Heine’s relatively brief life span encompassed such crucial and formative events as the rise and fall of Napoleon I, the Congress of Vienna, and the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In German literature, the currents during Heine’s lifetime were Romanticism, the Junges Deutschland (Young Germany) movement (a journalistic, political, and polemical movement), and poetic realism. Heine described himself as the last of the Romantics and sat in judgment on German Romanticism in Die romantische Schule (1836; The Romantic School, 1876), published in 1836 mainly for the benefit of French readers. By virtue of his activism, Heine is widely considered as the leading and possibly only poetic (rather than merely journalistic and ephemeral) member of the group of young revolutionary firebrands, polemicists, and reformers of the Young Germany movement.
Heine grew up when German Jewry was taking its first, faltering steps “from the ghetto into Europe,” to use Arthur Eloesser’s phrase, a step that these Jews had been enabled to take by the work of two great men—Mendelssohn in the cultural sphere and Napoleon in the political and legal arena. German Jewry’s struggle for emancipation is most strikingly symbolized in Heine, and his creative tension derives from the turbulence of his time. In him the Weltschmerz, the Romantic pessimism and sadness over the evils of the world and the precariousness of the human condition, mingled with his convoluted Jewishness. When Heine made his famous statement, “Der Riss der Zeit geht durch mein Herz,” he meant that the maelstrom of conflicting religious, political, social, and cultural currents near the beginning of the German-Jewish symbiosis and the Industrial Age was producing a rift in his heart.
A remarkable blend of the Jewish and the German past may be found in Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1887; The Rabbi of Bacherach, 1891), a fragmentary prose work that Heine wrote in an effort to celebrate medieval Jewish life in the manner of Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of medieval Scottish life. In the years following his conversion, Heine produced the great works that were to bring him worldwide fame and stature, variously, as the German Aristophanes, the German François Rabelais, the German Lord Byron, the German Voltaire, and the German Jonathan Swift. In 1826 and 1827, he published a volume of Reisebilder (1826-1831; Pictures of Travel, 1855), and 1827 saw the publication of Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1856), the most popular poetry collection of the nineteenth century. Like its earlier and later companion volumes, this book contains poems that combine simplicity with sophistication and subtlety, poignance with eloquence, and epigrammatic concision with an expansive folk-song quality, in addition to presenting intentional dissonances and vulgarity in the manner of what has been termed romantic irony. In form, Heine’s poems range from memorable epigrams of a few lines to brilliant ballads and extensive verse epics. Book of Songs contains such major cycles as “Junge Leiden” (“Youthful Sorrows”), “Lyrisches Intermezzo” (“Lyrical Intermezzo”), “Die Heimkehr” (“The Homecoming”)—which includes “Lorelei” (“Loreley”), Heine’s best-known poem and, in Friedrich Silcher’s setting, widely regarded as a folk song—and “Die Nordsee” (“The North Sea”). Heine’s poetry inspired musical settings by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and other composers. In general, Heine’s works are as much “fragments of a great confession” as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s are. “Out of my great pains I make little songs,” Heine once wrote.
One of Heine’s two tragedies is Almansor (1823; English translation, 1905), which explores the conflicts between Moors and Christians in medieval Spain and may be regarded as a parable of the situation of German Jewry in Heine’s day. In it, the Moor Hassan’s reply to Almansor’s horrified remark about the burning of the Koran in the marketplace of Granada contains these words of chilling prescience: “That was only a prelude; where one burns books, one is going to wind up burning people, too.”
Louis Untermeyer, an outstanding biographer and translator of Heine, has pointed out that the poet’s ethnic inheritance is expressed in the flavor of his writings, which is not bittersweet, as it has often been characterized, but sweet and sour, the result of generations of cultural, as well as culinary, pungency. Heine’s wry wit and comic stance have led another noted critic, S. S. Prawer, to discern a “reasonably straight” line from Heine to Philip Roth, Woody Allen, or Mel Brooks.
Germany: A Winter’s Tale
First published: Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen, 1844 (English translation, 1892)
Type of work: Poetry
Based on his furtive trip to his native Germany from his Parisian exile, this work takes an irreverent look at many aspects of Germany’s history, culture, and present conditions.
The title of Germany: A Winter’s Tale is reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and the work shows Heine at the poetic peak of his radical phase. This frequently lighthearted but rarely lightweight verse epic is an impishly witty chronicle of the exiled writer’s first visit to Germany in October, 1843. Heine’s work was published as a supplement to his...
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