Martinson, Harry (6 May 1904 - 11 February 1978)
Harry Martinson (6 May 1904 - 11 February 1978)
University of Washington
1974 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech
This entry was expanded by Norlén from his Martinson entry in DLB 259: Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers Before World War II.
BOOKS: Fem unga: Unglitterär antologi, by Martinson, Artur Lundkvist, Erik Asklund, Josef Kjellgren, and Gustav Sandgren (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1929);
Spökskepp (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1929);
Nomad (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1931);
Resor utan mål (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1932);
Kap Farväl! (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1933); translated by Naomi Walford as Cape Farewell (London: Cresset, 1934; New York: Putnam, 1934);
Natur (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1934);
Nässlorna blomma (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1935); translated by Walford as Flowering Nettle (London: Cresset, 1936);
Vägen ut (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1936);
Svärmare och harkrank (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1937);
Midsommardalen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1938);
Det enkla och det svåra (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1939);
Verklighet till döds (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1940);
Den förlorade jaguaren (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1940);
Passad (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1945);
Vägen till Klockrike (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1948); translated by M. A. Michael as The Road (London: Cape, 1955; New York: Reynal, 1956);
Cikada (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1953);
Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1956); translated by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert as Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space (New York: Knopf, 1963);
Gräsen i Thule (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1958);
Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1959);
Vagnen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1960);
Utsikt från en grästuva (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1963); translated by Erland Anderson and Lars Nordström as Views from a Tuft of Grass (Copenhagen &Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005);
Harry Martinsons och Björn von Rosens Nya bestiarum: omfattande djur och fåglar från alla jordens länder och historiens åldrar, by Martinson and Björn von Rosen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1964);
Lotsan från Moluckas. Ett radiospel om den portugisiske sjöfararen Magellans världsomsegling 1519-1522 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1964);
Tre knivar från Wei (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1964);
Vildbukettan: Naturdikter i urval Åke Runnquist (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1965);
Dikter om ljus och mörker (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1971);
Tuvor (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1973);
Dikter, 1929-1953 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1974);
Längs ekots stigar (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1978);
Doriderna: Efterlämnade dikter och prosastycken, selected by Tord Hall (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1980);
Bollesagor, compiled by Ingalisa Munck (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1983);
Kåserier på allvar (Bokvännerna, 1984);
Gyro (Stockholm: Jord-eco, 1986);
Ur de tusen dikternas bok, edited by Stefan Sandelin (Lund: Ellerström, 1986);
Kring Aniara, compiled by Sandelin (Södra Sandby: Vekerum, 1989);
Hau och resor, compiled by Sandelin (Södra Sandby: Vekerum, 1992);
Skillingtrycket och Vildgåsresan, compiled by Sandelin (Södra Sandby: Vekerum, 1994);
Dramatik: Gringo, Salvation, Lotsen från Moluckas, Tre knivar från Wei (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1999);
Naturessäer: Svärmare och harkrank; Midsommardalen; Det enkla och det svåra; Utsikt från en grästuva, with an afterword by Bengt Emil Johnson (Stockholm: Bonnier, 2000);
De tusen dikternas bok (Stockholm: Bonnier, 2004)—includes previously unpublished poems and poems from Längs ekot stigar, Doridema, and Ur de tusen dikternas bok.
Editions in English: Poems by Martinson, in Eight Swedish Poets, chosen and translated by Frederic Fleisher (Stockholm: Bo Caverfors, 1963);
Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer, chosen and translated by Robert Bly (Boston: Beacon, 1975), pp. 1-65;
Poems by Martinson, in The Forest of Childhood: Poems from Sweden, edited and translated by Smith and Sjöberg (Minneapolis: New Rivers Press, 1996);
Aniara, translated by Stephen Klass and Sjöberg (Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1999).
PRODUCED SCRIPTS: Gringo, radio, 1932;
Salvation, radio, 1933;
Lotsen frän Moluckas, radio, l0 January 1937.
OTHER: Poems by Martinson, in Modern lyrik, edited by Erik Asklund (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1931);
Vishetens ord i öster, edited by Martinson (Stockholm: Piccolo, 1962).
Harry Martinson is widely regarded as one of the leading figures in twentieth-century Swedish literature. When he began publishing his works, critics and fellow writers alike quickly recognized his lyric gifts; in particular, his collection Nomad (1931) contributed greatly to the introduction of literary modernism in Sweden. Innovative without being obscure, Martinson was an extremely popular writer as well, and his verse epic, Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum (1956; translated as Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, 1963), is one of the most important works of the postwar generation. His country officially recognized him with such honors as his election to the Swedish Academy in 1949 and a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974.
Martinson began his career as a writer in the late 1920s, along with several other writers and artists from working-class origins, most of whom were self-educated, or autodidacts. For this reason, and because four of Martinson’s major prose works deal more or less explicitly with his early years, the author’s biography and family background arouse more than usual interest. Although Sonja Erfurth’s four-volume biography on Martinson provides a thorough documentation, in Swedish, of his life through the end of the 1930s, the complicated circumstances of his childhood and youth are not easily summarized. These informative periods in his past provide the background for much of his writing in the 1930s, especially for the prose works that concern his childhood and his years as a seaman and, at times, as a luffare…a tramp or drifter.
Harry Edmund Martinson was born on 6 May 1904, the fifth of seven children of Martin Olofsson and Bengta Svensdotter Olofsson, in the parish of Jämshög in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge. His family followed the old Swedish tradition in giving names; Harry, as the son of Martin, was thus given the surname Martinson. Olofsson, who had lived for a time in North America and Australia, was an unsuccessful store owner with a penchant for storytelling, fighting, and drinking, and Bengta Svensdotter, whom Olofsson liked to call “Betty,” was the parish beauty. After Olofsson’s store went bankrupt in 1904, Betty Olofsson took over the business in her own name. In 1905 Olofsson was sentenced to a month in prison for assault, but while appealing the conviction he left for the United States and stayed there for three years. He returned home when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The appeal of his sentence, which had been delayed during his absence, ultimately failed, and he served the prison term. Upon his release, however, another case of assault led to a term of hard labor for nine months in 1909, the same year that his and Betty Olofsson’s seventh child was born. She sold the store and moved with the children further south to the province of Skåne, where she opened another store. The following year, however, this store also went bankrupt, and Olofsson died of tuberculosis.
In 1910, one year before Martinson’s oldest sister, Edit, died of the same disease that took their father, Betty Olofsson left her children for the United States–ostensibly to collect on a life-insurance policy taken out by her husband–and remained there until her death in 1946. In 1912, when Martinson was almost eight years old, the children were made wards of the parish and placed in foster homes. Over the next few years he was housed at a series of farms in the area. One bright spot in the boy’s environment, however, was school, and reading–newspapers, adventure novels, and popularscience magazines–soon became one of his most enjoyable pastimes. He also performed a variety of chores on the farms where he was sent to live, experiencing a rural way of life that soon thereafter disappeared in Sweden.
While Martinson’s early years were spent in a mostly traditional, rural landscape, he became in his youth a part of the industrialized world–first as a seaman and then as a luffare. In 1915 he ran away for the first time, an attempt he repeated often throughout his youth. Instead of returning to farm life, however, he was sent to live at the old people’s home in Jämshög in 1916 and 1917. A couple of years later he enrolled in the “skeppsgossekår” (cabin-boy corps) in Karlskrona but again ran away and was then dismissed. After working as a laborer, he finally took the decisive step of going to sea aboard the schooner Willy in Göteborg in 1920. He was sixteen years old at the time, and for the next seven years he was either working at sea or unemployed and drifting as a luffare.
In the years after World War I, employment among seamen fluctuated widely, and periods of unemployment were common. A reconstruction of Martinson’s travels indicates that he was in Europe and Sweden from 1920 to 1922 and then at sea and en route to ports in North and South America, Africa, and Asia; between 1922 and 1925 he also embarked on a journey by foot from Brazil to Uruguay. In 1925 he performed compulsory military service in Sweden, after which he again went to sea. He abandoned the seaman’s life on his birthday in 1927 at the French port of Bordeaux and returned to Sweden to become a writer.
Like many other unemployed seamen and workers at the time, Martinson lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Göteborg–a tough, working-class port city on the west coast of Sweden. Another reason Martinson left the sea was his tuberculosis, for which he received treatment at a sanatorium soon after his return to Sweden. He began writing poems and occasionally earned money when he sold them to various labor publications. Most of these early efforts–published mainly under pseudonyms–were polemical or imitative, for the nascent poet had yet to find his distinctive voice. Yet, two encounters during these years ultimately informed him as a writer. While in Stockholm in August 1927, Martinson met the young poet Artur Lundkvist at a “Folkets hus,” which is a type of community center in Sweden. The story goes that Lundkvist was carrying a sheaf of papers when a young man approached him and asked if he was a poet. The two became fast friends, and Lundkvist introduced Martinson to many other young, up-and-coming Swedish writers.
The second key encounter for Martinson took place in Göteborg in the fall of 1927, when he met Helga Johansson–later Moa Martinson–an aspiring writer of working-class origins and a contributor to radical journals. Though poor, married, and the mother of three sons–her two youngest boys had died in a drowning incident two years earlier–Johansson was starting to make progress as a published writer. She invited Martinson to visit her in Sorunda, Sörmland, the province just south of Stockholm, and to stay at her cottage, enjoy the peace and quiet of the rural setting, and write. One day in the spring of 1928 Martinson took her up on her offer and unexpectedly appeared at her door. Her husband had committed suicide a few months before, exploding himself with dynamite near their home. Although Johansson was fourteen years older than Martinson–her oldest son was only six years younger than he–the two were married on 3 October 1929 and experienced an often turbulent relationship.
While life with Johansson was not always tranquil, the rural setting and more settled existence allowed Martinson to devote himself seriously to writing, and he soon began contributing poems and articles to various publications more often and more successfully than before. In 1929 he published his first book of poems, Spökskepp (The Ghost Ship). While it was uneven in quality, Spökskepp nevertheless encompassed a few verses that established Martinson’s voice for years to come.
Also in 1929 several poems by Martinson appeared in Fem unga: Unglitterär antologi (Five Young Men: Young-Literary Anthology), a collection of works by a heterogeneous group of emerging modernists–including Lundkvist, whose debut book of poems, Glöd (Ember), had appeared the previous year. Martinson’s tuberculosis returned, and he again spent time in a sanatorium. Moa Martinson, who suffered from depression for many years after her first husband’s suicide, preferred to take care of Martinson at home and did so for a time. He continued to develop as a writer and to publish, contributing to the anthology Modern lyrik (Modern Poetry) in 1931 and completing his second collection, Nomad, in the same year. The contributions to Modern lyrik include “Kabelskepp”(The Cable Ship) as well as the prose poem “Klockbojen”(The Buoy). Martinson makes frequent reference to World War I in his early poetry and prose; although he was too young to enlist and experience the war in person, he saw its effects for years afterward and was especially critical of the transformation of shipping fleets into instruments of war during the conflict. “Klockbojen”is a kind of fairy tale about a buoy, a seagull of indeterminate age who perches on it, and the grisly reminders of carnage that pass by after a sea battle.
A work with extensive effects on twentiethcentury Swedish poetry and of astonishing lyrical force and range, Nomad occasioned a turning point in Martinson’s writing career. As the lyrics in the collection revealed, he had found the language with which to formulate and process his experiences. The poems are themselves “nomadic,”ranging over a variety of settings–from his native Blekinge to the most distant ports of his sea travels. Yet, as Staffan Söderblom observes in Harry Martinson (1994), Martinson’s poetry is the work of someone who seems to feel at home wherever his memory and lyrical imagination happen to roam. His method combines exact description with wide-ranging associations. For example, the seven-part poem “Blad”(Leaf) begins by evoking a silent evening “i klara våren”(in the clear spring), when a lapwing is building a “talarstol: kvistar och grenar i kryss”(podium: twigs and branches crossing). Before becoming a “vädersibylla”(weather oracle), the bird will lay “tre ägg / något större än duvans”(three eggs / somewhat larger than the dove’s). Such precision of observation and recollection is one of the striking features of these poems. Whether a verse recalls Martinson’s dark childhood or strenuous life at sea, the tone is never sentimental or moralistic–nor even political–but, rather, calmly accepting. As a seaman he observed firsthand the workings of world commerce, and in a poem such as “Bomull”(Cotton), the speaker is at once authoritative, lyrical, and worldly wise. While he exults in a tone reminiscent of Walt Whitman, “Bomull, bomull, ditt snöfall öover jorden!”(Cotton, cotton, your snowfall over the earth!), he does not overlook the economic forces behind the incessant transfer of goods: “din böljas lagar, / din böljas hot”(the laws of your flood / the threat of your flood). The collection ends with another long prose poem, “Krigsmålad konvoj”(War-Painted Convoy), which is about World War I. In contrast to the worshipful attitude toward machines exhibited by many of the young modernist writers, Martinson takes a consistently skeptical attitude toward technology and discerns a connection between industrial developments and “improved”means of waging war.
Although Martinson’s name is often linked with the introduction of literary modernism in Sweden, his work and philosophical outlook are as often at odds with modernism as not. From the beginning of his writing career Martinson was consistently critical of the forms that “modernization”was taking in Sweden and elsewhere–of developments that were usually at the expense of nature and of any human values other than those represented by technology. In many respects Martinson’s views anticipated the ecological movement by several decades. He was, however, frequently alone in his awareness that the destruction of nature often occurred as the unanticipated price of material progress.
Despite his ongoing tuberculosis, he was highly productive and wrote both poetry and a series of prose works that drew first on his experiences at sea and then on his childhood and early youth. The first of the “sea books,”Resor utan mål (Journeys without Destinations), appeared in 1932 and was an immediate success, especially with critics–some of whom compared the linguistic inventiveness of the young writer to that of August Strindberg. At the same time, Resor utan mål was a financial breakthrough for Martinson.
Resor utan mål is an unusual book in the subgenre of travel literature, mainly because it refrains largely from chronology and adheres to almost no narrative scheme. Such deviations arise, in part, because Martinson wrote many sections of the book originally for publication in Sunday newspaper supplements—a needed source of income for him and his family–and because of the nature of his own experiences. Referring to other travel accounts, he writes that “Själv har jag rest alltför planlöst”(I myself have traveled all too aimlessly). His journeys in memory create the impression of a single voyage of discovery into the world–with a sensibility that is open to every impression and free of intellectual and material impediments: “Min resekikare är två knytnävar satta för ögonen. Min resväska är tills vidare kolboxen i den femhundratonniga lilla östersjömadamen Vinda”(My binoculars are two clenched fists in front of my eyes. My suitcase is, for the time being, the coal bunker in the little five-hundred-ton Baltic madame Vinda).
Resor utan mål features much “sailor philosophizing,”especially on the question of the “världsnomaden”(world nomad), a matter that occupied Martinson greatly at this time. He felt that a basic human nomadic instinct, long repressed by civilization, was now beginning to assert itself. While at sea he had worked mainly as a stoker, and in Resor utan maål he compares the back-and-forth motion of plowing by a farmer-seemingly the opposite of a nomad-to the back-and-forth movement of the stokers in the boiler room. Resor utan maål lays bare Martinson’s associative and impressionistic techniques, and he writes that he favors “det dynamiskt organiserade”(the dynamically organized). A utopian aspect enters his “nomad”philosophy, such as when he asks whether Oswald Spengler’s Die Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; translated as The Decline of the West, 1926-1928) represents “etapper på vägen till den slutgiltiga världsnomaden?” (stages on the way to the conclusive world nomad?). In other passages in the book, especially in the long chapter “S/S Poljana,” the author shares his opinions on subjects such as the United States and “sea-Americanism,”prostitution, and the variety of customs and morals that a wandering seaman encounters in different parts of the world. In his view, good and bad coexist in the world: “Solsocker och solsalt”(Sun-sugar and sun-salt). Women also make up an important part of the young seaman’s imagination; at one point he writes, “äventyret blev kvinnan”(the adventure became woman).
A possible, concealed “destination”for these journeys, or an underlying subtext for Martinson’s impressions and recollections, can be found in his occasional references to the United States: “Jag drogs mot Amerika”(I was drawn toward America). A few pages later he writes: “Till detta land var det alltsåmin mor rymde och jag börjar berätta för Wallrichs, lite slarvigt såsom man gör med saker som man tänker glömma”(It was to this country that my mother ran away, and I started telling the story to Wallrichs, a little carelessly, the way you do with things you’re trying to forget). These remarks touch tangentially on the young sailor’s childhood, especially on the loss of his mother, but the reference remains somewhat cryptic. The book ends on a note of loss, as the writer wanders by foot in Uruguay toward Rio de Janeiro: “Det ar något jag saknar. Något jag saknar. . .”(There is something I lack. Something I lack... ).
Kap Farväl! (1933; translated as Cape Farewell, 1934) apparently continues in the same vein as Resor utan mål, and yet a somewhat different book emerges. More in control of his considerable verbal resources, Martinson writes with a greater distance from the experiences he describes. He comes across as less philosophical, although he occasionally seems to lecture to the reader. His description of a fish spotted off the Florida coast implicitly illustrates how Kap Farväl! departs from Resor utan mål: “Hade jag varit mycket lärd skulle jag ha petat med ett milslångt finger ner i havets duk och sagt: där flyter Sargassum bacciferum; men nu är jag inte lärd annat än i vissa ting och orden Sargassum bacciferum få därför flyta ur en ordbok utan att täcka sitt begrepp och mina marinsyner kring Sargasso”(If I had been very learned I could have pointed with a mile-long finger down to the canvas of the sea and said: Sargassum bacciferum is floating there: but I’m not learned now, except in certain things, and therefore the words Sargassum bacciferum have to float out of a dictionary without covering their concept or my marine visions around Sargasso).
Kap Farväl! begins with perhaps the most cogent narration in either of his two sea books. As Martinson writes, the events described in the chapter “En grekisk tragedi”(A Greek Tragedy) were “det innehållsrikaste”(the most eventful) of his time at sea. As an eighteenyear-old he shipped out as a mess boy on the S/S Ionopolis, a Greek-registered ship that was dangerously overloaded with lumber for export to Argentina. On board the ship, the atmosphere is charged–the captain and his wife are recently divorced-and en route a storm descends, tossing the ship and causing the loss of the cargo and of several men. “Vår enda lycka var att vi hade öppet hav”(Our only good fortune was that we were in open sea). Other chapters in the book are more thematic than chapters from Resor utan mål; Kap Farväl! incorporates a section on canals, for example. Martinson also intersperses his prose with poetry, which he inserts between some of the chapters, such as the masterful lyric “Brev från en boskapsbåt”(Letter from a Cattle Boat); omitted in the English translation, Cape Farewell, this poem is, however, featured in Robert Bly’s anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer (1975).
In “Hemvägen”(The Way Home), the final chapter of the book, the narrator spends a few days in Paris after leaving ship in Bordeaux. A string of associations leads the narration to Martinson’s childhood, past the various women who have been a part of his nomadic life to a memory of the heather that is characteristic of his native province: “Ett munspel i handen eller en bukett ljung föra mig till Norda”(a harmonica in my hand or a bouquet of heather carry me back to Norda); Norda was the last farm where he lived as a foster child. The farm couple’s young daughter had been his only joy in the dreary environment there, and her death was the young Martinson’s impetus for finally seeking a new life at sea. Now he is returning home, “en stark förlorad son, som stod upp och vägrade att vara förlorad”(a strong, lost son, who stood up and refused to be lost). The writing of Resor utan mål and Kap Farväl! led Martinson back to his childhood–to certain experiences and unresolved emotions, on which he focused for the next several years in his works.
By the mid 1930s Martinson was established as a well-known writer in Sweden; in addition, he had become an object of considerable attention for other writers who were just beginning their careers and who liked to visit Martinson at his cottage in the country. His marriage, however, which had always been some what stormy, had reached a state of crisis. His wife was jealous of the attention paid to him, especially from admiring women, and he often complained to his friends about his “Moa constrictor.”She frequently reminded her husband and anyone who cared to listen that he never wrote anything of value before coming to live with her at the cottage in Sorunda. While clearly an exaggeration, Moa Martinson’s claim did bear some truth—in the sense that Martinson was able to devote himself to writing without distraction only after marrying her. On the other hand, he certainly contributed to her own development as a writer; as has often been said about their union, two writers were born when they married. From 1933 to 1935 Martinson was deeply depressed, in part because of his marital discord.
In 1934 Martinson and his wife visited the Soviet Union to take part in a congress of writers in Moscow, the event during which the doctrine of “socialist realism”was officially proclaimed. As the more politically radical of the two, Moa Martinson wrote and published, on their return to Sweden, adulatory reports of conditions in the Soviet state, giving special attention to the lavish parties given for the delegates. Though sympathetic to the cause of workers and interested in the Soviet Union as a possible force for peace and justice, Martinson, on the other hand, was never drawn to politics in the usual sense. For him, the language of politics was sterile. Two modern Russian writers whose works reflected certain impulses important to Martinson were Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin, poets whom the Soviet authorities criticized and persecuted for having ideals apparently far removed from those of socialist realism.
In 1934 Martinson published a new collection of poems, Natur (Nature), that differed greatly from Nomad. Natur received a somewhat cool reception from critics, and in many respects it constitutes a disturbing collection of expressionistic or at times even surrealistic verses. A few poems, such as “Kraft”(Power), hark back to Nomad, while in others the torrent of language overpowers the reader. In Harry Martinson: Myter Målningar Motiv (1965, Harry Martinson: Myths Paintings Motifs) Ingvar Holm describes Natur in terms of the motifs of death and flight. He suggests that Martinson connects a flight into nature not with the vitalism of modernistic primitivism but rather with a death wish. Natur is divided into sections with titles that conjure an array of landscapes–both physical, as in “Gräsland”(Grass Lands), and metaphysical, as in “Sagoland”(Fairy-Tale Lands). The element of myth or “saga”(fairy tale) abounds in Natur, foreshadowing the folkloric elements of his next published work, Nässlorna blomma (1935; translated as Flowering Nettle, 1936). In Natur a short section of just two poems, “Kärrland”(Marsh Lands), touches on the poet’s native landscape. In “Göinge”the path is “betonghård”(cement hard) through “tusenårshederna”(the thousand-year heaths) where “fattiga fingrar förb ödde / i utplockat lingonris”(impoverished fingers bled to death / in picked-over lingonberry branches). In “Fattigdomen”(Poverty) the poet writes that poverty is terrible not because it “jagar människan i döden”(pursues a person into death) but because of “det inre hat den föder”(the inner hate it fosters).
Clearly, Martinson’s anguished mental state at the time of writing Natur loomed large in the volume. His relationship with his wife had deteriorated to the extent that in June 1935, without informing her of where he was going, he simply left. She beseeched friends—whom he had sworn to secrecy—to help her locate her husband, even threatening his publisher with the destruction of Martinson’s manuscripts. Moa Martinson eventually arranged a radio announcement, requesting that Martinson return, and thus drew the attention of the press to the situation. By the time he finally received word of his wife’s frantic plea, he had already boarded a ship in Bergen, Norway, and was bound for Iceland; yet, he disembarked immediately and went back to Sweden. He had left all of his manuscripts behind at his writing shed in Sorunda, including the manuscript for Nässlorna blomma, which he was finishing, but when he returned he found nothing left in the shed. Moa Martinson finally led him to the spot in some nearby woods where she had buried his manuscripts.
With Nässlorna blomma Martinson produced fiction based on autobiography. As Kjell Espmark describes in “Harry Martinson: Världsnomaden”(1989) Nässlorna blomma is “inget dokument över Harry Martinsons barndom”(not a documentation of Harry Martinson’s childhood)–though clearly a work of recollection and of coming to terms with the emotions and perceptions of the writer’s early years. For while the book alludes to actual events in Martinson’s own past, he nonetheless alters certain facts. An obvious example is that the protagonist is named Martin, which was Martinson’s father’s name, while Martin’s father in the book is named Olav; the mother’s name remains Betty, however. The autobiographical novel of childhood was an important genre in the 1930s in Sweden, not least among the worker writers and autodidacts; examples include Ivar Lo-Johansson’s Godnatt jord (1933; translated as Breaking Free, 1990) and Eyvind Johnson’s Nu var det 1914 (1934, Now It Was 1914).
In Nässlorna blomma Martinson uses a highly original, lyrical language to convey his often somber childhood experiences. This lyricism serves both to lighten the bleakness of the child’s existence and to show the reader that the child’s world was not only bleak: “Det är den eviga striden mellan stjärnor och gödsel”(It’s the eternal struggle between stars and manure). The strongly visual aspect of Martinson’s style is noteworthy not only in Nässlorna blomma but also in other works. In his study of the writer, Holm emphasizes this visual element, reproducing many of Martinson’s own drawings and paintings as illustrations. The author was a self-taught and capable artist who drew and painted extensively, beginning in the early 1930s.
Nässlorna blomma tells the story of Martin’s childhood from a boy’s perspective, but with the awareness of an adult narrator. With the characteristic breadth of Martinson’s associations, the book opens with Martin’s father in New Zealand–where he works shearing sheep–then follows his return to Sweden, where he meets Martin’s mother, and they are married. After his store goes bankrupt, he spends some time in the United States, sending money on a regular basis and returning after a few years. Martin is too young to understand the sudden change in the family’s circumstances–when he hears the word “bankrupt,”he pictures a corkscrew in his mind–knowing only that they must move to a new home, an inexpensive property located on the edge of a stone quarry. The father’s return does not improve the situation, and his death brings further disruption, especially in young Martin’s state of mind: “Sedan kom en tid dåhan började se syner;se ting och rörelser som inte andra såg”(Then came a time when he began to see visions; see things and movements that others didn’t see). His oldest sister, Inez, is his only consolation, but after their mother’s hasty departure for the United States, Inez dies as well. The remaining children become wards of “Kommunen”(the municipality). At a Christmas church service, Martin grows hysterical at the thought that he is “inne i Kommunen. Att detta varden verkliga Kommunen”(inside the Municipality. That this was the actual Municipality). In this account the children are sent “till minstbjudande, det vill säga den som ville ha dem för minsta möjliga kommunala ersättning fick ta dem”(to the lowest bidder; that is to say, the one who would have them for the lowest possible public compensation got to take them). The phrase “Min far är död and min mor är i Karlifornien”(My father is dead and my mother is in California) becomes Martin’s way of presenting himself to the adult world.
As a foster child Martin goes to live at three different farms. He is more or less content at Vilnäs, the first farm, until the couple there have a child of their own and start to behave more like stepparents than foster parents. Next, Martin is sent to Tollene, where he experiences snobbery and a lack of affection. Finally, at Norda, the last farm, he encounters a strange, almost fairy-tale environment dominated by the witch-like Gunilla and her tall daughters, Karla and Klara; because the fertile Karla seems to give birth only to twins, she especially enhances the supernatural aura of the farm. The farmer’s son, Joel, frequently tells Martin to ask for leave from school to do farmwork, and Martin harbors a growing resentment at the repeated requests: “En vacker dag tänder jag på gården”(One fine day I’ll set fire to the farm). After a severe beating from Joel, the situation becomes intolerable, and Martin runs away. He is then sent to live at the “ålderdomshem av sten”(old people’s home of stone) where Martin becomes “lillhjonet”(the little pauper). For Martin, childhood is a time of listening mostly to adults and of observing them–often critically. He does not spare himself, however, of critical observation in his recollections of the past: “När han blev äldre och såg tillbaka fanns det inget han hatade såmycket som dessa inställsamma flin med vilka han i sågott som hela sin barndom vädjat till tomheten och oförståelsen”(When he got older and looked back there was nothing he hated as much as those ingratiating grins with which for virtually his entire childhood he appealed to emptiness and lack of understanding).
Nonetheless, Martin thrives at school, and in looking back at his life, he understands that school represented “en ljusvärldens kontroll över hålorna”(a world of light’s control over the empty places). While other children went home from school, “han gick bort frán skolan”(he went away from the school). And although Martin sometimes hated school for lying in a “från barnens håII alldeles obegripligt språk”(completely incomprehensible language, from the children’s standpoint), he loved what he considered the most truthful subjects: geography and natural science.
Martin’s chores at the home for the elderly included setting the tables and ringing the bell for mealtimes. The old women who come for their meals remind the youth of hedgehogs sneaking up to a house, while the old men move faster, like “en snusets bataljon”(a snuff batallion). The director of the home, the imposing Fröken Tyra, soon becomes a maternal figure for Martin. He accompanies her one day to another “poorhouse”to see a friend of hers, and, left on his own while she visits, he overhears two old sailors reminiscing about their days at sea. Combined with the boy’s own vague longings, the old sailors’ stories of “en brun danserska med klockor påsina lår i Madras”(a brown dancer with bells on her thighs in Madras) and “Wooloomooloo, staden med åtta o”(Wooloomooloo, the city with eight o’s) undoubtedly give the young Martin an idea for a way out of his tentative existence as a foster child.
Vägen ut (1936, The Way Out) continues the autobiographical narrative of Nässlorna blomma and follows Martin’s life until the age of fifteen, when he takes a job in Göteborg on the three-masted schooner Willy— as did the real Martinson. Vägen ut differs most markedly from Nässlorna blomma in its language. As Söderblom writes in Harry Martinson, Martinson no longer had a new language to discover in writing Vägen ut; thus, the lyricism of the previous book is almost totally absent. In part, the lack of lyricism may reflect how the book addresses Martin’s life at a time when he is no longer a child—one who masters his environment through imagination—yet still not an adult. Nearly twice as long as Nässlorna blomma, Vägen ut narrates a youth’s longing to escape. In the end, he does run away and thereby brings the cycle of autobiographical prose works back to their beginning in Resor utan mål.
In addition to autobiographical fiction, radio drama held a special fascination for Martinson in the 1930s. Although not typically a dramatist—he claimed his own life had been too dramatic for drama to interest him—three of his radio plays were produced, including Gringo (1932), an homage to the days of the sailing ship, and Salvation (1933), a play about the Salvation Army in the slums of New York City. Martinson’s most successful effort, however, was without doubt Lotsen från Moluckas (1937, The Pilot from Moluckas). After studying voyages of discovery from Europe to the New World and to Asia, Martinson chose as his subject Ferdinand Magellan, whom he considered the least inhumane of the great explorers.
After the publication of his autobiographical prose works, Martinson became most intrigued by the nature essay, the genre that served as the basis for his next three books: Svärmare och harkrank (1937, Hawkmoths and Daddy Longlegs), Midsommardalen (1938, The Midsummer Valley), and Det enkla och det svåra (1939, The Simple and the Difficult). These volumes of collected essays—and the two books that came after them—constitute Martinson’s transitional efforts, for he was in effect turning away from the autobiographical projects that had occupied him for almost a decade. As evidenced through the nature essays, Martinson’s writings also become more polemical; his books published in the late 1930s and in the early 1940s arguably mirror the political tensions of the time. A recurring key word in Martinson’s writings of this time is stämning, a Swedish term evoking both “atmosphere”and “harmony,”or the state of being in tune. Martinson believed in defending the necessary imprecision of life against the tyranny of things that are determined with exactness. “Den andra enkelheten”(the second simplicity) marks another vital notion for Martinson; he argues in favor of a simplicity born not of naiveté and innocence but of experience and maturity; the phrase implies a simplicity that one has earned.
In many respects, these three collections of essays intimate Martinson’s desire to put down roots in a particular landscape—a longing that was not possible for him to satisfy either in his marriage or in the scheme of world events at the time. In 1939 he spent several months in a hospital south of Stockholm for pains in his knees. This separation from Moa Martinson actually became permanent, as Martinson never again returned to Sorunda and lived for a while in the homes of various friends.
On 30 November 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Although Sweden was officially neutral, its citizens felt considerable sentiment for their Nordic neighbor, and meetings were held throughout the country to collect money and goods to aid Finland. For several months in 1939 and then in 1940, Martinson and his friend and fellow writer Johnson traveled throughout Sweden on a speaking tour in order to recruit volunteers from among the country’s conscripted armed forces. Eventually, both Martinson and Johnson themselves volunteered for the front, and Martinson spent nine days there at Salla, delivering mail, until the conflict ended suddenly on 12 March 1940. This “winter war”in Finland motivated Martinson to write Verklighet till döds (Reality unto Death), published in November 1940.
One of Martinson’s least-known books, Verklighet till döds was first conceived—as he states in the preface—as a sketch for a larger work, one that he never completed. Nonetheless, the book reflects the ambition and scope of the envisioned work. Through Verklighet till döds Martinson launched his jeremiad against the tyranny of technological civilization and the short attention span of the mass media. Throughout the book the tone is cold and the language reductive—and thus remindful of the forests that he saw mowed down by bombs in northern Finland. The book opens with an account of the congress of writers that Martinson attended in 1934 in the Soviet Union. The motto of the congress was a quote from Lenin: “The poet is the engineer of the human soul.”For Martinson, however, the poet and the engineer make natural enemies: “När ungefärligheten páalla områden hotas tilllivet av den tyranniska exaktheten påalla områden, dåhar det stora kriget mellan poet och ingenjör börjat” (When approximation is threatened with extinction on all sides by tyrannical exactness, then the great war between poet and engineer has begun). The second section of the book, “Döden genom vatten”(Death by Water), recounts the drowning of a sailor—a theme touched on earlier in “Klockbojen”and “Krigsmålad konvoj.”The remainder of the book depicts the activities of Holger Tidman—in essence Martinson’s alter ego—and his friend Ejder on behalf of Finland and includes a description of Tidman’s time at the front.
In Verklighet till döds the author faces crucial boundaries, both moral and artistic, in that his poetic language does not adequately portray what is happening in Finland. In order to convince his audiences to come to Finland’s defense, he must overcome layers of cold—which is exemplified not only by the subzero temperatures of northern Sweden and by the official neutrality of the country but also his own “fredlig natur”(peaceful nature). He also struggles with deciding what he wants to defend. If Sweden is attacked, then it is the pathetic, the poor, “det förbigångna Sverige han ville försvara. Inte alls det moderna civilizations-Sverige”(the passed-over Sweden he wanted to defend. Not at all the Sweden of modern civilization). Even if “de demokratiska staterna gått för långt i snab butveckling”(the democratic nations had gone too far in rapid development), there were, however, still “vissa marginaler för individuell dröm”(certain allowances for individual dreams).
Around the time that Verklighet till döds was published, Martinson—still separated from his wife—met Ingrid Lindcrantz and became engaged to her shortly before leaving for the Finnish front. Despite Moa Martinson’s resistance, she and Martinson divorced in 1941 after a legal separation of two years. He and Lindcrantz married soon after his divorce, and—together with Lindcrantz’s parents—they purchased a home north of Stockholm, where they made their residence until 1944, and again from 1973 to 1978, the year of Martinson’s death.
In Martinson’s next book, Den förlorade jaguaren (1940, The Lost Jaguar), the reader might discern—besides a moral urgency reminiscent of Verklighet till döds—a writer in the process of rejecting his own accomplishments. One of Martinson’s ongoing themes in his works at this time is a critique of “mechanical civilization,” and in Den förlorade jaguaren he aims his critical eye at the motion picture as a medium that overpowers reality—which in contrast is most often tentative, ambiguous, and relatively free of events. The protagonists do what the author himself did many times in his youth and early adulthood: run away and take jobs on a ship. In the novel three movie-crazed adolescents, generically named Sven, Jöns, and Hákan, decide to run off to South America in search of adventure and, especially, exotic wildlife. In the first part of the book, when the three boys arrive at their decision to run away, Martinson casts doubt on their motivations—colored as they are by the watching of movies—and the narrative tone borders on satirical. Once the action progresses to the ship, however, the toil and knowledge of the stokers working on the ship, in particular, stand in sharp contrast to the boys’vague dreams—in typical Martinson fashion: “Verkligheten tycktes finnas till värre och värre, ju längre man kom bort från hemmet”(Reality seemed to be worse and worse, the further away you got from home). The three stokers represent various aspects of Martinson’s own experience. While not the central figure of this work, as he was in Nässlorna blomma and Vägen ut, Martin Tomasson embodies an aspect of Martinson–as does “Långe Löv”(Long Leaf), a self-taught philosopher, and Dahlström, a scarred man of few words. In Harry Martinson, Söderblom describes the latter two figures as opposite poles of Martinson’s philosophical writings, whereas Martin, the boy, represents the playful impetus of the poetry. While the three young adventurers had imagined “resan till Sydamerika mera som en parentes”(the trip to South America more like a parenthesis), the book ends when they leave ship in Buenos Aires.
Passad (1945, Trade Wind), which followed Den förlorade jaguaren, comprises his first new poems since the publication of Natur eleven years earlier. The “passad,”a positive force in nature and for humankind, is a crucial image for him and had appeared as early as 1929 in Spökskepp. In the title suite of ten poems in Passad, Martinson contrasts “Odysseus”and “Robinson,”figures that hint at the opposing worlds of myth—or culture—and reality, or even of culture and science, “aldrig sammanförda inom mänskan”(never brought together in human beings). The central sections of the lyric “Passad”allude to the history of sailing ships, while in the final section the poet suggests a new direction for his wanderings: “pånomadiska kuster inåt”(on nomadic coasts inward).
The other poems in Passad alternate between “tankedikter”(philosophical poems)—many of them polemical, such as “Flygardikten”(Pilot Poem)—and more meditative nature poems such as “Enbusken”(The Juniper Bush). In another suite of ten poems, “Li Kan talar under trädet”(Li Kan Speaks Under the Tree), Martinson introduces the figure of Li Kan, a Chinese philosopher. In addressing his disciples, who call themselves “cicadas,”Li Kan points out the need to distinguish between facts and truth: “Det faktiska yr som sand i våra ögon”(The factual whirls like sand in our eyes). The closing lines of the verse summarize Li Kan’s philosophy—and perhaps Martinson’s as well:
Bäst är människan när hon önskar det goda hon inte
och slutar odla det onda som hon lättare förmår.
Dåhar hon dock en riktning. Den har inget måL.
Den är fri från hänsynslös strävan.
(Best is man when he wishes for the good he cannot
and ceases cultivating the evil that he more easily achieves.
Then at least he has a direction. Which has no goal.
It is free from ruthless striving.)
The wisdom of having direction without destination not only harks back to both Martinson’s “nomad”philosophy in his earlier works and to Taoism but also invokes the image of the trade wind itself.
Martinson worked on his next book, Vägen till Klockrike (1948, The Road to Klockrike; translated as The Road, 1955), over a ten-year period; he wrote three drafts of the book before submitting it for publication. Compared to his earlier prose works, many of which drew heavily on his past experiences, Vägen till Klockrike is much less autobiographical in nature—although its protagonist does experience, as Martinson did, a drifter’s life. Kristofer Teodor Bolle is by profession a cigar maker, and like many other craftsmen in the late nineteenth century, he increasingly sees machine production dominating his trade. Rather than relent and take his place among the ranks of factory workers, Bolle takes to the road as a luffare. Luffare and its English equivalent, “tramp,”both have connotations of aimlessly wandering on foot. Martinson asserts in Vägen till Klockrike that the number of emigrants, suicides, and tramps all multiplied significantly at the end of the nineteenth century in Sweden.
To be a tramp is, by definition, to be a traveler without a destination. The “Klockrike”—literally “kingdom of bells”—of the title refers to a parish that was surrounded by districts with mounted police; tramps never visited the parish, and yet it symbolized their endless wanderings around the country. The book suggests endlessness in its form as well. Vägen till Klockrike literally entails “resor utan mál”(journeys without destinations), which was also the title of Martinson’s 1932 book of his experiences at sea—a book that incorporated little chronology and lacked in large measure a linear narrative sensibility. Thus, in Harry Martinson Söderblom describes Vägen till Klockrike as less a novel in the usual sense than a “kalejdoskop av historier”(kaleidoscope of stories) from Bolle’s world. Bolle’s travels and his encounters with other tramps along the way reveal that the existence of a professional tramp is “ett mycket invecklat och mycket mångsidigt levnadssätt”(a very complicated and many-sided way of life). The tramps themselves—or “gnomes,”as Martinson calls them—have difficulty explaining exactly why they are traveling, although Bolle at one point says that “[i] varje land finns det några tusen som inte vill de fiestas verklighet”(in every country you will find some thousands who do not want the reality of the majority). Martinson shows in the book how people regard tramps with much suspicion, and the threat of a term of hard labor in prison, called “Berget”(The Rock), constantly shadows a luffare. Soon Bolle loses his identity papers and recognizes the struggle “mellan den sociala pappersmänniskan och den naturmänniska som odonbuskarna... och vattnet aldrig krävde pånågra pappersbevis”(between social paper man and natural man. Of the latter’s existence neither bilberry bushes... nor water ever demanded evidence in black and white). The loss of his papers makes him see how little they have to do with present life: “Han såg med en tydlighet som aldrig förr hur mycket det sociala betyder som trafik-och transportsystem, men hur litet det betyder som direkt liv”(He saw more clearly than ever before how important the social factor is as a traffic and transport system, but how little significance it has as life itself).
Besides Bolle, other luffare Axne, a tramp with a guilty conscience about leaving society;“Vägdamm”
(Road Dust), a fatalistic sort; and Sandemar, the philosophical globe-trotter who has traveled around the world several times on foot. There are no female tramps, although Bolle identifies with the women he encounters, if only fleetingly, on his travels; they, too, are often oppressed by society and by men. At times Bolle travels together with one or more other tramps and has an ongoing exchange of opinions with them. Sandemar, whom Bolle meets early on in his luffare experiences, reappears in the last section of the book and founds an unlikely sect with a small number of tramps as members. Both Sandemar and Bolle represent “den stolta erfarenheten om det osannolikt mångförgrenade hos det levande och det dõda”(the proud experience of the incredible multiplicity of the living and the dead). Sandemar carries with him a small chalkboard on which he notes his thoughts and experiences. “Orden är till för att komma och gå. Socksåmed tankarna”(Words are there to come and go. So too with thoughts). When the chalkboard is covered with writing, Sandemar erases it and starts again–an act that emulates endlessness, the hallmark of a tramp’s existence.
In addition, only the tramps are able to experience both the traditional and the emerging modern ways of life: “Luffaren gick dagligen mellan det nyaoch det gamla. Påbyvägen var han i det gamla, påskogsvägen i det skrockfulla, men samma dag kunde han vara mitt inne i det industriella”(The tramp went daily between the present and the past. On the country roads he was in the past, on the forest road in the dark ages, yet that same day he might be right in the midst of industry). In the end, however, not even the tramps can escape a rapidly changing modern reality. Tramps of the “railway school”–“en modern och djupt dekadent skola”(a modern and profoundly decadent school)–who typify a new generation, come on the scene; they consist of the growing ranks of unemployed factory laborers, the kind of worker Bolle refused to become before embarking on the life of a luffare. Moreover, the era of wandering on foot clearly draws to a close as automobiles become more common and make the roadways more dangerous for pedestrians. Even the legendary “Klockrike,”long barred to luffare, becomes accessible. Yet, with the growing uniformity and ease of communication, “Det började bli meningslöst att gå. Det fanns inte längre något egendomligt att förvänta”(There began to be no point in walking. There was no longer anything singular to expect).
In 1949 Martinson was elected as one of eighteen members of the Swedish Academy. Three years later, in 1952, he and his family moved to a new home in Sörmland, fewer than thirty kilometers from Sorunda, and remained there for almost twenty years. In 1953 he published a new collection of poems, Cikada(Cicada), which, while resembling Passad, offers a more resigned, weary tone than the previous poetry volume. The verses in Cikada weave in “några välment sköna tankar om världen / tillsatta med ångorna från en lyrisk honung”(some well-meant, lovely thoughts on the world / seasoned with the vapors of a lyric honey). Martinson wrote these lyrics in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and thus after the beginning of the nuclear age. A bitter tone infuses poems such as “Eldslukaren”(The Fire Eater), which exhorts the reader to “Vänj dig väl med gammastrålar, / öva dig för tidens nöd”(Accustom yourself to gamma rays, / rehearse for the calamity of our time). The most memorable section of the book occurs at the end, however, when Martinson introduces his epic cycle of celestial poems, Aniara, through its first twenty-nine songs.
Direct inspiration for Aniara can be traced to a summer evening in 1953 when Martinson aimed his telescope at the spiral galaxy Andromeda, the most distant entity in the universe that is visible to the naked eye, and received an unusually clear view. This experience of cosmic distance so overwhelmed and affected the writer that for the next fourteen days–while lying prostrate on his sofa at home–Martinson dictated to his wife the material that became the initial twenty-nine songs of Aniara. He completed the remaining poems-103 in all–during the next two years.
A narrative cycle of poems, Aniara is set in some unspecified time in the future, when Earth–called “Dorisburg”in the poem–has become contaminated by atomic radiation, and large numbers of people are evacuated to bases on Mars and Venus. One of the ships conveying the emigrants, the Aniara, is thrown off course on a routine flight. Unable to turn itself around, the ship continues instead into deep space toward a place called the Lyre:
O, kunde vi nååter till vår bas,
nu när vi upptäckt vad vårt rymdskepp är:
en liten blåi Guds andes glas.
(O would that we could turn back to our base,
now that we realize what our spaceship is:
a little bubble in the glass of Godhead.)
The “Mima,”a kind of artificial intelligence that was created in part by humans and developed in part by the Mima as it self-evolved, provides some comfort to the space travelers. Vastly superior to human intelligence, the Mima can reproduce sights, sounds, and smells not only from Earth but also from other distant worlds as well:
Men tvivlan är en syra som förtär
fler drömmar in vad drömmaren kan ge,
och endast genom miman kan vi då
vår drömbilds varma skönhet återse.
(But doubt is an acid that corrodes more dreams
than there are dreamers who can conjure them,
and therefore only through the Mima can we
see again our dream show’s ardent beauty.)
The Mima transmits truthful images;its name implies Aristotle’s “mimesis,”as Birgitta Steene wrote in her essay “The Role of the Mima: A Note on Martinson’s Aniara”(1965), and its “report”of the final destruction of Earth by nuclear explosions leads to the Mima’s own demise (in poem 29). The mimarob, or mimator, narrates the verse and is also the caretaker of the Mima. As the cycle continues, the mimarob attempts to reconstruct the Mima, and the inhabitants of the ship find consolation in sexual rituals, drugs, and various religious sects:
Nu är det slut.
Och ingen finns att skylla på
Tillskyndarna ha flytt i tid.
(Now it is over.
And no one’s left to blame.
The men in charge? Dead now.
The instigators fled in time.)
One may read Aniara as an exploration of the human condition from a galactic perspective. Although the ship can continue traveling through space indefinitely, life on the ship persists only as long as the life spans of its inhabitants. Beyond that point, the end of life,
Med oförminskad fart mot Lyrans bild
i femton tusen år goldondern drog
likt ett museum fyllt av ting och ben
och torra växter ifrån Doris skog.
(With undiminished speed out to the Lyre
for fifteen thousand years the spacecraft drove
like a museum full of things and bones
and desiccated plants from Doris grove.)
The publication of Aniara created a tremendous impact in Sweden in the late 1950s –an operatic version of it was eventually staged–and the work has been studied by scholars in not only literary but also scientific, sociological, and linguistic fields. Aniara is also unusual for a Martinson work because it has been translated into English three times: first by Tord Hall–who also wrote a book about the scientific elements in the poem, Vår tids s järnsång: En naturvetenskaplig studie omkring Harry Martinsons Aniara (1958, Starsong of Our Time: A Study in Terms of Natural Science of Harry Martinson’s Aniara); then in 1963 by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert; and in 1999 by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg.
Martinson’s next book was another volume of poetry. Gräsen i Thule (1958, The Grasses in Thule) features nature lyrics of a markedly elegiac tone. An underlying theme of the collection is the impossibility of poetry, as shown in the verse “Dröm”(Dream)–where the moon, hoisting a broadax, addresses a “moon-poet”and emphasizes the distance between the two: “Du är månpoet. Jag hugger dig till vila. / Jag är himlens måne. Du är sång och mull”(You are a moonpoet. I cleave you to rest. / I am the sky’s moon. You are song and earth).
In his later years Martinson’s work grew less popular with critics, especially of the political Left, as they often misunderstood his writings and even reviewed them with some hostility. Although in his work he had always–in explicit terms, more or less–been critical of the increasing dependence of modern society on technology and of the ever-quickening pace of life, critics still expressed shock at Vagnen (1960, The Wagon), especially at the title suite of seventeen poems, “Röster om vagnen”(Voices Regarding the Wagon). Vagnen is not just a polemical work. Rather, these poems explore the idea of “the wagon,”from the invention of the wheel to the present-day personal vehicle–sometimes in positive terms but especially from life-threatening perspectives: “Trafikbårhuset / är tidens drive-in krypta”(The traffic mortuary / is the drive-in crypt of today). Technology transforms human society and individuals: “Långsamt förändrades jag /... / Vagnen blev mer och mer mitt hölje, / mitt skal och mitt snigelhus”(Slowly I was changed /... / The wagon more and more became my covering, / my shell and my snailhouse). As in the final chapters of Vägen till Klockrike, the poet plays witness to the appearance of motor vehicles and views the increasing speed and volume of traffic as negative developments and thus contrary to the pace at which life–and the natural world–should be experienced. Vagnen came out at a time, however, when the “Swedish model”of society–based on industrial development, government planning, and social welfare–was at its peak, and critics suddenly considered Martinson anachronistic, somewhat reactionary, and certainly no longer modern. Although in Söderblom’s view, as he states in Harry Martinson, Vagnen is one of Martinson’s “lyriska mästerverk, jämförbart med Nomad” (lyrical master pieces, comparable to Nomad), it nevertheless remains a neglected work. Always sensitive to criticism, he declared after the hostile reception of Vagnen that he would publish no more poetry during his lifetime.
In the next few years Martinson completed a collection of nature essays, Utsikt från en grästuva (translated as Views from a Tuft of Grass, 2005), which was published in 1963. While, as the title implies, many of these essays describe the life of plants and insects, another important theme is the representation of nature in words and art. “Kartan som konstverk”(The Map as a Work of Art) captures a foray into the history of the map and its relative neglect by humanist scholars. The central essay, “Om naturskildring“(On the Depiction of Nature), explores “en litteraturart vars främsta uppgift är att ständigt nyväva de sensuella banden mellan naturen som allmänfattlig totalitet och mänskosjälen”(a type of literature whose chief task is constantly to weave anew the sensual bonds between nature as a generally intelligible totality and the human soul), an observation that applies equally to Martinson’s nature poetry in general.
His determination never to publish poetry again did not deter him from continuing to write or revise previously written material. In 1971 the poet’s longtime editor at Bonnier, Georg Svensson, suggested that Martinson cull poems from the many boxes of manuscript material stored in the publisher’s vaults and put together a collection. Although in ill health, Martinson energetically set about the task, working in the apartment in Stockholm where he and his wife were living at the time. After several months of intense labor, Dikter om lijus och mörker (Poems of Light and Dark) appeared in November 1971. In 1973 a suite of sixtynine nature poems-which were originally planned as part of Dikter om ljus och mörker-were published under the title Tuvor (Tufts). Tuvor was the last book published during his lifetime.
In 1974 Martinson received the Nobel Prize in Literature, along with his friend Johnson, another writer with a working-class background. The award created some controversy, mainly because both men were members of the Swedish Academy; but the Academy had presented the prize to its own members before, as with Verner von Heidenstam in 1916, Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931 (though Karlfeldt had refused nominations in 1916 and 1919 because he was the permanent secretary of the Academy), and Pär Lagerkvist in 1951. The joint award itself was not unprecedented, but although both authors had been likely candidates for many years, the award did not lessen the animosity of some critics. In fact, it seemed to intensify attacks on Martinson in the increasingly politicized cultural atmosphere in Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s.
In early 1973 Martinson had undergone a serious operation from which he never fully recovered. He did attend the Nobel ceremonies but did not give a speech at the banquet, and he never made any public pronouncements about the prize or the harsh critical reaction. His health continued to decline, no doubt exacerbated by the controversy surrounding his Nobel Prize, until his death on 11 February 1978. After his death, his position in the Swedish Academy (a lifetime appointment) was filled by the novelist Kerstin Ekman. In her inaugural speech, Ekman spoke clearly of Martinson’s distinctive vision, which ranged far beyond the narrowly political criteria applied by his critics:
Harry Martinson vände ryggen åt politiken. Detta är vedertaget. Det stöds av hans egna, ofta mycket definitiva uttalanden. Men han vände inte ryggen åt våra gemensamma villkor och vårt gemensamma hand-lande. Fådiktare har i själva verket ägnat sig så intensivt åt vad vi i dag är beredda att kalla politiska frågor: vårt förhållningssätt till naturen, den accelererande tekniska utvecklingen och krigsriskerna....
(Harry Martinson turned his back on politics. This is a recognized fact. It is supported by his own, often very explicit pronouncements. But he did not turn his back on our common conditions and our common actions. Few authors have actually devoted themselves as intensively to what we today are prepared to call political questions: our attitude towards nature, accelerating technical development and the risk of war....)
Since Martinson’s death, several books have been published from the large amount of material he left behind in manuscript form-publications that the author anticipated and approved, particularly in light of his reluctance to publish in the last two decades of his life. The first of these books, Längs ekots stigar (1978, Along the Paths of Echo), includes poems that had been printed in galley form-but not published-in preparation for Dikter om ljus och mörker, Tuvor, and another stillunpublished collection titled “Vågor”(Waves). Doriderna: Efterlämnade dikter och prosastycken (1980, The Followers of Doris) includes poems and prose related to a planned continuation of Aniara, while Bollesagor (1983, Tales of Bolle) features material not included originally in Vägen till Klockrike. The title of Ur de tusen dikternas bok (1986, From the Book of a Thousand Poems)-which also consists of previously unpublished poems-alludes to Martinson’s pet phrase for his growing volume of poems in manuscript form. This book and others, including several facsimile editions, have been published by the Harry Martinson Society (Harry Martinson-Sällskapet).
Poetiska törnbuskar i mängd: Brev 1929-1949, edited by Paulina Helgeson (Stockholm: Bonnier, 2004).
Sonja Erfurth, Harry Martinsons barndomsvärld (Stock holm: Bonnier, 1980);
Erfurth, Harry Martinson och vägen ut (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1981);
Erfurth, Harry Martinson och Moa (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1987);
Erfurth, Harry Martinsons 30-tal (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1989).
John Charlesworth and Brita Green, “To Catch a Drop of Dew: On Translating Harry Martinson’s Nature Poetry,”Swedish Book Review, 1 (2004): 4–11;
Kjell Espmark, “Harry Martinson: Världsnomaden,”in Den svenska litteraturen: Modernister och arbetardiktare 1920-1950, edited by Lars Lönnroth and Sven Delblanc (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1989), pp. 194–207;
Espmark, Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk: En studie i hans lyriska metod 1927-1934 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1970);
Tord Hall, Vår tids stjärnsång: En naturvetenskaPlig studu: omkring Harry Martinsons Aniara (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1958);
Ingvar Holm, Harry Martinson: Myter Målningar Motiv (Stockholm: Aldus/Bonnier, 1965);
Ulf Larsson, “Harry Martinson: Catching the Dewdrop, Reflecting the Cosmos,”4 June 2004 <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/articles/larsson/index.html>
Johan Lundberg, Den andra enkelheten: Studier i Harry Martinsons lyrik 1935-1945 (Revingeby: Vekerum, 1992);
Marie Louise Ramnefalk, Tre lärodiktare: Studieri Harry Martinsons, Gunnar Ekelöfs och Karl Vennbergs lyrik (Staffanstorp: Cavefors, 1974), pp. 46–115;
Staffan Söderbom, Harry Martinson(Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1994);
Birgitta Steene, “The Role of the Mima: A Note on Martinson’s Aniara,” in Scandinavian Studies: Essays Presented to Dr. Henry Goddard Leach on the Occasion of His Eighty-fifth Birthday, edited by Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Erik J. Friis (Seattle: The American-Scandinavian Foundation and University of Washington Press, 1965), pp. 311-319.
The main collection of Harry Martinson’s papers is housed at the University of Uppsala. Smaller collections are housed at the Royal Library, Albert Bonniers Förlags arkiv, and the Archives of the Labor Movement, Stockholm.