1902 Encyclopedia > Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine
German poet

HEINRICH HEINE (1799-1856), poet and journalist, was born, according to the most trustworthy accounts, on the 13th December 1799, at Dusseldorf, of Jewish parents. His father, after various vicissitudes in business, had finally settled in that town, and his mother, who seems to have possessed much energy of character, was the daughter of a physician of the same place. Heine received the rudiments of his education at the gymnasium or lycée (as it was called during the foreign occupation) of his native town, and, although not an especially apt or diligent pupil, he acquired while there a good knowledge of French and English,—he tells us that Gulliver's Travels in the original was one of the favourite books of his childhood,—as well as some tincture of the classics and Hebrew. But if the influence upon him of his teachers and their teaching was unimportant, not so that of the public events amid which he grew up. His early years coincided with the most brilliant period of Napoleon's career ; and the boundless veneration which he is never tired of expressing for the emperor throughout his writings shows that his true schoolmasters were rather the drummers and troopers of a victorious army than the Jesuit fathers of the lycée : while, if to the vivid personal impression produced upon him by the pomp and circumstance of the imperial garrison in his birthplace there be added the public, and in a manner national, enthusiasm for Napoleon which he must often have heard vented by his elder co-religionists—who hailed the conqueror as a temporal Messiah—the weighty bearing of his boyhood upon his subsequent fortunes becomes fully apparent. Upon his quitting school, attempts were made to engage him in commerce, but his father and uncle, the latter a wealthy banker of Hamburg, soon perceived that he was bent upon travelling a different path from that which they had followed. It speaks well for both these men that they should have refrained from coercion upon making this discovery ; and Solomon Heine, the banker, at once gave his nephew an earnest of the generous treatment the latter was subsequently to experience at his hands, for he came forward with money to enable his young kinsman to go to a university, his sole stipulation being that his protege should study with the view of entering the legal profession. Heine gladly accepted his uncle's terms, and entered the university of Bonn in the spring of 1819. During his stay there he was an eager student; but the subjects to which he devoted himself had no connexion with the profession which had been chosen for him. He seems to have attended no lectures save those on literature and history—notably A. W. von Schlegel's; and he not long afterwards acknowledged his obligations to Schlegel by dedicating a sonnet to him—a tribute which he recalled in later days by a wanton and outrageous attack upon the veteran critic in Die Romantische Schule. AVhy Heine left Bonn does not clearly appear, but it is at Göttingen that we find him in the autumn of 1820. His stay here was even shorter than at Bonn. In February 1821 the authorities of the " Georgia Augusta " rusticated him for some infraction of the duelling laws. Although from these beginnings Heine's academical career promised to pursue no very even course, he nevertheless determined, after his residence at Göttingen had been cut short, to seek a third university ; and it was to Berlin that he now repaired, where Hegel was at the zenith of his renown. Whether or not the lectures of this philosopher benefited him in any way —by giving him, for instance, as some have supposed, a certain dialectical precision of style—he has himself confessed that he seldom understood them; and in after years Hegel's ultra-conservatism and orthodoxy made him the constant butt of his former pupil's ridicule and sarcasm. But the interest of Heine's life in Berlin was social and not academic. He enjoyed the privilege of mixing in the best literary circles of the capital. He was on terms of intimacy with Varnhagen von Ense and his wife, the celebrated Jewess, Rahel, and at their house—the rendezvous of Germany's genius and learning—he frequently met such men as the Humboldts, Hegel himself, and Schleiermacher; while he lived on a still more familiar footing with a number of his own co-religionists, who, without having acquired European reputation, were men of varied and approved abilities. In an atmosphere of such geniality as this his gifts were rapidly displayed. He began ere long to contribute poems to the Berliner Gesellschafter, many of which were subsequently incorporated in the Buch der Lieder, and in 1822 a volume came from the press entitled Gedichte von Heinrich Heine, his first avowed act of authorship. He was still further employed at this time as the correspondent of a Rhenish newspaper, as well as in completing his tragedies Almansor and William Ratcliff, which were published in 1823 with small success. He was now, indeed, fairly embarked upon his literary course. But he was still largely dependent upon his uncle; and in order so far to fulfil his engagements towards his benefactor, he returned to Göttingen in 1825, and shortly afterwards took his degree in law, having previously qualified himself for practice by publicly professing Christianity.

This act of " apostasy," as it has been called, calls for something more than a mere passing reference; for it not only laid Heine open to contumely while alive, but has provoked adverse criticism of special severity since his death. That he was guilty of " apostasy" is no doubt verbally true ; but there are two circumstances in this connexion which should always be remembered. The one is that Heine was wholly wanting in the religious sense—that he never was a Jew save nominally and by the accident of birth —so that he cannot, with any real propriety, be said to have forsaken the creed of his race; the other, that his family, by encouraging him to adopt a profession which could not be entered except by the gateway of "apostasy," tacitly left him free to take that step. In short, Heine's " apostasy " was a purely secular act; and, although there will doubtless be found many to stigmatize him all the more blackly for this very reason, candour appears rather to require that this change of faith, if such it can be called, should be classed as one of his most venial offences, being the plainly outward act of one who throughout life made himself peculiarly obnoxious to the imputation of malice and bad-heartedness.

Heine seems never to have made any serious attempt to practise law. His life from the year 1826 until his death was devoted entirely to literature, and more especially to journalism, which alone indeed was the main source of his income for many years. At first he lived in Hamburg, and then it was that, besides the Buck der Lieder, the earlier portions of the Reisebilder appeared, both of which, but particularly the latter, at once created an immense sensation throughout Germany, not only among the youthful and enthusiastic, who found their own sentiments expressed by the new writer with the happiest audacity, but amongst such dignified and ranges personages as Metternich and Gentz. In 1827 Baron Cotta, the Bavarian publisher, offered Heine, who had risen at a bound into celebrity, the joint-editorship of the Allgemeine Politische Annalen. The young author accepted the offer, and betook himself to Munich in the winter of that year, after having paid a visit to London, where he found every person and everything detestable save Canning and his policy—and it may be said here in passing that a most violent hatred of England forms a marked feature of all Heine's writings. He remained for a considerable period in the South-German capital, and it was owing, not to any disagreement with his employer, but to the demands of the court of Prussia, which was not long of taking umbrage at his freedom of opinion, that his editorial function ceased so abruptly as it did. What the secret history of the next two or three years of his life was— whether from the very first he really was an object of especial disfavour at Berlin, or whether, as is quite as likely, [ taking his vanity and love of publicity into account, he exaggerated his powers of offence beyond the endurance of the Government there, and forced it into what seemed a petty persecution—he presently perceived that he must either quit Germany altogether or prepare for a lifetime perhaps of fortress-imprisonment. He did not long hesitate between these two alternatives; and on the 1st of May 1831 Heinrich Heine left his native land for Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life, only once recrossing the Rhine, in 1843.

Just as his adoption of Christianity has led to Heine's being pronounced " apostate," so has his self-expatriation caused German writers to denounce him as "renegade." But the one accusation is as groundless as the other. In the first place Heine was a Jew, in spite of his Christianization, and cannot therefore rightly be called a " renegade " against Germany—least of all when the degraded social and political status of his race in that country at the date of his emigration is recollected. Then again his writings were systematically subjected to the cruellest mutilations, and it is tolerably certain that had he remained in the " Fatherland," he would sooner or later have been deprived of all power of public speech. Was it any wonder, seeing that he had adopted the profession of letters, that he should have turned his back upon such a prospect1! He at any rate was the best judge ; and it ill becomes Germans to call him "renegade," when, had he continued to tarry among them, their literature would probably have suffered an irreparable loss. At the same time, and for the same reasons, it is equally inept to assert that he was in the essential qualities of his mind a Frenchmau who gravitated towards Paris by a sort of intellectual necessity. The necessity (to use that word) was physical. Heine would never have left Germany could he have freely expressed his opinions there.

After settling in his new home, where his life for many years must have been as gay and brilliant as latterly it was sad and sombre, and where he speedily became more or less intimate with such writers as Balzac, Dumas the elder, George Sand, Victor Hugo, and Théophile Gautier, Heine devoted himself more exclusively than ever to journalism; and from 1831 until 1847, he was an active and indefatigable publicist. The two series of papers entitled Französische Zustände and Lutetia contain a selec* tion from his press-contributions during these years ; and even at this date they well repay perusal, not only by the brilliancy of wit and elegance of style which they possess in common with almost all his writings, but also by the remarkable sagacity of their political aperçus. Alongside of this main stream of journalism, he also kept up a subsidiary current of literature in its more proper sense—although it may be said that all his writings are of an occasional nature—and to this we owe the Salon (1833-39), which comprises among other pieces a series of articles, " Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland," which had originally appeared in the Revue des deux Mondes, and in which Heine came forward as the introducer of German thought to the reading world of Paris. The Salon also contains several admirable papers in art-criticism, and a strange, fragmentary medley of sentiment and satire, in its author's most characteristic vein—" Die Florentinische Nächte." To this period, too, belongs Die Romantische Schule, to which reference has already been made, and the substance of which is sufficiently indicated by its name. In 1839 Shakespeare's Mädchen und Frauen appeared— Heine acting in this slight work as cicerone through a gallery ot Shakespeare's heroines. The year 1840 was signalized by the publication of Heinrich Heine über Ludwig Börne, a brochure of the wittiest and most trenchant satire, in which the German refugees in Paris—a fraternity whom Heine always anxiously avoided—were far more severely handled than was the defunct agitator whose name it bore, and who, it may be noted, was himself a Jew. In 1844 Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen, came forth—the result of the visit to Germany which has been alluded to as the sole journey of the kind which Heine undertook; and this effusion may be ranked, along with a similar performance, Atta Troll (1846), as belonging to his most inferior writings. It was in 1848 that Heine, in the very hey-day of his activity, and with gigantic projects seething within him for the foundation of a journal, was suddenly prostrated by the disease which finally carried him off, though not before it had confined him for seven years upon the "mattress-grave" of mournful notoriety. His sufferings throughout that time are reported to have been frequently excruciating, and he at length grew so habituated to the use of opium that the very largest doses failed to afford him relief. But when his malady—a softening of the spinal cord—allowed him a respite, his intellect was as clear and vivacious as ever : and it is to these closing years of his life, harassing as they were, that we are indebted for the finest and most finished of all his poems—for the two collections, that is to say, Romanzero (1851) and Neueste Gedichte (1853-54), as well as for the various pieces posthumously published in LT. Heine's Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken. It was from his " mattress-grave " too that the dying man put forth his Geständnisse or Confessions, the psychological interest of which is very great, whatever their claim to trustworthiness may be. Heine bore the misery of his protracted death-bed with fortitude, nay, with cheerfulness, assiduously attended by his wife Mathilde, and towards the end by that mysterious lady whom he called " Die Mouche," and who was, it now appears, a Madame Krinitz ; and there are many anecdotes on record of his bearing in the midst of his trials—and heavier trials seldom fell to the lot of man—which go far to prove that he possessed a healthy fond gaillard, for which his writings are scarcely likely to gain him credit. He died on the 17th February 1856 in Paris, in the Eue d'Amsterdam, and lies buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.

We have called Heine "poet and journalist"; but his reputation has, naturally enough, now come to rest almost exclusively upon his poetry, and above all upon his songs —the Buch der Lieder having passed through upwards of twenty-five editions. This great popularity may no doubt (and especially in foreign countries) be attributable, to a certain extent, to the singular good fortune which has wedded to very many of these songs the music of such composers as Schumann and Mendelssohn. But still, when all deductions upon this score are made,—and the true view of the matter probably is that the poet and his composers are mutually obliged,*—the fact remains that Heine is one of the great song-writers of the world, not unworthy of a place beside Burns and Beranger. although far less masculine and passionate than the one, and far less jovial and debonair than the other. The intense individualism which prevented him from ever becoming a literary artist in any other department—his dramas and essays in fiction are worthless—stood him in excellent stead in the lyric field, —was a positive and essential strength indeed, for, after all, a song to appeal to men's hearts must be an utterance of personal experience. And this condition is amply fulfilled in the Buch der Lieder, the greater portion of which was the direct outcome of a sentiment entertained by the poet for one of his cousins—a sentiment, by the way, which has been alluded to by German writers as a mere Cousinen-Schwärmerei, while others (not Germans) have affirmed that all Heine's bitterness and cynicism in after life arose from its having remained unrequited. On the whole, Heine as a song-writer is a fit descendant of Walther von der Vogel-weide and those old Minnesänger who of yore assembled in the halls of princes, and recounted their sorrows and their j oys—of those nameless bards, too, who sang the Volkslieder; and when all his other writings are forgotten, he will be remembered by such imperishable gems as " Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne;" " Auf Flügeln des Gesanges;" and "Du bist wie eine Blume." There is much, too, of great beauty in many of his ballads and narrative pieces ; witness among others, "Spanische Atriden," "Die Prinzessin Sabbat," "Jehuda-ben-Halevy," "Böses Geträume"—a piece of the most exquisite pathos and simplicity—and " Die Insel Bimini." But too often, no matter how sweet a chord is struck at the beginning, a dissonance creeps in, to end in a crashing discard, and the outraged reader starts like one who should suddenly see Romeo and Juliet fall to grimacing and squeaking like Punch and Judy. Heine's confession that poetry was no more than his " holy plaything" would have been entitled to our unqualified acceptance had he omitted the adjective.

But when we turn to his prose-writings—to his "journalism," that is to say, for, as we have remarked, almost all his prose falls under this category, in its widest acceptation—we see the man Heine indeed, not perhaps, as he was ambitious of being regarded by posterity, in the full panoply of a " soldier of human emancipation," but at any rate as no contemptible assailant of obscurantism and philistinism. Beside such a redoubtable champion of the catholic reason of mankind as Lessing "of the ponderous battle-axe," he looks somewhat small, it is true, and his rapier somewhat gim-crack. But ridicule will often reach whither heavier weapons cannot, and pierce the elephantine hide of pedantry and dulness, after these have been attacked in vain by battering-rams ; and Heine was a master of it. The worst is that in unscrupulous hands—and no one was more unscrupulous than he—it may be turned to illegitimate uses, and come to be indulged in finally for its own sake. How easily Heine became the slave of his propensity in this direction may be seen in the two works—which seem his best and most characteristic writings, notwithstanding—Zur Geschichle der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland and Die Romantische Schule. Both these abound in the most irreverent passages, especially the former, wherein such philosophers as Kant, Fichte, and Schelling scarcely serve a higher purpose than to be used as pegs whereon the writer may hang his jests. And admirable these are. Nothing can be better, for instance, than his account of how Kant (who is parenthetically described as a man whom Nature intended to sell coffee and sugar across a counter) came to postulate a Deity in his practical, after having exploded that idea in his theoretical, system. He did this, says Heine (most adroitly hitting one of the chief opprobria, scientifically regarded, of the critical philosophy), for the sake of his old man-servant Lampe, who looked so dismally at the conclusions of the Pure Reason that the philosopher was moved to compassion ! The Romantische Schule, being concerned for the most part with its author's contemporaries, is far more virulent than the treatise just mentioned, but equally happy; and it aimed a death-blow at a school which rivalled the wildest and most licentious ravings of a Monk Lewis and the most stilted horrors of an Ann Radcliff. And here it may be said, in connexion with the attack upon Schlegel occurring in this essay, that Heine's onslaughts were always open and above-board, unmerciful and sometimes grossly brutal as they were. He was a literary swashbuckler, it may be (though that term is singularly inapplicable to one who wrote in such a style), but he was neither a literary assassin nor a literary ghoul. Even his attack upon Borne was really aimed, as we have said, at men who were alive to resent it; and it was resented, though from a strange quarter. Borne's widow's husband challenged Heine, and the latter was slightly wounded in the encounter.

Of the Reisebilder, Heine's most voluminous and best-known prose work, and that which originally gave him fame, small space remains to speak. But if we except its first and third books, it has been greatly overrated. It is easy to understand the popularity it acquired upon its first appearance, falling as it did like a breath of genuine life upon a land well-nigh asphyxiated by high art and the " Hübsch-Objectiv "—but nowadays, notwithstanding its undoubted mirth-provoking qualities, it chiefly serves to point out the gulf which was fixed between its author and him who took the SentimentalJourney. The most that can be said for it is that Sterne might have written it had he been a German Jew.

The best edition of Heine's works is that published by Hoffmann and Campe, Heinrich Heine's Sammtliche Werke, 20 vols., Hamburg, 1865. Another edition has appeared in America, Heinrich Heine's Sammtliche Werke, in 7 vols. Heinrich Heine's Leben, by Adolph Strodtmann, Berlin, 1870, is the only Life of Heine entitled to consideration, although the pleasure of reading it is certainly marred by its length. A biography of the poet has also appeared in England, Life and Opinions of Heinrich Heine, by W. Stigand, 1876. Mr Matthew Arnold has, in his Essays in Criticism, handled Heine with his accustomed grace and felicity. Mention may also be made of Wit, Wisdom, and Pathos of Heinrich Heine, by J. Snodgrass, London, 1879, a collection of extracts from Heine's works in an English dress. A translation, Heine's Poems, Complete, by Edgar A. Bowring, C.B., was issued in Bohn's Standard Library. His prose works have not as yet received adequate renderings, although a version of the Reisebilder has been put forth in America. (J. W. F. )

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