Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In an afterword to Romanzero, dated September 30, 1851, Heine says that, like a prodigal son, he has returned to the idea of a personal God and, having dwindled down to a spiritual (as well as physical) skeleton, he is ready to make his peace with God and the world. It is tempting to believe that after yielding to the blandishments of atheism, Hellenism, and polytheism, Heine is returning to his Jewish roots. There is evidence that the ailing Heine did return to monotheism and identify with the suffering Jewish people, but this identification was paralleled by continued inward detachment from significant aspects of the Jewish religion. In “Princess Sabbath” and “Jehuda ben Halevy,” Heine gives a sympathetic account of Jewish religious practices and cultural contributions, and he sensitively delineates the tragically dualistic existence of the Jewish people. The second poem contains a paradigmatic picture of an idealized poet with whom Heine seems to feel a spiritual affinity; Jehuda ben Halevy’s writings appear to be divinely inspired, and he acts as a pillar of fire in the desert of the Diaspora. “Disputation,” however, contains a clear-cut rejection of Jewish (or any other) dogmatism, proselytic fanaticism, and hidebound self-righteousness. As S. S. Prawer has pointed out, “Princess Sabbath” presents a skillful fusion of caricature, allegory, realism, and symbolism, of light and darkness, the poetic and the prosaic—a poignant insight into what centuries of oppression, persecution, and martyrdom have done to the Jewish psyche. “Hebrew Melodies,” then, begins with a touching tribute to the spiritual and aesthetic qualities and rewards of Judaism and ends with a condemnation of what may be called an extreme representative of the Jewish faith. The poet was a free spirit and an ambivalent person to the end, and Heine would not have been Heine if he had been otherwise.