Review: Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28)

Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28), Heinrich Heine (Translated and edited by T. J. Reed and David Cram: London: Everyman/J. M. Dent, 1997.

Summary: A collection of translated poems of Heinrich Heine.

Heinrich Heine composed poetry during the height of the romantic period. Some of his early lyric poetry was set to music by Schubert and Schumann. His later poetry reflects a certain cynicism toward romanticism. For example, the opening poem in this collection, Prologue, begins with him “walking into a fairy wood” and concludes with a statue of The Sphinx coming ravenously to life: “her kisses drove me wild/Her claws dug in again.”

A favored theme is one of beautiful, romantic beginnings with sad or grievous endings, typified in the poem “Sweet-bitter,” beginning with loving embraces under the lindens (lindens are everywhere in Heine) only to end with “the coldest curtsey” and frosty goodbyes. There are poems that draw on mythology, such as The Lorelei, of a beautiful blonde siren atop a rocky outcropping, who distracts shipman who crash upon the rocks. He also has a poem on the Tannhauser legend.

Some of his poetry is political. Heine supported revolutionary movements and fled Germany to Paris in 1831, resenting the censorship of his works. By 1835, his work was banned in Germany. His Germany: A Winter’s Tale is a barbed commentary on its pretensions. In No Need to Worry he observes:

We call them 'fathers', it's 'fatherland'.
Which makes it easy to understand
Why it all belongs to them, and we
Have sausage and sauerkraut for tea.

In October 1849 marks the failed revolutions of 1848. He laments:

This time the Austrian Ox has made
An ally even of the Bear.
Take comfort, Magyar, though you fall --
We have a far worse badge of shame to wear.

During the last eight years of his life, Heine was paralyzed and confined to bed. His poems are increasingly dominated by reflections on his own mortality. Double Vision is an encounter with an doppelganger, one healthy, one sickly that ends with the healthy one pummeling the sick one only to find he was pummeling himself. You may recognize Morphine and its concluding, Job-like lines:

To sleep is good, and death is better, but
Far better still never to have been born.

Heine captures the reality of life as bittersweet. Our loftiest aims will often end disappointed. Life is a tragicomedy for Heine and many of his poems are satires on the romantics with a grotesque or bitter twist. This translation seems to capture the almost “tongue-in-cheek” ironic character of Heine’s poetry. It is accessible, easy to read, even as one ponders the ironic twists. This work, if you can find it, is a wonderful introduction to this unusual poet.

One thought on “Review: Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28)

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2022 | Bob on Books

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