Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the sea is ever-present as the setting of the poems, the three major themes in The North Sea are mythology, love and separation, and poetry itself. Heine’s use of mythology is threefold. First, he uses myth as a form of expression; second, Heine creates his own myths; and finally, he mocks antique myths.

In Heine’s day it was common to use mythological references to talk about something else. In Heine’s case, myths expressed his existential theme: love and separation. In the “Song of the Okeanides,” the poet first indulges in reveries of love and is then interrupted by the “compassionate water-maids” who, calling him a fool, show him the reality of separation and desperation.

The myths that Heine invents about the unhappy marriages of gods have this same function in “Sunset” and “The Setting of the Sun.” On one hand, both poems intensify the feeling of separation by showing that the gods suffer eternally. On the other hand, this adds a humorous tone when the poet feels blessed because he is mortal and, thus, will not suffer forever.

Heine extends the humorous tone to mockery when, in “A Night by the Sea,” the godlike poet is afraid of catching colds that are as eternal as divine existence. Particularly in “The Gods of Greece,” Heine shows his irreverence: The poet confesses that he has never liked the Greek and Roman gods, who have degenerated and now merely “drift slowly like...

(The entire section is 557 words.)