Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
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Read More Articles About: German Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Heinrich Heine and Goethe are in many respects opposite as the poles, yet the former is also the real successor in literature of the great German. Heine was born at Düsseldorf, of Jewish parentage, on the 13th of December, 1799. While he was a schoolboy, the French troops occupied the town and made deep impression on his mind. Thenceforth he was a worshiper of the great Napoleon. Though Heine had been intended for mercantile pursuits, his evident inclination to literature led his uncle, a Ham-burg banker, to assist him generously. He went to the University of Bonn, then to Berlin, where he was admitted to the best literary society, and published his first poems in 1822. Neither this nor the tragedies which followed attracted any attention. Heine obtained his degree in law at Göttingen in 1825, and professed Christianity in order to be allowed to practice. But the change brought him sorrow rather than fortune. Literature claimed him for her own. His "Reisebilder" (Pictures of Travel) (1826) caused a great sensation by their bold ridicule of every idea and institution usually treated with reverence. In its method it resembles Sterne's "Sentimental Journey," but the spirit is far different. Its readers were delighted with its wit, elegance, and vivacity, while they were shocked at its blasphemy. The author added three volumes to the first, attacking every literary leader of the day. The audacity with which he voiced the youthful opposition to the official reactionary policy captivated the students of the University. Then in 1827 Heine published his "Buch der Lieder" (Book of Songs), comprising most that had been in his first book, and these now found delighted readers throughout Germany. The poems had a new beauty; they treated everything, from the greatest historical themes to the ordinary incidents of life, in a wonderfully fresh and lifelike way. Some were filled with melancholy, some with mockery, some with grief, and some with joy. But they were always original and impressive.
Heine was now called to Munich, where he edited a political periodical, but he also visited Berlin, where he had a quarrel with Count Platen, which produced some witty and scandalous writing. After the Revolution of 1830, which had put him in a frenzy, the Prussian Government so persecuted him that he was obliged to leave Germany. Henceforth Paris was his home. Soon he became intimate with Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dumas, and other leaders of the literary world. His pen was active in journalism, and his contributions to the press are still attractive by their art, elegance, and keenness of judgment of affairs. But he wrote also articles of more substantial and permanent literary value. His discussions of the religion and philosophy of Germany threw new light on a subject only half understood. His history of the German "Romantic School" is a valuable but bitter critical sketch of the period to which it relates. In 1839 he published "Shakespeare's Maidens and Wives," an exquisite guide to the dramatist's portrait gallery. In the preface he has bitter flings at England : "My spirit faints when I consider that Shakespeare was an Englishman, and belongs to the most repulsive people that God in his wrath has created. What a disgusting people ! What an unrefreshing country!" In 1843 Heine made a visit to Germany and recorded his impressions in "Deutschland, ein Winter-marchen" (Germany, a Winter Tale), treating the country in the same sarcastic, irreverent style.
In 1848, while Heine was in full tide of activity, he was attacked with a spinal disease which inflicted intense suffering and confined him for seven years to a "mattress grave." But his mental faculties were unimpaired, and to the end he continued to write poetry of the finest luster and prose of the keenest satire. He had already formed an attachment for an uneducated grisette, and after some years of cohabitation they were married. Now she proved a faithful, loving wife, assiduous in her attentions to the slowly dying man. He died on the 17th of February, 1856. In his will this strange, witty blasphemer wrote : "I die in the belief of one only God, the Creator of the world, whose pity I implore for my immortal soul. I lament that I have sometimes spoken of sacred things without due reverence, but I was carried away more by the spirit of my time than by my own inclinations. If I have unwittingly violated good manners and morality, I pray both God and man for pardon."
Heine is one of the greatest song writers of the world. Many of his pieces were set to music by Schumann and Mendelssohn. His intense personal feeling was essential to these, to enable them to reach the heart of the people. The sweetest of his early poems were inspired by a strong affection for his cousin, and some critics have asserted that the bitterness of his later years arose from his love not having been requited. His lyrics are usually very short, sudden ejaculations or expressions of a momentary feeling, pain or pleasure, regret or love. The tone of sadness prevails; they never rouse the spirit with words of power. Among the best of his lyric poems are "The Rose, the Lily, the Dove, the Sun," "On the Wings of Song," "Thou Art Like a Flower," "The Sea Hath Its Pearls." Many of his ballads and narrative pieces have great charm, as "The Lorelei," "The Princess Sabbat," "Jehuda ben Halevy," "Wicked Dreams," "The Pilgrimage to Kevlaar," "The Island Bimini." His "North Sea" and "Return to Home" are cycles of song, celebrating the mystery and greatness of the sea. Many of his poems which open sweetly allow a sudden discord to enter and destroy the charm.
In his prose Heine set himself forth as an enemy of Philistinism, that dull, narrow-minded adherence to conventional ideas in literature and art. But he abused his power of ridicule, directing it not merely against pedants and hidebound critics, but against the masters in literature and philosophy. His "Romantic School" was a violent blow against the monstrosities and absurdities into which that school had fallen. His "Pictures of Travel" is his chief prose work, and contains every variety of description, from simple narrative to satirical caricature.