The Poet Dying: Heinrich Heine’s Last Years in Paris
It took the German poet Heinrich Heine eight years to die. He began in the summer of 1847, when the German press prematurely announced his decease, but he did not draw his last breath until February 1856. He was fifty-seven or else fifty-nine—there is some doubt about his birth date. Ernst Pawel’s account covers his last years, when he lay in what he called his “mattress tomb,” unable to move his legs and sometimes his arms, and in the later stages occasionally unable to speak or see. The tomb moved from one cheap and gloomy Paris apartment to another, with a funeral cortège consisting of his shopaholic, uneducated, neglectful, and enormously fat wife and her inseparable and equally awful friend Pauline, who was supposed to be the housekeeper.
Mrs. Heine’s name was Crescence, but Heine called her Mathilde. She was fifteen years younger than he was, a nineteen-year-old shopgirl when they first met—a Mimi without a heart. He never stopped regarding her as a child: a “sweet, fat child” in one of his last poems, where he imagines her tottering round the cemetery with aching feet to lay a wreath of dried flowers on his grave; and he advises her to climb into one of the fiacres waiting at the gates. He worried all the time about leaving her destitute when he died.
His illness, whatever it was, was painful as well as paralyzing. Not long after he fell ill, he suffered from hideous cramps, and one of the cures his doctors employed was to make cuts in his back and fill them with powdered morphia. He could not sleep at night, so that was when he composed his poems and thought out the articles he contributed to the French and German press. Next day he would dictate them to a secretary. The secretaries were mostly young men trying to make a literary career (“scribblers engaged by Heine more or less ad hoc”), so there were quite a number of them over the years; and plenty of other visitors, too.
Heine had acquaintances among French intellectuals and German exiles like himself, and the mattress tomb was on the itinerary of German tourists, especially left-wing ones. Heine had chosen to live in Paris in 1831, after his latest writings had been banned in Prussia. In 1835, according to Pawel, Metternich persuaded the German Federal Assembly to ban “all of Heine’s writings, and the Prussian police issued a warrant for his arrest.” Gordon Craig, in his new book on German writers, seems to think that there was not actually an arrest warrant; but it would have been difficult for Heine to return after Metternich was so offended by his attacks on the reactionary regime that he proscribed his writing. Still, says Craig in his sympathetic and witty essay, “Metternich enjoyed Heine’s poetry and is said to have wept copiously over the Buch der Lieder.” Heine would have loved that. Crocodile tears are the sort of …
Selecting Heine April 18, 1996