Nocturne of the Sea—Harry Martinson
From the Collection Natur, 1934
Translated into English by Elliott Brandsma
A clear winter evening,
the stars glisten coolly.
A boy, longing to be at sea,
stands frozen in the deathly cold,
legs quaking on the barren tabletop of the pier.
He is counting, not the stars,
but all the ships anchored to this world.
The faint, suspicious steps of the night watch can be heard from the deck.
Starlight pours into
the fleet’s smokestacks, saturating their soot.
The ships’ black anchors sleep in the depths.
All the while, starlight climbs aboard on wet chains
in order to set off toward some earthly isle.
Embracing Life’s Aimless Journeys: A Reflection on Harry Martinson’s “Nocturne of the Sea”
A young boy, shivering and lonely, stands on a pier in the dead of night, counting ships and dreaming of faraway places. Overhead, the stars scatter their pale light across the ocean, their dim glow seeping into the crevices of the harbor’s anchored vessels. In the distance, a guard’s footsteps disturb the evening’s quiet solemnity. But even the stars’ distant light manages to outshine the figure’s ominous—and ambiguous—presence. This peaceful scene from Harry Martinson’s “Nocturne of the Sea” immediately tempts readers, familiar with Martinson’s biography, to identify the lonesome boy “longing to be at sea” as the author himself. This is understandable. After all, Martinson worked as a sailor throughout his teenage years, and his childhood, much like the subject of this poem, was marred by poverty, deep introspection, and long bouts of solitude. However, these autobiographical interpretations, which are valid and certainly convincing, overlook the richness of the piece’s artistry: its universal attributes, its aesthetic innovations and its profound philosophical implications.
Through its sparse expressions and painterly images, “Nocturne of the Sea” communicates so much more than a memory from Martinson’s youth, more than a reflection on the author’s painful formative years. Its thirteen lines epitomize many of the author’s stark meditations on the nature of clarity and the meaning of life. In fact, the poem, which appeared in the 1934 collection Natur, signals what would become a central theme of many of Martinson’s later writings—that life’s purpose cannot be discerned by reaching destinations or unveiling incontrovertible truths. Rather, it can only be found by accepting the ambiguities of existence—its long, winding and aimless journeys. Within this poem, as well as so many others, Martinson encourages readers to embrace, not dread, this lifelong process of seeking truth over finding answers. Despite the work’s decidedly dark imagery and forlorn subject matter, readers are able to walk away from the text illuminated by its subtle complexity and enlightened by the depth of its reassuring message.
To start with, the poem’s title alone hints at Martinson’s developing fondness for literary modernism’s brooding aesthetics. In one regard, a “nocturne” can refer to a painting or drawing that depicts nighttime imagery. Many modernist authors, including Martinson’s contemporary Pär Lagerkvist, became known for including sharp visual contrasts between light and dark, black and white, in their writings. While “Nocturne of the Sea’s” setting certainly follows this trend, the word can also refer to a brief, dreamy musical composition (typically performed on piano) that arouses strong emotions and feelings. Through the piece’s short stanzas and staccato-like rhythm, Martinson skillfully incorporates both these potential definitions into the poem, demonstrating his mastery of the form. Besides the title, the work’s gravitation toward topics of alienation and isolation also reflects Martinson’s embrace of modernism’s more sober outlook of the world. For example, the boy stands, “legs quaking,” on “the barren tabletop of the pier,” a metaphor that gives the poem a sense of desolation and anguish. Meanwhile, the flotilla’s “black” anchors slumber in “the depths” of the sea, an image that, when coupled with the starlit surroundings, situates the boy in a sort of void-like setting—the void being a recurring motif of the modernist literary movement. Beyond straightforward autobiographical readings, “Nocturne of the Sea” clearly demonstrates Martinson’s continued growth as an artist, one who evolved from a socially engaged realist into a distinctively modernist poet, pessimistic but still guided by his compassion for humanity.
Perhaps the poem’s most prominent—and important—ambiguity can be found in its final lines. From it, readers can derive much of the work’s philosophical and aesthetic meaning. As the starlight radiates from the heavens and finds its way into the ship’s innermost spaces, the speaker notes how it longs to set off “toward some earthly isle”—the location of which is undisclosed. The terrestrial figure of the boy and the celestial figure of the light, thus, share a common dream of drifting away and traveling to unmarked places, far from their current reality. Here, the poem orients itself away from the gloominess of the present—from the boy’s poverty and the star’s cold, empty glistening—toward an endless journey, presumably filled with adventure, possibilities and meaning. Just like the title of his 1932 essay collection Resor utan mål (Journeys without Destinations), “Nocturne of the Sea” reiterates Martinson’s fascination with life as metaphor for an aimless adventure, where meaning is found through navigating difficult seas more so than arriving safely ashore. This is the fate of Doris’s inhabitants in his epic Aniara, wherein hundreds of passengers are doomed to hurtle endlessly through space, desperately searching for significance. In many ways, this parallels Harry Martinson’s fate as well, since he wandered across land and sea his whole life, never fully apprehending his mother’s abandonment. “Nocturne of the Sea’s” ending, though aesthetically bleak and unresolved, still feels hopeful. Its openness allows readers—and perhaps Martinson himself—to imagine the possibility of attaining clarity and reaching brighter shores.
Every reader can place themselves in the shoes of that little boy, shivering on a dock, yearning for new destinations. In life, when we reach crossroads, face challenges, or stare down an unclear future, our will to overcome—to sail beyond our present circumstances—propels us toward more promising shores. Few poets understood this reality better than Harry Martinson. Abused, abandoned, and impoverished, he navigated the hardships of his early life to become a Nobel Prize-winning poet, one with a clear-eyed view of life’s adversity. “Nocturne of the Sea” gives us a glimpse into the wisdom he accrued along the way. Through its modernist innovations and stirring musical qualities, the poem directs our eyes away from the dreariness of our present world toward the future, toward new “earthly isles.” The speaker doesn’t give us a clear destination: that would be besides the point. Instead, he prompts us to look toward the journey—to seek instead of find—and uncover meaning in more distant, and hopeful, horizons.