Heinrich Heine

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111201553-Heine.jpg Heinrich Heine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

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,...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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”?