How precisely or imprecisely is the literary material from the Hebrew Bible quoted by Heine in Hebrew Melodies? How is it adapted from the prophet Johan in the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh in the Old Testament?

Heine generally quotes precisely from the Hebrew Bible. His allusions sometimes juxtapose phrases from different books to convey a strong impression, as in the pilgrim's description of Jerusalem in "Jehuda ben Halevy." However, even when alluding rather than quoting, Heine's use of the phrases is always in the spirit of the biblical source.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Heinrich Heine was sent to Jewish schools as a child and could read some Hebrew, though he was never fluent in the language. It is not clear whether the quotations and allusions in "Hebrew Melodies" are based directly on the Tanakh or on a German translation. Moreover, the translation problem redoubles when we read Heine's poems in English. With these caveats, Heine's quotations from the Bible are generally exact. "Jehuda ben Halevy," for instance, opens with the lines:

If, Jerusalem, I ever
Should forget thee, let my tongue
To my mouth’s roof cleave, let also
My right hand forget her cunning—

This is a precise translation from Psalm 137. The principal instance of Heine mixing, if not altering, his biblical references comes in the second section of the same long poem, when he recounts the words of the pilgrim who comes to Toledo. The pilgrim describes the destruction of Jerusalem in various phrases from the Bible, saying that the temple is covered with weeds, and only wild animals now inhabit the holy city. The descriptions come from various books of the Tanakh, including Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. However, the pilgrim's words are not represented as quotations from the Bible, but as a description which comes from a man who has been steeped in biblical lore. They are allusions rather than quotations, and do not detract from the precision of Heine's usage. Indeed, the way in which the phrases are juxtaposed within the poem shows the poet's understanding of their spirit in context.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team