The German author Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is best known for his lyric poems, a number of which are considered among the best in German literature. His essays on German literary, political, and philosophical thought contain remarkable and frequently prophetic insights.
The career of Heinrich Heine spans the later years of the German romantic movement and the era of the socially and politically conscious literary movement called Young Germany. His work reflects the influence of both schools, but an ingrained satirical sense and a sharp wit prevent his complete subscription to the tenets of either. He hoped to secularize romanticism in a "new (pagan) Hellenism," but his liberal political philosophy rejected contemporary reactionary German regimes as well as revolutionary "mob rule." His self-imposed exile from Germany after 1831 demonstrates his independence and isolation in a lifelong search for personal and national identity.
Heine was born on Dec. 13, 1797, in Düsseldorf. The son of middle-class Jewish parents, he was named Harry after an English friend of the family. His early education included training in both Hebrew and Jesuit schools, and at the insistence of his ambitious mother he was sent to Frankfurt and then to Hamburg to learn banking and business. But the dreamy youth proved unsuited to a life in trade, even with the support of his wealthy uncle Solomon in Hamburg. The principal legacy of Heine's Hamburg years was his unrequited love for his cousin Amalie (and later for her younger sister Therese); his double disappointment was the theme of many of his early lyrics.
With the financial support of his uncle, Heine entered the University of Bonn in 1819, planning to study law. Here A. W. von Schlegel, professor of literature and a cofounder of German romanticism, encouraged his literary bent. Heine was delighted by such attention but was alienated by the political conservatism of the university administration and by the anti-Semitism he encountered. In 1820 he removed to the University of Göttingen. Conditions there were even less appealing; his inevitable opposition to them soon led to his suspension, and he moved on to the University of Berlin. He attended the lectures of G. W. F. Hegel, and literary sponsors helped him to publish Gedichte (Poems) in 1822. These poems followed romantic conventions but were also marked by a novel use of language and imagery. Lyrisches Intermezzo (1823) and the lyric cycle Heimkehr (1826; Homecoming) show improved command of lyric form and frequently project the simplicity and directness of the folk song and the folk ballad. The dominant theme remains his unhappy love for Amalie and then, in the latter work, for Therese.
After an interlude at home, Heine, at the insistence of his uncle, returned to Göttingen. Upon Christian baptism (a necessary step for Jews who would handle Christian legal clients) he took the name Heinrich and received his law degree in July 1825.
A journey on foot through the Harz Mountains and a vacation on the North Sea coast inspired the first volume of Heine's Reisebilder (1826; Travel Pictures), containing the Heimkehrcycle, Die Nordsee (lyrics which introduced sea themes into German literature and which are frequently considered Heine's finest achievement in the form), and Die Harzreise, an account of the Harz journey after the manner of the 18th-century English novelist Laurence Sterne. The freedom of form, which combined prose and poetry and was marked by many fanciful and philosophical digressions, proved congenial to the poet and popular with the public. Heine produced three further volumes in this vein, mirroring his reactions to subsequent travels and experiences in Germany, England (1827), and Italy (1828).
In 1827 Heine gathered together his best lyrics, publishing them as Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs), a collection that enjoyed immense popularity. No previous work had revealed so clearly his lyric range and versatility, wit, and unique mixture of sentiment and satire. The singing quality of his verse appealed to a number of 19th-century composers, including Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann; many poems were given musical settings and remain staples of the concert stage.
Between 1828 and 1831 Heine sought in vain for a secure position. His attempt at political journalism in Munich failed in a few months; by attempting to avoid censurable writing, he succeeded only in stifling his unique gifts. Thereafter the prospects for a university professorship dissolved in the face of conservative opposition and intrigue, and by 1831 he was delighted to be able to emigrate to Paris, hoping for a more congenial atmosphere in the wake of the July Revolution of 1830.
Heine's "romantic" period was now virtually at an end, and he determined to devote his energies henceforth to the "realistic" demands of the times. His announced purpose as self-appointed German cultural ambassador was to interpret German thought to the French. The essays in De l'Allemagne (1835) exhibit his own free-wheeling analysis of current German religious, philosophical, and literary theory. The three principal essays are entitled Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland, Die Romantische Schule, and Elementargeister. A second edition included Heine's Geständnisse (Confessions).
In these essays Heine advocated a species of pantheism influenced by Saint-Simonianism. He urged the reestablishment of the fundamental German values that he professed to find in German folklore and the political realization of the revolutionary potential of contemporary German philosophy. In discussing German romanticism, Heine found its otherworldly "spiritualism" exaggerated and outmoded, and he advocated a renewed recognition of sensualistic claims and the joys of the here and now. (His last major blow against an outmoded romanticism, including its tendentious and patriotic wing, was delivered in 1843 in the delightful mock epic poem Atta Troll. ) The great variety of pieces published in several volumes under the title Der Salon (1834 and later) brought to the German public much of Heine's thought, including his reactions to his French experiences.
Heine's middle and later poetry—Zeitgedichte (1832-1844; Poems of the Times), Romanzen (1839), Romanzero (1851), and Letzte Gedichte (1853; Last Poems)—reinforce the theme of secularization sounded so strongly in the essays. These works often reflect his pessimism and disillusionment at witnessing the rising tide of 19th-century materialism. In this period there is also a withdrawal from the paganism advocated in his earlier work, induced in some part by the sufferings of Heine's last 8 years, when a spinal affliction and progressive paralysis confined him to his bed. Near the end, it was necessary for him to prop an eyelid open with one hand while writing with the other and, eventually, to dictate his work. To the last he was faithfully cared for by his "Mathilde" (Crescencia Eugenie Mirat), a simple French girl whom he had married in 1841.
In this reduced state Heine acknowledged, but without a trace of self-pity, that he had become convinced of the existence of "one religion for the healthy, and an entirely different one for the sick" and that he no longer regarded himself "the freest German since Goethe."
Heine died on Feb. 17, 1856, and was buried, in accord with his wishes, in the cemetery of Montmartre in Paris.
Further Reading on Heinrich Heine
An extensive selection of Heine's work and a biographical essay are in Frederic Ewen, ed., The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine (1948). Although no single work is generally accepted as definitive, a selection of studies can provide a cross section of the varying treatments of Heine. Eliza M. Butler, Heinrich Heine: A Biography (1956), is a sensitive and enthusiastic appreciation of the manifold and frequently incompatible facets of Heine's personality and work. Max Brod, Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt (1934; trans. 1956), stresses Heine's antiestablishment orientation and re-creates the 19th-century milieu through extensive quotations from Heine and his contemporaries. Heine's political attitudes and his relation to his Jewish heritage are examined in William Rose, Heinrich Heine: Two Studies of His Thought and Feeling (1956). Still useful is Ludwig Marcuse, Heinrich Heine: A Life between Past and Future (1932; trans. 1934).
The critical study by Barker Fairley, Heinrich Heine: An Interpretation (1954), deals with recurrent images and motifs in Heine's poetry and prose and postulates a theory of the unity in Heine's work. A recent study is Jeffrey L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine: The Elusive Poet (1969). Solomon Liptzin, The English Legend of Heinrich Heine (1954), attempts to elucidate the mystery of Heine's international appeal through the context of English criticism from pre-Victorian times to the present. Surveys which discuss Heine are August Closs, The Genius of the German Lyric (1938), and Hermann Boeschenstein, German Literature of the Nineteenth Century (1969). For historical background see Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany (2 vols., 1959-1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Arnold, Matthew, Essays in criticis, London, Cambridge, Macmillan and co., 1865.
Brod, Max, Heinrich Heine: the artist in revolt, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1957.
Butler, E. M. (Eliza Marian), Heinrich Heine, a biography, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1970, 1956.
Fairley, Barker, Heinrich Heine: an interpretation, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Heine, Heinrich, Confessions, Malibu, Calif.: J. Simon, 1981.
Heine, Heinrich, Memoirs, from his works, letters, and conversations, New York, Arno Press, 1973.
Hofrichter, Laura, Heinrich Heine, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987, 1963.
Kossoff, Philip, Valiant heart: a biography of Heinrich Heine, New York: Cornwall Books, 1983.
Pawel, Ernst, The poet dying: Heinrich Heine's last years in Paris, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Robertson, Ritchie, Heine, New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Sammons, Jeffrey L., Heinrich Heine, Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1991.
Sammons, Jeffrey L., Heinrich Heine: a modern biography, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Spencer, Hanna, Heinrich Heine, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.