The Poem

The North Sea is the last section of the collected poems in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827; Book of Songs, 1856) and consists of two cycles of poems in free verse. In the final version, authorized by Heine, the first, optimistic cycle contains twelve poems and the second, less cheerful one has ten.

The title indicates how important the sea is for Heine as a setting. Despite predecessors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, Heine is credited with having established the sea as a topic in German literature and with being the foremost poet of the sea.

The poems of The North Sea are among Heine’s most important works. They are unique among his works: Only in 1825 and 1826, when he wrote these poems, did he use free verse. In his mastery of the new form, Heine achieves a beauty of style in verses with well-chosen words, striking contrasts, and mythical imagery. The North Sea proves Heine’s strength and independence as a poet.

Heine’s own love for the sea enters directly into the poems. Visits to the North Sea in the summers of 1825 and 1826 supplied motivation and material for the first and second cycles, respectively. Heine felt the sea was invigorating and good for his health. His personal experience is subtly reflected in the poems and in the cycles’ moods. Since he felt less relaxed in 1826, the second cycle is less cheerful.

The first person in the poems is largely Heine himself. He took his impressions of the sea and transformed them into great poetry about nature, which in turn is the point of departure for philosophical and mythological reflections. With such a combination of nature and reflection, he adds new energy and new irony to the Romantic tradition that influences his sensitivity. These poems were perceived as turbulent and restless by the contemporary audience, explaining why their reception was initially slow. Nevertheless...

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Forms and Devices

Heine paid close attention to questions of form, so the interpretation of form is particularly important in regard to the author’s intentions. Three major formal devices shape the structure of the poems in The North Sea: free verse, compound adjectives, and ironic reversal.

Heine wrote free verse only during the years he worked on The North Sea. The verses are without rhyme, fixed meter, or set length; they are flexible according to the poet’s needs. Free verse was introduced to German poetry by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and was used by major poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Novalis. Heine is a master of the form and uses it to create various effects—for example, the motion of the waves: “more wild than wind and waters.”

This example uses alliteration to help echo the rhythmic and musical effect of the sea. Alliteration is often lost in translation, just as is the second major formal device, compound adjectives. Heine invents words, such as “happiness-blinded” and “Olympus-shaking,” to describe persons or events in a new and precise way. Depending on the translations, sometimes only one out of five compound adjectives in German is translated by an English compound adjective. Yet, since such word formations are even more extraordinary in English, the effect of the translation is comparable to that of the German original.

Heine’s rhetoric and, in particular,...

(The entire section is 420 words.)