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by Bamber Gascoigne

Carl (Friedrich Georg) Spitteler (1845-1924) - pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem


Swiss poet, winner of the 1919 Nobel Prize for Literature for his masterpiece, Olympian Spring (final version in 1910). Carl Spitteler even evolved his own metrical scheme in the vast and original work. The epic poem depicted the rise of new gods to consciousness and power. In several works Spitteler dealt with the antagonism between creativity and the world. Spitteler's Prometheus and Epimethus (1881) inspired the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

Orpheus hörte diese Serenade.
"Herr Kollega«, bat er ängstlich, »Gnade!
Nutzlos quälst und quetschest du die Kehle,
Denn die Bosheit bellt dir aus der Seele.
Und mit einem Herzen voll von Haß
Bleibe, Bestie, ferne dem Parnaß.
Zwar auf Tugend mag die Kunst verzichten,
Liederliche sieht man Lieder dichten,
Aber Drachen mit Musik im Rachen –
Liebster, das sind hoffnungslose Sachen.
Aller schönen Künste weit und breit
Grundbedingung ist Gutherzigkeit."

(from 'Die Ballade vom lyrischen Wolf')

Carl Spitteler was born in the town of Liestal, near Basel. The family moved to Bern in 1849, when his father was appointed treasurer of the new Swiss confederation. However, the young Spitteler remained in Basel with his aunt. Spitteler began to write poems at the age of seventeen, but his first talent was rather for drawing. Through painting and music he eventually found his way to literature. His first effort was a drama on the subject of Saul, with which he struggled for three years, and then gave up.

Under the influence of the historian Jakob Burckhard, who was his teacher at the Basel Pädagogium, and the philologist Wilhelm Wackernagel, Spitteler became interested in Ariosto and the Italian Renaissance. In 1863 he entered the University of Zürich, where he studied law and theology. Between the years 1865 and 1870 he studied theology in Zürich, Heidelberg, and Basel, but was not considered orthodox enough to sit for the theological examination. Spitteler passed with the highest honors the theological examination at Basel in 1871.

After declining an offer to start a career as a Protestant minister in Arosa, Spitteler went in 1871 to St. Petersburg at the invitation of General Standertskjöld. He worked there eight years as a tutor in Finnish families and visited Finland many times. Spitteler lead a quiet, ordely life, filled with work and writing Prometheus und Epimetheus (1881), which he had started while a student in Heidelberg. Composed in Biblical prose, this prose epic contrasted ideals with dogmas, personified by two mythological figures. Prometheus is an individualist who opposes his brother, King Epimetheus, an example of the herd instincts inside of us. The story closes with the return of the brothers to their home in a lonely valley.

This enigmatic work, published at Spitteler's own expense under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem, did not gain much attention, except when Spitteler was accused of having borrowed themes and figures from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. In Spitteler's poem, Prometheus is the superman. Nietzsche, who had read Prometheus und Epimetheus recognized something of a kindred spirit in Spitteler, had recommended him to the editor of the Munich periodical Kunstwart in 1887. Spitteler took up again, in Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche (1908), the accusations.

Well acquainted with Nietzsche's ideas, Spitteler reviewed in the Berner Bund in 1888 his work. Nietzsche mentioned Spitteler with gratitude in the autobiographical  Ecce Homo: "An essay on Beyond Good and Evil, by Dr. V. Vidmann in the paper called the Bund, under the heading "Nietzsche's Dangerous Book," and a general account of all my works, from the pen of Herr Karl Spitteler, also in the Bund, constitute a maximum in my life – I shall not say what. . . ." (translated by Anthony M. Ludovici, 1911, p. 56)

During his stint as a tutor, Spitteler learned Russian so well that he spoke French  with Russian accent. Das Bombardement von Åbo. Eine Erzählung aus Finnland (1889) reflected his experiences of the Russia of his day, but it told about the Finnish theater of the Crimean war (1853-56),

After the death of his father, Spitteler returned to Switzerland after the death of his father. Abandoning all hope of making poetry his living, Spitteler held a mastership in a school in Neuveville on Lake Basel. With his friend Joseph Viktor Widmann he kept a girls' school for a short time. He worked as a journalist for Grenzpost (1885-86) and then as a staff member of Basler Nachrichten.  From 1890 to 1892 he edited the Neue Züricher Zeitung. In the 1880s he also published poetry, including Extramundana (1883) and Schmetterlinge (1889). 

In 1883 Spitteler married Marie Op den Hooff, who had been his pupil in Neuveville. When his wife's parents died and left in 1892 a sizable inheritance, the family moved to Lucerne, where Spitteler devoted himself entirely to writing. His breakthrough work, the epic verse Der olympische Frühling, appeared in several installments between 1900 and 1905, and was revisited in 1910. To surprise his readers and critics, and to prove that he could employ even the Naturalistic style, he wrote Conrad der Leutnant (1898).  The story, about father-son conflict, is told in the space of twelve  hours.

With the publication of Felix Weingartner's pamphlet Carl Spitteler, ein künstlerisches Erlebnis (1904, 2nd. ed. 1913) the poet started to receive recognition outside Switzerland. In England he remained relatively unknown even after being awarded the Nobel Prize. Only one scholar, Professor J.G. Robertson at the University of London paid serious attention to his work; he called Spilleler "the most forcible and original personality among the poets of the Nietzschean era". ('Some Reflections on Spitteler's "Prometheus und Epimetheus"' by A. H. J. Knight, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, Oct., 1932)

Spitteler's dichotomy between Prometheus and Epimetheus was picked up by Carl Jung, who created in his book Psychological Types his introvert / extrovert distinction. Jung also sent a copy of his book to the author. Spitteler did not respond immediately but later referred to the book during a lecture and said that his Prometheus and Epimethus meant nothing, "that he might just as well have sung, 'Spring is come, tra-la-la-la.'" (Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung, revised edition, 1989, p. 207) Jung returned again to Spitteler's reaction in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), stating that "poets are human beings, and that what a poet has to say about his work is often far from being the most illuminating word on the subject." (The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and his Contemporaries by Constance B. Hieatt, 1967, p. 58) Gottfried Keller wrote of Prometheus that "What the poet wishes to say I do not know after reading his work twice; but in spite of all obscurity and indefiniteness I feel it all with him, feel the deep poetry that it contains." (Essays And Addresses On Literature by J.G. Robertson, 1934, p. 95)

Olympian Spring, an epic in five books, was a combination of mythology, fantasy, and religion. Basically Spitteler transformed the "waxing and waning of the gods into a myth of the seasons." (Carl Jung) Written in iambic hexameter which was not a popular form of poetry, the story described colorfully mythical figures as they journey to Olympos, fight for power, and tangle themselves in intrigues. In the last book Zeus sends Heracles on a mission to the world: "Stupidity, I challenge thee! Malice, on the fight! Let's see who'll master him whom Zeus hath sanctified!"  The epic was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece and compared to Milton's achievements. 

Spitteler's autobiographical Imago (1906) told about a conflict between artistic creatitity, personified in the character of Victor, a young poet, and middle-class restrictions, exemplified in his former beloved and muse, who has turned into a neurotic housewife. Through the love story of these opposites Spitteler explored the unconscious. It is no surprise, that the novel had a success among psychoanalysts – Sigmund Freud named his journal Imago and Jung used the term in 1912. Spitteler himself was not happy with the work. Rejecting the method of dream analysis Spitteler once said, "Dreams cannot be told; they dissolve when the rational mind tries to grasp them in words." The name of the main character has an obvious symbolic meaning: he triumphs over all the obstacles he had to encounter.

Kannst du ein wohl gemeintes Wort vertragen?
--Ich muss, vergib.
Ich will dir's einmal deutch und deutlich sagen:
--Wer hat dich lieb?

(from 'Auf der Milch-und Honingwiese')

In Meine frühesten Erlebnisse (1914) Spitteler returned to his childhood. Satisfied with life as a writer, he stayed aloof from politics. However, at the beginning of World War I, Spitteler advocated in his famous speech Unser Schweizer Standpunkt (Our Swiss Standpoint) the view that Switzerland should not take sides with Germany or France, but to keep the same distance from all the sides. Worried about ethnic nationalism that had emerged, he encouraged his fellow countrymen to remain united. 

"My whole so-called political career (which I do not regret) computes, out of a term of seventy years, precisely one hojur and ten minutes," he stated at a banquet given in his honor in 1915. "That hour, unique and exceptional, has no continuation, for I have nothing either to add or to retract." ('Carl Spitteler, Poet-Citizen' by F.V. Keys, in The North American Review, Vol. 214, No. 790 (Sep., 1921) Spitteler received the Nobel Prize at the age of 75. Due to illness he was not able to attend the ceremony. Romain Rolland proclaimed him in a tribute "our Homer, the greatest German poet since Goethe." Spitteler died on December 28, 1924, in Lucerne. Spitteler's last work was Prometheus der Dulder (1924, Prometheus the Sufferer), a new and rhymed version of his first work.

For further reading: 'Introduction' by Marianna D. Birnbaum, in The Bombardment of Åbo: A Novella Based on a Historical Event in Modern Times by Carl Spitteler (2022); Carl Spitteler: Essays zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung by Dominik Riedo (2017); Carl Spitteler, 1845-1924: Dichter, Essayist, Journalist/Musikkritiker, Pflanzenkenner, politischer Mahner, Cineast, ausgewählt, eingeleitet und kommentiert von Fritz Schaub (2013); Totalitat Des Mangels: Carl Spitteler Und Die Geburt Des Modernen Epos Aus Der Anschauung by Philipp Theisohn (2001); 'Spitteler, Carl,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1998); 'Spitteler, Carl,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Spitteler, Carl,' in Nobel Prize Winners, edited by T. Wasson (1987); Carl Spitteler by W. Stauffacher (1973); Spitteler's "Olympischer Frühling" und seie epische Form by O. Trommel (1965); Essays and Addresses on Literature by John George Robertson (1935); The Tyranny of Greece over Germany by E.M. Butler (1935); Spittelers Weg und Werk by R. Faesi (1933); 'Carl Spitteler,' in Studies from Ten Literatures by Ernest Boyd (1925); 'Carl Spitteler, Poet-Citizen' by F.V. Keys, in The North American Review, Vol. 214, No. 790 (Sep., 1921)

Selected works:

  • Prometheus und Epimetheus: ein Gleichnis, 1881 (under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem)
    - Prometheus and Epimetheus (tr. 1931)
  • Extramundana, 1883 (under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem)
  • Ei ole, 1887
  • Schmetterlinge. Gedichte, 1889
  • Der Parlamentär, 1889
  • Das Bombardement von Åbo. Eine Erzählung aus Finnland, 1889
    - The Bombardment of Åbo: A Novella Based on a Historical Event in Modern Times (translated and with an introduction by Marianna D. Birnbaum, 2022)
    - Turun pommitus: mukaeltu kertomus eräästä uuden ajan historian tapahtumasta (suomennos: Meeri Allinen et al., 2011)
  • Friedli, der Kolderi, 1891
  • Gustav: ein Idyll, 1892
  • Literarische Gleichnisse, 1892
  • Der Ehrgeizige: Lustspiel in vier Aufzügen, 1892
  • Spazierfahrten in Finnland, 1892
  • Jumala. Ein finnisches Märchen, 1893
  • Balladen, 1896
  • Der Gotthard, 1897
  • Conrad der Leutnant: eine Darstellung, 1898
  • Lachende Wahrheiten, 1898
    - Laughing Truths (translated by James F. Muirhead, 1927)
  • Der olympische Frühling, 1900-05 (4 vols., revisited in 1910)
  • Gras- und Glockenlieder, 1906
  • Imago, 1906
    - Imago (tr. David Spooner, 2006)
  • Glockenlieder, 1906
  • Gerold und Hansli. Die Mädchenfeinde. Eine Kindergeschichte, 1907
    - Two Little Misogynists (tr. J..F. Muirhead, 1922) / Two Little Misogynist (tr. Mme. la Vicomtesse de Roquette-Buisson, 1922)
  • Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche, 1908
  • Meine frühesten Erlebnisse, 1914
  • Rede über Gottfried Keller, 1919
  • Prometheus der Dulder, 1924
  • Das entscheidende Jahr, 1925
  • Selected Poems of Carl Spitteler, 1928 (translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead)
  • Briefe von Adolf Frey und Carl Spitteler, 1933 (ed. by Lina Frey)
  • Musikalische Essays, 1947 (ed. by Willi Reich)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1945-1958 (11 vols., ed. by  Gottfried Bohnenblust et al.)
  • Kritische Schriften, 1965 (ed. by Werner Stauffacher)
  • Carl Spitteler, Joseph Viktor Widmann: Briefwechsel, 1998 (ed. by Werner Stauffacher)
  • Der Gotthard: mit Carl Spitteler durch die Verkehrs- und Kulturlandschaft, 2016 (eingeleitet und kommentiert von Fritz Schaub; mit einem Nachwort von Dominik Riedo)
  • The Bombardment of Åbo: A Novella Based on a Historical Event in Modern Times, 2022 (translated and with an introduction by Marianna D. Birnbaum)

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