Harry Martinson

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

In addition to his poetry, Harry Martinson published impressionistic travelogues as well as two autobiographical childhood recollections and a novel. They are all centered on the major symbol in his work, the “world nomad,” the restless traveler, and form one coherent poetic Bildungsroman in which initial bitterness over strong social handicaps and anguish at a world without love are superseded by the protagonist’s—that is, the poet’s—search for tenderness and acceptance. Martinson’s later essay collections—sketches, meditations, and prose poems—in which concrete nature observation is blended with philosophical speculation, mark a departure from the autobiographical realm. Yet Martinson insists on drawing parallels between life in nature and human life. This approach leads him to a scathing criticism of modern civilization in the Rousseauian tradition, climaxing in his reports from Finland’s Winter War of 1939-1940 against Russia.


The immediate and acclaimed breakthrough that Harry Martinson experienced with his collection Nomad was unique in Swedish literature. The critics unanimously agreed in acknowledging an unusually gifted writer who combined sharp intellect and concise power of observation with an almost visionary ability to perceive a cosmic unity behind the fragmentation of modern thought, qualities which Martinson’s later writings have confirmed.

In Swedish literary history, Martinson belongs chronologically to the 1930’s. For a time, he joined the group of young radical poets who rejected morality and modern civilization as too inhibiting in favor of an unrestricted worship of spontaneity and instinctive forces in life. Yet, in spite of his contributions to the anthology Fem unga (1929), Martinson is only in part related to the nature of that decade’s D. H. Lawrence—inspired vitalism and primitivism. Nor does he belong to the exclusive and self-centered school of T. S. Eliot—inspired modernists of the 1940’s. Already during his lifetime, he was accepted as a classicist, a classicist distinguished through linguistic imagination and a highly developed associative and myth-creating imagination. Also notable is his continuous endeavor to search for coherence in a chaotic world and—for the sake of troubled humanity—to warn against abusing the achievements of modern technology.

It is, however, impossible to place Martinson in a specific school or trend. Indeed, after his epic poem Aniara, a tremendous critical and public success, he emerged as one of the most independent yet compassionate humanists in twentieth century Scandinavian literature. In 1959, when Aniara premiered as an opera, with libretto by another prolific Swedish poet, Erik Lindegren, and music by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, it received international recognition. In 1949, Martinson was elected to the Swedish Academy as its first self-taught proletarian writer; in 1954, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg; and, in 1974, he shared, together with Eyvind Johnson, the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Harry Edmund Martinson was born on May 6, 1904, in Jämshög in the southeastern province of Blekinge, Sweden. His father, a captain in the merchant marines and later an unsuccessful businessman, died when Martinson was five. One year later, his mother emigrated to the United States, leaving her seven children to be cared for by the local parish. As a child, Martinson escaped from harsh reality into nature and into a fantasy world nourished by his reading (in particular the works of Jack London), and he dreamed of going to sea. He spent two years as a vagabond throughout Sweden and Norway before going to sea as a stoker and deckhand. He spent the next six years on fourteen different vessels, with extended periods in India and South America, before he finally returned to Sweden, having contracted tuberculosis.

The year 1929 proved to be a turning point in Martinson’s life. He made his literary debut and also married the writer Moa Martinson, beginning a stimulating partnership which lasted until 1940. During the early 1930’s, Martinson was tempted to pursue a career as a professional artist. His favorite subjects were factory workers, the jungle, and underwater scenes executed in a colorful and naïve style. In August, 1934, he participated in the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow, an experience which disillusioned the former Communist sympathizer. The outbreak of World War II was seen by him as the result of the “civilization of violence.” In 1939, after Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, Martinson joined the Finnish side as a volunteer. He wrote a book about his experiences, partly a glorification of rural Finland and its deep-rooted traditions as well as the country’s courageous battle against the war machine from the east, partly direct reportage from the front, the “unequivocal idiot-roaring grenade reality.” In 1942, Martinson married Ingrid Lindcrantz and settled in Stockholm, where he died on February 11, 1978.


From the very outset, it was Harry Martinson’s intention to change the world. He embodied this intention in his utopian figure of the altruistic “world...

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