Heinrich Heine 1797–1856
(Born Harry Heine) German poet, essayist, critic, journalist, editor, dramatist, novella and travel writer.
Heine is one of the outstanding literary figures of nineteenth century Europe. He is best known for his Buch der Lieder (1827; Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs), a collection of love lyrics which were, in time, set to music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and other composers. Because of his Jewish background he was frequently reviled by European anti-Semites and his works were censored during the period of Nazi hegemony in Germany. In the contemporary era, Heine has been recognized as the first major poet to adopt a humorous, ironic tone, which pervades his poetry, prose, and commentaries on politics, art, literature, and society.
Heine was born in Düsseldorf into a Jewish household, the poor relations of a larger, wealthy family. His early years were greatly influenced by his uncle, Salomon Heine, a successful and influential banker who financed Heine's education. In 1819, Heine was sent to study law at the University of Bonn, where he showed a growing interest in literature and history and studied under the famous critic August Wilhelm Schlegel, who introduced him to the ideas of the German Romantic School. He completed his courses at the University of Göttingen and received his law degree in 1825. In that same year he changed his name from Harry to Heinrich and converted to Protestantism, a practical measure done because of anti-Semitic laws in nineteenth-century Germany. In 1831 Heine emigrated to Paris, where he remained in self-imposed exile for most of his life. From the mid-1830s through the rest of his life, he suffered with increasing illness from venereal disease, and in the spring of 1848 he became completely paralyzed and partially blind. Confined to what he called his "mattress grave," Heine lived in constant pain, yet was intellectually alert until his death in 1856.
Heine began his literary career while still a student, publishing his first book of poetry, Gedichte (Poems), in 1822. His next published work, Tragödien nebst einem lyrischen Intermezzo (1823), which contains his only attempt at drama, was considered unimportant at the time of its publication
and largely ignored. However, with the publication of his third volume of poetry, Book of Songs, Heine became one of the most popular German poets of his day. The work established his preeminence as a lyric poet, and has long remained the basis of his international reputation. This early poetry reflects the influence of Romanticism in its emphasis on love and despair, as well as in its pervasive tone of reverie. But Book of Songs also abounds with realism, skepticism, wit, and irony. Critics of the work acknowledge that Heine did not share the positive world view of such German Romantics as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and that he lacked faith in the ability of poetry to overcome the alienation of modern life. Book of Songs thus represents Heine's rejection of the German Romantic tradition and is thought to mark the beginning of the post-Romantic movement in German literature. Following a long hiatus from poetry in which Heine focused his attention on prose works related to politics, religion, society, and art, the first of two long, satirical poems Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (1844; Germany: A Winter's Tale) appeared, followed by Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachstraum (1847; Atta Troll). These poems blend history with political and literary satire, defying generic classification. Regarded as among Heine's most powerful and compelling poetry, Romanzero (1851; Romancero) and the posthumously published Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken (1869; Last Poems), date from late in his career. In these works, Heine frequently returns to the lyrical form of his earliest poetry. These poems vividly describe a man preparing for death, which he alternately fears and welcomes as a refuge. With their self-mocking, ironic tone, they capture the full range of Heine's tenderness and delicacy as well as his pain and terror, and are considered the fullest expressions of his poetic genius.
Although Heine was one of the most influential and popular poets of the nineteenth century, critical response to his work has varied over the years. His writings have met with both admiration and disapproval in his native land, where his ruthless satires and radical pronouncements made him appear unpatriotic and subversive to his contemporaries. His religion consistently worked against him: he was ostracized as a Jew among Germans, but when he converted to Protestantism, both Jews and Christians assailed him as an opportunist. All of Heine's works were banned in 1835 and he was at one time forbidden to return to Germany. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis tried to erase Heine's name from German history. They destroyed his grave, banned his books, and when they found that they could not eliminate his famous poem "Die Lorelei" from the collective memory of the German people, they attributed it to an unknown author. Heine's reputation has fared better outside Germany, but while his lyric poetry is widely praised, his ironic and satiric writings have only recently met with critical acclaim. The complexity and variety of his views have often made him an outcast—those who appreciated the politically militant poet of the 1840s in some cases resented his later, more conservative work. The only portion of Heine's oeuvre to be accepted by all critical factions remains the Book of Songs.