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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Spitteler, Carl

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SPITTELER, Carl, poet: b. Liestal near Basel, Switzerland, 24 April 1845. His father was an official of the government, being Federal Secretary of the Treasury from 1849-56. Young Spitteler attended the gymnasium at Basel, being fortunate in having among his teachers such men as Wilhelm Wackernagel, the great philologist, and Jakob Burckhardt, the author of the famous work on the Italian Renaissance. Later he studied at the universities of Basel, Zürich and Heidelberg. He began with jurisprudence and afterward changed to theology, but when a position as pastor was offered him, he felt that he must decline it. He had begun to realize his mission as an epic poet and therefore refused to work in the field for which he had prepared himself. His first work, ‘Prometheus und Epimetheus’ appeared in 1880-81. It is an allegory which symbolises the joys and sorrows of an exalted soul striving to attain an ideal, although the loyalty to this ideal is paid for by a life full of misery. The style reminds one of Nietsche's ‘Zarathustra,’ but Spitteler was not influenced by Nietsche, as that is chronologically impossible. Rather the reverse is true, although Nietsche never acknowledged his indebtedness to Spitteler. The two works in a way complement each other. In Nietsche we have direct didactic statement, while in Spitteler a higher phase, the symbolical, is predominant. From 1870 to 1879 he spent in Russia as a private tutor and later he served as teacher in Neuenstadt not far from Berne. In 1882 he published his ‘Extramundana,’ a collection of poems. He gave up teaching in 1885 and devoted himself to a journalistic career in Basel. Now his works began to come in rapid succession. In 1891 there appeared ‘Friedli, der Kalderi,’ a collection of short stories, in which Spitteler, as he himself says, depicted Russian realism. In 1898 ‘Conrad der Leutnant’ was published; ‘Literarische Gleichnisse’ had appeared in 1892, and ‘Balladen’ in 1896.

His most important production, ‘Der Olympische Frühling,’ appeared 1900-03 and was revised in 1910. It is an epic poem of the heroic type in which Spitteler has given us his interpretation of life. The ancient mythology is not used as a setting but as an appeal to the imagination. He tells of the doings of gods and men in an elevated style and by implication he impresses upon us his ideas and ideals.

Gottfried Keller, the realist, had some difficulty in understanding the allegorical works of Spitteler and his admirers have been few up to recent times. Now a better appreciation of his works seems to be coming. Consult Boesche, ‘Life and Works of Carl Spitteler’ (in ‘The German Classics,’ Vol. XIV, New York, 1914); Biese, ‘Deutsche Literaturgeschichte,’ Vol III.

William F. Hauhart,
Assistant Professor of German, University of Michigan.