Heinrich Heine

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Although Heinrich Heine is best remembered for his verse, he also made significant contributions to the development of the feuilleton and the political essay in Germany. Experiments with prose accelerated his rise to fame as a writer. Among the most important of his nonfiction works are Reisebilder (1826-1831; Pictures of Travel, 1855), a series of witty essays that are spiced with poetic imagination and penetrating social comment; Zur Geschichte der neueren schönen Litteratur in Deutschland (1833; Letters Auxiliary to the History of Modern Polite Literature in Germany, 1836), which was later republished and expanded as Die romantische Schule (1836; The Romantic School, 1876) and constitutes Heine’s personal settlement with German Romanticism; Französische Zustände (1833; French Affairs, 1889), a collection of sensitive newspaper articles about the contemporary political situation in France; and Vermischte Schriften (1854), a group of primarily political essays.

Heine’s attempts to create in other genres were unsuccessful. During his student years in Berlin, he began a novel, Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1887; The Rabbi of Bacherach, 1891), but it remained a fragment. Two dramas, Almansor and William Ratliff, published in Tragedies, Together with Lyric Intermezzo, failed on the stage, although William Ratliff was later employed by Pietro Mascagni as the basis of an opera.


Second only to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in impact on the history of German lyric poetry in the nineteenth century, Heinrich Heine was unquestionably the most controversial poet of his time. He was a major representative of the post-Romantic literary crisis and became the most renowned love poet in Europe after Petrarch, yet for decades he was more celebrated abroad than in Germany. Anti-Semitism and negative reactions to his biting satire, to his radical inclinations, and to his seemingly unpatriotic love of France combined to prevent any consistent approbation in Heine’s homeland. Nevertheless, he became the first Jewish author to break into the mainstream of German literature in modern times.

Heine’s poetic reputation is based primarily on Book of Songs, which went through twelve editions during his lifetime. The collection achieved immediate popularity with the public and was well received by critics; since 1827, it has been translated into more than fifty languages. Lyrics that became part of the Book of Songs were set to music as early as 1822, and within a year after the book appeared, Franz Schubert used six poems from the “Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”) section in his famous cycle Schwanengesang (1828; “Swan Song”). Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (1840; love poems) features musical settings for sixteen poems from Tragedies, Together with Lyric Intermezzo. By 1840, Heine’s works had become prime texts for German Lieder. In all, more than three thousand pieces of music have been written for the creations of Heine’s early period.

In 1835, four years after he went into self-imposed exile in France, Heine’s works were banned in Germany, along with the writings of the social reform and literary movement Junges Deutschland (Young Germany). The critics rejected him as a bad influence on Germany’s youth. His immediate popularity waned as conflicts with government censors increased. In the late nineteenth century, attempts to reclaim his works for German literature touched off riots, yet by then his enchanting lyrics had become so ingrained in German culture that it was impossible to expel them. The measure of Heine’s undying significance for German poetry is perhaps the fact that even the Nazis, who formally prohibited his works once again, could not exclude his poems completely from their anthologies of songs.


The son of a Jewish merchant, Chaim Harry Heine spent his early years working toward goals set for him by his family. His secondary education ended in 1814 when he left the Düsseldorf Lyceum without being graduated. After failing in two apprenticeships in Frankfurt, he was sent to Hamburg to prepare for a career in commerce under the direction of a wealthy uncle. While there, he fell in love with his cousin Amalie. This unfulfilled relationship was a stimulus for verse that the young poet published in a local periodical. In 1818, his uncle set him up in a retailing enterprise, but within a year Harry Heine and Co. was bankrupt. Acknowledging that his nephew was unsuited for business, Uncle Salomon at last agreed to underwrite his further education.

Between 1819 and 1825, Heine studied in Bonn, Berlin, and Göttingen. His university years were very important for his development as a poet. While in Bonn, he attended lectures given by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, whose interest in his work stimulated Heine’s creativity. In the fall of 1820, he moved to Göttingen. Besides law, he studied German history and philology until January, 1821, when he challenged another student to a duel and was expelled from the university. He continued his studies in Berlin and was rapidly accepted into prominent literary circles. Included among the writers with whom he associated were Adelbert von Chamisso, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Christian Dietrich Grabbe. Rahel von Varnhagen helped in the publication of Heine’s first collection of poems in 1822, and he quickly became known as a promising talent. During a visit to Hamburg in 1823, he met Julius Campe, who afterward published all Heine’s works except a few commissioned essays that he wrote in Paris. Literary success persuaded him away from the study of law, but at his uncle’s request Heine returned to Göttingen to complete work toward his degree. In the summer of 1825, he passed his examinations, though not with distinction. In order to facilitate a public career, he was baptized a Protestant, at which time he changed his name to Heinrich.

Travel was a significantly formative experience for Heine. Vacations in Cuxhaven and Norderney provided initial powerful impressions of the sea that informed the two North Sea cycles of the Book of Songs. Journeys through the Harz Mountains in 1824, to England in 1827, and to Italy the following year provided material for the Pictures of Travel series that elevated him to the literary mainstream of his time. Exposure to foreign points of view also aroused his interest in current political questions and led to a brief involvement as coeditor of Johann Friedrich von Cotta’s Politische Annalen in Munich in 1827 and 1828.

When continued efforts to obtain permission to practice law in Hamburg failed, Heine moved to Paris in 1831, where he began to write articles for French and German newspapers and journals. Heine loved Paris, and during the next few years friendships with Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and other writers, artists, and composers contributed to his sense of well-being. When the German Federal Diet banned his writings, making it impossible for him to continue contributing to German periodicals, the French government granted him a modest pension.

The 1840’s were a stormy period in Heine’s life. In 1841, he married Cresence Eugénie Mirat (whom he called “Mathilde”), his mistress of seven years. Her lack of education and understanding of his writings placed a strain on their relationship and later contributed to the poet’s increasing isolation from his friends. After returning from Hamburg in 1843, Heine met Karl Marx. Their association sharpened Heine’s political attitudes and increased his aggressive activism. Salomon Heine’s death in 1844 unleashed between the writer and his cousins a struggle for the inheritance. Eventually they reached an accommodation that guaranteed an annuity in exchange for Heine’s promise not to criticize family members in his writings.

After a collapse in 1848, Heine spent his remaining years in unceasing pain. An apparent venereal disease attacked his nervous system, leaving him paralyzed. Physical infirmities, however, did not stifle his creative spirit, and from the torment and loneliness of his “mattress grave,” he wrote some of the best poetry of his career.


Unlike many poets, Heinrich Heine never stated a formal theory of poetry that could serve as a basis for interpreting his works and measuring his creative development. For that reason, confusion and critical controversy have clouded the picture of his oeuvre, resulting in misunderstandings of his literary orientation and intentions. The general concept that he was a poet of experience is, at the very least, an oversimplification. To be sure, immediate personal observations of life were a consistent stimulus for Heine’s writing, yet his product is not simply a stylized reproduction of individual encounters with reality. Each poem reveals a reflective processing of unique perceptions of people, milieus, and events that transforms seemingly specific descriptions into generally valid representations of man’s confrontation with the times. The poet’s ability to convey, with penetrating exactitude, feelings, existential problems, and elements of the human condition that correspond to the concerns and apperceptions of a broad readership enabled him to generate lyrics that belong more to the poetry of ideas than to the poetry of experience.

A characteristic of Heine’s thought and verse is a purposeful poetic tension between the individual and the world. The dissonance between the artistic sensibility and reality is presented in unified constructs that represent qualities that were missing from the poet’s era: unity, form, constancy, and continuity. By emphasizing condition rather than event, Heine was able to offer meaningful illustrations in the juxtaposition of antithetical concepts: sunny milieu and melancholy mood, pain and witticism, affirmation and negation, enchantment of feeling and practical wisdom of experience, enthusiasm and pessimism, love and hate, spirit and reality, tradition and anticipation of the future. The magic and power of his verse arise from his ability to clothe these dynamic conflicts in deceptively simple, compact forms, pure melodic sounds and rhythms, and playfully witty treatments of theme, substance, motif, and detail.

More than anything else, Heine was a poet of mood. His greatest strengths were his sensitivity and his capacity to analyze, create, and manipulate feeling. A colorful interchange of disillusionment, scorn, cynicism, rebellion, blasphemy, playful mockery, longing, and melancholy is the essence of his appeal to the reader’s spirit. The goal, however, is not the arousal of emotion but rather the intensification of awareness, achieved by drawing the audience into a desired frame of feeling, then shattering the illusion in a breach of mood that typifies Heine’s poetry.

Although he was not a true representative of any single German literary movement, Heine wrote poems that reflect clear relationships to definite intellectual and artistic traditions. Both the German Enlightenment and German Romanticism provided him with important models. In matters of form, attitude, and style, he was a child of the Enlightenment. Especially visible are his epigrammatic technique and the tendency toward didactic exemplification and pointed representation. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was his favorite among Enlightenment authors. Heine combined the technical aspects of Enlightenment literary approach with a pronounced Romantic subjectivity in the handling of substance, theme, and motif, particularly in the examination of self, pain, experience, and condition. The absolute status of the self is a prominent characteristic of his works. In the emancipation of self, however, he carried the thoughtful exploration of personal individuality a step beyond that of the early Romantics and in so doing separated himself from them. Other Romantic traits in his lyrics include a dreamy fantasy of feeling and a pronounced element of irony. Where Friedrich Schlegel employed irony to transcend the restrictive material world and unite man with a spiritual cosmos, Heine used it to expand the self to encompass the cosmos. The feature of Romanticism with which Heine most consciously identified was the inclination of Joseph von Eichendorff and others toward simple musical poems modeled on the German folk song. Heine specifically acknowledged the influence of Wilhelm Müller, whose cultivation of pure sound and clear simplicity most closely approximated his own poetic ideal.

In many respects, the polish of language and form that marked Heine’s Book of Songs was never surpassed in later collections. At most a strengthening of intonation, an increase in wit, a maturing of the intellect subtly and gradually enhanced his writings with the passing years. Nevertheless, his literary career can be divided into four distinct phases with regard to material focus and poetic concern.

Early Years

Heine’s initial creative period encompassed his university years and reached its peak in the mid-1820’s. In Poems, the cycle of verse in Tragedies, Together with Lyric Intermezzo, and, finally, Book of Songs, the young poet opened a world of personal subjectivity at the center of which is a self that undergoes unceasing examination. Consciousness of the self, its suffering and loneliness, is the essence of melodic compositions that include poems of unrequited love, lyrical mood pictures, satires, romances, confessions, and parodies. Lines and stanzas deftly reflect Heine’s ability to feel his way into nature, the magic of legend, and the spiritual substance of man, while the poetic world remains a fragmentary manifestation of the subjective truthfulness of the moment.

The Self as a Mirror of the Times

A major change in orientation coincided with Heine’s move to Paris. The political upheaval in France and the death of Goethe signaled the end of an artistic era, and Heine looked forward to the possibility of a different literature that would replace the subjectivity of Romanticism with a new stress on life, time, and reality. He was especially attracted to the Saint-Simonian religion, which inspired within him a hope for a modern doctrine that would offer a new balance between Judeo-Christian ideals and those of classical antiquity. The lyrics in New Poems, the major document of this period, reveal a shift in emphasis from the self per se to the self as a mirror of the times. Heine’s poetry of the 1830’s is shallower than his earlier creations, yet it effectively presents the inner turmoil, confusion, and splintering of the era as Heine experienced it. Accompanying a slightly faded reprise of earlier themes is a new view of the poet as a heathen cosmopolitan who affirms material reality and champions the moment as having eternal value.

Political Radicalization

The third stage in Heine’s career is best described as a period of political radicalization. It most visibly affected his poetry during the mid-1840’s, the time of his friendship with Marx. In the aggressively satirical epics Atta Troll and Germany: A Winter’s Tale, he paired sharp criticism of contemporary conditions with revelations of his love for Germany, specifically attacking his own critics, radical literature, militant nationalism, student organizations, the German hatred of the French, the fragmented condition of the German nation, and almost everything else that was valued by the establishment.

Last of the Romantics

Profound isolation and intense physical pain provided the catalyst for a final poetic reorientation after Heine’s physical collapse in 1848. Some of the poems that he wrote in his “mattress grave” are among his greatest masterpieces, they reflect a new religiosity in spiritual penetration of the self. In Romanzero and other late poems, the poet becomes a kind of martyr, experiencing the world’s illness in his own heart. The act of suffering generates a poetry of bleak glosses of the human condition, heartrending laments, and songs about death unequaled in German literature.

Although Heine styled himself the last of the Romantics, a significant difference in approach to substance distinguishes his early poems from those of the Romantic movement. Where Clemens Maria Brentano and Eichendorff celebrated existence as it opened itself to them, Heine sang of a life that had closed its doors, shutting him out. The dominant themes of his Book of Songs are longing and suffering as aspects of the experience of disappointed love. Combining the sentimental pessimism of George Gordon, Lord Byron, with the objective portrayal of tangible reality, he succeeded in exploring love’s frustrations and pain more effectively, more impressively, and more imaginatively than any of his forerunners and contemporaries had done. In dream images, songs, romances, and sonnets that employ Romantic materials yet remain suspicious of the feelings that they symbolize, the poet transformed the barrier that he felt existed between himself and the world into deceptively simple, profoundly valid treatments of universal problems.

Book of Songs

The poems of Book of Songs are extraordinarily flexible, self-contained productions that derive their charm from the combination of supple form and seemingly directly experienced and personally felt content. Colorful sketches of lime trees, an ancient bastion, a city pond, a whistling boy, gardens, people, fields, forests, a mill wheel, and an old tower contribute to a world of great fascination and sensual seduction. The verse is often bittersweet, however, focusing not on the sunny summer landscape but on the sadness of the poet who does not participate in a beauty that mocks him. The forceful presentation of the individual’s isolation and conflict with the times represented a fresh direction in poetry that contributed greatly to Heine’s early popularity. At the same time, the carefully constructed tension between the poet and his surroundings established a pattern that became characteristic of all his works.

An extremely important feature of these early lyrics is the break in mood that typically occurs at several levels, including tone, setting, and the lyricist’s subjective interpretation of his situation. The tone frequently shifts from emotional to conversational, from delicate to blunt, while the settings of the imagination are shattered by the banal reality of modern society. As the poet analyzes his position vis-à-vis his milieu, his positive feeling is broken by frustration and defeat, his hope collapses beneath the awareness of his delusion, and his attraction to his beloved is marred by her unthinking cruelty. There is never any resolution of these conflicts, and the poem itself provides the only mediation between the writer and a hostile world.

Among the most exquisite compositions in Book of Songs are the rustically simple lyric paintings from “Die Harzreise” (“The Journey to the Harz”) and the rhythmically powerful, almost mystical studies from the two cycles of “Die Nordsee” (“The North Sea”). Filled with the fairy-tale atmosphere of the Rhine and the Harz Mountains, “The Journey to the Harz” poems exemplify Heine’s ability to capture the compelling musicality and inner tone of the folk song and to combine these elements with an overwhelming power of feeling in the formation of an intense poetry of mood. In “The North Sea,” he cultivated a new kind of language, anticipating twentieth century verse in free rhythms that sounded the depths of elemental human experience. Constant motion, changing patterns of light, play of wind, and movement of ships and fish combine as parts of a unified basic form. Heine pinpointed the individuality of the ocean in a given moment, reproducing atmosphere with precision and intensifying impact through mythological or human ornamentation. The rolling flow of impression is a consistent product of Heine’s poetic art in its finest form.

New Poems

Two years after moving to Paris, Heine published Letters Auxiliary to the History of Modern Polite Literature in Germany, his most significant theoretical treatise on literature and a work that marked his formal break with Romanticism. The major poetic document of this transition to a more realistic brand of expression is New Poems, a less integrated collection than Book of Songs, containing both echoes of early themes and the first fruits of his increased political commitment of the 1840’s. New Poems attests strongly a shift in approach and creative concern from poetry as an absolute to the demand for contemporary relevance.

The first cycle of New Poems, “Neuer Frühling” (“New Spring”), returns to the motifs that dominate the “Lyric Intermezzo” and “Homecoming” segments of Book of Songs yet presents them with greater polish and distance. New variations portray love as a distraction, a nuisance that causes emotional turmoil in the inherent knowledge of its transitoriness. The tone and direction of the entire volume are established in the prologue to “New Spring,” in which the poet contrasts his own subjection to the hindering influence of love with the strivings of others in “the great struggle of the times.”

Among the other sections of the book, “Verschiedene” (“Variae”), with its short cycles of rather acidic poems about the girls of Paris, its legendary ballad “Der Tannhäuser” (“Tannhäuser”), and its “Schöpfungslieder” (“Songs of Creation”), is the least coherent, most disturbing group of poems that Heine ever wrote. Campe, his publisher, decried the lyricist’s creation of what he called “whore and chamber-pot stories” and was extremely reluctant to publish them. Nothing that Heine wrote, however, is without artistic value, and there are nuggets of brilliance even here. Despite its artificiality and seeming inconsistency with Heine’s true poetic nature, “Tannhäuser,” for example, must be regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. The deeply psychological rejuvenation of the old folk epic, which served as the stimulus for Richard Wagner’s opera, reflects the poet’s all-encompassing and penetrating knowledge of the human heart.

“Zeitgedichte” (“Poems of the Times”), the concluding cycle in New Poems, sets the pattern for Heine’s harsh political satire of the 1840’s. Some of the lyrics were written expressly for Karl Marx’s newspaper Vorwärts. Most of them are informed by homesickness, longing, and the bitter disappointment that Heine felt as the expected dawn of spiritual freedom in Germany failed to materialize in the evolution of a more cosmopolitan relationship with the rest of Europe. Powerful poems directed against cultural, social, and political dilettantes anticipate the incisively masterful tones of his most successful epics of the period, Atta Troll and Germany: A Winter’s Tale; irreverent assaults on cherished institutions, superficial political activism, and his own critics accent his peculiar love-hate relationship with his homeland.


Regarded by many critics as Heine’s finest collection of poems, Romanzero presents his final attempts to come to grips with his own mortality. Rich in their sophistication, more coherent in tone than the lyrics of New Poems or even the Book of Songs, the romances, laments, and melodies of Romanzero reveal the wit, irony, and epigrammatic style for which Heine is famous in the service of a new, peculiarly transparent penetration of the self. Dominant in the poems is the theme of death, which confronts the individual in many forms. A new religiosity is present in the acknowledgment of a personal God with whom the poet quarrels about a divine justice that is out of phase with man’s needs. Individual creations pass through the spectrum of human and religious history and into the future in the expectation of a new social order. Bitter pessimism unmasks the dreams of life, pointing to the defeat of that which is noble and beautiful and the triumph of the worse man over the better as the derisive law of the world. Voicing the mourning and bitter resistance of the tormented soul, Heine transforms personal confrontation with suffering and death into a timeless statement of universal experience.

Romanzero is divided into three main parts, each of which projects a substantial array of feeling: seriousness, despair, goodness, compassion, a longing for faith, bitterness, and mature composure. The first section, “Historien” (“Stories”), is composed of discursive, sometimes rambling narrative ballads and romances dealing with the tragedies of kings, heroes, and poets. Some of them process through a temporal distance such typical Heine themes as the yearning for love, clothing them in historical trappings. Others, such as the cruel poem “Vitzliputzli” that ends the cycle, are profound discourses on man’s inhumanity to man. The poems of “Lamentationen” (“Lamentations”), the second major section, are directly confessional in form: deeply moving cries of anguish, sublime expressions of horror, statements of longing for home. The “Lazarus” poems that conclude this portion of Romanzero are especially vivid documents of the poet’s individual suffering in a world where God seems to be indifferent. In “Hebräische Melodien” (“Hebrew Melodies”), the last segment of the collection, Heine presented the essence of his reidentification with Judaism. Three long poems explore the broad dimensions of Jewish culture, history, and tradition, ending with an almost sinister medieval disputation between Christian and Jew that evolves into a tragicomic anticlerical satire. Thumbing his nose at irrational action, intolerance, and superstition, the poet offers a dying plea for humanism.

No other volume presents Heine so thoroughly in all his heights and depths, perfection and error, wit and seriousness. Captivating for the directness of despairing and contrite confession, repelling for its boastful, sometimes vicious cynicism, Romanzero, as perhaps no other work in the history of German lyric poetry, reveals the hubris of the problematic individual and penetrates the facade of the bright fool’s drama that is life.


Hermand, Jost, and Robert C. Holub, eds. Heinrich Heine’s Contested Identities: Politics, Religion, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A collection of essays concerning Heine’s identity, which was formed and reformed, revised and modified, in relationship to the politics, religion, and nationalism of his era. The essays offer an understanding of Heine’s predicaments and choices as well as the parameters placed on him by the exigencies of the time.

Justis, Diana Lynn. The Feminine in Heine’s Life and Oeuvre: Self and Other. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Heine’s literary representations of women and interactions with women vividly demonstrate his position as a marginal German-Jewish writer of the nineteenth century. Heine, like many Jews of that era, internalized the European cultural stereotype of the Jew as “woman,” that is, as essentially inferior and marginal.

Nisbet, Delia Fabbroni-Giannotti. Heinrich Heine and Giacomo Leopardi: The Rhetoric of Midrash. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Provides a critical analysis of the similarities between the rhetorical strategies of Heine’s text Ludwig Börne, Leopardi’s “Il Cantico del Gallo Silvestre,” and the midrashic process. In their texts, Heine and Leopardi interweave biblical references, historical events, and personal encounters with their narrative and juxtapose them to a contemporary situation, thus presenting the reader with their interpretation of an existential experience. These narratives are midrashic in inviting multiple interpretations of equal validity.

Pawel, Ernst. The Poet Dying: Heinrich Heine’s Last Years in Paris. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. In this biography of Heine, Pawel portrays a poet at the height of his creativity in the last eight years of his life, when he was confined to his bed with a mysterious ailment.

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

Investigate the cultural background that made it necessary for a baptism to admit Heinrich Heine to “European culture.”

Consider Heine’s role in mediating between the often antagonistic German and French cultures.

What were Heine’s contributions to the Young Germany movement?

Relate Heine’s wit and comedic talents to those of present-day comics, such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

Characterize Heine’s criticism of the Romanticists’ conception of medievalism.

What forces in his background and personality prepared Heine for his sardonic representation of both Judaism and Christianity in his poem “Disputation”?


Critical Essays