Carl Spitteler
(1845 – 1924)

Carl Spitteler was a Swiss poet who possessed an incredible, visionary, imagination. He composed pessimistic, yet inherently heroic epic poetry. He created his own metrical scheme that is unique to his verse, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919 for his epic poem Olympic Spring (1906, 1909)

“The Academy takes pleasure in expressing its admiration for the independent culture of Spitteler's poetry by awarding him this Prize.”Romain Rolland

Carl Spitteler is seriously compared by many scholars to the likes of Homer and John Milton; he is heralded as the greatest German poet since Goethe.

The Childhood and Education of Carl Spitteler

Carl Spitteler was born on April 24, 1845 in the small town of Listal, near Basel, Switzerland. In 1849, at the age four, Spitteler’s family moved to Bern because his father was named treasurer of the then infant Swiss Confederation. Spitteler decided to remain in Basel, with his aunt. There, he attended the Obergymnasium in Basel. At this secondary school, Spitteler was taught and inspired by the historian Jakob Burckhard and the philologist Wilhelm Wackernagel. Under their teaching, Spitteler became increasingly interested in the Italian Renaissance. It was also at this school, at the age of seventeen, that Carl Spitteler began writing poetry.

In 1863, Spitteler enrolled at the University of Zurich. There, at his father’s request, he studied law. Later, from 1865 to 1870, Spitteler studied theology in Zurich, as well as Heidelberg and Basel. Spitteler found theology to be much more rewarding than law. He finished his formal education in 1870.

Prometheus, Epimetheus and a Beginning

Upon finishing his schooling in 1870, and after declining a job as a Protestant Minister, Spitteler became a private tutor for the children of various aristocrats in Russia and in Finland. During these several years abroad, Spitteler worked on his first piece of publishable poetry, Prometheus und Epimetheus (1881).

Prometheus und Epimetheus is an epic poem, of which the inspiration came to Spitteler while he was studying in Heidelberg. It possesses a central contrast between ideals and dogmas – indeed, antagonism of some sort between creativity and the world became a common topic of Spitteler’s. Prometheus, presented as a social loner opposed to the King, personifies societal ideals; while King Epimetheus – champion of conventional values – personifies dogmas. Above all other things, Prometheus und Epimetheus is an undoubtedly unique work.

In 1881, Spitteler returned to Switzerland. Using his own savings, he published Prometheus und Epimetheus under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem. Unfortunately, when there was no response to his work, Spitteler temporarily abandoned a career as a poet. Instead, he began teaching in Canton Bern. As a schoolteacher, in 1883, Spitteler married one of his former pupils, Marie op der Hoff. Eventually, in 1885, Spitteler left his teaching job, to work for a newspaper called Grenzpost. He worked there for a little more than a year, 1885 – 1886, before he was hired at another paper, Neue Zurcher Zeitung.

During his time as a teacher and a journalist, Spitteler continued to publish. His five works from that time include:

Extramundana (1883) – It consists of seven original myths, however Spitteler thought it was a ‘mediocre’ piece of literature.

Schmetterlinge (1889) – Which translates into ‘butterflies’ in English.

Friedli der Korderi (1891)

Gustav (1892)

Litterarische Gleichnisse (1892) – Which translates into ‘Literary Parables’ in English.

Fortunes and Olympians: a Classic is Born

In 1892, a very fortunate unfortunate thing happened to Spitteler and his family. His wife’s parents passed away, leaving the Spittelers a small fortune. This money gave Spitteler the ‘financial independence’ he desired. He quit his job, moved his family to Lucerne, and lived there to the end of his days. While in Lucerne, Spitteler was completely and utterly devoted to writing.

In his first years in Lucerne, the inspirational muses were kind to Spitteler, and he published regularly:

Balladen (1896)

Der Gotthard (1897)

Conrad der Leutnant (1898) – This was his only work that commented on naturalism, a movement that Spitteler despised.

Lachende Wahrheiten (1898) – Which translates into ‘Laughing Truths’ in English.

Then came Spitteler’s masterpiece, the pinnacle of his poetic works, the tome that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature, Olympische Frühling (or ‘Olympic Spring’ in English). Spitteler published his epic poem in four volumes:

I. Die Auffahrt (1900) – ‘Overture
II. Hera die Braut (1902) – ‘Hera the Bride
III. Die Hohe Zeit (1904) – ‘High Tide
IV. Ende und Wende (1906) – ‘End and Change

Olympic Spring, like Prometheus und Epimetheus, is also a unique, epic poem. Written in iambic hexameter, it encompasses ancient mythology, fantasy, and religion. The poem is set amongst the Greek Gods, and relates to “the rise of new Gods to consciousness and power”. The poem is an exceedingly ‘complex allegory’ which comments on the ‘necessity for ethics in the modern world’. Artistically, this work is comparable to such classics as Paradise Lost, and The Aeneid.

End and Change: The Nobel Prize

First two volumes of Olympian Spring, published in 1900 and 1902 respectively, went as undiscovered as Spitteler’s other works. However, in 1905, there was a breakthrough. A particularly famous musician of the time, Felix Weingartner, published a pamphlet entitled Carl Spitteler, ein Kunstlerisches Erlebnis that praised both Olympian Spring, and Prometheus und Epimetheus. While Weingartner rallied the German public behind Spitteler, J.V. Widmann did the same in Switzerland. Spitteler was finally gaining recognition for his poetry.

With his newfound popularity and patronage, Spitteler continued to publish new works:

Glockenlieder (1906) – Which translates into ‘Bell Songs’ in English.

Gerold und Hansli, die Madchenfeinde (1907) – Which was translated into English as Two Little Misogynists.

Imago (1908) – This was a predominantly pessimistic attempt at self-psychoanalysis.

In 1909, Spitteler revised Olympian Spring, and republished it in five volumes. It was with this publication that true recognition came. This publication of Olympian Spring became world renowned for its depth and brilliance. Five years later, Spitteler published an autobiographical book about his childhood entitled Meine Fruhesten Erlebnisse (1914) (which translates into English as ‘my earliest experiences’).

At the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, Spitteler widely advocated Swiss Neutrality. He published a book articulating these ideas, which he titled Unser Schweizer Standpunkt (1914). This was about as far into the realm of politics that he would ever venture.

After failing to give out a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1918, in 1919 the Academy awarded Carl Spitteler as that year’s Nobel Laureate. However, Spitteler was too ill to attend the ceremony, and he remained in Lucerne while his friend and colleague Romain Rolland attended for him, and presented a speech on his behalf. In that speech, Rolland mused that Spitteler was “our honor, the greatest German poet since Goethe”.

In 1924, five years after his Nobel Prize and just months before his death, Carl Spitteler picked up his pen one last time. He published Prometheus der Builder (1924), as a new, revised, and rhymed version of his first publication Prometheus und Epimetheus. Carl Spitteler died on December 28, 1924 in Lucerne, with his family.