Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was born in Düsseldorf, the son of a Jewish tradesman. When business failed, Heinrich was sent to Hamburg, where his rich banker uncle Salomon prepared him for a career in commerce. Heine studied law at the universities of Bonn, Berlin and Göttingen, gaining his degree in 1825, but was always more interested in literature.

To avoid the restrictions placed upon Jews, Heinrich converted to Protestantism and changed his first name to Heinrich, but didn't in fact enter government service. He had made his poetic debut by 1821, brought out a collection of verse (inspired by unreturned love for cousins Amalie and Therese) by 1827, and thereafter supported himself by poetry, journalism, travel books, and works on philosophy and German literature. In 1834 he fell in love with Crecence Eugénie Mirat, an illiterate sales girl, marrying her seven years later.

As a journalist in Paris, Heine gradually aligned himself with French progressive thought, becoming unpopular with conservative opinion in German, even having his books banned in 1835. He admired Napoleon, supported strikes by Silesian weavers, and corresponded with Karl Marx. In 1844 his uncle left him a small pension, and another was provided by the French Government — both much needed when Heine's health deteriorated, leaving him paralyzed and partly blind. Nonetheless, Heine still managed to produce one of his finest collections (Romazero) and to fall in love with Camilla Selden, an Austrian woman, for whom he wrote particularly fine poetry. He died in Paris in February 1856, a controversial figure, continuing so even under the Nazis where his songs were printed unattributed.

Heine is best known for his bittersweet lyrics, but wrote in many forms, including sonnets, odes, ballads and biting satire. Heine worked very hard on the 1827 Buch der Lieder (he was not "a singer born"), but the later poetry is the better. His revolutionary politics, and opposition to the lusher vein of Romanticism have made much less popular in Germany than outside, though Rilke was influenced by him, as indeed were many non-German poets.

Heine combined a lyricism of great simplicity and purity with an ardent and melancholy disposition. His language was not new, but he added levels of speech through the parodistic mingling of conventionally poetic, conversational and commercial terms, and strengthened its rhythmic vitality. He used traditional, folk-like imagery to extend the remit of Romanticism, and his stay in Paris deepened a preoccupation with social issues. Heine never lost his love or hope for Germany, but felt compelled to satirize her failings in ways that his contemporaries could not understand or forgive. Heine was a perplexing man, and the poetry combines surface lightness with probing thought, faith with cynicism, hope for a better world with doubts that the arts would achieve very much. It can have many failings — sentimental, self-centred, ambivalent and shallow — but Heine is also the creator of mysterious pieces like Still ist die Nacht, Das ist eine weiáe Möwe, Begegnung, Lebensfahrt, Schelm von Bergen, Gedächtnisfeier, Jehuda ben Halevi and Mir lodert und wogt im Hirn eine Flut, and of satires like Atta Troll whose grace and accuracy have never been surpassed.

The German Romantics had to cope with the staggering achievements of Goethe, Schiller, and Herder, and did so by moving into the darker sides of human nature, and into areas where language fails. Its great founders were Schiller and Schlegel, but many writers following them lacked the resources to distinguish between dream and reality, taking easy routes into the Middle Ages, religion or dissipation. Imagination seemed hostile to ordinary life, and the cost was often high: the talent dried up or had to be paid with drink or suicide. Heine was not immune to these influences, and was slow to find his true voice.

Though addressed to many pretty girls, his lyrics are not expressions of love so much as a self-created atmosphere necessary for literary creation. Heine himself saw through the humbug, and a mordant sarcasm and then clear-sighted opposition to convention increasingly broke through. He produced much more journalism than poetry in the intervening years. But wrangling over uncle Salomon's will, and the conditions attached, left Heine feeling betrayed. He lost his social ideals, and, as his health declined, Heine turned inwards to paint man's nature in the most somber colours. Much is wrong with the 1851 Romanzero — weak poems, lack of organisation and finish — but it is still one of the world's great books, an astonishing record of self-analysis in the most difficult of circumstances. In October 1854 Heine published his last collection, containing odd poems as good as the previous, and even more a cry from the grave. He had lived through to the far side of Romanticism, and recorded with stark clarity what he saw.

For books on German Romanticism see B. Peuker's Lyric Descent in German Romantic Tradition (1987), and H. Bloom's German Poetry through 1915 (1987). On Heine himself are S. Prawer's Heine the Tragic Satirist (1961), Laura Hofrichter's Heinrich Heine (1963). As ever, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) provides useful summaries and references.

Suggestion: Heinrich Heine: Selected Poetry and Prose. Continuum International Publishing. 1982. $5.86

Good selection of Heine's work: Songs of Creation, Morphine, The Harz Journe, Germany: A Winter's Tale, and many others. A handsome, hardcover introduction to one of Germany's greatest poets.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.