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Heine, Heinrich

Category: Poet

Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856) was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. Heine was born in Düsseldorf, Rhineland, into a Jewish family. Heine's formative years were spent under French influence.  

Unlike many poets, the majority of his work was not inspired by love or unrequited love, [or drugs].  When he was 18, Heine almost certainly had an unrequited love for his cousin Amalie, but Heine had few serious love affairs.  In late 1834 [aged 37] he made the acquaintance of a 19-year old Paris shop-girl, Crescence Eugénie Mirat, whom he nicknamed "Mathilde".  She was illiterate, knew no German, and had no interest in cultural or intellectual matters. Nevertheless she moved in with Heine in 1836 and lived with him for the rest of his life.

So what was his inspiration?  Practically all his poems are inspired by anger, deeply felt righteous anger.  It is high emotion that was on occasion deeply destructive for him, he could be sarcastic, cruel and unnecessarily critical of people who did not deserve it.  Even Julius Campe, who was Heine's chief publisher for most of his life, came in for his vitriol, their relationship has been described as 'stormy'.  Heine's mode was satirical attack: against the Kings of Bavaria and Prussia; against the political torpor of the German people; and against the greed and cruelty of the ruling class.  Constant unrelenting attack.

…. it is the voice of hatred, the hatred I dedicate to this common enemy .... I am talking about the party of the so-called advocates of nationality in Germany, about those false patriots whose love for the fatherland only exists in the shape of imbecile distaste of foreign countries and neighbouring peoples and who daily pour their bile, especially on France".

He criticised despotism and reactionary chauvinism in Germany, the nobility and the clerics and the narrow-mindedness of ordinary people.  And he railed against the rising German form of nationalism.  He longed for a society in which meritocracy would replace hereditary distinctions in rank and wealth and where there would also be female emancipation and an important role for artists and scientists.  He was distraught at the collapse of spirituality in the face of organised religion.  He used sarcasm, he used satire, but of course it did no good – it never does.

To understand Heine, you have to understand the politics of the time in Germany. Very early in his student days, Heine was expelled from a student fraternity as a result of anti-Semitic discrimination, at a time when the Prussian government had been gradually restoring discrimination against Jews, of which he was one. In 1822, it introduced a law excluding Jews from academic posts.   Heine even converted to Christianity in a vain attempt to get round the harassments facing him.  Censorship of everyone's works was also the norm.  The laws of the time stated that any book under 320 pages had to be submitted to censorship.

He was right, but it did him no good being right in a country where no one appeared to realise he was.  In 1834, 99 years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in Germany, Heine wrote in his work "The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany":

"Christianity - and that is its greatest merit - has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. (...)

"Do not smile at my advice -- the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll."

The Heinrich Heine memorial designed by Waldemar Otto and
modelled on Hugo Lederer’s memorial to Heine

His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

Much of Heine's poetry – large portions of his deeper works -  is not sarcastic or satirical, it is beautiful and spiritual.  It is as if he retreated to a different world when he wrote his poetry.  The contradiction can seem overwhelmingly puzzling until one realises the poor man was very very ill. 

In May 1848, aged only 50, Heine, who had not been well, suddenly fell paralyzed and had to be confined to bed. He would not leave what he called his "mattress-grave" until his death eight years later. He also experienced difficulties with his eyes. In 1997, it was confirmed through an analysis of the poet's hair that he had suffered from chronic lead poisoning.  I think he suffered his entire life.

Elevated lead levels have been correlated with higher scores on aggression.  Being poisoned with lead causes rage.  In his day, the cause could have been any number of things – the plumbing or the cooking utensils, the patent medicines or the food he ate, but whatever it was, Heine was poisoned and showed all the classic symptoms of lead poisoning including impotence – he and Mathilde had no children.

He died on 17 February 1856 aged 59, and was interred in the Paris Cimetière de Montmartre. His wife Mathilde survived him, dying in 1883.

The lead poisoning had a terrible effect on his brain – he suffered from severe brain damage eventually, but it did seem to open him occasionally to moments of quite extraordinary inspiration.  Nevertheless, it also produced a personality that was in torment.  But maybe we should marvel that a man so ill tried to focus the rage caused by his illness into acts that he hoped would help humanity. None of it achieved anything as we know.  The juggernaut that was German nationalism rolled on and it took two world wars and millions of lives to suppress it.  And I use the word suppress and not extinguish advisedly.

 As Heine's said in his 1821 play Almansor:
"That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also."


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