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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Heinrich Heine
By Rudolf von Gottschall (1823–1909)
 
From ‘Portraits and Studies’: Translation of William Henry Carpenter

ABOUT no recent poet has so much been said and sung as about Heinrich Heine. The youngest writer, who for the first time tries his pen, does not neglect to sketch with uncertain outlines the portrait of this poet; and the oldest sour-tempered professor of literature, who turns his back upon the efforts of the present with the most distinguished disapproval, lets fall on the picture a few rays of light, in order to prove the degeneration of modern literature in the Mephistophelean features of this its chief. Heine’s songs are everywhere at home. They are to be found upon the music rack of the piano, in the school-books, in the slender libraries of minor officers and young clerks. However difficult it may be to compile an editio castigata of his poems, every age, every generation has selected from among them that which has delighted it. Citations from Heine, winged words in verse and prose, buzz through the air of the century like a swarm of insects: splendid butterflies with gayly glistening wings, beautiful day moths and ghostly night moths, tormenting gnats, and bees armed with evil stings. Heine’s works are canonical books for the intellectual, who season their judgments with citations from this poet, model their conversation on his style, interpret him, expand the germ cell of his wit to a whole fabric of clever developments. Even if he is not a companion on the way through life, like great German poets, and smaller Brahmins who for every day of our house-and-life calendar give us an aphorism on the road, there are nevertheless, in the lives of most modern men, moods with which Heine’s verse harmonize with wondrous sympathy; moments in which the intimacy with this poet is greater than the friendship, even if this be of longer duration, with our classic poets.  1
  It is apparently idle to attempt to say anything new of so much discussed a singer of modern times, since testimony favorable and unfavorable has been drained to exhaustion by friend and foe. Who does not know Heine,—or rather, who does not believe that he knows him? for, as is immediately to be added, acquaintance with this poet extends really only to a few of his songs, and to the complete picture which is delivered over ready-made from one history of literature into another. Nothing, however, is more perilous and more fatal than literary tradition! Not merely decrees and laws pass along by inheritance, like a constitutional infirmity, but literary judgments too. They form at last a subject of instruction like any other; a dead piece of furniture in the spiritual housekeeping, which, like everything that has been learned, is set as completed to one side. We know enough of this sort of fixed pictures, which at last pass along onward as the fixed ideas of a whole epoch, until a later unprejudiced investigation dissolves this rigid-grown wisdom, sets it to flowing, and forms out of a new mixture of its elements a new and more truthful portrait.  2
  It is not to be affirmed however that Heine’s picture, as it stands fixed and finished in the literature and the opinion of the present, is mistaken and withdrawn. It is dead, like every picture; there is lacking the living, changing play of features. We have of Heine only one picture before us; of our great poets several. Goethe in his “storm and stress,” in Frankfurt, Strassburg, and Wetzlar,—the ardent lover of a Friedrike of Sesenheim, the handsome, joyous youth, is different in our minds from the stiff and formal Weimar minister; the youthful Apollo different from the Olympic Jupiter. There lies a young development between, that we feel and are curious to know. It is similar with Schiller. The poet of the ‘Robbers’ with its motto In tyrannos, the fugitive from the military school; and the Jena professor, the Weimar court councilor who wrote ‘The Homage of the Arts,’—are two different portraits.  3
  But Heine is to our view always the same, always the representative of humor with “a laughing tear” in his escutcheon, always the poetic anomaly, coquetting with his pain and scoffing it away. Young or old, well or ill, we do not know him different.  4
  And yet this poet too had a development, upon which at different times different influences worked….  5
  The first epoch in this course of development may be called the “youthful”; the ‘Travel Pictures’ and the lyrics contained in it form its brilliant conclusion. This is no storm-and-stress period in the way that, as Schiller and Goethe passed through it, completed works first issued under its clarifying influence. On the contrary, it is characteristic of Heine that we have to thank this youthful epoch for his best and most peculiarly national poems. The wantonness and the sorrows of this youth, in their piquant mixture, created these songs permeated by the breath of original talent, whose physiognomy, more than all that follow later, bears the mark of the kind and manner peculiar to Heine, and which for a long time exercised in our literature through a countless host of imitators an almost epidemic effect. But these lyric pearls, which in their purity and their crystalline polish are a lasting adornment of his poet’s crown, and belong to the lyric treasures of our national literature, were also gathered in his first youthful epoch, when he still dived down into the depths of life in the diving-bell of romanticism.  6
  Although Heinrich Heine asserted of himself that he belonged to the “first men of the century,” since he was born in the middle of New Year’s night, 1800, more exact investigation has nevertheless shown that truth is here sacrificed to a witticism. Heine is still a child of the eighteenth century, by whose most predominant thoughts his work too is influenced, and with whose European coryphæus, Voltaire, he has an undeniable relationship. He was born, as Strodtmann proves, on the 13th of December, 1799, in Düsseldorf, His father was a plain cloth-merchant; his mother, of the family Von Geldern, the daughter of a physician of repute. The opinion, however, that Heine was the fruit of a Jewish-Christian marriage, is erroneous. The family Von Geldern belonged to the orthodox Jewish confession. One of its early members, according to family tradition, although he was a Jew, had received the patent of nobility from one of the prince electors of Jülich-Kleve-Berg, on account of a service accorded him. As, moreover, Schiller’s and Goethe’s mothers worked upon their sons an appreciable educational influence, so was this also the case with Heine’s mother, who is described as a pupil of Rousseau and an adorer of Goethe’s elegies, and thus reached far out beyond the measure of the bourgeois conditions in which she lived….  7
  That which however worked upon his youthful spirit, upon his whole poetical manner, was the French sovereignty in the Rhinelands at the time of his childhood and youth. The Grand Duchy of Berg, to which Düsseldorf belonged, was ruled in the French manner; a manner which, apart from the violent conscriptions, when compared with the Roman imperial periwig style had great advantages, and in particular granted to Jews complete equal rights with Christians, since the revolutionary principle of equality had outlived the destruction of freedom. Thus the Jews in Düsseldorf in their greater part were French sympathizers, and Heine’s father too was an ardent adherent of the new régime. This as a matter of course could not remain without influence upon the son, so much the less as he had French instruction at the lyceum. A vein of the lively French blood is unmistakable in his works. It drew him later on to Paris, where he made the martyr stations of his last years. And of all recent German poets, Heinrich Heine is the best known in France, better known even than our classic poets; for the French feel this vein of related blood….  8
  From his youth springs, too, Heine’s enthusiasm for the great Napoleon, which however he has never transmitted to the successors of the idées Napoléoniennes. The thirteen-year-old pupil of the gymnasium saw the Emperor in the year 1811, and then again in May 1812; and later on in the ‘Book Legrand’ of the ‘Travel Pictures’ he strikes up the following dithyrambic, which, as is always the case with Heine where the great Cæsar is concerned, tones forth pure and full, with genuine poetic swing, without those dissonances in which his inmost feelings often flow. “What feelings came over me,” he exclaims, “when I saw him himself, with my own highly favored eyes, him himself, Hosanna, the Emperor! It was in the avenue of the Court garden in Düsseldorf. As I pushed myself through the gaping people, I thought of his deeds and his battles, and my heart beat the general march—and nevertheless, I thought at the same time of the police regulation that no one under a penalty of five thalers should ride through the middle of the avenue. And the Emperor rode quietly through the middle of the avenue; no policeman opposed him. Behind him, his suite rode proudly on snorting horses and loaded with gold and jewels, the trumpets sounded, and the people shouted with a thousand voices, ‘Long live the Emperor!’” To this enthusiasm for Napoleon, Heine not long afterward gave a poetic setting in the ballad ‘The Two Grenadiers.’…  9
  The Napoleonic remembrances of his youth, which retained that unfading freshness and enthusiasm that are wont to belong to all youthful remembrances, were of vital influence upon Heine’s later position in literature; they formed a balance over against the romantic tendency, and hindered him from being drawn into it. Precisely in that epoch when the beautiful patriotism of the Wars of Liberation went over into the weaker feeling of the time of the restoration, and romanticism, grown over-devout, in part abandoned itself to externals, in part became a centre of reactionary efforts, Heine let this Napoleonic lightning play on the sultry heavens of literature, in the most daring opposition to the ruling disposition of the time and a school of poetry from which he himself had proceeded; while he declared war upon its followers. However greatly he imperiled his reputation as a German patriot through these hosannas offered to the hereditary enemy, just as little was it to be construed amiss that the remembrance of historical achievements, and of those principles of the Revolution which even the Napoleonic despotism must represent, were a salutary ventilation in the miasmic atmosphere of the continually decreasing circle which at that time described German literature. In the prose of Heine, which like Béranger glorified Cæsar, slumbered the first germs of the political lyric, which led again out of the moonlit magic realm of romanticism into the sunny day of history….  10
  A hopeless youthful love for a charming Hamburg maiden was the Muse of the Heine lyric, whose escutcheon has for a symbol “the laughing tear.” With the simplicity of Herodotus the poet himself relates the fact, the experience, in the well-known poem with the final strophe:—
  “It is an ancient story,
  But still ’tis ever new:
To whomsoe’er it happens
  His heart is broken too.”
  11
  We comprehend from biographical facts the inner genesis of the Heine lyric. Heine was in the position of Werther, but a Werther was for the nineteenth century an anomaly; a lyric of this sort in yellow nankeen breeches would have travestied itself. The content of the range of thought, the circle of world-shaping efforts, had so expanded itself since the French Revolution that a complete dissolution into sentimental extravagance had become an impossibility. The justification of the sentiment was not to be denied; but it must not be regarded as the highest, as the life-determining element. It needed a rectification which should again rescue the freedom of the spirit. Humor alone could accomplish Munchausen’s feat, and draw itself by its own hair out of the morass. Heine expressed his feelings with genuine warmth; he formed them into drawn pictures and visions; but then he placed himself on the defensive against them. He is the modern Werther, who instead of loading his pistol with a ball, loads it with humor. Artistic harmony suffered under this triumph of spiritual freedom; but that which appeared in his imitators as voluntary quibbling came from Heine of inner necessity. The subject of his first songs is the necessary expression of a struggle between feeling and spirit, between the often visionary dream life of a sentiment and self-consciousness, soaring free out over the world, which adjudged absorption in a single feeling as one-sided and unjustified. Later on, to be sure, these subjects of youthful inspiration became in Heine himself a satiric-humoristic manner, which regarded as a model worked much evil in literature. In addition to personal necessity through one’s own experience, there was for a genius such as Heine’s also a literary necessity, which lay in the development of our literature in that epoch. It was the Indian Summer of romanticism, whose cobwebs at this time flew over the stubble of our poetry. The vigorous onset of the lyricists of the Wars of Liberation had again grown lame; people reveled in the album sentiments of Tiedge and Mahlmann; the spectres of Amadeus Hoffmann and the lovely high-born maidens of knight Fouqué were regarded then as the noblest creations of German fantasy. Less chosen spirits, that is to say, the entire great reading public of the German nation, which ever felt toward its immortals a certain aversion, refreshed itself with the lukewarm water of the poetry of Clauren, from out of which, instead of the Venus Anadyomene, appear a Mimili and other maiden forms, pretty, but drawn with a stuffed-out plasticism. On the stage reigned the “fate tragedies” upon whose lyre the strings were wont to break even in the first scene, and whose ghosts slipped silently over all the German boards. In a word, spirits controlled the poetry of the time more than spirit.  12
  Heine however was a genuine knight of the spirit, and even if he conjured up his lyric spectres, he demanded no serious belief in them—they were dissolving pictures of mist; and if he followed his overflowing feelings, the mawkish sentiments of romanticism occurred to him and disgusted him with the extravagant expression of his love pain, and he mocked himself, the time, and the literature,—dissolved the sweet accords in glaring dissonances, so that they should not be in tune with the sentimental street songs of the poets of the day. In these outer and inner reasons lie the justification and the success of the lyric poetry of Heine. It designates an act of self-consciousness of the German spirit, which courageously lifts itself up out of idle love complainings and fantastic dream life, and at the same time mocks them both. An original talent like Heine’s was needed to give to the derided sentiment such a transporting magic, to the derision itself such an Attic grace, that the sphinx of his poetry, with the beautiful face and the rending claws, always produced the impression of a work of art. The signification in literary history of these songs of Heine is not to be underestimated. They indicate the dissolution of romanticism, and with them begins the era of modern German poetry.  13
 
 
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