Spitteler, Carl Friedrich Georg

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Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler

Swiss poet Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler (1845–1924) received the 1919 Nobel Prize for Literature to honor his many contributions to poetry, most notably the mammoth Olympian Spring (revised in 1910), which many critics regard as his masterpiece. The epic work details the rise of new gods to power and consciousness. Spitteler was also known by the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem. His best–known works are Prometheus und Epimethus, Gustav, Lachende Wahrheiten, (Laughing Games), and Olympischer Fruehling (Olympic Spring), in which the poet's own metrical scheme impressed critics.

Early Life

Born in the small town of Liestal (Baselland Canton), Switzerland on April 24, 1845, Spitteler moved with his family to the Swiss city of Bern when he was four. His father served there as appointed treasurer of the new Swiss Confederacy, but the Spittelers returned to Liestal when his term ended in 1856. The young Spitteler attended school (gymnasium) in Basle while living with his aunt, and then returned to Liestal and traveled by train daily to attend classes at the Pädagogium (the Swiss equivalent of high school). There, in 1862, he began to develop his love of literature. In his autobiography, he recalled having the sudden realization, "like lightening," that poetry was the ideal way for him to express his defiance and true thoughts. He decided that he would make his living as a poet, little knowing the challenges.

After finishing his requirements at the Pädagogium, Spitteler unhappily honored his father's request that he study law, and in 1863 enrolled at the University of Switzerland for that purpose. He did not like law, however, and in 1864 he left the school without permission for Lucerne, Switzerland, to think about his professional path. Despite his reluctance, the poet completed a law degree in 1865, and then studied theology until 1870 at schools in Basle, Heidelberg, Germany; and Zürich. (His first attempt at earning a degree in 1869 failed). Spitteler's contempt for Christianity and other major organized religions seemed to spark his interest in theology, and some biographies suggest his intense study might have been to arm himself with arguments against such beliefs. Spitteler, meanwhile, continued to write during his spare time, experimenting with different styles and techniques.

Published First Work

After completing his theology degree, Spitteler rejected an invitation to start a career as a Protestant minister, instead accepting a job tutoring the children of a Russian general in St. Petersburg. He worked there from 1871 to 1879, spending some of the time in Finland with the family. During this period, his love of writing intensified. He wrote Prometheus and Epimetheus, publishing the work with his own funds after returning to Switzerland in 1881 and using the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem. He contrasted dogmas with ideals and convention with individualism in this epic poem, but the public and critics alike ignored the volume. He could not know that pioneer psychologist Carl Jung would eventually formulate his "introvert" and "extrovert" personality types based on the main characters of Spitteler's work.

At 36, Spitteler became disheartened by his perceived failure as a poet, and vowed to dismiss writing as a profession. He also missed what he described as the warmth, good will, and open–mindedness of the Russians, and complained that his own countrymen were homogenous, brusque, and oppressive, rebuffing anyone who behaved abnormally.

Spitteler fell back on teaching to support himself, working from 1881 to 1885 in Neuveville, Switzerland and then as a newspaper reporter for the Basle Grenzpost from 1885 to 1886 and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (New Inhabitant of Zurich) from 1890 to 1892. Meanwhile, he had married one of his former Neueville students, Marie op der Hoff, in 1883. He continued to write when he could, however, and published the poems Extramundana and Schmetterlinge (Butterflies) in 1883 and 1889, respectively. Spitteler received an unexpected boost in his popularity in 1887 when German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recommended the poet's works to the editor of Kunswart, a small periodical publication in Munich, Germany.

Spitteler's life changed dramatically in 1892 when his wife's parents died. They left her a generous inheritance, which enabled the couple to move to Lucerne and gave Spitteler the chance to write full–time without worrying about making a living. With the pressure off and all the time he needed, the poet wrote feverishly to make up for all the time he had lost. He published Gustav later that year.

Critics still consider Olympian Spring Spitteler's best and most important work. He published the epic in four volumes from 1900 to 1906: "Overture," "Hera the Bride," "High Tide," and "End and Change." Spitteler revised the work in 1910. A medley of fantasy, religion, and mythology, the allegory is written in iambic hexameter and explores such universal concerns as faith, morality, hope, despair, and ethics in a setting among the Greek gods.

Spitteler, however, had to wait until after the second installment was published before he received any recognition for the work outside his homeland. This came suddenly when renowned musician Felix Weingartner distributed a pamphlet in Germany in 1904 lauding the poet's work and proclaiming him a genius. At last, Spitteler had the recognition he had craved for so long. Critics began comparing him to the seventeenth–century poet–priest John Milton and acclaimed the work as a masterpiece of creativity and originality. In 1908 he published Meine Beziehungen Zu Nietzsche (My Relationship to Nietzsche), which countered accusations that he had borrowed themes from the philosopher's popular 1891 book, Thus Spake Zarathustra to write his own Prometheus and Epimetheus.

After completing Olympian Spring, Spitteler continued to write, publishing the semiautobiographical novel Imago in 1906, which centers on the struggle between creative minds and middle–class values; Gerold und Hansli: Die Madchenfeinde (Two Little Misogynists) in 1907; and Meine Fruhesten Erlebnisse (My Earliest Experiences) in 1914.

Won Nobel Prize for Literature

Despite his controversial, vitriolic speeches urging Switzerland to maintain its legendary political neutrality and avoid siding with either Germany or France s World War I commenced, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Spitteler the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1919. He was 75 years old, however, and failing health prevented him from attending the ceremony in 1920.

Spitteler revised his original Prometheus und Epimetheus manuscript in 1924, making all the verses rhyme and publishing it as Prometheus der Dulder (Prometheus the Sufferer). He died shortly thereafter in Lucerne on December 24, 1924.


Serafin, Steven R., ed., Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 4, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company: New York, 1998.

Stauffacher, W., Carl Spittler, Artemis Verlag: Zurich, 1973.


"Autobiography: Carl Spitteler," The Nobel Foundation,http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1919/spitteler-autobio.html (January 5, 2005).

"Carl (Friedich Georg) Spitteler (1845–1924)," Pegasos: A Literature–Related Resource Site,http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/spittele.htm (January 5, 2005).

"Carl Spitteler," kunst und kultur im internet (Art and Culture on the Internet), http://www.onlinekunst.de/aprilzwei/24–04–spitteler.html (January 7, 2005).

"Carl Spitteler: Prometheus der Dulder," Berlin from A to Z, http://www.berliner-lesezeichen.de/lesezei/Blz00–10/text9.htm (January 5, 2005).

"Spitteler, Carl Friedrich Georg," Bartleby's Encyclopedia Online,http://www.bartleby.com/65/sp/Spittele.html (January 5, 2005).

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