The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Hebrew Melodies,” Heinrich Heine’s series of three poems, written in 1851, constitutes the third and final section of Romanzero, a collection published that year and also containing groups of “Historien” (Tales) and “Lamentationen.” The title Romanzero suggests old-fashioned romantic ballads, but the volume is actually a compendium of sophisticated mid-nineteenth century poetry. The title of the sequence was suggested to Heine by the “Hebrew Melodies” of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1815), though the two sets of poems have little or nothing in common. Heine’s poems reflect both continuity and change as far as his attitude toward Judaism and his Jewishness was concerned.

The first poem, “Prinzessin Sabbath” (“Princess Sabbath”), consists of thirty-eight unrhymed stanzas that present a warmly appreciative picture of the Sabbath observance in a synagogue. On the eve of the Jewish day of rest, Israel—that is, a Jew—is freed temporarily from the witch’s curse that has transformed him into a dog, and he enters the synagogue as a prince ready to meet his princess, the personification of the Sabbath, who is as humble and quiet as she is beautiful. The poet describes the richly symbolic festive bustle in the house of worship as the cantor intones the traditional chant L’khah dodi likrat kallah (“Come, beloved [or my friend] the bride awaits you”), which Heine erroneously credits to Don Jehuda ben Halevy. (The real author is Salomo ben Moshe Alkabez.) Instead of a smoke, which is prohibited on the Sabbath, the princess promises her beloved the culinary delight of schalet (or cholent, a slowly simmered bean stew). Such treats evoke visions of biblical scenes, but the waning of the Sabbath threatens to force the observant Jew to resume his dog’s life. Heine ends his poem with a description of the traditional havdalah ceremony: Smelling a spice box keeps the worshipers (whom the need to bid the Sabbath farewell has saddened and weakened) from fainting, and a few drops from a goblet of wine serve to extinguish the candle and, with it, the Sabbath.

In a letter dated August 21, 1851, Heine called “Jehuda ben Halevy” his most beautiful poem. It is the...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Writing about “Hebrew Melodies,” Louis Untermeyer, one of numerous poets and scholars who have undertaken to render Heine’s poetry into English, states that Heine’s background, diction, and emotions are characteristically Jewish in his celebration of the senses and that the poet’s Jewish flavor is not bittersweet, as has often been observed, but sweet and sour, the heritage of generations of cultural pungency. Such a statement may not evoke universal agreement, but it is suggestive, for these particular poems reflect Heine’s complex sense of Jewishness and contain a variety of devices that serve to reveal as well as mask his ambivalence about his Jewish background. The poet does so through exceptionally colorful and luxuriant language and with abundant biblical and broadly cultural allusions. When Heine was working on the “Hebrew Melodies,” he had been living in exile for two decades and wasting away in what he called his Matratzengruft (“mattress grave,” or “crypt”) for more than three years, slowly dying of a venereal disease. This circumstance gave his late writings heightened immediacy and urgency. “Jehuda ben Halevy,” and to some extent “Princess Sabbath,” the only melodious poems of the sequence, were inspired by a book published in 1845, Die religiöse Poesie der Juden in Spanien, a magisterial study of the religious poetry of medieval Spanish Jewry by Michael Sachs, a Berlin rabbi and pupil of Leopold Zunz, a...

(The entire section is 579 words.)