The Poems

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

“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.

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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 longest in this sequence—four sections containing twenty-four stanzas and almost nine hundred lines—yet it is a fragment. The poem has an elegiac beginning and undertone as the poet, in his mourning for the devastated Jerusalem, invokes the exemplary figure of Jehuda ben Halevy (more properly, Judah Halevy, a scholar, physician, and poet who was born in Toledo around 1075 and is believed to have died in Cairo around 1141). In flowery fashion, Heine describes the making of a poet and his study of the Torah and the Talmud—the latter divided into the polemical, legalistic Halaka, which is likened to a fencing school for dialectical athletes, and the Agada, the didactic part, which Heine compares to a phantasmagoric garden. Yet Halevy is not viewed as a parochial poet; Heine integrates him into the mainstream of Christian medieval Europe by calling him fully equal to the great Provençal poets—though his muse was not some lady love but Jerusalem, whose destruction he deplores. Following an old legend, Heine has the poet killed by a Saracen horseman while in the holy land as a penitent, but his conjecture that Halevy’s killer may have been an angel in disguise sent by God to take the poet to his eternal home is original with him.

In a lengthy digression, Heine concerns himself with jewels found by Alexander the Great after his victory over the Persian king Darius in 331 b.c.e., specifically the wondrous wanderings of a pearl necklace. The poet says that if he owned Alexander’s golden casket, he would use it to store the teardrop pearls of lamentations. Another digression involves Heine’s French wife, whose limited education did not include the poetic golden age of Spanish Jewry. Heine uses this excursus to pay tribute to the other great poets of that age, Salomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol of Malaga and Moses ibn Ezra of Granada. After musing about the origin of “schlemiel,” the word and the concept, Heine ends with the story of Gabirol’s death in Cordova at the hands of an envious Moorish neighbor.

“Disputation” consists of 110 rhymed stanzas, the rhyme scheme being abcb. The witty narrator gives a grimly hilarious account of a fourteenth century public debate between the Franciscan friar José and Rabbi Juda of Navarre at the Toledo court of King Pedro I of Castile and his queen, the fragile Frenchwoman Blanche of Bourbon (Donna Blanca). The question to be settled is which is the true God, the threefold Christian God of love or the Hebrews’ stern one God, Jehovah. Since the loser will have to adopt the religion of the winner, each debater has eleven assistants standing by with baptismal basins or circumcision knives. After exorcising some Jewish devils, the friar gives an absurd account of Christian beliefs, crudely likening Jews to various beasts. His vulgar rhetoric and violent threats conflict with his promises of gentleness and love. Making little more sense, the more rationalistic rabbi emphasizes that Jehovah is a strong, living presence and holds out the prospect of the faithful feasting on the succulent flesh of the legendary Leviathan, God’s favorite fish. The arguments and counterarguments of the two zealots having become increasingly heated and vituperative in this twelve-hour marathon, the king asks the queen for her judgment, and her somewhat unsettling decision is that both of them “stink.”

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

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 scholar to whom Heine had been close prior to his conversion in 1825.

In the “Hebrew Melodies,” the mercurial, often impish poet, a practiced dispeller of moods and destroyer of illusions, delights in juxtaposing different worlds in ingenious and amusing, sometimes confusing fashion. Heine’s ingenious wordplay, linguistic drolleries, stylistic shifts, discursiveness, abrasive diction, and mixture of the exalted and ironically deflated are deliberate and sometimes brilliant poetic devices. His penchant for digressions and discord is in evidence throughout as Heine superimposes an irreverent nineteenth century perspective on older traditions. Facts and legends, as well as symbols and reality, intermingle wondrously as pathos and trivia alternate, heartfelt sentiments give way to critical comment, and discussions of momentous events and important figures deteriorate into private gossip and satiric sniping. For example, in “Jehuda ben Halevy,” Heine, who tended to ridicule his Jewish contemporaries, satirizes Julius Eduard Itzig, a converted Jew (and noted Berlin jurist) who changed his name to Hitzig, and the poet wonders whether the additional letter indicates a pretension to holiness.

Heine’s exploration of the luckless schlemiel, an exercise in mock scholarship, leads him to ask whether the poet, particularly the Jewish poet, is not the quintessential schlemiel, the innocent, the scapegoat. In “Princess Sabbath,” the poet’s praise of cholent, that kosher ambrosia, culminates in a parody of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (known from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). The reference to Tausves-Jontof (more correctly, Tosafot Yomtov), a sixteenth century critical commentary, in the context of a fourteenth century disputation may have been a deliberate anachronism, but other slips, such as his reference to a mezuzah (which is not found at the entrance of a synagogue), are indicative of Heine’s limited knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish lore. “Disputation,” a grotesque variant of a medieval tournament or athletic contest, has a deliberately discordant, sardonic, and sinister tone, because an unsparing exposure of the clerical mind, as bombastic as it is intolerant, clearly calls for black humor. It is hardly accidental that the last word of that poem, and the entire collection, is stinken.

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