Thursday, August 9, 2018

SELECTED POEMS OF CARL SPITTELER By Carl Spitteler Translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928 251 pages

The editors of this volume have selected works from seven areas of Carl Spitteler’s poetry:

  • Bell Song
  • Ballads
  • Literary Parables
  • Butterfly Songs
  • Extracts from Epics

My plan in reading and for these comments is to read the work section by section, select a few favorite passages from each section along the way and try to give some overview of the nature of the poems in each section. The sections are by no means of even length going from the short section on Literary Parables only 7 pages long to 82 pages of his ballads. Nonetheless, I wanted to read the whole, but to extract and share some sense of the whole and of the differences with each section. I hope I have been able to do this to some useful sense.

1. BELL SONG Pp. 23 – 83 (50 pages)
I enjoyed the poems in this section a great deal. However, I’m not sure I would have called them “poems.” They were all light, cutesy, mainly rhyming in almost the sense of limericks and other very light verse. No doubt they were fun to read, but I was a bit taken aback that these were poems of a Nobel Prize winner.

The themes were mainly connected to bells and rural bliss, poems of ordinary people and, at times, mythical creatures. They tended to be very light hearted, witty, reeking of rural bliss, lovers in the woods, goatherds, fairies. The meter and rhymes make them light and sing-songie, but overall, fun. Most do mention bells in one place or another, but not all and the two I’ve chosen as my favorites to cite here don’t have any bells mentioned.

I especially liked the poem “Puberty” about a very young goatherd who dreams of making love to a local girl high above his station. Then, in an afternoon, or perhaps a dream, two local girls come out the where his is and make love to him. Surprisingly he is quite disappointed at this, believes they must be some sort of evil spirits, and still pines for his impossible love with this girl of his dreams and then . . .


On the upland, high above the village,
Under hazel-branches lay the goatherd,
Crossed his hands behind his neck for pillow,
Pulled his straw-hat farther down for sunshade.
But the straw-hat could not stop the golden
Trickle of the sunbeams through its meshes.

To himself the poor boy murmured sadly
“Oh, to catch that glitter in my fingers,
Tie it in my handkerchief and hasten
Down into the village to the goldsmith!
He would surely pay a thousand dollars –
Then I’d buy a pair of spurs, a pony,
Ride him to the manse, and knock so loudly
(Using my new whip) that Fraulein Anna
Eagerly would run to find her mother,
Say: ‘Dear mother, hurry to the cellar,
Bring a flask of ruby wine, the finest, 
Set a fowl to roast within the oven;
For a stranger soldierly and haughty
Has arrived – he must have come to woo me.’

Ah, but not the bottle, nor the chicken,
Would I touch, however fine and tender;
Nothing but herself, but Fraulein Anna!
Her I’d set upon the pony, clasping
Both my arms around her, and would gallop
All along the street, along the village,
Up the hill, and stop at Friedli’s hostel – 
Then we would be married in the autumn.”

Thus the poor boy communed with his fancies;
Then remembering all, and sighing deeply
Thought: “The fool you are with your fool-stories!
You will live and you will die a goatherd,
Penniless and barefoot and a no-one.
Anna would not look at you an instant.”

Hark – the goats were bleating, at the tethers
Dragging, and in circles wildly leaping;
And in single file along the footpath
Came two fine young ladies from the city.
And the first one, calling to the second,
Cried: ‘We are in luck! You see the boy there
Stretched beneath a hazel-bough? His forehead’s
All a mass of curls, his mouth is rosy,
Rosy too his cheeks, and soft for kissing!’
Saying so, she ran across the meadow,
Stooped above the boy, while her companion
Curtain-wise her petticoats extended.
Then on the mouth and cheeks the first one kissed him –
Ten or twelve times kissed the startled youngster.

After that they altered their arrangements;
While the first assumed the part of curtain,
She who came the second took her kisses.
Then they threw their arms round one another,
Danced into the wood, and singing vanished.

But the boy lay still among the grasses,
Qualms of conscience, pangs of shame, upon him:
“Curse thee for a faithless wanton fellow,
Faithless to the loved, the peerless lady!
On thee have the lips of stranger feasted,
Sinner! And thyself hast likewise feasted!
Never now of gracious Fraulein Anna
Canst thou front the pure angelic beauty –
As the burrowing mole before the sunlight
Thou shalt flinch before that face from heaven.”

But when evening bells began to tinkle
And the boy, despairing, broken-hearted,
Homeward slunk, his goat behind him dragging,
Lo! Upon the path appeared the pastor,
Then the pastor’s wife, and then – confound it! –
Last of all herself, his Fraulein Anna.
Wonders never cease, though – for the pastor
Took him by the chin, and asked him kindly
“How’s the weather? And the Paternosters?”
And the pastor’s lady stroked his lovelocks,
And his Fraulein Anna very sweetly
Looked behind, and whispered to her mother:
“Hasn’t he grown manly and good looking?”
A shorter, but delightful poem is: The Little Bell’s Complaint

The little bell once sadly
The organ thus addressed:
“Your pipes’ rich store of changes
Wakes envy in my breast
You’ve countless ways of telling
All that your soul can learn;
And what you learn, we feel it,
And when you feel, we yearn.
But I, though grief and pity
May rend my heart in twain,
Can only tinkle sweetly,
Again, and yet again.
My deepest self is longing
Once to ring out of tune.
Who’ll teach me how to jangle?
That were a bitter boon!”
2. BALLADS Pp. 87 – 169 (82 pages)
Most of the ballads are poems of famous historical episodes, well-known in history. They tend to be rather long and in an almost avoidable sing-songy iambic pentameter that I just don’t care for.

However, mixed in are a few poems which did delight me. I picked my favorite, below, to share:


Arcadian shepherds, simple goat’s milk bearing,
Offered their tribute to the wealthy Croesus.
The monarch, graciously their gift approving,
Sent them in royal litters through his Sardis,
To view its building and its mighty temples,
And all its marvel-works of human cunning.
“Great king,” they cried, quite overcome with wonder
“Who is the craftsman that has this created?”

Straightway the king led to a massive wall,
And bade them knock. No sooner said than done.
“Now listen.” They obeyed. “What hear you there?”
“Wailing and moaning of a myriad voices.”
“You understand?” “Alas, O king, we fail to.”
“That was the craftman,” answered lordly Coesus.
3. LITERARY PARABLES Pp. 173 – 180 (7 pages)
The few poems in this section are truly literary parables, stories involving famous historical persons or ideas in a poem. I very much enjoyed the poem: Charlemagne and His Peer in which only Charlemagne can recognize the “worth” of a young would-be knight.

At brilliant tournament, by Charlemagne devised,
Appeared with visor down, a stranger knight, disguised.
The supercilious courtiers forthwith began to sneer,
Grinning like apes, and heaping jeer on silly jeer,
The niggling herald pried into his knightly claim,
Found here a dot too much, and there a point too lame.
A menial in the yard, washing the royal clothes,
Spat viciously at helm and plume with turned up-nose . . .
And thus on it goes with the underling’s nit picking everything about this strange and unknown young knight. However, he just goes about his business:

The noble heed but little what moves the vulgar herd.
The stranger waited, patiently, and quite unstirred.
After a time he turned his back and drew his blade,
And playfully in air his cartes and tierces made.
His heart was bravely full, this thought were fresh and young;
And so with ardent zest the flashing sword he swung.
However, Charlemagne himself is at this tournament, and he sees what others miss:

But sudden, from the dais, Charlemagne himself cried out
“Shame on you, toady crew! What is this all about?
Lead this knight to the lists with harp and tuck of drum
And honour him as one who has the right to come.
Born dunces that you are! No blazon need we here.
I see it in his wrist; I greet him as my peer.”
Nice touch!

4. BUTTERFLY SONGS Pp. 183 – 194 (9 pages)
The few poems in this section are all about butterflies. They make good reflections since they come from such humble origins to such a splashy adulthood. A poem about the peacock-eye butterfly was a case in point. It is introduced in the poem in its humble caterpillar stage and then slowly moves forward:

Long was the time till May and morning dawned together,
And crickets chirped, and larks sang high o’er corn and meadow;
Then urgent, towards the light and in struggles fierce, convulsive,
The caterpillar strove with tears of blood. And lo! . . .
Can it be I? Methinks I feel a soul, feel pinions!
I rise, I soar! Up, up! And higher still, to Heaven!
I’ll seek new dangers. Oh! the universe I’ll measure.
Earth’s highest happiness is granted now to me:
Bodily to behold the things my soul could see.
And what I’ve dumbly honoured, in myself to be.
5. EXTRACT FROM EPICS Pp. 197 – 251 (54 pages)
These were long epic style poems mainly set in classical times. I was never very excited or moved by them and preferred his poetry from the earlier sections.

The poetry of Carl Spittler seems to me a poetry of a different age, a different period. I tried to be as sympathetic a reader as I could be, but poetry seems to be more affected by time and the customs of the times than most other forms of literature.

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