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.

Great Works in Translation


Some translated works I have read. Photo Robert C. Trube, 2018.

Yesterday, I wrote about a great new translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. The writing achieves a sense of intimacy as one might experience with a trusted spiritual counselor. Pictured above are some of the other works I’ve enjoyed in translation–both fiction and non-fiction. To capture and convey what a writer is saying in translation is to give two gifts–the great thinking of the writer, and a translation that is a clear window into those ideas–that doesn’t obstruct or distort the meaning.

Having said that, I must confess that I have not studied the works in the list that follows in their original languages. I can say that I have sometimes read other, more wooden translations of these works and I’m grateful for these. Most of the works are ones in the picture–a few others I either could not find or I read them in electronic versions. Where I’ve written reviews, I include a link to them.

Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian ReligionJohn Calvin (Translated by John T. McNeill). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. McNeill captures both the intellectual rigor and devotional warmth of Calvin.

Beowulfunknown, Seamus Heaney (translator). New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Seamus Heaney makes one of the greatest stories in literature come to life in lyric poetry like this from the opening lines:

So, The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin, 2000. Pevear and Volokhonsky offer us this tale of the forbidden love of Anna and Count Vronsky in flowing prose that takes us inside the characters of Tolstoy’s sprawling work. Review

SilenceShusaku Endo (translated by William Johnston). New York: Picador, 2017. Johnston’s translation is spare, meditative, and captures both the physical agony and inner struggles of indigenous believers and missionaries in seventeenth century Japan. Review

The DecameronGiovanni Boccaccio (translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn). New York: W. W. Norton, 2013 (originally published 1353). (Not pictured above). The Decameron is a set of 100 stories told over ten days by ten travelers fleeing the plague in the fourteenth century. Before reading this version, I looked at a stilted one of which I could barely read a page or two. Rebhorn brings out the style, the earthy humor, the human pretensions, and occasional nobility portrayed in these stories. Review

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingMilan Kundera (translated by Michael Henry Heim). New York: HarperCollins, 2004. It’s been some time since I read this but the plotline of the tension between love and lust for many women, and the consequences in the sense of the substance of one’s life is a thoughtful exploration of the human condition.

Work of LoveSoren Kierkegaard (translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. The Hongs have translated all or nearly all of Kierkegaard’s work, and in this book, we encounter Kierkegaard’s challenging reflections on the nature of Christian love. Review (of a different edition)

PenseesBlaise Pascal (translated by A. J. Krailsheimer). New York: Penguin Random House, 2003. Pascal’s unfinished collection of notes and fragments on the Christian faith and the nature of belief. I have long mused on his statement that “that heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.”

On the IncarnationSt Athanasius (translated by John Behr, with an introduction by C. S. Lewis). Yonker, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014. This translation brings to life Athanasius efforts to articulate with clarity in a time of controversy the doctrine of the Incarnation. A bonus is a wonderful essay by C.S. Lewis on the reading of old books!

Of course, for many, the Bible itself is a translated work, a translation of sixty-six canonical books (and others depending on your communion) from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Often, not only in English, but other languages, the translations have become a benchmark of fluent expression in that language.

Great translations extend to us the opportunity to read literature of other cultures and other times, liberating us from the insularity of our own time and place. The works listed here were originally written in French, Old and Middle English, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Czech, Danish, Coptic and Greek. They remind us that excellence in literature is not confined to the English language.

What works have you read in translation that you would recommend?