Authors: Carl Spitteler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Swiss novelist, poet, and Nobel laureate.

April 24, 1845

Liestal, Switzerland

December 29, 1924

Lucerne, Switzerland


Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler was born on April 24, 1845, in Liestal, Switzerland, near Basel. When he was four years old, his family moved to Bern, his father having been appointed federal secretary of the treasury. Spitteler’s family returned to Liestal in 1856, and Spitteler lived at first with an aunt in Basel while attending a gymnasium (secondary school) there. Later he returned to Liestal and took the train into Basel to attend an obergymnasium (complete gymnasium) called Pädagogium. To please his father, he studied law at the University of Zürich in 1863 before branching into theology, which he studied from 1865 to 1870.

Carl Spitteler.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With theology his primary focus, by 1867 Spitteler was preparing himself for a future as a Protestant minister. A crisis of faith turned him from that direction, however, and by 1870 he no longer hoped for a religious career. Having no means of earning a living, he managed to secure an invitation from Finnish general Carl August Standertskjöld to tutor his young children in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Spitteler spent the years 1871 to 1879 in Russia and Finland, during which time he wrote his first major literary work, the verse epic Prometheus und Epimetheus (1880–81; Prometheus and Epimetheus, 1931). Under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem, he self-published the piece, which he had conceived during his university years. Its lack of commercial success proved disheartening to Spitteler, who moved back to Switzerland and resigned himself to earning his living as a schoolteacher rather than as a poet.

In 1883, Spitteler married his former student Marie op der Hoff, and together they had two daughters. Supplementing his income with newspaper work, he wrote for the Schweizer Grenzpost (Swiss border post) in Basel from 1885 to 1886 and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (New Zürich times) in Zürich from 1890 to 1892. When in 1892 his wife received a substantial inheritance from her parents, Spitteler used his new financial independence to retire from teaching and newspaper writing, move his family to Lucerne, and concentrate full time on his writing. Preferring to live and work in near-seclusion, he produced novels and several collections of poems, short stories, and critical essays.

Two incidents briefly marred an otherwise peaceful literary life for Spitteler. Upon republishing Prometheus and Epimetheus in the early 1890s, this time under his own name, Spitteler was accused of plagiarizing some of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas, despite the fact that Spitteler’s original publication of his epic predated Nietzsche’s work. Eventually, Spitteler felt compelled to defend himself against plagiarism charges in Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche (My relation to Nietzsche) in 1908. The second troubling incident occurred in 1914 when, in a speech later published under the title Unser Schweizer Standpunkt (Our Swiss standpoint, 1915), Spitteler publicly voiced support for Swiss neutrality in World War I–era Europe and opposed the increasingly popular view that German-speaking Swiss citizens should ally themselves with Germany. In contrast to earning the disdain of many German-speaking Swiss for his views, he earned praise from the French and the French-speaking Swiss. In 1915 he was given a banquet in his honor in Geneva by various French institutions, among them the Académie française (French Academy), the Ligue des droits de l’homme (League of human rights), and the Société des gens de lettres de France (Society of men of letters of France), the latter of which awarded him a medal in 1916.

Spitteler’s most noteworthy epic poem, Olympischer Frühling (Olympic spring), appeared in four volumes between 1900 and 1905 and was revised in 1910. The culmination of a lifetime of work, this six-hundred-page work combines many facets of Spitteler’s ideas, including religion, philosophy, mythology, and allegory. The first two volumes were relatively unnoticed, but famous composer Felix Weingartner endorsed the work in a special pamphlet, Carl Spitteler, ein künstlerisches Erlebnis (Carl Spitteler, an artistic experience, 1904), bringing widespread recognition to those first two books, along with the other two yet to come. At age seventy-five, Spitteler was awarded the 1919 Nobel Prize in Literature for Olympischer Frühling; being too ill to travel to Stockholm, he received the award from the Swiss minister of foreign affairs, who had accepted it on Spitteler’s behalf.

Four years later, Spitteler died in Lucerne, shortly after producing Prometheus der Dulder (Prometheus the sufferer, 1924), a new rhyming version of his first epic. Following his death, much praise was accorded Spitteler’s life and work; the most notable was given by French author and art historian Romain Rolland, who called Spitteler “our Homer, the greatest German poet since Goethe, the only master of the epic since Milton died three centuries ago. But a more solitary figure amid the art of his day than either the one or the other of these.”

Author Works Long Fiction: Das Wettfasten von Heimligen, 1888 (serial), 1980 (book; Martin Kraft, editor) Das Bombardement von Åbo, 1889 (serial), 1956 (book) Conrad der Leutnant: Eine Darstellung, 1898 Imago, 1906 Gerold und Hansli, die Mädchenfeinde: Kindergeschichte, 1907 (also known as Die Mädchenfeinde: Eine Kindergeschichte, 1920; Two Little Misogynists, 1922) Meistererzählungen, 1990 (also contains short fiction; Werner Stuaffacher, editor) Short Fiction: Friedli der Kolderi, 1891 Gustav: Ein Idyll, 1892 (prose idyll) Poetry: Prometheus und Epimetheus: Ein Gleichnis, 1880–81 (as Carl Felix Tandem; 2 volumes; Prometheus and Epimetheus, a Prose Epic, 1931) Extramundana: Kosmische Dichtungen, 1883 (as Tandem) Schmetterlinge, 1889 (as Tandem) Literarische Gleichnisse, 1892 Balladen, 1896 Olympischer Frühling: Epos, 1900–1905, 1910 (4 volumes) Glockenlieder: Gedichte, 1906 Prometheus der Dulder, 1924 (revision of Prometheus und Epimetheus) Selected Poems of Carl Spitteler, 1928 (Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead, translators) Drama: Der Parlamentär: Lustspiel in vier Akten, 1889 Der Ehrgeizige: Lustspiel in vier Aufzügen, 1892 Nonfiction: Der Gotthard, 1897 Lachende Wahrheiten: Gesammelte Essays, 1898 (Laughing Truths, 1927) Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche, 1908 Meine frühesten Erlebnisse, 1914 Unser Schweizer Standpunkt: Vortrag, 1915 Gottfried Keller: Eine Rede, 1920 Warum ich meinen Prometheus umgearbeitet habe: Vortrag, 1923 Musikalische Essays, 1947 (Willi Reich, editor) Kritische Schriften, 1965 (Stauffacher, editor) Briefwechsel, 1998 (with Joseph Viktor Widmann; Stauffacher, editor) “Echte, selige Musik—”: Musikalische Schriften, 2002 (Andreas Wernli, editor) Miscellaneous: Frühe Dichtungen: Friedli der Kolderi, Gustav, Literarische Gleichnisse, Balladen, 1922 Gesammelte Werke, 1945–58 (11 volumes; Gottfried Bohnenblust, Wilhelm Altwegg, and Robert Faesi, editors) Bibliography Jantz, Harold S. “The Factor of Generation in German Literary History.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 52, no. 5, 1937, pp. 324–30. A “generational” approach to literature, examining how writers of an era assimilate contemporary culture. Spitteler is included in the “idealistic, anti-realistic” generation. Muirhead, James F. Introduction. Selected Poems of Carl Spitteler, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and Muirhead, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928. Shows the poems to represent Spitteler’s deepest convictions. Biographical material also presented. Robertson, John George. Essays and Addresses on Literature. 1935. Books for Libraries Press, 1968. Explores connections between the classical and the romantic in German literature, studying Spitteler and other writers.

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