
This is called taking trouble in time.
which sees in time to what it sees.
Translation, Stephen Klass and Carolyn Skantz
The article was translated from Swedish to English by Daniel M. Olson.
The photos and drawings in this article are published with the permission of Eva Martinson, Harry Martinson’s daughter.
Larsson is the editor of “Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize” (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 2001). He has published (in Swedish) Brobyggaren: Otto Linton, byggnadskonsten och dess professioner under första delen av 1900-talet (Stockholm: Carlssons, 1997) and Daggdroppen och kosmos: Harry Martinsons värld (Stockholm: Nobelmuseet, 2004).
First published 4 June 2004