Although it is generally conceded that Heinrich Heine’s finest poetry was not written until his last years, the Book of Songs, which assembles his entire lyrical output to the age of twenty-six, remains the core of his poetic work. The book gained immediate popularity and appeared in a new edition every other year for decades. German critical opinion of the period cited Heine for writing in the spirit and with the simple accents of German folk song, but he soon became a controversial figure. His merits are still fiercely disputed in German territories, much of the controversy centering on his later prose writings, in which the unquenchably poetic nature of his approach to religion and political philosophy yielded, along with chilling prophetic insights, considerable rhetorical muddle.
His own feelings toward Germany were intensely ambiguous. He later became, through his Paris exile, “a link that spanned the Rhine”; but the French influences that surrounded him in his first sixteen years (during which time the Rhineland was mostly under French military occupation or French civil rule) apparently had little effect. In his memoirs, he said that early school experiences imbued him with a permanent prejudice against French literature, and he went through a phase of nationalistic fervor that ended only when he discovered that he breathed more freely under the French than the Prussian regime; ultimately he denounced Gallophobia and German national egotism. “The Grenadiers,” one of his earliest poems, expresses his boyish admiration for Napoleon—typically an admiration not for the deeds but only for the genius of the man. When Heine lived among the French, however, his admiration was chiefly directed toward their freedom from the idealism, prudery, and sentimentality that he deplored in the German philistines, at whose expense his satirical wit waxed especially brilliant.
In the North Sea cycle that closes his Book of Songs, Heine describes his deep love of Germany, a love that flourished in spite of the fact that Germany’s “pleasant soil” was “encumbered with madness, hussars, and wretched verses.” There are passages, especially in the early poems, in which he expresses identification with the German character, either lamenting the passing of old Germany’s nobility and virtues or praising the oak that stands for the essential hardihood and “holiness” of the fatherland. There is, however, something in his love for Germany that resembles his commitment to the lost beloved, the false fair, the maiden with flowering beauty and decaying heart, and this constitutes his poetic stock in trade and is, in fact, almost his whole Nibelungenhort. Nevertheless, he considered himself from first to last a German, and his poetry is deeply rooted in the German Romantic movement. He liked to refer to himself as the last of the Romantics, marking the close of the old lyric school of the Germans, but he attacked the political, realist, engagé “Young Germany” group with much the same exuberance as he did the old “poesy” and regressive spiritualism.
Heine, experimenting in most of the modes of Romanticism but ultimately taking from the movement only what suited him, provided finally one of the paths by which the Romantic spirit was deflected toward Symbolism. Individual lyrics of the Book of Songs sometimes suffer from a facile outpouring of stock diction and sentiment, but here is poetry that from the beginning avoids either the heights or the depths of the abysmal absolute. Its dealings with the absolute are rather directed at maintaining a perilous equilibrium, buoyed by Heine’s fresh, vigorous idiom, his delicate music, with its constant play of assonance, and his frequent ironic twists. Reacting to the artifice of eighteenth century diction, Heine sympathized with the Romantic interests in a return to the German folk tradition and a poetic approximation to the supposedly purer aesthetic impact of music....
(The entire section is 1632 words.)