The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

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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 The North Sea was, in Heine’s lifetime, translated into many languages and contributed to his world fame.

Each individual poem of The North Sea can stand by itself. The “Evening Twilight” at sea brings back pleasant childhood memories, while in “Sunset” the poet feels comfort only compared to Heine’s own myth of the sun’s and moon’s eternal separation. In “A Night by the Sea,” the love encounter between a woman and the godlike poet undergoes an ironic reversal because he is afraid of an “undying cough.” In yet another reversal, the poet is told in “Poseidon” that he is not worth divine wrath.

“The Avowal” is a key poem of the first cycle because the poet expresses an optimistic view of love in the grandiose metaphor of writing his proclamation of love in the sky with a burning tree. This poem is as much about love as about poetry itself.

“Night in the Cabin” consists of six songs professing love to woman, while in “Storm,” the poet imagines a faraway woman’s loving thoughts reaching out to him. “Peace at Sea” is contrasted with the ship’s boy stealing and with a seagull catching fish. The following two poems reflect one another directly: in “A Wraith in the Sea,” the underwater apparition of a city and the poet’s love invite him to leap into the sea. In “Purification,” the poet understands this apparition as his own madness and wishes to ban it.

“Peace” praises Jesus Christ, who walks “over the land and the sea,” bringing peace to the world. Heine had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in June of 1825, and the version of the poem in Book of Songs does not contain earlier satirical elements. Some critics contend it is a weak ending for the first cycle.

The less cheerful second cycle begins with “Ocean Greeting,” which celebrates the sea’s liberating force. The next poems evoke threatening forces, with Greek gods as forces behind the “Tempest,” and also mourn the loss of love with the imagery of being “Shipwrecked.”

“The Setting of the Sun” varies Heine’s myth of the unhappy marriage of gods. As the second cycle’s key poem, “The Song of the Okeanides” reveals the reality of separation hidden behind the poet’s illusion of love. The next poems vary the theme and then give way to more optimistic ones.

Even “The Gods of Greece” are dead and replaced by Christianity. Only a fool waits for the answer to the “Questions” about the meaning of life. Changing the thematic flow, “The Phoenix” asserts new hope for love. The poet’s increasing intoxification in “In Haven” ultimately extends to the whole drunken world, and is thus both pessimistic and humorous.

“Epilog” ends the collection of Book of Songs. It gently asserts love in a comparison that alludes to the powerful Romantic image for yearning: the blue flower.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

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, his compound adjectives make his poems sound like epics by Homer. In fact, part of Heine’s experience of the North Sea was the reading of Homer, whose German translation is reflected in Heine’s poems. Especially in those poems with Greek themes, it becomes obvious that Heine is both part of a long-standing tradition and independent because of his awareness of history. The latter enables Heine to use traditional elements for his own purposes—for example, to express the theme of love and separation.

A third major device in Heine’s poetry affects the structure of the poems. It is the ironic reversal for which Heine is famous. Typically, this device takes the mood of a poem and turns it around: Suddenly and unexpectedly, the sentimental tone shifts to bitterness, as in “The Song of the Okeanides,” or to mockery, as in “A Wraith in the Sea” with its abrupt ending, and as in the first poem of The North Sea, in which celebration of his new love surprisingly ends in the poet relinquishing his reason. This aspect of structure leads to questions of themes and meanings.