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Harry Martinson (1904-1978)


Prolific novelist and poet, a self-taught working class writer, who became one of the most important modern exponents of Swedish proletarian literature. Like Melville,  Conrad, or the mysterious B. Traven, Harry Martinson spent years at sea before entering the literary world. In 1974 Martinson shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with Eyvind Johnson. Martinson's poetry is characterized by linguistic innovations, precision of observation, and a brilliant employment of metaphors. Lyrical tone also marks his novels about vagabonds and under-privileged people. Several of Martinson's book have an autobiographical basis.

"Och världen skall långsamt förlora sig sjäv
när den berövat sig själv
ödslighetens kraft
och ödslighetens äventyr."

(from Passad)

Harry Martinson was born in Jämshög, in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge. He was the fifth of seven children. Martin Olofsson, his father, whom Martinson later claimed to be a sea captain, died when Harry was six years old. Harry's mother abandoned her children, left them to public welfare, and emigrated to America in 1912. She sporadically sent letters to her children. Martinson's childhood years, which he spent in different foster homes, were filled with disappointments and hard work. He also attempted to ran away several times. "I grew cold at my childhood hearth," Martinson wrote in a poem. In his youth and early adulthood, Martinson earned his living as a deckhand, stoker, coaltrimmer, laborer, and vagrant.

Martinson went to sea at the age of sixteen, and eventually worked on 19 ships. While ashore he lived among others in South America and India. During this period he became familiar with Eastern philosophy. After contracting tuberculosis, a common affliction of coal stokers, he settled in Sweden in 1927.

In 1929 Martinson married the writer Moa Swartz (see Moa Martinson), who was fourteen years his senior; they had a small cottage in Ösmo. Martinson's first book of poetry, Spökskepp (1929, Ghost ship), influenced by Rudyard Kipling's Seven Seas and Dan Anderson's works, drew from his expriences at sea. Martinson also participated in the same year with 11 poems and prose poems in the anthology 5 unga, published by Albert Bonniers.

Albert Bonniers, Martinson's publisher, helped the young writer financially. Nomad (1931) secured his reputation as a promising poet. In Passad (1945),  which trade winds move through history, Martinson deepened his "nomadic" philosophy from outward journeys to inward. "De flestas inriktning är att leva / inte att förstå," he wrote in a poem. Passad was dedicated to his wife Ingrid, née Lindcrantz, whom he had married in 1942 after divorcing Moa.

In his autobiographical book Kap Farväl! (1933, Eng. tr. Cape Farewell) Martinson sees the wind as a symbol of life. He rejects storm and still; his ideal is strong and powerful trade wind, a theme to which he returned also in later works. "There exists something universally compelling which still cannot be materialized. The wind is a good symbol of this, and among the winds the trade wind is the best symbol of human reasonableness and human desire for airing things. It symbolizes a mental set which takes the sea atmosphere for a model. with its openness uniting with the eye's openness for a new vistas and new lands." (from Vänkritik, 1959)

In the 1930s Martinson became closely associated with the "vitalist-primitivist" literary group Fem Unga. Its other members included Arthur Lundkvist, Erik Asklund, Josef Kjellgren, and Gustav Sandgren. With his wife Mona he attended in 1934 the writers' conference in the Soviet Union and returned politically disillusioned. The Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 impelled him to enlist in the Swedish Volunteer Corps to fight for Finland. The novel  Verklighet till döds is based on Martinson's experiences in The Finnish Winter War 1939-40, and gives his personal account of Soviet ideology. As one of the service personnel – he delivered mail – he could observe the spirit of the troops. The harsh winter months took their toll on his physical health. Rochelle Wright wrote in A History of Swedish Literature (edited by Lars G. Warme, 1996) that Martinson "also points to another war within Western culture: that between the poet and the engineer. Exactness, qualification, and technology are robbing humankind of its humanity, the purview of the poet."

During WWII, between the years of 1940-1945, Martinson's works appeared in Finnish (Tie maailmalle), Danish (Ud i Livet), Czech (Ven do sveta), Norwegian (Neslene blomstrer), and German ('Eine griechische Tragödie'). Although Denmark had been occupied by Germany in April 1940, the border to the neutral Sweden was not closed. Thus in January 1941, Martinson participated in Sweden Week in Copenhagen, and visited the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics, where he witnessed  the laboratory demonstration of nuclear fission.

Martinson's first novels are mostly autobiographical. The writer and literary  critic Staffan Söderblom has argued in his study on the author, that Martinson'a novels are not real novels but rhapsodic tales. Cape Farewell presented short impressions of his years at sea. In Chile he spends one night in "calaboza," a police jail, where meets a young Indian woman. She has stolen a chicken, and is abused by the guards. After paying money to get her out, the narrator buys her a dress, new shoes, and a train ticket back to her home in Peru. In Bordeaux he tells to a 17-year old boy who is going to seas, that he was fourteen on his first jouney. Looking back on his years of wandering, the narrator realizes that his real self is only longing, shapeless, wordless longing to California.

In Nässlorna blomma (1935, Eng. tr. Flowering Nettle) Martinson returned to his childhood as a runaway orphan. The protagonist, Martin Tomasson, is taken from his relatives at the age of seven to Vilnäs, where his foster parents get five crowns in a month to take care of him. Martin starts school, but he is then moved to a prosperous farm house in Tollene. After an escape, he is placed in an old peoples home at the age of 11. There he hears stories from old sailors, forgetting his surroundings. Vägen ut (1936) depicted Martinson's difficult childhood and adolescence years. Vägen till Klockrike (1948, Eng. tr. The Road), was about tramps and vagrants on the roads of Sweden. Through the observer, Bolle, a self-styled invididualist and cigar maker, Martinson mixes autobiography with social criticism. In the final section, after he dies, Bolle meets Charon, the mythic ferryman, and is then reincarnated in the Brazilian jungle.

As a poet Martinson created his best works after the war. Among them is his famous a 103-canto epic poem, Aniara, a tragic vision of a future. Twenty-nine of its poems had already appeared in Cikada (1953), forming a section called 'The Song of Doris and Mima'. The story follows the irreversible voyage of a giant, luxurious spaceship Aniara with 8 000 evacuees after the earth, contaminated by radioactivity, has become uninhabitable. While taking refugees from the dying Earth to Mars, Aniara goes off course. With no change to return, it is eternally lost in space. Of central importance in the spaceship is the Mima, a highly advanced computer/robot with a soul – a predecessor to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000. Martinson has explained that the rooms of the spaceship are different kinds of life styles or forms of consciousness. Mima represents "The Memory," incurable longing, but also "The History," guilt. At the end Aniara becomes a sarcophagus on its way to the Lyra constellation, a Titanic of outer space.Martinson's epic science fiction poem also gained international fame as an opera, composed by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, who used pioneering electronic effects.

Martinson expressed his increasing unrest about the destructive potential of technology in Gräsen i Thule (1958) and Vagnen (1960), both collections of poems. The latter begins with thoughts on the fuctions of poetry. When this work received mixed reviews, Martinson stopped publishing poetry for ten years. The success of Aniara turned out to be a burden and in 1963 he complained in an interview that "to have written Aniara is like having done a large rya rung. After that you can only sit down and do little mats, and people say: Why doesn't he get a rya done instead of these lousy old mat-ends?"

Dikter om ljus och mörker  (Poems of Light and Darkness) from 1971 was followed two years later by Tuvor, a collection nature poems. Martinson wrote several plays, among them Tre knivar från Wei (Three knives from Wei). His later year were shadowed by criticism of the younger leftist generation, and increasing demands that writers should engage politically. The attacks of Olof Lagercrantz, Sven Delblanc, and Karl Vennberg depressed Martinson deeply and he was hospitalized. The Nobel Prize and questioning of his worthiness to share the the prize, did not ease his bitterness and feeling of isolation. 

After his divorce and remarriage Martinson spent most of his life in Gnesta. With the invitation words, "Life betrayed you, but you did not betray life," he became in 1949 the first self-educated writer of working-class background to be elected to the Swedish Academy. In 1954 he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Göteborg. Martinson was one of the best-known writers in Sweden. To Eyvind Johnson he once complained that he received an average of 40 letters daily and ten poetry manuscripts weekly from aspiring writers. Martinson died in Stockholm on February 11, 1978, at the Karolinska University Hospital, where he tried to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment (seppuku) with a pair of scissors, but only managed to hurt himself very badly.

For further reading: Studier i Harry Martinsons språk by Peter Hallberg (1941); Harry Martinson by Lars Ulvenstam (1959); Den unge Harry Martinson, ed. by Olof Lagercrantz (1954); Harry Martinson by I. Holm (1960); 'Aniara' by E.O. Johannesson in Scandinavian Studies, 32 (1961); Sången om Aniara by Johan Wrede (1965), 'Harry Martinson and Science' by S.A. Bergmann, in Proceedings of the Fifth International Study Conference on Scandinavian Literature (1966); Half Sun Half Sleep by M. Swenson (1967); Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk by Kjell Espmark (1970); 'Harry Martinson: From Vagabond to Space Explorer' by L. Sjöberg, in Books Abroad, 48 (1974); Ombord på Aniara by Gunnar Tideström (1975); 'Martinson, Harry,' in World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Harry Martinsons barndomsvärld by Sonja Erfurth (1980); Harry Martinson och vägen ut by Sonja Erfurth (1981); Diktens bildspråk by Peter Hallberg (1982); Harry Martinsons landskap (1985); Harry Hartinson och Moa 1920-31 by Sonja Erfurth (1987); Martinsons 30-tal by Sonja Erfurth (1989); Harry Martinson by Staffan Söderblom (1994); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Wrede (1996); 'Martinson, Harry,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Harry Martinson - naturens, havens och rymdens diktare by Karl-Olof Anderson (2004); Harry Martinson - mästaren by Kjell Espmark (2005); Harry Martinson: 1904-1978 by Lorenz B. Hatt (2014) 

Selected works:

  • Spökskepp: diker, 1929 [Ghost ship]
  • Nomad, 1931
  • Resor utan mål, 1932 [Journeys without destination]
  • Kap farväl!, 1933
    - Cape Farewell (illustrated by John Farleigh, translated by Naomi Walford, 1934)
    - Hyvästi, meri (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1945)
  • Nässlorna blomma: berättelse, 1935
    - Flowering Nettle (translated by Naomi Walford, 1936)
    - Nokkoset kukkivat (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1939)
  •  Vägen ut: betättelse, 1936 [The way out]
    - Tie maailmalle (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1940)
  • Svärmare och harkrank, 1937
  • Midsommardalen, 1938 [The midsummer valley]
  •  Det enkla och det svåra, 1939 [The simple and the difficult]
  • Verklighet till döds, 1940 [Reality to death]
  • Den förlorade jaguaren, 1941 [The lost jaguar]
  • Passad: dikter, 1945
  • Lotsen från Moluckas: ett hörspel om den portugisiske sjöfararen Magellans världsomsegling 1519-1522, 1948 (radio play)
  • Vägen till Klockrike, 1948
    - The Road (translated by M.A. Michael, 1955)
    - Kulkijan pilvilinnat (suom. Annamari Sarajas, 1949)
    - film 1953, prod. Sandrews, dir.  Gunnar Skoglund, screenplay by Harry Martinson, starring Anders Ek, Edvin Adolphson, Annika Tretow, Margit Carlqvist
  • Elin Wägner: Inträdestal i Svenska Akademien, 1949
  • Dikter, 1952
  • Cikada: dikter, 1953
  • Aniara: en revy om människan i tid och rum, 1956
    - Aniara: A Rewiew of Man in Time and Space (adapted from the Swedish by Hugh MacDiarmid and E. Harley Schubert, 1963) / Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space (translated by Leif Sjöberg and Stephen Klass, 1991)
    - Aniara: katsaus ihmiseen ajassa ja tilassa (suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1963, see after Lauri Viita)
    - television film 1960, prod. Sveriges Radio, starring Margareta Hallin, Loulou Portefaix, Erik Sædén, Elisabeth Söderström, Arne Tyrén, Ragnar Ulfung
  • Gräsen i Thule, 1958 [Grass in Thule]
  • Vagnen: dikter, 1960
  • Vishetens ord i öster, 1962 (edited by Harry Martinson)
  • Utsikt från en grästuva: småprosa, 1963
    - Views from a Tuft of Grass (translated by Lars Nordström and Erland Anderson, 2005)
  • Tre knivar från Wei, 1964 [Three knives from Wei]
  • Tuonelas hjordar=Tuonelan karja, 1965 (suom. Kyllikki Solanterä)
  • Vildbuketten: naturdikter, 1965 (edited by Åke Runnquist)
    - Wild Bouquet: Nature Poems (drawings by Harry Martinson, translated by William Jay Smith and Leif Sjöberg, 1985) / Wild bouquet  (introduction and translated by Dr. Kamal Maarof, 2016)
  • Dikter om ljus och mörker, 1971 [Poems of Light and Darkness]
  • Tuvor, 1973 [Tussocks]
  • Dikter: 1929-1953, 1974
  • Dikter: 1958-1973, 1974
  • Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, 1975 (with others, edited and translated by R. Bly)
  • Längs ekots stigar: ett urval efterlämnade dikter, 1978 [Along the paths of the echo]
  • Doriderna: efterlämnade dikter och prosastycken , 1980 (edited by Tord Hall) [The Dorids]
  • Bollesagor: ur det efterlämnade materialet till Vägen till Klockrike, 1983 (edited by Ingalisa Munck, foreword by Georg Svensson)
  • Kåserier på allvar, 1984 (illustrated by Harry Martinson)
  • Ur de tusen dikternas bok, 1986 (edited by Stefan Sandelin) [From the book of a thousand poems]
  • Hav och resor: lyrik och prosa ur tidningar och tidskrifter, 1992 (edited by Stefan Sandelin)
  • Gringo; Salvation: två radiopjäser, 1995 (introduction by Ingegerd Bodner Granberg)
  • Dikter: 1929-1945, 1997 (afterword by Johan Lundberg)
  • Dikter: 1953-1973, 1998 (afterword by Stefan Sandelin)
  • Dramatik, 1999 (afterword by Ingegerd Bodner)
  • Naturessäer, 2000 (afterword by Bengt Emil Johnson)
  • Dikter: 1929-1953, 1958-1973, 2000
  • De tusen dikternas bok: efterlämnade dikter, 2004 (foreword by Stefan Sandelin)
  • Poetiska törnbuskar i mängd: brev 1929-1949, 2004 (edited by Paulina Helgeson)
  • The Procession of Memories: Selected Poems 1929-1945: A New Bilingual Edition, 2009 (translated by Lars Nordström)
  • Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems, 2010 (translated by Robin Fulton; introduction by Staffan Söderblom)
  • Månader med Harry Martinson, 2015 (redaktion: Elisabeth Jonsson, Johnny Karlsson, Rune Liljenrud)

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