(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Gedichte [Poems] 1822

Tragödien nebst einem lyrischen Intermezzo (drama and poetry) 1823

Buch der Lieder [Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs] 1827

Deutschland: Ein Wintermàrchen [Germany: A Winter's Tale] (essay and poetry) 1844

Neue Gedichte [New Poems] 1844

Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum [Atta Troll] 1847

Romanzero [Romancero] 1851

Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken [Last Poems] 1869

The Poems of Heine, Complete 1878

Other Major Works

Reisebilder. 4 vols. [Pictures of Travel] (travel sketches) 1826-31

Franzôsische Zustânde [French Affairs: Letters from Paris] (essays) 1833

Zur Geschichte der neuern schönen Literatur in Deutschland [Letters Auxiliary to the History of Modern Polite Literature in Germany] (essay) 1833

Der Salon. 4 vols. [The Salon; or, Letters on Art, Music, Popular Life and Politics] (criticism, poetry, unfinished novels, essays, and letters) 1834-40

Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland [Religion and Philosophy in Germany] (essay) 1835

Shakespeare's Mädchen und Frauen [Heine on Shakespeare: A Translation of His Notes on Shakespeare's Heroines] (criticism) 1839

Heinrich Heine über Ludwig Borne [Ludwig Börne: Recollections of a Revolutionist] (criticism and fictional letters) 1840

Der Doktor Faust: Ein Tanzpoem, nebst kurosien Berichten über Teufel, Hexen und Dichkunst [Doktor Faust: A Dance Poem, Together with Some Rare Accounts of Witches, Devils and the Ancient Art of Sorcery] (ballet scenario) 1851

Der Verbannten Götter [Gods in Exile] (novella) 1853

Vermischte Schriften. 3 vols, (poetry, novella, ballet scenario, and essays) 1854

Heinrich Heines sämtliche Werke. 12 vols. [The Works of Heinrich Heine] (poetry, essays, ballet scenario, criticism, novella, unfinished novels, travel sketches, and memoirs) 1887-90

Heinrich Heines Familienleben [The Family Life of Heinrich Heine] (letters) 1892

Briefe. 6 vols, (letters) 1950-51

Stuart Atkins (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Evaluation of Heine's Neue Gedichte," in Wächter und Hüter: Festschrift für Hermann J. Weigand, edited by Curt von Faber du Faur, Konstantin Reichardt, and Heinz Bluhm, Department of Germanic Language, Yale University, 1957, pp. 99-107.

[In the following essay, Atkins surveys critical opinion of Heine's relatively neglected Neue Gedichte.]

One of the great curiosities of German literary history is the division of opinion which has long prevailed on the subject of Heine's stature as a poet. Outside the German-speaking world Heine may properly be named in the same breath with Goethe or Rilke, for an overwhelming majority of non-German critics, even...

(The entire section is 3639 words.)

Margaret A. Rose (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Idea of the 'Sol Iustitiae" in Heine's Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen," in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, December, 1978, pp. 604-18.

[In the following essay, Rose examines Heine's use of pagan and Christian imagery in Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen—a poetic satire of volatile German politics in the 1840s.]

It has been assumed, that, in Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen of 1844, Heine eschewed the symbols of Mid-summer as well as the carnivalistic laughter of Atta Troll. Ein Sommernachtstraum of 1843. Yet astral myth motifs abound in his "Winter's Tale," as in the earlier...

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Hanna Spencer (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Heinrich Heine, Twayne Publishers, 1982, 173 p.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer explores the popular lyric poems of Heine's Buch der Lieder.]

The collection through which Heine's poems have achieved this world renown, entitled simply and appropriately Buch der Lieder[Book of Songs], was published by Hoffmann und Campe in Hamburg in 1827. The book contains poems Heine wrote beginning at age sixteen, although the majority originated between 1821 and 1824, that is, two to five years after he had left Hamburg and his muse. It is divided in chronological order into sections entitled "Junge Leiden" [Young Sorrows], "Lyrisches Intermezzo" [Lyric...

(The entire section is 6125 words.)

Jeffrey L. Sammons (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mortification of the Emancipated Flesh: The Case of Heine," in Hypatia: Essays in Classics, Comparative Literature, and Philosophy, edited by William M. Calder III, Ulrich K. Goldsmith, and Phyllis B. Kenevan, Colorado Associated University Press, 1985, pp. 187-98.

[In the following essay, Sammons studies the link between Heine's illness and his literary creativity.]

The medical report on nineteenth-century German literature is quite varied and therefore probably statistically insignificant; no specific theme seems to run through it. There is, of course, the litany of early deaths: Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, dead of typhus at twenty-five in 1798; Novalis of...

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Heinz R. Kuehn (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rediscovering Heinrich Heine," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVII, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 123-38.

[In the following essay, Kuehn offers his impressions of Heine and his poetry.]

As with most of the German poems I still know by heart, nearly forty years after I had left Germany, it was my father's voice that first conjured up in my young and receptive soul the images of Heine's poetry, the bewitching images of a world in which joy and sadness, scorn and trust, hope and despair, candor and irony, dream and reality seem, incredibly, to fuse into an awesome and irresistibly attractive symphony. It was not a wholesome world for a child whose inner vision should...

(The entire section is 6289 words.)

Michael Perraudin (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Heinrich Heine Poetry in Context: A Study of 'Buch der Lieder,' Berg Publishers Ltd., 1989, 292 p.

[In the following excerpt, Perraudin discusses imagery, theme, and style in two chronologically distinct poems of Buch der Lieder.]

Two of the most complex, important and, given their importance, also most neglected poems of Heine's Buch der Lieder period are the principal objects of attention of this chapter. It is evident that in a simply chronological sense 'Die Weihe' of 1816 and 'Im Hafen' of 1826 represent the 'Anfang und Ende meines lyrischen Jugendlebens'—the phrase is Heine's own epistolary characterisation of the Buch der Lieder...

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John Carson Pettey (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anticolonialism in Heine's 'Vitzliputzli'," in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1993, pp. 37-47.

[In the following essay, Pettey investigates Heine's representation of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in his poem "Vitzliputzli" as primarily a violent clash of religions.]

In "Vitzliputzli",1 the longest of the "Historien" in Romanzero (1851), Heine avoided sentimentalizing the Aztecs vis-à-vis their Spanish conquerors and colonizers. He was chiefly concerned with presenting his historical vision in a disturbingly vivid, nightmarish account of the clash between two diverse cultures. Following a major theme found in the "Historien,"...

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Roger F. Cook (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Citronia'—'Kennst du das Land…? ': A Riddle of Sexuality and Desire," in Heine-Jahrbuch 1996, Verlag J. B. Metzler, 1996, pp. 81-112.

[In the following excerpt, Cook evaluates Heine's portrayal of sexual desire in his poem "Citronia."]

Of all of Heine's posthumously published poems perhaps none has such a checkered past as "Citronia". First mention of it came in June 1856 when Mathilda's lawyer, Henri Julia, placed it first in the list of 35 poems he sent to Christian Schad for publication in Der Deutsche Musenalmanach. But when the final agreement with Schad was reached, "Citronia" was one of the poems Schad decided not to publish because he...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Brod, Max. Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt. Translated by Joseph Witriol. New York: New York University Press, 1957, 355 p.

A comprehensive biography that approaches Heine's life and work through an awareness of his German-Jewish background.

Hofrichter, Laura. Heinrich Heine. Translated by Barker Fairley. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1963, 174 p.

Critical biography that emphasizes the importance of Heine's later poetry.

Kossoff, Philip. Valiant Heart: A Biography of Heinrich Heine. New York: Cornwall...

(The entire section is 860 words.)