Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine; drawing by David Levine

In life (1797-1856) Heinrich Heine was generally admitted to be a superbly gifted but “difficult” man. In death his being “difficult” was so obstinately and even vindictively remembered that Hitler, flushed with triumph when he occupied Paris, ordered that Heine’s grave in Montmartre be destroyed. This may have seemed extravagant to many “internal émigrés” in Germany at the time. But Heine was a problem and embarrassment to many Germans in the “educated classes.”

Today opinion of Heine in Germany is more relaxed, more appreciative, but it is also distracted. Although the complexity of his character, the sharpness of his intellect, and the storminess of his life are hardly unknown, the real complaint against him now, especially in English-speaking countries where his early “romantic” poetry was once almost as popular as Longfellow’s, is that he is not sufficiently “modern.” The early twentieth-century modernist revolution (which now dominates literary opinion in the universities) revived many long-dead dramatists as incompatible as Büchner and Ibsen; fiction writers as opposed as Flaubert and Dostoevsky; seventeenth-century poets like Donne, visionary contemporaries like Blake and Hölderlin.

Goethe never needed to be “revived”; his place seemed immovable; his fame stretched from his own capacious lifetime to the twentieth century, not only as the supreme figure in German literature but as a wisdom figure that somehow redeemed German history from its more hideous recent episodes. But Heine—Heine had notoriously escaped many honors during his lifetime, and even now escapes the currently necessary distinction of being considered not just “modern” but a modern, one of the elect ahead of his time.

So Heine, unlucky fellow, was still not considered “one of us.” One of us in self-conscious, superior taste. No doubt one reason for this was a certain embarrassment at having to reclaim, for purely patriotic and remorseful reasons, someone who had been excluded from German history and literature, positively expunged from the noble record of German Geist. Although such classics as “Die Lorelei” were enshrined in German memory and affection even during the Hitler years, such poems fared better than their author. They were included in schoolbooks but attributed to “author unknown.” To make amends after 1945 was not only necessary but easy. What was apparently not easy was how to fit the almost too-well-known Heine, the famously sentimental but also insurrectionary, bewilderingly contradictory Heine into the same modern canon that had no trouble accommodating Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke.

The necessity of being “modern” has somehow been unquestioned in many Western literatures since T.S. Eliot in England, Paul Valéry in France seemed not only to establish the canon but pronounced the rules for belonging to it. No matter how far back he lived, a poet as venerable as Dante or Shakespeare was “modern” if he seemed to be talking to us of issues still unsettled, in language novel enough to provoke us still. The genius in each case had of course to be so unquestioned as to reach across the ages; only the absolutely first-rate need apply. But he/she had also to be so “complex,” “difficult,” “paradoxical,” that we in our complex and difficult age could feel that these figures, by eluding the conventional taste of their own time, had become contemporaries of ours.

Now the very fact that Heine was so dear to some sentimental nineteenth-century taste that the Nazis could not obliterate him entirely has been held against Heine. In England and America Heine was a well-loved Victorian poet. He was so popular that a representative American Victorian (and a great arbiter of taste), the novelist and poet William Dean Howells, sadly said of his own verses that he could not tell where Heine’s influence left off. At a time when that perennial “modern,” Friedrich Nietzsche, said in praise of Heine that “he possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection,” certain early songs of Heine from the Buch der Lieder were proffered in courtship like flowers and boxes of candy.

And of course Heine’s “songs” were put to ravishing music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. People who do not even know that Heine wrote “Die Lorelei” know as melody Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten. Heine in fact became such a classic of song, of sweetness and musicality that his verses set to music by the greatest of German Iyric composers made many of his works household names, an inspiration to lovers, but even more, a secure resource to all those who liked to say “I do not know why it should be that I am so sad.”

The wonderful suppleness, the famous “inwardly expressive” genius of German Lieder, no doubt rejoiced in all the wonderful opportunities that Heine’s “heart laid bare” gave composers. The unembarrassed Schmerz could be irresistible. Schubert in “Der Atlas”:


Ich unglückseliger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muss ich tragen.

Unhappy Atlas that I am,
I must bear a world,
The whole world of sorrows.

Schubert in “Das Fischermädchen” (The Fisher Maid):

Mein Herz gleicht ganz dem Meere,
Hat Sturm und Ebb und Flut

My heart is just like the sea:
It has its storms, its ebb, its flood

Mendelssohn in “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” (On Wings of Song):

Dort wollen wir niedersinken
Under dem Palmenbaum
Und Liebe und Ruhe trinken,
Und träumen seligen Traum.

There we will sink down
Under the palm tree,
Drinking love and peace,
And dreaming a blessed dream.

The equally well-known mischievousness, teasing, and surprise endings of so many of Heine’s lyrics also lent him to the uses of a romanticism that vividly, even emphatically, knew how to rebound from aching Schmerz to mocking irony. Heine the sometimes too openly suffering love poet could also show himself the most derisive and painfully cutting satirist—often in the same poem or in the same sequence of poems—of love’s self-centeredness and love’s gushing trustfulness. Yet none of the poet’s stabbing shifts of mood, his mordant wit, his fatalism—just the qualities that endeared Donne to Eliot and to the legion of Eliot’s followers—managed to make Heine truly acceptable to selfconscious and exclusive modernist taste. It was as if Heine was almost too well-known to need reclaiming.

Nor did the flightiness and even instability of Heine’s views on mythology, religion, and politics endear him to twentieth-century taste. After all, Heine had condemned Christianity along with Judaism, because both formed the “Nazarene” personality that Heine disparaged in favor of the “Hellene.” Heine’s fellow Jews have never really succeeded in claiming Heine for their own. He entered the Lutheran Church because baptism was “the entrance ticket to European civilization,” but he hated himself for this, and in his last years, chained by spinal tuberculosis to his “mattress grave” in Paris, he wrote not just penitently but ecstatically of the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew liturgy. In one of his most famous last poems he celebrated the life and death of the great “sweet” medieval Hebrew poet of Spain, Judah Halevy, who in Jerusalem was slain by a “Saracen.” Heine, near death, sought to identify himself with this greatest of medieval Hebrew poets.

Nevertheless, Heine’s early and very German devotion to the pagan gods was just as real, and productive, as his yearning before death to return to the personal God of the Jews. Nor, despite his many rejections as a Jew, did he ever quite drop a scoffing tone at Jewish customs and rituals. Many brilliant Jewish writers and intellectuals have been more influenced by the Christian culture in which they live than by the Jewish religion in which they were reared. Heine never got over Germany.

At the same time his fellow Germans have not been able entirely to claim him as one of theirs; or, since 1945, fully to reclaim him. Some ancient wounds are still throbbing in the German body politic; Heine is often regarded as just that—a wound, an affront. Heine as revolutionary was, however, as unpredictable and contradictory in his rebelliousness against “Old Germany” as in everything else. With the Jews as with the Christians, the Germans as with the French, Heine no sooner smelled out a consensus anywhere than he left it.

Still, so far as he was anything for most of his life, Heine was (like the Napoleon-worshiping Stendhal whom he so much resembles) a rebel against the established order. He lived out the last twenty-five years of his life in Paris as a political exile (where despite his chauvinistic dislike of French poetry he was admired, supported, and translated by French poets); he was condemned and proscribed by the Prussian government of the time. A certain hesitation among Germans in accepting him even today may be due to the fact that to Marx, Nietzsche, and other rebellious Germans who admired him, Heine seemed far ahead of his country and his time; he was an everlasting antagonist of propriety and self-satisfaction who made things even more difficult for himself by being as hard on his friends as he was on his many enemies. And Heine not only had enemies everywhere; he never gave up the privilege of mocking even his friends.

Yet Nietzsche, the most far-seeing, the most intelligent, the most mercilessly keen of modern German minds, said that Heine

gave me the highest conception of the lyric poet. I seek in vain in all the realms [of time] for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection. I estimate the value of human beings, of races, according to the necessity with which they cannot understand the god apart from the satyr. And how he handles his German! It will be said one day that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.

Even in the Victorian period, so ready to overemphasize the “sweet” Heine, Matthew Arnold, in what is probably the most penetrating appreciation of the poet in English, saw Heine’s civic importance and quoted Heine’s own words—“But lay on my coffin a sword; for I was a brave soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.” Arnold, echoing these words, honored Heine not as a hero, “but preeminently [as] a brilliant, a most effective soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.” By this Arnold meant not something political but what Goethe had said of himself: “If I were to say what I had really been to the Germans in general, and to the young German poets in particular, I should say I had been their liberator.” And what has “liberation,” so often a necessary function in what Heine called the “dark night of Germany,” a Germany so little affected by the great Paris revolution of 1830—what has it to do with the “modern,” with those “modern times” which Heine felt he belonged to with all his heart and soul and mind? Arnold identified Heine entirely with “the awakening of the modern spirit.”


Modern times find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules, which have come to them from times not modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward; yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation, that it by no means corresponds exactly with the wants of their actual life, that, for them, it is customary, not rational. The modern spirit is now awake almost everywhere…. To remove this want of correspondence is beginning to be the settled endeavour of most persons of good sense. Dissolvents of the old European system of dominant ideas and facts we must all be, all of us who have any power of working; what we have to study is that we may not be acrid dissolvents of it.

Of course Arnold as a proper English gentleman could not approve of Heine’s disorderly manner of life. He complained that while “Heine had all the culture of Germany; in his head fermented all the ideas of modern Europe,” Heine in the end showed “want of moral balance, and of nobleness of soul and character.” So the greatest of Victorian critics (but a minor poet) revenged himself in the end for having to recognize, as a far greater poet than himself, one who was truly what Arnold also was not—“a brave soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.”

Yet Arnold saw Heine’s greatness as a poet because, more than any other critic in English of his time Arnold did have that fullness of historical grasp, that sense of the historical character of mankind, which Eliot defined as a criterion of greatness in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot said that the “historical sense…we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and…the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

If this is “modernism,” along with Arnold’s prophetic understanding that the modern spirit consists in knowing how much of the past does not correspond with our lives, then Heine is truly a “modern” poet and a herald indeed of the modern spirit. In one of his most haunting poems, “Wo?” (Where?), he wrote the “dream of a summer night.” In this dream, pale and weathered in the light of the moon, masonry lay about, remains of ancient glory, ruins of the Renaissance period. In an amazing dream through history, Heine went on to present Olympus, Adam and Eve, the destruction and fire of Troy, Paris and Helen, and Hector too; Moses and Aaron standing close by, Esther as well, Judith, Holofernes, and Haman; the god Amour, Phoebus Apollo, Vulcan and Venus, Pluto and Proserpina, Mercury, Bacchus the god, Priapus and Silenus; Balaam’s ass, the temptation of Abraham, and Lot, who got drunk with his daughters.

And so on and on until this dream of history, this extraordinary procession that makes up history for a poet imbued with the mythological sense of things, ends with Balaam’s ass braying, shouting down the gods and the saints. “And at last I myself cried out—and I woke up.” This lovely dream of history ends indeed on a prophetic note. Joyce was to say in Ulysses that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Heine woke up, and is perhaps still trying to wake us up. He may just be one of us.

This Issue

November 5, 1981