Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877 – August 9, 1962) was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter.

Hesse attended boarding schools in Wuerttemberg, Germany, and spent some time at the theological seminary of the monastery at Maulbronn. He was an intelligent child with a linguistic flair, enthusiasm and gusto, but he also had a rebellious and individualistic streak. As he writes in his autobiography, “From the age of twelve I wanted to be a poet, and since there was no normal or official road, I had a hard time deciding what to do after leaving school. I left the seminary and grammar school, became an apprentice to a mechanic, and at the age of nineteen I worked in book and antique shops in Tübingen and Basle.”

In 1899, a tiny volume of his poems, Romantische Lieder (Romantic Songs), was printed, followed by other small publications. In 1904, the novel Peter Camenzind, written in Basle and set in Switzerland, brought him public attention. He soon married and moved to the countryside to embrace the idyllic life of a writer. In 1912, he settled in Switzerland, and during the First World War he voiced strong opinion against rising German nationalism. In 1923, he gave up his German citizenship and acquired Swiss citizenship.

He travelled frequently up until 1914, including a visit to India in 1911. Of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy. 

The impressions of the ‘trip to India’ are collected in his Remembrances of Asia (1914). In 1915, Knulp, a novel consisting of three tales, was published in Germany and featured a drop-out who perpetually wanders, is dependent on friends, and who refuses to tie himself down to any particular job, place or person. He published a lesser known but thoughtful collection of poems, sketches and travel prose in 1917, Wandering: Notes and Sketches.

Hesse’s grandfather and parents had lived in India for many years as missionaries, and his father enjoyed translating Buddhist prayers into English or German, and reading them aloud. Hesse inherited his parents’ love for India but not their passion for a calling in theology, or their conviction that Christianity was the only true religion. From the time I was a child I breathed in and absorbed the spiritual side of India just as deeply as Christianity (Zilkowski, 1965: 147).  

Hesse also read Karl Eugen Neumann’s translation of the Buddha’s teachings, but remained unimpressed by Buddhist wisdom. His critical approach to the Buddhist way of life is reflected in Siddhartha. His four-month sojourn in India revived childhood influences and shaped his understanding of Eastern philosophy.

Hesse's novel Siddhartha is considered by many critics to be a summary of his preoccupation with Indian ideas and of his personal development. Hesse began work on Siddhartha in 1919 and it was published in 1922. Hesse himself said the book was the fruit of nearly twenty years of familiarity with the thought of India and China. Siddhartha reflects Hesse’s disillusionment with religious dogmas and organized religion.

In 1972 a movie directed by Conrad Rooks was released to critical acclaim, as well as some outrage due to the nude scenes between lead actors Shashi Kapoor and Simi Grewal. 



In 1946, Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He received the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt in 1946 and the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers in 1955. His best known works include Demian, In Sight of Chaos (1923), Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, The Glass Bead Game, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Poems (1970), all of which explore an individual's search for spirituality. He contributed to various journals and editorials, and reviewed more than 2,500 books.

Hesse started painting in his early 40s, and of his paintings he wrote: I have shown my appreciation to the old houses and stone roofs, the garden wall, the chestnut trees, the near and far away mountains, by painting, using hundreds of good sheets of drawing paper, many tubes of water paints, and drawing pencils. He was also interested in music, and wrote in his autobiography: I have always been on familiar and friendly terms with the fine arts, but my relationship to music has been more intimate and fruitful.

He was involved in psychoanalysis, undergoing sessions with Carl Jung. He had two troubled marriages and then married a third time in 1931. Ninon Dolbin, his third wife, was with him at his death, caused by cerebral hemorrhage in 1962.

One of Hesse's last poems, in the spring of 1961, ends with these lines:


What you loved and what you strove for,

What you dreamed and what you lived through,

 Do you know if it was joy or suffering?

 G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,

 Are they distinguishable to the ear?


Hermann Hesse's signature 

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