Heinrich Heine 1797-1856
(Born Harry Heine) German poet, essayist, critic, journalist, editor, playwright, and novella, sketch, and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Heine from 1982 to 2002. For additional information on Heine's career, see NCLC, Volumes 4 and 54.
A distinguished literary figure of nineteenth-century Europe, Heinrich Heine is best known for his Buch der Lieder (1827; Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs), a collection of love lyrics, many of which were later set to music by Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and other composers. Heine was the first major poet to adopt a humorous, ironic tone, and this pervades his poetry, prose, and commentaries on politics, art, literature, and society.
Heine was born in Düsseldorf on December 13, 1797, to Jewish parents Samson and Betty (van Geldern) Heine. Samson was unsuccessful in business, and the family was poor. Heine's early years were greatly influenced by Samson's brother Salomon, a successful, influential, and wealthy banker who financed Heine's university education. In 1819, Heine was sent to law school 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. The following year, Heine transferred to the law school at the University of Göttingen, but he found the school's conservatism stultifying. After being suspended for participating in a duel with a fellow student, he was sent to the University of Berlin. During Heine's four semesters there, he encountered some of the eminent minds of the time, including the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and gained entree to Berlin's literary circles. His first books, Gedichte (1822; Poems) and Tragödien nebst einem lyrischen Intermezzo (1823), were published during this time. At the behest of Uncle Salomon, who wanted his nephew to complete his law studies, Heine returned to the University of Göttingen. In the fall of 1824 he took a break from his studies, traveling for two months on foot through Germany's Harz Mountain region. The following year, he received his law degree, and shortly thereafter he changed his name from Harry to Heinrich and converted to Protestantism, a practical measure necessary to any future career because of the anti-Semitic laws of nineteenth-century Germany. Heine wrote an account of his Harz Mountain journey and for the next several years he traveled Europe and contemplated his career choices. He wrote and published sketches of these travels from 1826-31. Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs was published in 1827. Scholars generally agree that these poems of unrequited love were inspired by actual unrequited affections during Heine's youth, though some contend that the poems are actually Petrarchan exercises not based on personal experiences. The publication of Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs made Heine the most popular German poet of his day. In 1831, Heine immigrated to Paris, where he remained in self-imposed exile for most of his life. His writings of the next several years, unlike his early and late poetry, which were highly personal, were primarily concerned with politics, religion, society, art, and philosophy. In 1834, Heine met Crescence Mirat, a poor salesgirl, and they began living together in 1836. Heine wrote Heinrich Heine über Ludwig Börne (1840; Ludwig Borne: Recollections of a Revolutionist), a scathing biographical work, in response to unfavorable remarks by Börne, a recently deceased radical author. The work attacked Börne's personal life as well as political views, and insinuated that Börne was involved in a love triangle with a married woman. When the husband of Börne's lover challenged Heine to a duel in response to Heine's published accusations, Heine believed his life was at risk. Heine and Mirat quickly married, so that she would not be left destitute if he died. Heine survived the duel, held a week later, and suffered only a minor wound to his hip. During the next few years Heine wrote political poetry, culminating in the mock epics Deutschland: Ein Wintermarchen (1844; Germany: A Winter's Tale) and Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtsraum (1847; Atta Troll). 1848 marked a turning point in Heine's life and writing. He had suffered since the mid-1830s from worsening symptoms of venereal disease. In the spring of 1848, his legs became completely paralyzed, and he became partially blind. Confined to what he called his matratzengruft, or “mattress-grave,” Heine was in constant pain, yet was intellectually alert and continued to write until his death in 1856. His Romanzero (1851; Romancero) and Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken (1869), poetry collections written during this period, contain vivid depictions of a man preparing for a death that the alternately fears and welcomes as a refuge.
Heine's major early works deal primarily with personal subjects: unrequited love in Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs, and journeys through Europe in Reisebilder (1826-31; Pictures of Travel). Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs reflects the influence of Romanticism in its emphasis on love and despair as well as its pervasive tone of reverie—yet it also abounds with realism, scepticism, wit, and irony. Heine did not share the positive world view of such German Romantics as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and he lacked their faith in the ability of modern poetry to overcome the alienation and anxiety of modern life. Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs represents Heine's rejection of the German Romantic tradition and marks the beginning of the post-Romantic movement in German literature. Pictures of Travel, containing sketches of Heine's travels in the Harz Mountains, the island of Nordenay in the North Sea, Italy, and England, is a record of his personal journeys that combines autobiography and self-analysis with descriptions of scenery and social commentary. After moving to Paris, Heine's writing became more political and philosophical. His Französische Zustände (1833; French Affairs) and De l'Allemagne (1835; Germany) were collections of essays designed to encourage understanding between his adopted nation of France and his homeland, Germany. The essays present the human side of historical figures, and disarm readers with humor rather than confront them with critical arguments. Heine's mock epics Germany: A Winter's Tale and Atta Troll are a mixture of history and political and literary satire, and are frequently described as defying generic classification. Heine's major later works return to the lyrical form of his earliest poetry. His Romanzero and Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken collections contain a direct, unveiled expression of feeling. With their self-mocking, ironic tone, these poems capture the full range of Heine's tenderness and sensitivity as well as the pain and terror he experienced in his final years.
Heine was one of the most influential and popular poets of the nineteenth century, yet critical response to his work has varied widely over the years. His works 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, yet 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 from history, destroying his grave, banning his works, and when they found that they could not eliminate his famous “Die Lorelei” poem (from Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs) from the memory of the German people, they attributed it to an unknown author. Heine's reputation has fared better outside of Germany, but while the 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, because those who appreciate the politically militant poet of the 1840s in some cases resent the older, more conservative poet. The only part of Heine's work to be unconditionally accepted by all critical factions is Heinrich Heine's Book of Songs.