Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2293
Heine’s relatively brief life span encompassed such crucial and formative events as the rise and fall of Napoleon I, the Congress of Vienna, and the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In German literature, the currents during Heine’s lifetime were Romanticism, the Junges Deutschland (Young Germany) movement (a journalistic, political, and polemical movement), and poetic realism. Heine described himself as the last of the Romantics and sat in judgment on German Romanticism in Die romantische Schule (1836; The Romantic School, 1876), published in 1836 mainly for the benefit of French readers. By virtue of his activism, Heine is widely considered as the leading and possibly only poetic (rather than merely journalistic and ephemeral) member of the group of young revolutionary firebrands, polemicists, and reformers of the Young Germany movement.
Heine grew up when German Jewry was taking its first, faltering steps “from the ghetto into Europe,” to use Arthur Eloesser’s phrase, a step that these Jews had been enabled to take by the work of two great men—Mendelssohn in the cultural sphere and Napoleon in the political and legal arena. German Jewry’s struggle for emancipation is most strikingly symbolized in Heine, and his creative tension derives from the turbulence of his time. In him the Weltschmerz, the Romantic pessimism and sadness over the evils of the world and the precariousness of the human condition, mingled with his convoluted Jewishness. When Heine made his famous statement, “Der Riss der Zeit geht durch mein Herz,” he meant that the maelstrom of conflicting religious, political, social, and cultural currents near the beginning of the German-Jewish symbiosis and the Industrial Age was producing a rift in his heart.
A remarkable blend of the Jewish and the German past may be found in Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1887; The Rabbi of Bacherach, 1891), a fragmentary prose work that Heine wrote in an effort to celebrate medieval Jewish life in the manner of Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of medieval Scottish life. In the years following his conversion, Heine produced the great works that were to bring him worldwide fame and stature, variously, as the German Aristophanes, the German François Rabelais, the German Lord Byron, the German Voltaire, and the German Jonathan Swift. In 1826 and 1827, he published a volume of Reisebilder (1826-1831; Pictures of Travel, 1855), and 1827 saw the publication of Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1856), the most popular poetry collection of the nineteenth century. Like its earlier and later companion volumes, this book contains poems that combine simplicity with sophistication and subtlety, poignance with eloquence, and epigrammatic concision with an expansive folk-song quality, in addition to presenting intentional dissonances and vulgarity in the manner of what has been termed romantic irony. In form, Heine’s poems range from memorable epigrams of a few lines to brilliant ballads and extensive verse epics. Book of Songs contains such major cycles as “Junge Leiden” (“Youthful Sorrows”), “Lyrisches Intermezzo” (“Lyrical Intermezzo”), “Die Heimkehr” (“The Homecoming”)—which includes “Lorelei” (“Loreley”), Heine’s best-known poem and, in Friedrich Silcher’s setting, widely regarded as a folk song—and “Die Nordsee” (“The North Sea”). Heine’s poetry inspired musical settings by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and other composers. In general, Heine’s works are as much “fragments of a great confession” as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s are. “Out of my great pains I make little songs,” Heine once wrote.
One of Heine’s two tragedies is Almansor (1823; English translation, 1905), which explores the conflicts between Moors and Christians in medieval Spain and may be regarded as a parable of the situation of German Jewry in Heine’s day. In it, the Moor Hassan’s reply to Almansor’s horrified remark about the burning of the Koran in the marketplace of Granada contains these words of chilling prescience: “That was only a prelude; where one burns books, one is going to wind up burning people, too.”
Louis Untermeyer, an outstanding biographer and translator of Heine, has pointed out that the poet’s ethnic inheritance is expressed in the flavor of his writings, which is not bittersweet, as it has often been characterized, but sweet and sour, the result of generations of cultural, as well as culinary, pungency. Heine’s wry wit and comic stance have led another noted critic, S. S. Prawer, to discern a “reasonably straight” line from Heine to Philip Roth, Woody Allen, or Mel Brooks.
Germany: A Winter’s Tale
First published: Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen, 1844 (English translation, 1892)
Type of work: Poetry
Based on his furtive trip to his native Germany from his Parisian exile, this work takes an irreverent look at many aspects of Germany’s history, culture, and present conditions.
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 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.
First published: “Hebräische Melodien,” 1851 (collected in Jewish Stories and Hebrew Melodies, 1987)
Type of work: Poetry
The poet celebrates the Sabbath observance, remembers one of the great figures of medieval Hebrew poetry, and passes a sardonic judgment on representatives of both Judaism and Christianity.
Heine’s sequence of three poems on Jewish themes forms part of his collection Romanzero (1851; English translation, 1859). The title was undoubtedly suggested by the Hebrew Melodies (1815) of Lord Byron.
The poems reflect both continuity and change as far as the poet’s attitude toward Judaism and his Jewish heritage is concerned. “Prinzessin Sabbat” (“Princess Sabbath”) presents, in thirty-eight unrhymed stanzas, a warmly evocative account of the Sabbath observance in a synagogue. On the eve of the Jewish day of rest, Israel (that is, a Jew) is temporarily freed from the witch’s curse that has transformed him into a dog and enters the house of prayer like a prince ready to meet his princess, the personification of the Sabbath, who is as humble and quiet as she is beautiful. Heine describes the richly symbolic festive bustle in the synagogue as the princess promises her beloved culinary delights. Such treats stir visions of biblical scenes, but the waning of the Sabbath threatens to transform the observant Jew into a workaday beast again. The poem ends with a description of the traditional Havdalah ceremony. The smell of a spice box sustains the worshipers, who are saddened and weakened by the need to bid the Sabbath farewell, and a few drops of wine serve to extinguish the candle and thus the day of rest.
“Jehuda ben Halevy,” the longest poem in this sequence, has twenty-four stanzas and almost nine hundred lines, and yet it is a fragment with an elegiac beginning and undertone, for in his age-old mourning for devastated Jerusalem the poet invokes the exemplary figure of Judah ha-Levi, a scholar, physician, and poet. Heine gives a flowery description of the making of the poet and his study of the Torah and the Talmud, but he also integrates him into the mainstream of Christian medieval Europe and calls him the equal of the great Provençal poets, though his muse was Jerusalem rather than some lady love. In a long digression, Heine concerns himself with jewels found by Alexander the Great after his victory over the Persian king Darius III in 331 b.c.e., specifically the wondrous wanderings of a pearl necklace. He also pays tribute to the other great poets of that age, Salomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol (Ibn Gabriol) of Malaga and Moses ibn Ezra of Granada.
“Disputation” consists of 110 unrhymed stanzas. The witty narrator gives a mordant account of a fourteenth century public debate between a Franciscan friar and a rabbi at the Toledo court of King Pedro I of Castile. The question to be settled in this grotesque variant on a medieval tournament is which is the true God, the threefold Christian God of love or the Hebrews’ stern deity. Since the loser will have to adopt the religion of the winner, each dueling debater has assistants ready with baptismal basins and circumcision knives. The friar gives a crude, absurd account of Christian beliefs, and the more rationalistic rabbi emphasizes that Jehovah is a strong living presence. In this twelve-hour mental marathon, the arguments become increasingly heated and vituperative, and when the king asks his queen for her judgment, she comes to the unsettling conclusion that “both of them stink.”