Friendship, Love, the Philosopher’s Stone,
These three things are ranked alone;
These I sought from sun to sun,
And I found—not even one.
— Heinrich Heine
einrich Heine was one of those writers, rare at any time, welcome always, who found it impossible to be dull. In everything he wrote, he captivated, sometimes infuriated, often dazzled. Heine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1856, wrote poetry, plays, criticism, essays, fiction, travel books, and journalism. All of it was marked by passion and wit, not a standard combination. “I hate ambiguous words,” he noted, “hypocritical flowers, cowardly fig-leaves, from the depth of my soul.” He thought himself, not incorrectly, in the line of Aristophanes, Cervantes, Molière. Matthew Arnold called Heine “the most important German successor and continuator of Goethe in Goethe’s most important line of activity…as ‘a soldier in the war of liberation of humanity.’”
George Eliot, that other great Victorian, wrote of Heinrich Heine that
he was one of the most remarkable men of this age: no echo but a real voice…a surpassing poet, who has uttered our feelings for us in delicious song; a humorist, who touches leaden folly with the magic wand of the fine gold of art—who sheds his sunny smile on human tears, and makes them a beauteous rainbow on the cloudy background of life; a wit, who holds in his mighty hand the most scorching of lightnings of satire; an artist in prose literature, who has shown even more completely than Goethe the possibilities of German prose; and—in spite of all the charges against him, true as well as false—a lover of freedom who has spoken wise and brave words on behalf of his fellow men.
eine suffered the Chinese curse of having lived in interesting times. He was born while Napoleon, whom he much admired as a young man and once saw riding through the streets of Dusseldorf, was setting out to acquire his empire. He twice met Goethe. He knew Karl Marx, who admired his poetry more than Heine, in the end, admired Marx’s politics. He was a friend to Balzac’s, and probably a lover of George Sand. He lived through two revolutions, those of July 1830 and of February 1848. He was the victim of censorship under Metternich—a warrant for his arrest in Prussia was issued in 1835—the beneficiary of French freedom of expression, and a writer one of whose sidelines was informing each of those two always rivalrous nations about the other.
No nation ultimately met Heine’s mark. He found the English self-satisfied, uninspired, and England itself made dull by the mercantile spirit. He held that the secret of the English superiority in politics “consists in the fact that they do not possess imagination.” His native Germany was for him “the land of bigots,” where patriotism consisted of “hatred of the French, hatred of civilization, and hatred of liberalism,” and where “servility was in the German soul.” The French, true enough, could be “not only the wittiest of nations, but also the most compassionate,” yet French verse was for him “lukewarm rhymed gruel” and “Marseilles is French for Hamburg—a thing I cannot stand even in the best translation.” America, which he never visited, he called “that monstrous prison of freedom…where the most repulsive of tyrants, the populace, holds vulgar sway” and “all men are equal—equal dolts…with the exception, naturally, of a few millions, who have a black or brown skin, and are treated like dogs.”
In May 1848, Heine took to his bed in his Paris apartment, the bed he subsequently called his “mattress grave,” from which he never arose. There he would spend the last eight years of his life with a wretched illness caused by degeneration of the spine, which left him paralyzed from the chest down and blind in one of his eyes. He could avail himself of the other eye if were raised open by a finger. He suffered cramps and throbbing headaches and a wracking cough that only opium and morphine could relieve. Add in the tortures of 19th-century medicine. Through this wretched illness, Heine’s passion for writing never subsided, and his best volume of verse, Romanzero, and much else was written from his mattress-grave.
As a thinker, Heine was neither deep nor strikingly original. He did not so much contribute to as dabble in philosophical and theological debates. He did nothing directly to change the politics of his time. In prose his talent lay in satire and polemic. He did not mind making enemies, and, more difficult still, he found ways to keep them. His verse could be lyrical and lilting but also coarse and profane. Yet even after one has said the worst about Heine, things that might destroy the reputation of any other writer, he cannot be diminished or otherwise disqualified. His spirit, which shone through all he wrote, was indomitable.
Remarking on Heine’s book-length essay On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, the scholar J.P. Stern begins by writing that “Heine had neither the scholarly equipment nor the detachment to write anything that a respectable historian would wish to put his name to.” But Stern goes on to add that “so much of it is true, that so much of the book consists of brilliant, apparently casual and quite unexpected insights—that more truth and good sense is said here about certain important aspects of German history and culture, about the German mind, than any other single book I know—said implicitly and by innuendoes, but also explicitly, also in a grand rhetorical style.” As for Heine’s essays, Stern held that “only Nietzsche’s have a comparable vigor.” Nietzsche himself thought Heine Germany’s greatest lyric poet.
arry Heine, as he was known before his fame, grew up as the oldest of four children in a petit-bourgeois Jewish family in Dusseldorf. The family was more sentimentally than religiously Jewish. Heine’s father, Samson Heine, an amiable flop, was in the textile business, at which he ultimately failed. His Uncle Salomon, a Hamburg banker, is said to have been one of the wealthiest men in Germany—and Heine spent a fair amount of calculating through his life in an only partially successful attempt to have this uncle underwrite his freelance career. His best biographer, Jeffrey L. Sammons, reports that Heine “held a paying position for only six months of his life.”
The great force in Heine’s early life was his mother. She had many plans for her oldest son, none of which came to fruition. She first thought he might find his calling as a diplomat, then as a banker. His Uncle Salomon set him up in a textile business of his own. “A poet always cheats his boss,” a Russian proverb has it, only half true in this case since Heine did not cheat but, out of a want of interest, failed his uncle. He had neither the taste nor the least talent for commerce. Law school was the next option. Heine took up the study of the history of Roman law and German jurisprudence at the universities of Bonn, Berlin, and Gottingen, which left him bored blue. “If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin,” he later remarked about the complexities of mastering the language, “they would never have conquered the world.” Heine never practiced law, either.
In 1825, Heine put himself through a conversion to Protestantism, for in the Prussia of that time Jews were not permitted to practice law or take up academic positions and were excluded from much else. He called his baptism as a Protestant “the ticket of admission to European culture,” though he would later remark that “if the Protestant church didn’t have an organ, it would be no religion at all,” and he expressed regret at having allowed himself to be baptized, however perfunctorily.
In Bonn, Heine encountered August Wilhelm Schlegel, one of the great German literary critics of his day, who instructed him in Romantic theory and taught him a good deal about German prosody while editing some of his youthful poems. At the University of Berlin, he attended the lectures of Hegel, whom he recalled speaking of God and the gods and “looking around anxiously, as if in fear that he might be understood.” He later called Hegel “the circumnavigator of the intellectual world, who has fearlessly advanced to the North Pole of thought, where one’s brain freezes in abstract ice.” Only after subsequent reflection did Heine feel he came to true understanding of Hegelian thought, at which point he rejected it. Among his store of anecdotes, he liked to report that on his deathbed Hegel was supposed to have said, “Only one person has understood me,” then quickly added, “and he didn’t understand me, either.”
Despite his failures at conventional occupations, Heine’s confidence in his poetic genius never flagged. His early fame came from his first collection, Book of Songs, the poetry from which is today best known from having been set to music by, among others, Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn. (By one estimate, Heine’s early poems provided the lyrics to no fewer than 2,750 pieces of music.) Early in his career, Heine called poetry “a beautiful irrelevancy” and soon turned to prose, though through most of his life he produced both simultaneously. As in the very different case of T.S. Eliot, Heine’s fame as a poet lent his prose additional authority.
J. P. Stern describes that prose as “a unique compound of the eternal raconteur’s fun and the precise intellectual wit of the guest at the ideal High Table.” Stern wrote that his “lightness of touch, the effortless responsiveness of the medium, the quickness of the insights and the melodramatic sharp edges of Heine’s expressiveness…all these are quite unprecedented in the annals of German prose.” Stern was particularly struck by “that ambiguity, that ironical illumination of the truth, which are his most successful stylistic device.” Karl Kraus, the 20th-century Viennese journalist and wit, attacked Heine’s prose for its newfound informality, writing that “he loosened the bodice of the German language to the point where any clerk can today fondle her breasts.” Ernst Pawel, author of The Dying Poet, a brilliant little book on Heine’s last years, wrote, correctly, that for Heine, “the poetry brought fame, the prose notoriety.”
escribing in his Memoirs a youthful kiss with the daughter of a professional executioner, Heine notes that “at that moment there flared up in me the first flames of two passions to which my subsequent life was to be devoted: the love of beautiful women and the love of the French Revolution.” For Heine, women were objects both of longing and contempt, and he by turns elevated and debased them, sometimes both at once. Two of the witticisms on women that Louis Untermeyer quotes in his introduction to his translation of Heine’s poems: 1) “I will not say that women have no character; rather, they have a new one every day”; and 2) “Women have just one way of making us happy, but thirty thousand ways of making us miserable.”
The misery of unrequited love is the central theme of Heine’s early poetry. “Madame,” he once said, “anyone who wants to be loved by me has to treat me like dirt.” For a long while, his chief unrequiting lover was supposed to be his cousin Amélie, the older of his wealthy Uncle Salomon’s two daughters. In his biographical study, The Elusive Poet, Jeffrey Sammons convincingly dispels this story. Heine may have been interested in Amélie and later in her younger sister Thérèse, but if he had been, it was perhaps as much for their father’s money as for their beauty or largeness of soul. Salomon Heine supplied his nephew Harry with an allowance all his days; after his death, the allowance—never sufficient in Heine’s complaining opinion—was continued by Salomon’s son Carl.
As for the requited loves in Heine’s life, not all that much is known. He was a handsome man. In most drawings and paintings of him, many done in three-quarters profile, he resembles, if one can imagine it, a Jewish Lord Byron, with a slightly more emphatic nose and minus the clubfoot. When young, Heine took Byron for a model, both in his poetry and revolutionary fervor. In the Berlin salons of his youth, he was regarded as a German Byron.
Many of Heine’s poems not devoted to the subject of unrequited love take up the subject of past lovers ultimately found inadequate. A characteristic quatrain on the theme runs:
The joy that kissed me yesterday
Today looks pale and sickly,
And every time I’ve known true love
It’s faded just as quickly.
Yet, as Ernst Pawel writes, “Heine’s actual love life appears to have been considerably less extravagant than, with an ostentatious show of discretion, he would have liked his public to believe.”
Heine’s best poems have a satiric edge, taking up such subjects as how far Germany is from the Rome of Brutus. Others are prophetic, in one case of Hitler: “Where men burn books,” he wrote in his play Almansor, “they will burn people in the end.” As S.S. Prawer writes: “He was able to detect tendencies in his time whose full unfolding would not come until well over a full century later.”
Some of Heine’s poetry could be erotic, some bordering on the obscene. Here is a two-quatrain sample from his “Song of Songs”:
A pair of polished epigrams—
The rosebuds of the breast;
A fair caesura lies between—
It adds a certain zest.
The heavenly sculptor shaped the thigh—
A parallel he drew.
The figleaf-veiled parenthesis
Has quite an interest too.
He wasn’t bad at bawdy, either, as in the poem called “Castratis”:
The castratis all started out tut-tutting
As soon as I’d sung the first bar:
They complained (and were really quite cutting!)
That my tone was too ballsy by far.
At 37, Heine contracted a marriage that, unlike his putative love affair with George Sand, is perhaps best described as improbable. This was with a 19-year-old shopgirl named Crescence Eugénie Mirat. She was French and barely literate. In a letter to his mother, Heine wrote: “If she were smarter, I’d worry less about her future. Which again goes to show that stupidity is a gift of the gods, because it forces others to take care of you.” Mathilde, as he called her, never read anything he wrote, was scarcely aware that he was a writer of considerable fame, didn’t know he was Jewish. Heine’s efforts, à la Henry Higgins, to remake his wife, to educate and polish her, were apparently unavailing. He worried about her fidelity while he lived, and about her well-being after his death. She stayed with him through all his mattress-grave years, and there they were, the oddest of odd couples.
he problem with Heine,” wrote Ernst Pawel, “is that no statement of his can ever be taken at face value.” Nor is anything about him straightforward, uncomplicated, simple. This is partly owing to his rarely telling the truth about himself. “Heine,” Robert C. Holub, editor of A Companion to the Works of Heinrich Heine, writes, “is an unreliable reporter about Heine.” Théophile Gautier, Sainte-Beuve, Gérard de Nerval—all picked up on the contradictory nature of Heine. Here is Louis Untermeyer on the subject:
A German who dreamed of a greater Germany, he was an expatriate from his homeland and spent most of his life in France. A proudly race-conscious Jew, he became a Protestant and, after a liaison of seven years, married his Catholic mistress.…The most dulcet of poets, he was also one of the bitterest and bawdiest; a born Romantic, he exposed the spectral hollowness of Romanticism. A cynical wit, he was a political idealist; a journalistic hack, a pot-boiling newspaper correspondent, he was at the same time an impassioned fighter for humanity.
Heine’s contradictory spirit shows up in heightened form in his regard for his own Jewishness, which has been the subject of endless scholarly essays and a splendid 1986 book, S.S. Prawer’s Heine’s Jewish Comedy. Heine’s conversion may have been without true religious conviction or significance, but for him it was, in retrospect, not a negligible act. The need for it, implying the inferior standing of the Jews in Prussia, angered him. Heine was German and Jewish both, but his true religion was that which promised human freedom. (In later years he showed anger at the conversion of Felix Mendelssohn: “Had I the good fortune to be the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, I would not use my talents to set to music the Lamb’s urine.”) Yet if he, Heine, never engaged Judaism, neither did he ever quite give up on his Jewishness.
Throughout his life Heine struggled with religion. As a young man in Germany, he was a member of a group that called itself the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews (Verein fur Kulture und Wissenschafter der Juden), which sought to preserve the Jewish heritage while joining it to modern science and enlightenment values. He was less a champion of Judaism than a strong advocate for Jewish civil rights. Above all he hated anti-Semitism, which he described as that hatred of the Jews “on the part of the lower and higher rabble.” The subject, if not the theme, of many of his middle and late period poems is the world’s ignorance anti-Semitism.
Heine despised the pressures of assimilation that Jews underwent to find acceptance in Germany. For all their backwardness, he found more to admire in the shtetl Jews of Poland than in the sadly assimilated but self-divided Jews of Germany, wearing the fashions of the day and quoting second-class writers, neither fully German nor fully Jewish. What Heine admired about the Polish Jews, and admired about Judaism generally, was that, unlike Greeks and Romans who clung to their soil and other peoples whose fealty was to their princes, the Jews “always clung to the Law, to the abstract idea…[to] the law as the highest principle,” the Bible their “portable fatherland.” Yet, whatever his sympathies for his people, he could not give himself over entirely to Judaism: “It would be distasteful and mean if, as people say of me, I had ever been ashamed of being a Jew, but it would be equally ridiculous if I ever claimed to be one.”
As the enemy of all positive, of all organized, religions, Heine felt he could “never champion that religion which first introduced fault-finding with human beings that now causes us such pain; and if I nevertheless do it after a fashion, there are special reasons: tender emotions, obstinacy, and care to maintain an antidote.” In his Confessions, he wrote that for years he failed to show his fellow Jews sufficient respect, blinded as he was by his partiality to Hellenic aestheticism: “I see now that the Greeks were only beautiful youths, but the Jews were always men, powerful, uncompromising men, not just in the days of old but right up to the present, despite 18 centuries of persecution and misery.”
In Heine’s search for the true religion, he rejected Christianity because, in its organized form, it “killed more joyous gods” and was “too sublime, too pure, too good for this earth.” Besides, as he said, “no Jew can believe in the divinity of another Jew.” He believed that religions are “magnificent and admirable only when they have to compete with one another, and are persecuted rather than persecuting,” and that “a system of religion is as harmful to religion as to trade; [religions] remain alive only through free competition, and they will only return to their original splendor when political equality of worship is introduced—free trade in gods, as it were.”
Yet, as he wrote, “from my earliest years I saw how religion and doubt can live side by side without giving rise to hypocrisy.” Heine never claimed to be an atheist and referred, mockingly, to “the monks of atheism,” by which he meant those for whom atheism was a fanatical religion of its own. Late in life, laid low by his illness, he claimed to have found God, though he did so without the aid of organized religion. “The religious revolution that has taken place within me,” he wrote to his publisher Julius Campe, “is a purely intellectual one—more the product of thought than of beatific sentimentality, and my illness has a small share in it, I am sure.” As for the pain accompanying that illness, he wrote to his younger friend Hans Laube that “though I believe in God, I sometimes do not believe in a good God. The hand of this great animal baiter sometimes lies heavy on me.” He added still later that he would “bring charges with the SPCA against God for treating me so horribly.”
Moses, the lawgiver, is in Heine’s pantheon of heroes. So, too, is Martin Luther, that most German of Germans, “at once a dreamy mystic and a practical man of action” whose “thoughts had not merely wings but also hands; he spoke and acted.” Add another Moses, this one with the surname Mendelssohn, to the pantheon, who “overthrew the authority of Talmudism and founded pure Mosaism.” Then there was Goethe, who, as an artist, “holds the mirror up to nature, or, better, he is the mirror.”
These choices of heroes are dictated by Heine’s larger view of mankind. “I believe in progress,” he wrote in his History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany. “I believe that mankind is destined to be happy, and thus I think more highly of divinity than pious people who think mankind was created only to suffer. Here on earth, by the blessings of free political and industrial institutions, I should like to establish that bliss which, in the opinion of the pious, will come only in heaven, on the day of judgment.” This belief was perhaps more Jewish than Heine could have known. Heinz Graetz, the 19th-century historian of Judaism, wrote: “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future”—a future that “looks forward to the ideal age…when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentments shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”
n his early years, Heine himself saw the world in a battle between the senses and the spirit, and himself on the side of the senses. He was a free spirit, in the sense he himself defined it: a man “duty bound to engage seriously in the battle against evil that struts about so blatantly, and against the commonplace that swaggers insufferably.” As Pawel puts it, Heine “had always been rebel rather than revolutionary, nay-sayer rather than would-be prophet, [who] never for a moment shed his skepticism.”
Heine called himself a monarchical republican or, on alternate days, a republican monarchist. He believed in the freedom and potential for happiness for all people. Yet he distrusted most of those people, the masses, who were all philistines and whose utopia left no room for poets or poetry. Imagining a Communist society to come, he noted that “some grocer will use even the pages of my Book of Songs to wrap coffee and snuff for the old women of the future.” Always more precise about what he loathed than about what he loved; incapable of leading or of following any party; exile, poet, Jew, Heinrich Heine was the ultimate outsider.
Of literary works, Heine much admired Don Quixote. He recounts first reading Cervantes’s great novel as a young boy, unarmed in his reading by any awareness of the great Spanish writer’s irony, utterly saddened by the defeat after defeat suffered by the knight of the woeful countenance. Later, after he came to appreciate the irony, his love for the Don was undiminished and he came to view himself as a Don Quixote of his own day—but acting, as he put it, “from diametrically opposed points of view.” Heine writes:
My colleague mistook windmills for giants; I, on the contrary, see in our giants of today only windmills; he mistook leather wineskins for mighty wizards; I see in our modern wizards only leather wineskins; he mistook every beggar’s inn for a castle—every donkey driver for a knight, every stable wench for a lady of the court—I, on the other hand, look upon our castles as disreputable inns, on our cavaliers as donkey drivers, on our court-ladies as common stable wenches. Just as he took a puppet-play to be a noble affair of state, I hold our affairs of state to be wretched puppet plays. But as doughtily as the doughty Knight of LaMancha I fall upon the wooden company.
Heine called Quixotism generally “the most precious thing in life.” A world filled only with Sanchos Panza, after all, would be one of unrelieved drabness, philistine, sensible but ultimately dull and dreary—whereas, in Heine’s words, “Quixotism lends wings to the whole world and to all in it who philosophize, make music, plough, and yawn.” They do not come along all that often, but when they do, authentic Quixotes reveal life’s larger possibilities and thereby enliven its quality and enlarge its scope. On February 17, 1856, Heinrich Heine was removed from his mattress-grave to a dirt one at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. Asked as he was dying if he wished to have a clergyman in attendance, he replied that none was required: “Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son metier.” He will always be among the small but indispensable band of Quixotes. Let the last words be in his own verse:
I am a German poet,
In German lands I shine;
And where great names are mentioned
They’re bound to mention mine.