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 collection Neue Gedichte (1844; New Poems, 1858) in September, 1844, was reprinted separately the following month, and then appeared uncut in installments in the Paris revolutionary journal Vorwärts (forward) in October and November, the first two printings having been proscribed and confiscated by the German authorities. Representing Heine’s answer to the bombastic political poetry of his time, Germany: A Winter’s Tale takes a refreshingly irreverent look at many German conditions and attitudes, particularly symbols of German nationalism and conservatism. The poet attempts to bring some fresh air into the musty corners of the German past and sweep away the Romanticists’ fascination with an idealized medievalism. It helps to remember that Heine’s native country was still decades away from being united; in his time, Germany was an agglomeration of thirty-six petty principalities, each headed by a king, a duke, a bishop, or another kind of potentate. Heine excoriates the backward political and social structure, as well as the hidebound mentality, of a land that was still under the spell of absolutism, feudalism, and nationalism.
Heine’s poetic sequence consists of twenty-seven sections, each called a caput (head, heading, or chapter). In his four-line stanzas, the poet employs colloquial language and a meter based on iambic stresses. The second and fourth lines are rhymed, frequently in the comic punning fashion familiar to American readers from the poems of Ogden Nash or Dorothy Parker. The vibrant, dynamic effect achieved by Heine is reminiscent of facile folk poetry or folk songs and has inspired a number of imitations and updated adaptations.
In the opening caput, the traveling poet describes his emotions as he, Antaeus-like, touches the soil of his native country again for the...
(The entire section is 934 words.)