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


By Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)

From ‘Book Le Grand’: Translation of Charles Godfrey Leland

YES, madam, there was I born; and I am particular in calling attention to this fact, lest after my death seven cities—those of Schilda, Krähwinkel, Polwitz, Bockum, Dülken, Göttingen, and Schöppenstadt—should contend for the honor of having witnessed my birth. Düsseldorf is a town on the Rhine where about sixteen thousand mortals live, and where many hundred thousands are buried; and among them are many of whom my mother says it were better if they were still alive,—for example, my grandfather and my uncle, the old Herr van Geldern and the young Herr van Geldern, who were both such celebrated doctors and saved the lives of so many men, and yet at last must both die themselves. And good pious Ursula, who bore me when a child in her arms, also lies buried there, and a rose-bush grows over her grave; she loved rose perfume so much in her life, and her heart was all rose perfume and goodness. And the shrewd old Canonicus also lies there buried. Lord, how miserable he looked when I last saw him! He consisted of nothing but soul and plasters, and yet he studied night and day as though he feared lest the worms might find a few ideas missing in his head. Little William also lies there, and that is my fault. We were schoolmates in the Franciscan cloister, and were one day playing on that side of the building where the Düssel flows between stone walls, and I said, “William, do get the kitten out, which has just fallen in!” and he cheerfully climbed out on the board which stretched over the brook, and pulled the cat out of the water, but fell in himself, and when they took him out he was dripping and dead. The kitten lived to a good old age.

The town of Düsseldorf is very beautiful, and if you think of it when in foreign lands, and happen at the same time to have been born there, strange feelings come over the soul. I was born there, and feel as if I must go directly home. And when I say home, I mean the Völkerstrasse and the house where I was born. This house will be some day very remarkable, and I have sent word to the old lady who owns it that she must not for her life sell it. For the whole house she would now hardly get as much as the present which the green-veiled English ladies will give the servant-girl when she shows them the room where I was born, and the hen-house wherein my father generally imprisoned me for stealing grapes, and also the brown door on which my mother taught me to write with chalk—O Lord! madam, should I ever become a famous author, it has cost my poor mother trouble enough.

But my renown as yet slumbers in the marble quarries of Carrara; the waste-paper laurel with which they have bedecked my brow has not spread its perfume through the wide world; and the green-veiled English ladies, when they visit Düsseldorf, leave the celebrated house unvisited, and go directly to the Market Place and there gaze on the colossal black equestrian statue which stands in its midst. This represents the Prince-Elector, Jan Wilhelm. He wears black armor and a long hanging wig.

In those days princes were not the persecuted wretches which they now are. Their crowns grew firmly on their heads, and at night they drew their caps over them and slept in peace; and their people slumbered calmly at their feet, and when they awoke in the morning they said, “Good-morning, father!” and he replied, “Good-morning, dear children!”

But there came a sudden change over all this; for one morning, when we awoke and would say, “Good-morning, father!” the father had traveled away, and in the whole town there was nothing but dumb sorrow. Everywhere there was a funeral-like expression, and people slipped silently through the market and read the long paper placed on the door of the town-house. It was dark and lowering, yet the lean tailor Kilian stood in the nankeen jacket which he generally wore only at home, and in his blue woolen stockings, so that his little bare legs peeped out as if in sorrow, and his thin lips quivered as he read murmuringly the handbill. An old invalid soldier from the Palatine read it in a somewhat louder tone, and little by little a transparent tear ran down his white, honorable old mustache. I stood near him, and asked why he wept? And he replied, “The Prince-Elector has abdicated.” And then he read further, and at the words “for the long-manifested fidelity of my subjects,” “and hereby release you from allegiance,” he wept still more. It is a strange sight to see, when so old a man, in faded uniform, with a scarred veteran’s face, suddenly bursts into tears. While we read, the Princely-Electoral coat-of-arms was being taken down from the Town Hall, and everything began to appear as miserably dreary as though we were waiting for an eclipse of the sun. The gentlemen town councilors went about at an abdicating wearisome gait; even the omnipotent beadle looked as though he had no more commands to give, and stood calmly indifferent, although the crazy Aloysius stood upon one leg and chattered the names of French generals, while the tipsy, crooked Gumpertz rolled around in the gutter, singing Ça ira! Ça ira!

But I went home, weeping and lamenting because “the Prince-Elector had abducted!” My mother had trouble enough to explain the word, but I would hear nothing. I knew what I knew, and went weeping to bed, and in the night dreamed that the world had come to an end; that all the fair flower gardens and green meadows of the world were taken up and rolled up, and put away like carpets and baize from the floor; that a beadle climbed up on a high ladder and took down the sun; and that the tailor Kilian stood by and said to himself, “I must go home and dress myself neatly, for I am dead and am to be buried this afternoon.” And it grew darker and darker; a few stars glimmered sparely on high, and these at length fell down like yellow leaves in autumn; one by one all men vanished, and I, a poor child, wandered in anguish around, until, before the willow fence of a deserted farm-house, I saw a man digging up the earth with a spade, and near him an ugly spiteful-looking woman who held something in her apron like a human head—but it was the moon, and she laid it carefully in the open grave; and behind me stood the Palatine invalid, sighing, and spelling “The Prince-Elector has abducted.”…

The next day the world was again all in order, and we had school as before, and things were got by heart as before: the Roman emperors, chronology, the nomina in im, the verba irregularia, Greek, Hebrew, geography, German, mental arithmetic—Lord! my head is still giddy with it!—all must be thoroughly learned. And much of it was eventually to my advantage. For had I not learned the Roman emperors by heart, it would subsequently have been a matter of perfect indifference to me whether Niebuhr had or had not proved that they never really existed. And had I not learned the numbers of the different years, how could I ever in later years have found out any one in Berlin, where one house is as like another as drops of water or as grenadiers, and where it is impossible to find a friend unless you have the number of his house in your head? Therefore I associated with every friend some historical event which had happened in a year corresponding to the number of his house, so that the one recalled the other, and some curious point in history always occurred to me whenever I met any one whom I visited. For instance, when I met my tailor I at once thought of the battle of Marathon; if I saw the banker Christian Gumpel, I remembered the destruction of Jerusalem; if a Portuguese friend deeply in debt, of the flight of Mahomet; if the university judge, a man whose probity is well known, of the death of Haman; and if Wadzeck, I was at once reminded of Cleopatra. Ah, heaven! the poor creature is dead now; our tears are dry, and we may say of her with Hamlet, “Take her for all in all, she was an old woman; we oft shall look upon her like again!” But as I said, chronology is necessary. I know men who have nothing in their heads but a few years, yet who know exactly where to look for the right houses, and are moreover regular professors. But oh, the trouble I had at school with my learning to count! and it went even worse with the ready reckoning. I understood best of all subtraction, and for this I had a very practical rule: “four can’t be taken from three, therefore I must borrow one;” but I advise all in such a case to borrow a few extra dollars, for no one can tell what may happen.