by Chaim Harry Heine

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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 first time in a dozen years. A sort of pie-in-the-sky song sung by a harp-playing girl makes him think of replacing the lullabies of institutionalized religion with rousing secular songs about liberty and a good life for everyone here on earth. In the next section, Heine reflects on the connection between snooping Prussian customs agents and censors looking for intellectual contraband. Caput 3, set in Aachen, is a satiric sally against the stiffness of Prussian soldiers and the outworn relics of medievalism. In Cologne, the poet remembers the clerical narrow-mindedness of that city and the legend that the bones of the Three Wise Men from the East are interred in its famous cathedral. Caput 5 presents a hilarious conversation with Father Rhine, the river having long been a bone of contention between the Germans and the French. The poet then symbolically communes, in the nocturnal city, with the ax-bearing executor of his ideas, who then smashes, in the poet’s dream, the skeletons of the Wise Men, representing false beliefs. After remembering Napoleon the libertarian, Heine reaches Westphalia and enjoys succulent German food again. Traveling through the Teutoburg Forest, where the Cheruscan chieftain Arminius (or Hermann) vanquished the Roman legions of Varus in 9 c.e. , Heine wonders what Roman greatness his mediocre contemporaries would have achieved if the outcome of that battle had been different. A nocturnal breakdown of his carriage gives Heine a chance to make a pompous speech to some wolves and assure them that he is one of them. A...

(This entire section contains 934 words.)

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roadside crucifix stirs thoughts of Christ and the dangers faced by idealists.

In caputs 14, 15, 16, and 17, Heine concerns himself with the so-called Kyffhäuser Legend, according to which Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Frederick I Barbarossa) and his retinue are asleep in a Thuringian mountain cave and will come to the aid of their country in its hour of need. The poet fantasizes that the emperor shows him around and asks to be updated on political and cultural figures; but the two quarrel, though an apologetic Heine admits, somewhat ironically, that some aspects of the past are preferable to the present. Following a nightmarish encounter with the Prussian eagle, a symbol of confinement and oppression, and after slogging through the mud of Bückeburg, Heine finally reaches Hamburg (caput 20) and is reunited with his beloved(and quintessentially Jewish) mother, who serves her son a sumptuous meal. The poet comments on the people and places of Hamburg, a large part of which was destroyed in a conflagration of May, 1842. On a street, he encounters a majestic woman who, far from being a lady of the evening, turns out to be Hammonia, the “guardian goddess” of Hamburg, and claims to be the daughter of Charlemagne. The rest of Heine’s work contains his conversations with her. Assessing his situation and stature, she warmly invites him to return to Hamburg and even vouchsafes him a glimpse of Germany’s future in a sort of enchanted chamber pot, but the poet is almost overcome by the stench. (It is interesting to note that a German recording of this work, complete with music and sound effects, briefly presents the voice of Adolf Hitler at this point). In a rather weak conclusion, Heine describes himself as an heir of Aristophanes and, referring to the Inferno, the first canticle of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), entreats the king of Prussia to treat poets well, while warning him that they would be able to condemn him to eternal damnation.