The Inner Light
From Poems on Light and Dark
By Harry Martinson (Translated by Elliott Brandsma)
Inside the smallest, innermost spaces
a quiet and constant play of colors ensues, inaccessible to the eyes.
That is the entrapped light
which was born inward at the moment of creation
and remained there, radiating,
dividing itself up into a tiny spectrum
according to prismatic law,
with frequencies that viewers would call colors
if they met eyes that could see.
The light moved in periods,
incomprehensibly small inside time and space,
but with enough time and space for the smallest of the small.
In fact, it found an abundance of space and time.
It moved in cycles of nano-seconds and across microscopic spaces
from white light to the spectrum’s colors
and again to white light—
a sort of light breathing.
The photons were breathing and pulsed with each other,
exchanging symbols and levels.
So the light kept radiating
in spectral balance
from dense light to scattered,
and again from dense to scattered,
in spectral cycles,
It resembled a play of fans,
according to the same law that applies to rainbows,
but with opened and folded fans
alternating with each other
according to the inscribed laws of light.
That was the light when it dances enclosed,
when it is not traveling outside and being seen.
It is part of light’s nature
that it can be confined
without extinguishing its movement,
that it preserves itself in the darkness,
like thoughts, ideas and skills,
that it remembers its oscillations
and performs its dance, its interplay.
With this—its art—the light binds together
the countless clusters of matter
and sings, with light’s spectral wings,
the eternal song of the universe’s glory.
Seeing the Unseen: A Reflection on Harry Martinson’s “The Inner Light”
As I’ve quarantined in my apartment over the past four months, I’ve spent time rereading Harry Martinson’s poetry, a comforting diversion in these unprecedented times. In just a short period, the coronavirus has altered the rhythms of our society, changing the ways we commute, work, and interact with others. Lives have been lost. Plans have been cancelled. For all of us, this pandemic has served as a stark reminder of civilization’s fragility, as well as its persistent inequalities. What could be more humbling? Even the complexities of modern life can be thrown into chaos by the tiniest natural force—a devastating disease, imperceptible to our eyes.
After revisiting his work in this era of social distancing, I am confident that Martinson would have interpreted our present moment with clarity, insight, and wisdom. In his poem “The Inner Light” [“Det inre ljusetˮ], Martinson displays his keen ability to make microscopic worlds and natural processes visible to our mind’s eye. First appearing in the collection Poems on Light and Dark [Dikter om ljus och mörker] in 1971, this piece—with its three short stanzas—describes light’s complex “interplay” at the photonic level, from its “oscillations” to its “moment of creation.” We seldom notice or think about light throughout our hectic daily routines. However, light “breathes” and “pulsates” all around us repeatedly and miraculously, through a sophisticated scientific process that reveals, in Martinson’s words, the universe’s “glory.” It’s this wondrous and mysterious process that serves as the inspiration for his text.
With its inventive imagery, “The Inner Light” also offers a sort of solace and reassurance in a time when invisible forces, like the coronavirus, evoke fear, anxiety and uncertainty. In his science fiction epic Aniara, for example, Martinson reminds us that humans are hapless guests in a volatile universe, drifting aimlessly through the void toward self-destruction. In short poems like “Besök på Observatorium” from Passad, the poet asserts that the realm of the stars lies far beyond our comprehension, that clarity can only be achieved by viewing the world from the heavens’ perspective. “The Inner Light” is different. The poem invites readers to visualize the fundamental force that enables us to see, describing light as it divides into its “tiny spectrum.” It renders one of the tiniest mysteries of nature fully observable, and generates renewed reverence toward the universe’s majesty, dispelling our present fears of the invisible.
Throughout the poem, Martinson explores the “smallest, innermost spaces” of reality. He fashions vivid images of photonic light as “a constant play of colors,” and a cycle of “opened and folded fans/alternating with each other,” exchanging “symbols and levels.” Although his images at first sound impressionistic, Martinson adorns the work with scientific details that are both accurate and illuminating. Light, according to the poem, travels in “periods…incomprehensibly small in time and space.” “Periods” and “nanoseconds” in this specific context refer to the light’s wavelength, which determines its frequency, color and perceptibility to the human eye.
On the other hand, Martinson also imbues light with human-like qualities, noting at various points that it “dances,” “remembers,” and “breathes.” By equating this phenomenon to life and consciousness, he allows readers to relate to [and reflect on] the extent of its magnificence. Thus, “The Inner Light” blends together Martinson’s artistic vision with scientific precision. In true Martinson fashion, the poem encourages readers’ imaginations and intellects to flourish. He draws our attention away from stars and space momentarily, instead narrowing in on the smallest miracles of creation, opening our eyes to the immeasurable glory of worlds unseen.
In unstable times, Martinson’s poetry serves as a breath of fresh air; it can be grim, but it can also be reverent. It indicts humanity’s failures, but it never sacrifices compassion. As the pandemic continues to unfold, reading poems like “The Inner Light” certainly cannot purge the world of the virus, or the pain and frustrations it has caused. However, it does offer crucial—and humbling—renewal of our perspective. Its words remind us that light exists with or without our perception—that in the end, the indiscernible will and ways of the universe will endure. Through this poem, Martinson enables us to ascend on “light’s spectral wings” and, if only for a moment, listen to “the eternal song of the universe’s glory.”