Heinrich Heine

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2111

Article abstract: Through his literary and journalistic works, Heine exposed the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of feudal society as it existed in many parts of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century.

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Early Life

Chaim Harry Heine was born in Düsseldorf, the economic and cultural capital of the German Rhineland, into a respected Jewish family. His father, Samson, was a moderately successful textile merchant, who had little influence on Heinrich’s upbringing. Indeed, the boy was reared almost exclusively by his well-educated, rationalist mother, Betty, who instilled in him—as well as in his siblings Charlotte, Gustav, and Maximilian—a deep sense of justice and morality, on the one hand, and an aversion for anything deemed impractical (such as art, literature, and theater), on the other.

Despite his mother’s efforts, Heine was eventually introduced to the arts and humanities—and also to Christian ideology—when he, at age ten, enrolled in the Jesuit school near his home. There, encouraged by his teachers, he began to develop his innate talent for writing, a talent upon which he hoped to build one day a viable literary career. His parents envisioned an entirely different future for him, however, and sent him to Hamburg in 1817 to begin an apprenticeship in business with his uncle Salomon Heine, a wealthy and influential banker, who was to become his longtime benefactor. Salomon attempted to transform his rather reluctant nephew into a true entrepreneur and even established a textile trading firm in the boy’s name, but Salomon finally succumbed to the youth’s wish to study law at the University of Bonn.

Once in Bonn, Heine did not pursue jurisprudence as he had originally planned, but instead took his course work in literature and history. Most noteworthy among his courses was a metrics seminar taught by the famed German Romanticist August Wilhelm von Schlegel, from whom he received valuable advice concerning the style and form of his early poetic attempts. After a year in Bonn, Heine transferred to the University of Göttingen to begin his legal studies in earnest, but involvement in a duel—strictly prohibited by university code—soon forced him to transfer again.

In 1821, he settled in Berlin, where he continued his education by electing courses in law and by visiting a series of lectures held by the renowned philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a major proponent of the historical dialectic, of the history of ideas, and of personal and intellectual freedom. While in Berlin, Heine was befriended by Karl and Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, a liberal aristocrat and his outspoken Jewish wife, who were the focal points of a literary salon frequented by Hegel and other intellectual luminaries of the day. At the age of twenty-seven, Heine returned to Göttingen to complete his legal studies, earning his doctorate in 1825, a year significant in that it also marks his conversion to Christianity and thus to a way of life which could, in his estimation, promote him from a Jewish outsider to an active participant in European culture.

Life’s Work

Heine’s career as a writer—inspired by the events of his youth, which culminated in a series of travels to Poland, England, northern Germany, and the Harz Mountains during the 1820’s—formally began in 1827, when he published his immensely popular Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1856), which pairs such traditionally Romantic elements as idealism, melancholy, and sentimentality with a unique brand of satire and irony. This collection, containing poems written as early as 1819, has love or, more specifically, unrequited love as its central theme. It no doubt was influenced by Heine’s unsuccessful attempt at wooing his cousin Amalie during his apprenticeship in Hamburg.

The year 1827 proved to be an eventful year for Heine. In addition to his Book of Songs, he published two volumes of Reisebilder (Pictures of Travel, 1855), describing his aforementioned trips and containing detailed commentaries on social and political ills, especially the oppression of Jews, blacks, and other minorities in many parts of Europe. Pictures of Travel brought Heine instant fame and notoriety—so much so, in fact, that Johann Friedrich von Cotta, the liberal-minded publisher of the great German masters Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, invited him to Munich early in 1827 to become coeditor of a new journal, Politische Annalen (political annals). Not particularly overjoyed by this offer because he had set his sights on a university appointment, Heine allowed himself a considerable amount of time to complete the journey to Munich from the north German city of Lüneburg, his home since 1825. Indeed, he made lengthy stops while en route, visiting the famous folklorists the Brothers Grimm in Kassel and Ludwig Börne, one of Germany’s most controversial political writers, in Frankfurt. When he finally did arrive in Munich, he was only willing to commit himself to the Politische Annalen for a scant six months.

In the latter half of 1828, Heine left Bavaria and, following Goethe’s example, traveled to northern Italy. His sojourn in this romantic area was cut short, however, by news of his father’s death, upon which followed a rather abrupt return to Germany. Heine now settled with his grieving mother at the home of his Uncle Salomon in Hamburg. There, he put forth two additional volumes of Pictures of Travel (1830-1831), in which he primarily recounted his Italian travels. He also used these volumes to comment on the political situation in France, a nation which had, in July, 1830, experienced a revolution, in the course of which the Bourbon Charles X was replaced by the more liberal “citizen-king,” Louis-Philippe. So enthralled was Heine by this development that he proclaimed France the new “Promised Land” of the liberal cause and, in so doing, contrasted it with conservative Germany, still ruled by the oppressive proponents of the old feudal order.

In May, 1831, Heine, still subsidized by his Uncle Salomon, journeyed to Paris to experience the new wave of liberalism at first hand. There, he joined the ranks of the ultraliberal Saint-Simonians and, as a foreign correspondent for the Allgemeine Zeitung (city of Augsburg newspaper), attempted to acquaint Germans with the major tenets of French progressivism. Heine also attempted, in book form, to acquaint Germans with contemporary trends in French literature through the various volumes of his Der Salon (1834-1840; The Salon, 1893), which combine commentaries written in a distinctly conversational tone with a variety of original literary pieces, including the fragmentary novel Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1887; The Rabbi of Bacherach, 1891).

Heine was extremely popular in France. His extensive circle of admirers included such luminaries as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Hector Berlioz, and Frédéric Chopin. In his native Germany, however, where the archconservative Metternich government banned his works in 1835 because they allegedly represented an affront against “altar and throne,” his circle of supporters was comparatively small. In fact, it was not until 1840, the year the ban was lifted, that it again became safe to appreciate Heine in Germany.

The year 1840 is significant in that it also marks the beginning of a very productive period in Heine’s life, during which he resumed his reports for the Allgemeine Zeitung and began work on a wide variety of literary projects. These included the well-known mock epics Atta Troll (1847; English translation, 1876) and Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (1844; Germany: A Winter’s Tale, 1892), both of which were directed against the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the German bourgeoisie. In 1843, Heine interrupted his heavy work schedule for several months to travel to Hamburg, where he met with his mother as well as with his publishers at the firm of Hoffmann and Campe. Accompanying him on this journey was Mathilde (née Eugénie Mirat), his Belgian-born wife of nearly two years. Shortly after he returned to Paris in 1844, his Uncle Salomon died, leaving Heine’s economic future uncertain. His health also began to fail drastically, and in 1848, the year of the German revolution, his health deteriorated completely, leaving him a cripple, permanently confined to his bed.

Almost miraculously, Heine managed to remain lucid throughout the entire ordeal and, on his better days, even continued his writing. Using secretaries, he was able to produce a final great collection of poems in 1851, Romanzero (English translation, 1859).

After eight years of intense suffering, Heine—having readied many of his writings for publication in a collected works—died in February, 1856, at the age of fifty-eight. According to his wishes, he was buried in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery under a headstone bearing the simple yet significant inscription: “Here lies a German poet.”


Heinrich Heine’s fame is rooted primarily in his lyric poetry, which not only gave rise to some of the most beloved folk songs ever written in the German language but also appeared in countless foreign translations. On the basis of his early poetry, Heine is often classified as a major proponent of the Romantic tradition. In truth, however, he often criticized the Romantic movement for its idealism and its lack of social and political commitment. During the turbulent period preceding the Revolution of 1848, he called for a new German literature focusing on such pressing issues of the day as human rights, women’s emancipation, and equal representation of the masses in national government. Indeed, Heine is still known as one of Germany’s most outspoken champions of the liberal cause. His name is frequently associated with the progressive Saint-Simonians in France as well as with Young Germany, a prerevolutionary movement among liberal authors, of which Heine was generally regarded the spiritual leader.

Heine has often (and by no means incorrectly) been described as an anomaly, a literary outsider of sorts, who combines Judaism and Christianity, Romanticism and realism, rationality and imagination, and beautiful verses and the most biting forms of satire and irony in a single person. Yet it is Heine’s uniqueness which has prompted such a lively interest in his life and works, an interest which has led to the formation of both a Heine Institute and a Heine Society in Düsseldorf and which has spawned countless scholarly publications throughout the world.


Atkins, H. G. Heine. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1929. A standard biography providing detailed information on Heine’s life and work. Characterizes Heine as an unusually gifted poet but, at the same time, questions the validity of his political writings. Includes an excellent bibliography of secondary sources.

Brod, Max. Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt. Translated by Joseph Witriol. New York: New York University Press, 1957. A standard biography which frequently utilizes excerpts from Heine’s works to shed light on important facts and events. Deals at length with Jewish-Gentile relationships and their bearing on Heine’s life and career. Short but useful bibliography.

Browne, Lewis. That Man Heine. New York: Macmillan, 1927. This well-written, highly entertaining biography focuses on Heine’s outsider status in terms of both literature and society. It characterizes his existence as a constant exile from the German feudal order. Bibliography centers on biographical references.

Butler, E. M. Heinrich Heine: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1956. This colorful account focuses on the Saint-Simonian influences on Heine, on his discovery of the Dionysian experience for German literature, and on his final years of great physical and emotional suffering spent in his “mattress grave.”

Fejtö, François. Heine: A Biography. Translated by Mervyn Savill. London: Allan Wingate, 1946. A detailed account of Heine’s life, aimed at identifying “the very essence of the man.” Attempts to explain the personality capable of producing such a timeless and widely acclaimed work of art as the Book of Songs. Bibliography includes many sources on Heine’s relationship to France.

Rose, William. The Early Love Poetry of Heinrich Heine: An Inquiry into Poetic Inspiration. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. In this excellent book, the author investigates—and seriously questions—the extent to which Heine’s early love poetry can be viewed as an autobiographical confession.

Sammons, Jeffrey L. Heinrich Heine: A Modern Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. One of the most critical studies ever written on Heine’s life and work. The poet emerges as a problematic individual, perpetually at odds with his surroundings. This biography is fully documented and avoids the subjectivity which pervades many early treatments of Heine’s life. Contains an excellent discussion of Heine’s reception in Germany as well as a useful bibliography.

Spencer, Hanna. Heinrich Heine. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This Twayne series book represents a brief introduction to Heine’s life and works geared specifically to the beginning student of German literature. It includes a chronology of Heine’s life, interpretations of his major works, and a select, annotated bibliography containing a large number of primary and secondary sources in English.

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