Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Carl Spitteler Poems

In 1919, after the Great War, the Nobel Committee awarded the Prize for Literature to Swiss author Carl Spitteler. Spitteler avoided politics, but since Switzerland was part French and part German, had urged his countrymen to avoid going to war on one side or the other. This position likely helped with the Swiss acceptance of  neutrality.

Only a handful of Nobel winners have won for specific works. Hemingway won for 'The Old Man and the Sea', Thomas Mann for 'Buddenbrooks', Knut Hamsun for 'Growth of the Soil', and John Galsworthy for 'The Forsythe Saga'. Besides these there is only Carl Spitteler, who won for his epic poem, 'Olympian Spring'. This work, however, is not available in English.

In fact, only one publication of Spitteler's poems is available in English, 'Selected Poems' translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead. This 250-page volume is the only English work of Spitteler's I know of, published in 1928. I am fairly sure this work has passed into the public domain,  and so want to provide here some of his poems, since there is a complete dearth online.

Of his poems the best selection is his last, the 'Bell Songs' of 1906. I have included what I consider the best of the translated 'Bell Songs' bellow, for the curious reader or student who is having trouble getting their hands on a copy of the nearly century-old translation.

Bell Songs


Bell with tongue of silver tone,
I would make thy secret known -
Cooped with screech-owl, flittermouse,
In the crumbling belfry-house,
Tell m whence thy festal ring -
Who hath taught thee so to sing?

"Long in murky shaft I lay,
Stygian night for all my day;
Here, where mighty winds blow free,
Here, from sunlit spire, I see
Beauty born of human pain -
Now you will not ask again."


The Silver Maids

High in their belfry swinging,
The Silver Maids are singing
Their matin-psalm of praise and cheer;
No angel tones diviner,
The farther off, the finer,
Nor even fails one practiced ear.

Joined are the sister-fingers
And in the blue there lingers
A subtly-colored endless chain,
The primrose clusters wooing,
Its shadow-dance pursuing,
Now up the bank, now down again.

The larks on high are trilling,
The air of April filling,
But these, triumphant, drown the song;
The sun is listening to them,
Echo would fain outdo them,
Tries, and repeats the sound ere long.

The dusty wanderer raises
Eyes that the sunshine dazes,
Smiles, and a moment stands to rest;
But roadside brooks run quicker,
And wavelets flicker, bicker,
Bright in their eager laughing zest.

The tower gives warning. Frightened,
Turning with faces whitened,
They hurry homeward now apace;
Alas! the fairest, fleetest,
Of all the maids the sweetest,
Is far behind, has lost her place.

Finger in mouth she hovers,
Flutters ans fails, recovers -
"I'll catch them up, I must, I will!"
Her dove-wings bravely spreading,
Now for the belfry heading,
She slips inside, and all is still.

So loud the silence - hear it!
The zephyr circles near it,
And lurks awhile the tower beside,
To see if skirts or laces,
Or any sort of traces,
Of Silver Maids may yet be spied.


Another Waking

From the nightmare world of dream
I awakened with a scream.
Chime of bells and song of bird
Deep in budding woods I heard;
Broke the friendly golden day,
Fear and anguish fled away.

Come there will a time for me
When no day shall set me free,
When my only comfort shall
Lie in dreams fantastical,
When from darkling night I fain
Never would be waked again.


Morning Bell

It seemed as though the dawn would never come
To save me from the night's delirium,
Those hells of thought I wandered in - who schooled
My brain at other times, and strictly ruled
Its every motion. Fever now was king;
My spirit groped, a shuddering helpless thing,
Through labyrinths of dream no pause, no rest,
The Furies' prey, disarmed and dispossessed.

Hark! Through the lightless gloom, the black dismay,
A distant bell-note throbs... Deliverance! Day!
Young life, young faith breathes "I." And soft and clear
Whispers the morning-dream of human cheer.


A Vignette

A troop of children scales the ridge, and cries
Challenge to April skies.
     "Come on! No fear!"
     Hats off! This is not play;
They mean to storm high-heaven today.
     It lies so near!
See how, above, it peeps through tall green grasses!

Two silver bell-notes, borne on morning breeze that passes,
     Happy and careless, lightly swinging.
     Come singing, ringing.
"Where lies our pathway now?"
"Above that little crowd of starry faces,
     Over the hill we go
To paths that pearl-white cherry-blossom traces,"
     They say - then sing, then soar
To hill, to cherry-blossoms, and are heard no more.

But what of the child-army under?
Oh, they are all gazing in wonder:
"A hedge-hog!" they say -
Heaven's safe for to-day.


Green Fingers

Green Fingers rides through the wood.

And never a word says she,
But she sets her mark upon every tree.
And soon there's a whisper, a titter,
And out comes Kobolds with a skitter
To dance int he faery-ring,
And high int he branches swing -
Catch the gold
That on branching boughs doth its curls unfold.

Green Fingers rides through the glade.

And through lashes demure she looks
And her soft little finger crooks.
And then come the birds a-winging,
In thousands come fluttering, singing;
On her shoulders, her head, they perch content,
Like a collar, a crown, a hair-ornament -
And her lips are open the song to meet.

Green Fingers rides through the fields.

Her sweet breath slips
Through her finger-tips,
And everything's growing and blowing,
And the earth is with blossoms glowing;
And behind the walls of the city swells
A chorus of bells -
O, the sweet breath of Spring!

Green Fingers rides through the dell.

And a word to her wise little horse she says,
And still as a mouse he stays.
Then out of the dell come creeping
A pair that a tryst were keeping;
But heavy is each fond heart,
For now they must kiss and part -
     They sigh
And "When shall I see you again?" they cry.

Green Fingers rides on the road.

And the blossoms of May she stows
On the pair as her way she goes;
And through all of their grief and rue
Breaks the Song of Songs: "You are true."
And what happiness each has known
Through their love in its beauty shown -
     "Nay, nay!
     Mine for aye!"
"I can never forget you, come what may!"

Green Fingers rides o'er a grave.


A Shout of Joy

Oh what has changed my thought's defiant tread
To wing`ed ride on drifting clouds o'erhead?

Is it my view, unfettered and wide,
     O'er countryside?
Is it the torrent's ringing call,
Tumbling through woods from fall to fall?
Is it the peal of sabbath bells
That clear from peaceful valley swells?
     Ah, nay!
My joy has fairer feet than they.

Because this truth rings clear,
Love shall be always near;
And woman's realm, divine, yet lowly,
Is full of wonders holy;
Because my heart, in thirsting hour,
Has thy love for its princely dower.


The King of Noon and the Lord of Bells

The forest opens wide its spacious leafy gate
And through, on puissant steed, the Noon King rides in state.
At the brave sight the sun slackens his proud career,
The mountains stretch their necks, the massy clouds uprear,
Waving their streaming flags athwart the azure dome.

But, lo, the Lord of Bells, from out his airy home,
Alert his sovereign liege with honor due to greet,
Spreads out a carpet of soft sounds before his feet.
The Midday King rides up the ramparts wov'n of air,
Shading his dazzled eyes from sunlight's blinding glare.
And what his path? The swirling waves of billowy sound.
The throbbing ether waits, in sultry silence bound.

The steeds triumphant neigh, as lord meets noble lord,
And each the other hails, in brotherly accord
Upon the battlements. Then side by side they make their round
Mid wind of banners blown and storm of clangorous sound,
While far below the web of earthly life is spun -
The workaday has now right royally begun!


The Stragglers

"Have all the bell-notes come back to me?"
"All but the notes that stray farthest - three."
"And which are those that return so late?"
"The full-toned, the searching, the delicate."

Over the breast-work, lustrous with noonday light,
     Leant the cathedral sprite,
Good-humored and warm with sun.
And first came the delicate one.
     "You're late - why so?
Twelve o'clock struck eight minutes ago.
     And your radiant air!
You have little leaves in your hair!"

(The Delicate Note)

"Slim was I born,
I can creep through hawthorn.
As through hawthorn crept I,
A blackbird chanced on my head to fly,
And a sunbeam glanced through my leg - so we
Were blithesome fellow-travelers three.
The blackbird kept singing, and I kept singing,
And the sunbeam from one to the other kept springing."

     "O bravely done!"
And now comes the searching one.
     "You're late - why so?
Twelve o'clock struck nine minutes ago.
     And your radiant air!
You've a little rose in your hair!"

(The Searching Note)

     "Completely I lost my way
     In faery-wood to-day;
     Heard the lilt of a brook,
     So to find it must look.
And a girl was playing,
Of beauty beyond all saying.
From above looked the heaven of blue,
So I thought I would watch her too."

 "O bravely done!"
And now comes the full-toned one.
     "You're late - why so?
Twelve o'clock struck ten minutes ago.
     And your radiant air!
You've a little crown in your hair!"

(The Full-Toned Note)

"Of the boundless ether drinking,
I came on a man who was thinking.
I wondered of what it could be,
And followed unseen to see.
He entered a house, and there
Glad welcome rent the air.
I wanted to see glad wind-pipes thrill,
So lingered awhile at the window-sill."

 "O bravely done!"
Tomorrow's day is another one.
Go now with your radiance gleaming
To color the bell's deep dreaming -
     No hue is too bright;
Paint all your delight!
For good-will and glad heart
     Are the marrow of art."


The Blue-Green Secret


The Treacherous Tower


When was it we lay in the cool green grass?
     "Oh, long ago."
You said you would think about being my lass?
     "Mayhap it was so."


What flower did you have in your lips of rose?
And what did you look like, do you suppose?
     "A garden-plot."


I asked "How on earth shall I surely know
     The flower from weed?"
As you looked at me slyly, you murmured low
     "Yes, how indeed?"


We stayed content in our sunny nook,
     Hour after hour,
Till over the hill did maliciously look
     A prim church-tower.


"All right, Old Boy! You may listen and spy
     Till kingdom come!
And count every kiss. Not a jot care I!
     For why? You're dumb.


"The hands on your dial can only tell
     The time of day.
No stroke of the thing you call your bell
     Could give us away."


And as the light-hearted don't care a pin
     For airs and graces,
At the tower forthwith we began to grin
     And make grimaces.


And then, for a change, we were very polite
     With curtsy and bow.
If anyone says that was far from right,
      We can't see how.


Full of blue magic, we left at last
     That heaven of green,
Pursued by the tower and its bells, aghast
     At what they'd seen.


"Arson's afoot! Forest-guards hurry here!
     Quite proof against shame,
Two lovers have set, afar and anear,
     The forest aflame!"


"So shocking a tryst in the fields I saw,
     It gave me a turn.
The song I heard was against all law -
     It made my cheeks burn."


"May lightning strike you, you cowardly sneak!
     That's only your due
The stuff about churchyard rest that you speak
     Is smugly untrue!"


But now that the world and his wife know what
     And how it befell,
We'll stick to each other the closer for that.
      All's well that ends well!



On the upland, high above the village,
Under the 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, not 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 remembered 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 their 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 the 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 thy loved, thy peerless lady!
On thee have the lips of strangers feasted,
Sinner! and theyself 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 the evening bells began to tinkle
And the boy, despairing, broken-hearted,
Homeward slunk, his goats 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!"


The Modest Little Wish

In the days when I was little
   had they asked me what I wanted,
What I'd wish for first if wishes
   ever could be really granted,
As the thought of such abundance
   I should long have hesitated,
Picture-books, paint-boxes, soldiers -
   between these have vacillated.
But grown older, plans were bolder;
   I had made my proud election
- Fame as hero, fame as victor,
   worlds o'erthrown for resurrection;
Or as a artist crowned with laurel,
   lord of some domain entrancing,
Magic trees around me blossoming,
   and lovely ladies glancing.
Nowadays, if hope grown weary
   in the wishing-game persisted,
Though I blushed to think the childish,
   foolish longing still existed,
I would ask to hear the old way
   bells would sound when lying lonely
Half-asleep, a little fellow. . .
   I would ask to hear that only.


The Beggar

He was my foe, and friend he was to none.
I read his death, unmoved, but yesterday.
And then, last night, I saw him in a dream
Who wandered o'er a waste of barren moor
Alone, and there a beggar's bowl he rattled,
And came to me and spoke, while the bowl rattled -
     "A homeless waif and stray, a poor dead man
     Who now can do no harm to any man,
     Was looking for you, that old debt to pay -
     Drop a kind thought, Sir, in my bowl, I pray."


1 comment:

mpp said...

Thanks so much for posting all of these! I've been having lots of trouble accessing Spitteler's work online.