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The Defrocked Romantic

Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of His Portraits of Jews and Judaism

by S.S. Prawer
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 841 pp., $69.00

The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version

translated by Hal Draper
Suhrkamp/Insel (Boston), 1,032 pp., $29.95

Heine’s Jewish Comedy is 841 pages long. To call it scholarly would be an understatement. It feels drenched in the anxiety of the scholar for having overlooked some relevant fact or opinion. It is certainly no Heinrich Heine joke book for the bedside table: the word “comedy” in the title is used, the author explains, in the sense that Dante and Balzac used it for their divine and human comedies. What he has chosen to do is to pick out every Jewish personage, real or fictional, in Heine’s life and work; every reference to the Old Testament, the Talmud, Herodotus, or any other Jewish piece of history or literature; every Jewish (or anti-Jewish) thought, opinion, feeling, taste, overtone, and gut reaction that Heine experienced in himself or in his environment.

Besides being among Germany’s greatest poets, Heine was a journalist—the father, according to the critic Ludwig Rosenthal, of modern feature writing.* After he exiled himself to Paris in 1831 he reported on the French scene for German papers, and for French papers on Germany. He liked to think that he was interpreting the two countries to each other. He collected these articles and published them in book form with many tactful omissions, additions, and alterations. These discursive, witty, and sometimes impudent pieces are among his best-known prose works. Professor Prawer examines the original as well as the final version of each; he also pays attention to all Heine’s rejected or unpublished output in verse and prose. These labors enable him to chart every change in Heine’s perpetually vacillating attitude to Jewishness, and to come to some very interesting conclusions which are to be found in his Conclusion: they would make a splendid essay on their own.

Heine wrote the most beautiful and enjoyable German prose. He knew what his feelings were and could express what he felt. Besides, he was a student of history, always conscious of its course carrying him and his generation along; he always connected the present with the past; he was, as Professor Prawer says, a poet-historian.

Nietzsche admired his writing so much that he declared that he himself and Heine would come to be acknowledged as the greatest virtuosos in the language. And so they have been—though often in company with Goethe and sometimes with Thomas Mann. So for anyone interested in the psychology of Jewish emancipation it is very fortunate that Heine was there when it was in its first flush in Central and Western Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Born in 1797, he was five years younger than James de Rothschild, the youngest of the five brothers whose eruption into international finance and society can serve as a symbol for the outbreak from the ghetto. Not that Heine was born in a ghetto; in fact, the Frankfurt ghetto, the home of the Rothschilds, struck him as unbearably disagreeable and constricting when he came to visit it. His family lived in Düsseldorf and later moved to Lüneburg, a small town not far from Hamburg where Salomon Heine, the poet’s uncle and semireluctant financial support, was a rich banker. Heine’s father was unsuccessful and poor, and after his death his widow moved to Hamburg too. She came from what Rosenthal calls a “patrician” Jewish family in the north Rhineland; they had been rich but were so no longer.

Betty Heine’s ancestors had been court Jews financing the local princes, or else they were doctors. As far back as the end of the seventeenth century they had lived like grands seigneurs, entertaining the aristocracy and having their sons instructed in modern philosophy, science, and languages. It is a pity there was no Heine in that generation to record what it felt like to be them. Even if you believe that part of their grandeur was no more than a romantic tradition in the family, their way of life must have been very different from ordinary life in the ghetto, and it is quite difficult to imagine it.

The degree of civic disability from which the Jews suffered varied from one German state to another, but it was not until Napoleon occupied Central Europe that they were enfranchised or allowed to travel freely, live where they liked, attend the universities, or practice any profession except medicine. When Napoleon was defeated, many of their new freedoms were revoked, though not the right to attend the university. Heine persuaded Salomon to pay for him to study law. He found it very boring, but once at the university (he studied successively at Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin) he attended courses in literature, history, archaeology, classical philology, and Sanskrit, not to speak of Hegel’s philosophy lectures: getting the latest philosophical ideas direct from the mouth of the most sacred cow.

He was already becoming known as a poet, and when he arrived in Berlin he was received in literary circles, including the salon of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, which was frequented by intellectuals and politicians, and even by the odd progressive member of the Prussian royal family. Rahel Varnhagen had been born a Jewess, but had converted to Lutheranism. It is unlikely that she was a believing Christian. A child of the Aufklärung, she probably regarded orthodoxy of whatever kind as a retrograde jumble of tradition and superstition. She became Heine’s lifelong friend and confidante, and had considerable influence on his attitude to Judaism.

Hers was not the only Jewish salon in Berlin: Jews were chic. Henriette Herz had another, and so did Dorothea Schlegel who had run away from her Jewish first husband to live with and eventually marry the writer and translator Friedrich von Schlegel, and so become half of the ultimate Romantic couple: bohemian in style and Roman Catholic in religion. These women belonged to an older generation than Heine’s, but probably full acceptance into the Christian world was easier for women, partly because in their case exoticism was a sexual asset, and partly because marriage to a Christian husband threw a convenient cloak over conversion and protected it against accusations of apostasy and opportunism.

Dorothea Schlegel was the daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of German-Jewish emancipation, who lived from 1729 to 1786. He tried to emancipate Jewry from within, building a bridge between the deism of the Aufklärung on the one hand and strict orthodoxy on the other. He translated the Old Testament into German for use in the Reformed synagogues that sprang up in the wake of his efforts. Heine’s mother was a Mendelssohnian Jew, hovering on the brink of deism; his father was more tradition-bound, but certainly not extremely orthodox. The family kept the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays, and there is a story—perhaps apocryphal—of the nine-year-old Heine biting grapes off a vine because it was the Sabbath and to pick them by hand would have been work and therefore forbidden. As a small boy he attended a Jewish private school, but at thirteen his mother sent him to a Catholic college run by a priest who was both Enlightened and enlightened. But he could not prevent the other pupils from bullying the boy for being a Jew.

By the time Heine, a mature student by now, was ready to leave the university and enter a profession, most of them were once more closed—in fact if not by law—to Jews. Anti-Semitism was becoming fashionable among the educated classes. The patriotism of the Napoleonic wars had developed into chauvinism and Deutschtümelei, the glorification of Germanness combined with the determination to keep it pure and unsullied by foreign or Jewish influence. What Rosenthal calls “an epidemic of baptism” swept the Jewish community as its members sacrificed religion, tradition, and solidarity in order to keep their briefly enjoyed liberties. Heine could get employment neither as a lawyer nor as a civil servant, and in 1825 he reluctantly and somewhat furtively joined the Lutheran church.

It did not do him much good. The positions his education entitled him to remained unattainable and journalism was his only resource. But here he was irked and restricted by the censor who cut and banned his work. By this time he had become a Saint-Simonian socialist and allied himself with the progressive Junge Deutschland movement which the authorities were trying to suppress. These were the reasons that decided him to move to France: it was not only that Jews there enjoyed full citizenship, but also that the 1830 revolution had created a more liberal atmosphere than could be found in Germany.

Heine’s love for Germany increased, if anything, with distance. One of his most famous long poems, Germany; A Winter’s Tale, describes a visit he made to his native land in 1844. It is full of satire and criticism, but the first section contains the following lines:

And when I came to the border line
My heart beat something fearful
Within my breast; I even felt
My eyes grow moist and tearful.

And hearing the German language I
Felt strange beyond all measure;
It was as if my heart began
To bleed away with pleasure.

… … … … .


Since I set foot on German soil
A magical current flows through me.
The giant has touched his mother
   again:
New powers are pouring into me.

The translation is by Hal Draper. The formidable undertaking of translating all Heine’s verse took him nearly thirty years. He wanted his readers “to approach Heine as an experience in English.” While keeping strictly to Heine’s meter and rhyme, he has actually brought off something that sounds as though it had been written in English from the start, and he has kept Heine’s characteristic verve which sweeps through each poem from the opening line to the end. But by choosing to stay with meter and rhyme he has also chosen—inevitably—to sacrifice exact shades of meaning and style. One cannot, for example, imagine Heine writing a crude mimicry of uneducated speech like “my heart beat something fearful.” On the other hand,

my heart began
To bleed away with pleasure

sounds lovely. But what Heine actually wrote,

als ob das Herz
Recht angenehm verblute

is much more ironical and means “as though my heart were bleeding quite agreeably to death.” Still, no one could possibly want to quarrel with Hal Draper: he gives so much; and as he disarmingly says, “If you want to see the full impact of Veronese, you should go to Venice, and if you want the whole of Heine, you have to go to the German.”

Heine never ceased to feel Heimweh, the exile’s aching nostalgia for his native land. As with most of his personal relationships his feeling for Germany was both love and hate. But whereas a depressing number of his human loves and friendships deteriorated from one to the other, his love for Germany never really diminished; especially, as the poem shows, his love for the language. He felt himself a German writer in the tradition that ran from Luther to Goethe. He even saw a particular affinity between Germans and Jews, especially between German Lutherans and Jews, because by his translation Luther had given Christians access to the Old Testament which had lain hidden from them throughout the Middle Ages, and been preserved at their peril by the Jews.

  1. *

    Heinrich Heine als Jude (Frankfurt/Berlin: Verlag Ullstein, 1973).

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