Heinrich Heine 1797-1856
(Born Harry Heine) German poet, essayist, critic, journalist, editor, dramatist, novella and travel writer.
For additional information about Heine's life and career, see .
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. He was the first major poet of his era 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 university 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 studies 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 necessary for any career 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. His first book of poetry, Gedichte (1822; Poems), was considered promising, though his next published work, Tragödien nebst einem lyrischen Intermezzo (1823), which contained his only attempts at drama, was considered unimportant and was largely ignored. Heine had far more success with his next work, a fictional account of a walking tour he had taken through the Harz Mountains. This work, Die Harzreise, was the first of a four-volume set titled Reisebilder (1826-31; Pictures of Travel). This work contains sketches of Heine's travels to England, Italy, and Nordenay on the North Sea, but it is also a record of his personal journey and a successful combination of autobiography with descriptions of scenery and social criticism.
With the publication of his next work, Book of Songs, Heine became the most popular German poet 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 its pervasive tone of reverie. Yet Book of Songs encompasses much more. The book abounds with realism, skepticism, 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. Book of Songs represents Heine's rejection of the German Romantic tradition and marks the beginning of the post-Romantic movement in German literature.
The compositions that followed his emigration to Paris, unlike his early and late poetry, are primarily concerned with politics, religion, society, art, and philosophy. These include essays that were collected in Französische Zustände (1833; French Affairs: Letters from Paris), Lutezio (1854; Lutetia), and De l'Allemagne (1835; Germany). With these works he hoped to encourage understanding between his adopted nation of France and his homeland, Germany; his efforts were enhanced by his ability to write in both French and German. His presentation of the human side of historical figures and his skillful evocation of the mood of the period give his essays their lasting value. Heine's Heinrich Heine über Ludwig Börne (1840; Ludwig Börne: Recollections of a Revolutionist), a biographical work including criticism and fictional letters, is an attempt by Heine to defend his views against those of Börne, a recently deceased leader of the exiled German radicals in Paris. The biting satire for which Heine had become known also pervades his long political poems, Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (1844; Germany: A Winter's Tale) and Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum (1847; Atta Troll). These two poems are a mixture of history and political and literary satire, and defy generic classification. His most powerful and compelling poetry, including that in Romanzero (1851; Romancero) and Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken (1869), dates from late in his career. In these works, Heine frequently returns to the lyrical form of his earliest poetry. They vividly describe a man preparing for death, which he alternately fears and welcomes as a refuge. With their self-mocking, ironic tone, these poems capture the full range of Heine's tenderness and delicacy as well as his pain and terror, and are considered the fullest expression of his poetic genius.
Although Heine was one of the most influential and popular poets of the nineteenth-century, critical response 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, 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 works, and when they found that they could not eliminate his famous poem "Die Lorelei" from the memory of the German people, they attributed it to an unknown author. Heine's reputation has fared better outside Germany, but while his 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, for 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 accepted by all critical factions is the Book of Songs.