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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Burton (1861–1940)

By Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)

IF quality is to decide a writer’s position, Heinrich Heine stands with the few great poets and literary men of Germany. His lyrics at their best have not been surpassed in his own land, and rank with the masterpieces of their kind in world literature. As a prose writer he had extraordinary brilliancy, vigor of thought, and grace of form, and as a thinker he must be regarded as one of the pioneers of modern ideas in our century. In German criticism, because of his Semitic blood—his pen not seldom dipped in gall when he wrote of the Fatherland—and his defects of character, full justice has not been done to him as singer and sayer. It remained for an English critic, Matthew Arnold, to define his true place in the literature of our time. A brief survey of his life will make this plainer.

A main thing to remember of Heine the man is, that he was an upper-class Jew. The services of this wonderful people to art, letters, and philosophy, as well as to politics and finance, are familiar. This boy of Düsseldorf was one of the most gifted of the race of Mendelssohn and Rothschild, Rachel and Rubinstein, Chopin and Disraeli. Born in that picturesque old Rhine town, December 13th, 1797, his father was a wealthy merchant, his mother a Van Geldern, daughter of a noted physician and statesman. He received a good education, first in a Jesuit monastery, then—after an attempt to establish him at Hamburg in mercantile life, which to the disappointment of his family proved utterly distasteful—in the German universities of Bonn and Göttingen. The law was thought of as a profession; but this necessitated his becoming a Christian, for at the time in Germany all the learned callings were closed to Jews. Heine, though not a believer in the religion of his people, was in thorough sympathy with their wrongs, always the champion of their cause: deeply must he have felt the humiliation of this enforced apostasy, which was performed in 1825, in his twenty-sixth year, the baptismal registry reading “Johann Christian Heine,”—names he never made use of as a writer. Doubtless the iron entered his soul in the act. Before his study at Göttingen, which resulted in his securing a law degree, Heine spent several years in Berlin, and published a volume of verse there in 1822 without success. Letters which he carried from the poet Schlegel secured him, however, the entrée of leading houses, where he met in familiar intercourse Chamisso, Hegel, and like noted folk, and became the center of social interest as he read from manuscript, essays and poems which were later to give him fame when grouped together in the volume entitled ‘Reisebilder’ (Sketches of Travel), containing his most famous work in the essay form; his ‘Buch der Lieder’ (Book of Songs), which followed soon thereafter, performing the same service for his reputation as poet. He made no professional use of his legal lore, but traveled and tasted life. The years from 1827 to 1830 were spent mostly in Munich and Berlin. Heine took an active part in the journalistic and literary life of these cities, and drove his pen steadily as a doughty free-lance of letters in the cause of intellectual emancipation. A satiric pamphlet against the nobility in 1830, the year of the July Revolution in France, made him fear for his personal liberty; and the next year he removed to Paris, and began the life there which was to end only in his death a quarter-century later.

A liaison with a grisette resulted in his marriage with her; and their quarrelsome, affectionate life together has been often limned. In the capital that has fascinated so many distinguished spirits—at first well, and happy, and seen in society, making occasional journeys abroad; later poor, sick, with gall in his pen and with a swarm of enemies—Heine passed this long period of his life, chained during the ten final years to what he called in grim metaphor his “mattress grave.” His disease was a spinal affection, resulting in slow paralysis, loss of sight, the withering of his limbs. No more terrible picture is offered in the personal annals of literature than that of the once gay poet, writhing in his bed through sleepless nights, the sight of one eye gone, the drooping lid of the other lifted by the hand that he might see to use the pen. “I saw the body all shrunk together, from which his legs hung down without signs of life,” says his sister, who visited him in Paris the year before he died. “I had to gather all my powers of self-control in order to support in quiet the horrible sight.” The volumes of letters and other memorabilia published in recent years plainly set forth the dual nature of this man: his querulousness, equivocations, and jealousies; his impulsive affection towards his near of kin. The French government granted him a pension for his services as revolutionary writer, and it came in the nick of time; for on the death in 1844 of his rich uncle Solomon Heine, who for years had granted him an allowance, it was found that no provision for its maintenance had been made in the will. Heine’s bitterness under the heavy hand of Fate comes out pathetically in his latest poems and letters. “I am no longer,” he wrote, “a joyous, somewhat corpulent Hellenist, laughing cheerfully down upon the melancholy Nazarenes. I am now a poor, fatally ill Jew, an emaciated picture of woe, an unhappy man.” His mind remained wonderfully clear to the end, as his literary work testifies; and at least he had the courage of his convictions, contemptuously repudiating the rumor that his former skepticism had been changed in the fiery alembic of suffering. His impious jest on his death-bed is typical, whether apocryphal or not: “God will forgive me: it is his line of business” (“c’est son métier”).

It may be said that there is a touch of heroism in the fact that for so long he refused to end an existence of such agony by his own violent act, enduring until Nature gave him release, which she did but tardily, when he had passed his fifty-sixth year, February 17th, 1856. He was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, without any religious ceremony, as he wished,—a conclusion in key with his whole manner of life,—preserving his Bohemianism to the very grave’s edge. It is likely that this terrible closing couplet from his poem on Morphine summed up his feeling honestly enough:—

  • “Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth,
  • The best of all were never to be born.”
  • Yet skepticism was not his constant attitude; a man of moods, he could write shortly before his taking-off: “I suffer greatly, but support my wretchedness with submission to the unfathomable will of God.” And it is but justice to add that in his will he declared that his intellectual pride was broken, and that he had come to rest in the truths of religion. It is by these inconsistencies and warring emotions that glimpses of the man’s complex, elusive nature are gained. In his younger days Heine is described as a handsome fellow, slight of figure, blond, with a poetic paleness and an air of distinction. Later he became corpulent: his sad physical presentment during the final years is finely indicated in the Hasselriis statue of the poet erected at Corfu by the Empress of Austria.

    Heine’s long Parisian residence, his Gallic inoculation, have been the theme of countless animadversions. He has been painted as a man without a country, a turncoat, and a traitor. Certain facts must be borne in mind in passing judgment upon him. As a boy in Düsseldorf he breathed the atmosphere of the French Revolution, and grew up an enthusiast of the cause, calling himself its “child.” The French, again, were the people who, as Arnold remarks, made it possible for the Jews in Germany to find wide activities for the exercise of their talents. His own land proscribed his works: in France, when he had mastered the tongue, his works which appeared in French won him speedy applause, and he was hailed as the wittiest writer since Voltaire. And to pass from external to internal, there was much in Heine to respond to the peculiarly French traits: flashing wit, lightness of touch, charm of form, lucidity of expression. Small wonder, then, that he crossed the Rhine and took up his abode in the city which has always been a center of enlightened thinking. In spite of all his sympathy, temperamental and intellectual, for things French, Heine never forgot that he was a German poet, nor was love for the Fatherland killed in his soul. There is a proud ring in his well-known lines:—

  • “I am a German poet
  • Of goodly German fame:
  • Where their best names are spoken,
  • Mine own they are sure to name.”
  • The estimates of Heine on his personal side range from partisan eulogium to savage and sweeping condemnation. Perhaps it is safest to regard him as a man of complex nature and warring tendencies, in whom faults of character were accentuated by the events of his career. He was sensitive to morbidity, irascible, dissolute in his youth, paying in after days for his excesses the fearful penalty of a slow torturous disease. He had a waspish tendency to sting an enemy, and was quick to take offense from friends. His mocking spirit of contradiction was not above sacrificing justice and purity to its ends; he was at times, in his writings, sensual, ribald, blasphemous. It is fair to plead in partial extenuation the early misappreciation of his kinsfolk, the hostility towards his race, and the exigencies of his subsequent battle for bread, reputation, and the victory of ideas. On the other hand, it is weak sentimentality or purblind favoritism to represent Heine as a hero ill-starred by fortune. He was far from an admirable character, and no whitewashing can make him so: his greatest enemy came from within. He was one who, like Louie in ‘David Grieve,’ was at death “freed from the fierce burden” of himself.

    As a lyric poet Heine is incomparable. It is in this form that the German genius finds finest, freest expression, and the student of German literature must still point to Goethe and Heine as its chief exponents; nor in lyric expression need the latter yield to the former. The representative pieces hereinafter printed, with others of like quality, are among the precious bits of poetry which the world has taken forever to its heart. No translation can give an adequate idea of their haunting perfection, their magic of diction and witchery of music. The reader unfamiliar with German and making Heine’s acquaintance at second hand needs to understand this impossibility; otherwise the poet’s due praise may seem rhetorical and excessive. It is said to take a thief to catch a thief: quite as truly does it take a poet to catch a poet, and the task is far more difficult. To get a first-hand knowledge of Heine lends in itself a zest to the learning of his tongue. The characteristics of these lyrics may be defined in few words. As to form, the poet wisely seized upon the popular ballad measures of older German literature, and in rhythms, stanzas, and diction, clung for the most part to those homely creations, thereby giving his work a natural touch and archaic flavor, blending to produce an effect of simplicity and directness which really hide consummate art. No lyrist has had more genuine songfulness, the last test of the true lyric; in proof, witness the frequency with which his most familiar poems have been set to music by the gifted composers of his own and other lands.

    But Heine was not alone the singer: he was critic and satirist as well. Even the exquisite deep romanticism of his lyrics is sometimes rudely broken by his own sneering laugh; it is as if the critical in him had of a sudden made him ashamed of his own emotion. One of his German critics has said that he bore a laughing tear-drop on his escutcheon: the flowery phrase denotes this mingling of song and satire in his work. The impish anticlimax of some of his loveliest utterances is one of the grievous things his admirers have to forgive. Heine, in his earlier spontaneous poetry a romanticist of the romanticists, came to perceive intellectually that the work of the so-called Romantic school in Germany must give way to an incoming age of scientific learning and modern ideas; that because it looked backward to the Middle Ages, the movement was wrong. And in this conviction he set himself to fight the old and hail the new. However this perception may prove his prophetic insight, it would have been better for his poetry had he remained in bondage to romanticism. When in a love poem which opens tenderly, he concludes with this stanza:

  • “Dearest friend, thou art in love,
  • And that love must be confessed;
  • For I see thy glowing heart
  • Plainly scorching through thy vest,”—
  • one feels that the poet gets his effect of fun at too costly a price. Parody, to pay, must gain more than it loses. The doubt of the singer’s sincerity is never quite shaken off. There is reason for calling Heine “the mocking-bird of the singing grove.”

    As an essay-writer, Heine’s substantial reputation rests upon the ‘Reisebilder,’ those gay, audacious, charming, bitter travel sketches of mingled verse and prose, in the main descriptive of his wanderings through Germany, and of the most varied theme and tone: now beautiful rhapsodies on the scenes of nature; now quaint pictures of life in city or country, painted with Dutch-like fidelity and realism; now rapier thrusts of wit; again powerful diatribes against existing conventions, or personal attacks upon fellow writers, as in his ill-judged and wanton onslaught upon the romantic bard, the Count von Platen. Far from being all of a piece, these phantasy sketches are of very unequal merit, ranging from the exquisite lyric work of the opening section and the delightful narrative of his experiences in the Hartz Mountains, to the sparkling indecencies of the division dealing with Italy, and the more labored argument and satire of the English Fragments. Of the ‘Reisebilder’ as a whole it may be said that inspiration grows steadily less in the successive parts. The portion penned in Heine’s early twenties deservedly caught the fancy of Europe by the polish and poetry, the striking manner and daring thought it possessed. The writer laughs at the traditions of learning in his native land, he pricks with the sword of satire the ponderous German sentimentality, and he fights with all the weapons in the arsenal of a gifted wit for that modern thing, Liberty,—liberty of conscience, action, opinion. The point of view was new in the literature of the early century, dosed as it was with heavy romanticism and in awe of the old for its own sake. The style was of unprecedented vigor and brilliance: it is easy to understand why he took his wide audience by storm, and became the literary force of the day. To say a wise, keen thing in a light way, to say it directly yet with grace, calls for a beautiful talent. To accomplish this in and with the German language is a double triumph. All Heine’s later writings, prose or poetry,—and during his residence in Paris he published numerous works,—are developments or after-echoes of his travel sketches and ‘Book of Songs.’ Some of them are simply high-class journalism: his critical faculty and graces of manner are best represented by the critique on the Romantic school, which is wise in forecasting the new literary ideals, and a model of clearness and elegance. But for the general reader it will suffice to make the acquaintance of the inimitable ‘Reisebilder’ and the ‘Buch der Lieder,’ born of his youth and meridian of genius.

    As a thinker, a force in the development of modern ideas,—the ideas of liberty in its application to politics, science, education, and religion,—Heine was a torch-bearer of his time. In his remarkable essay upon the German poet, Matthew Arnold gives him full credit for this influence,—possibly exaggerating it. The sympathy between the enlightened Jew who railed at perfunctoriness in Church and State, and the English radical who rebukes his fellow islanders for their lack of devotion to the Idea, naturally made Arnold the other’s champion. Both attacked the Philistine and saw the movement of the Time-spirit. But if the Englishman goes too far in declaring Heine “the most important German successor and continuator of Goethe in Goethe’s most important line of activity,”—that of “a soldier in the war of liberation of humanity,”—it is equally true that his estimate hits nearer the mark than the misappreciations of too many critics of his own country. Heine was an individualist, an iconoclast, satirizing with trenchant power existing abuses, as Ibsen in later days has done in Norway,—a service which Carlyle with Juvenalian vigor performed for England. This mission is at the best a thankless one; especially so when, as in the case of Heine, the character of the prophet is full of flaws. Yet is the work none the less valuable.

    Heine’s sentiment had in it much of the morbid, and in this aspect he might not inaptly be dubbed decadent; using the word as it is applied in latter-day literature, to denote what is unwholesome, extravagant, or bestial. But intellectually he saw clear, and was at bottom sane. His mind was too broad and vigorous, too incisive, for any other result.

    But in the ultimate decision, and in spite of his acidulous force as a dissolvent of outworn thoughts, Heinrich Heine’s chief fame must rest on his wonderful poetry; he was a poet called to song, who, when true to his highest inspiration, was a romantic bard of the first rank in lyric utterance. With his music in our ears, we can forget if not condone the blots on his career, the unequal quality of his production, growing pensive over the strange commingling in this man of Divine gifts and human defects. He is another of those clay vessels shaped by the hand of the mystic Potter to hold precious wine, for the stimulation and joy of his kind.