Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

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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 monstrous ghosts” in the night sky.

This poem demonstrates a considerable distance from the serious role Greek mythology played for German classicists such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Schiller mourns the death of the old gods in one poem; Heine borrows its title and writes a new poem mocking the gods. Heine embeds his ideas about Greek mythology in description of nature and understands the gods’ decline as part of the eternal struggle of being.

“The Gods of Greece” have been replaced by Christianity. The latter, however, appears to be both positive (“Wonder-worker”) and negative (“doleful”). In connection with the poem’s description of Venus Libitina, the “corpse-like goddess,” Heine seems to attack the tendencies in Christianity that deny sensual pleasures. It is important here that the old (sensual) gods have only been pushed aside and are still present. Like most of his other poems, this one varies Heine’s basic assumption of the world’s incoherence, which is the source of his second major theme: love and separation. Even in the positive poems, the poet is typically away from his love, either preparing to meet her or simply thinking about her. These situations are very delicate. In “Coronation” the poet states that love robs him of his reason, and in “The Song of the Okeanides” his positive feelings are transformed into depression.

“The Avowal,” probably the most positive poem of The North Sea, can be understood as strangely removed from real love. It presents Heine’s third major theme: poetry about itself. The poet professes his love, but the poem is more about his power to do so than about a woman. He uses a tree that he dipped into a volcano as his “colossal flame-soaked pen” in order to make his words stay in the sky forever. Thus Heine celebrates both the power of poetry and his own stature.