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Focus on Literature

210th Anniversary

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
Original name: Harry Heine;
in full Christian Johann Heinrich Heine

German poet of Jewish origin, whose lyrics have inspired such composers as Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann. Heinrich Heine lived at a time of major social and political changes: the French Revolution (1789-99) and the Napoleonic wars deeply influenced thinking. One of Heine’s most famous poems is ‘Die Lorelei’, set to music by Silcher in 1837. It has become one of the most popular of German songs.
Heinrich Heine was born in Düsseldorf. His father was a tradesman, who during the French occupation found new prospects opening up for Jews. When his father’s business failed, Heine was sent to Hamburg, where his rich banker uncle Salomon tried to encourage him into a commercial career, without success. Heine studied at the universities of Bonn, Berlin and Göttingen, but was more interested in literature than law, although he eventually took a degree in 1825. Heine’s teacher in Berlin was G.W.F. Hegel; they both admired Napoleon. In order to make possible a civil service career, closed to Jews at that time, Heine converted to Protestantism. He also changed his first name from Harry to the more Germanic Heinrich. However, he never practised or held a position in government service.
In 1827 Heine visited England, from where he returned disappointed and horrified by formality of behaviour and bourgeois materialism. In 1834 he fell in love with Crecence Eugénie Mirat (‘Mathilde’ in his poems), an illiterate salesgirl, whom he married seven years later. Mathilde was a spendthrift but during Heine’s eight-year-long illness she nursed him faithfully and tenderly. Heine wrote some poems for Mathilde, but they are not among his best.
In Paris Heine reported on French cultural and political affairs, wrote travel books and works on German literature and philosophy, besides publishing poetry. At that time, Paris was the cradle of new ideas: Victor Hugo had published Notre Dame de Paris, Balzac’s and George Sand’s first novels had appeared, Delacroix and Delaroche were the centers of art salons. Heine’s critical views annoyed the German censors, and he had no chance of becoming a prophet in his own country. At the end of 1835 the Federal German Diet tried to enforce a nationwide ban on all his works. Soon Heine found himself surrounded by police spies, and his voluntary exile became a forced one. The poet once stated: “When the heroes go off the stage, the clowns come on.”
After a visit to his home country Heine, in defiance of censors in Germany, published a long verse satire, DEUTCHLAND: EIN WINTERMÄRCHEN (1844), an attack on reactionary circles. Near the end of the poem, the patron goddess of Hamburg, reveals a vision of Germany’s future to the poet-narrator in a chamber pot. In the same year the Silesian weavers protested violently against intolerable working conditions and Heine sided with them in his poem: ‘”Doomed be the fatherland, false name, / Where nothing thrives but disgrace and shame, / Where flowers are crushed before they unfold, / Where the worm is quickened by rot and mold - We weave, we weave.”’ Friedrich Engels translated the poem into English, which later guaranteed that the poet became one of the most studied in Communist countries. Karl Marx also read Heine’s poems and corresponded with him, in spite of Heine’s saying, that “I agree we are all brothers, but I am the big brother and you are the little brothers.”
Heine’s uncle died in 1844 and left him a small pension; he also accepted a pension from the French government. After 1844 he suffered financial reversals and a physical deterioration. According to some suppositions he suffered either from congenital neuropathy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). From 1848 until his death he lay paralyzed, partly blind and heavily sedated on his “mattress grave”, but wrote one of his finest collection of verse, ROMANZERO (1851).
During his last years Heine was interested in combining elements of Christianity and pagan sensualism. His last romantic affair was with Camilla Selden, an Austrian woman, whom he called ‘Mouche’. His poems for Camilla are among his best love lyrics. Heine died in Paris on February 17, 1856. His verse influenced the young Rilke, Wilhelm Busch, and Frank Wedekind, and a number of other aspiring poets. However, long after his death, Heine’s work continued to stirr controversy in Germany, and proposals to erect his statue led to riots. Because of Heine’s Jewish background, the Nazis insisted that the poet’s songs should be marked ‘author unknown’ in poetry collections.
Heine’s poetry ranged from romantic lyrics about frustrated or bittersweet love to sharp political satire, but he didn’t have high hopes that his words would change anything: “You cant’ catch rats with syllogisms, / They nimbly jump your finest sophism.” (from ‘The Migratory Rats’) The “last king of Romanticism” had a love-hate relationship with German Romanticism but he produced some of its purest examples in poetry.

Be entirely tolerant or not at all; follow the good path or the evil one. To stand at the crossroads requires more strength than you possess.
Ordinarily he was insane, but he had lucid moments when he was merely stupid.
The Romans would never have found time to conquer the world if they had been obliged first to learn Latin.
There are more fools in the world than there are people.
When books are burned in the end people will be burned too.
Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
The weather-cock on the church spire, though made of iron, would soon be broken by the storm-wind if it... did not understand the noble art of turning to every wind.
He only profits from praise who values criticism.
God will forgive me. It’s his job.
Oh, what lies there are in kisses!
Sleep is lovely, death is better still, not to have been born is of course the miracle.
The music at a wedding procession always reminds me of the music of soldiers going into battle.
One should forgive one’s enemies, but not before they are hanged.

Heinrich Heine