Heinrich Heine

Poet: Heinrich Heine
Date of Birth: 13 December 1797, Düsseldorf, Germany
Date of Death: 17 February 1856, Paris, France

Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was a poet, writer and literary critic. Outside of Germany he is best known for his lyric poetry, which was set to music by composers such as Schumman and Schubert. His later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned, which only added to his fame. He spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

Heine was born in Düsseldorf, in what was then the Duchy of Berg, into a Jewish family. As a child he was called Harry but became known as Heinrich after converting to Lutheranism in 1825. He was the eldest of four children and a distant cousin of Karl Marx. Düsseldorf of the 18th century was a small town and used to be the capital of the Duchy of Jülich-Berg, but under French occupation it went to the Elector of Bavaria before being ceded to Napoleon in 1806 who turned it into the capital of the Grand Duchy of Berg, one of three French stated he established in Germany. Upon the downfall of Napoleon in 1815 it became part of Prussia.

Heine’s formative years were spent under French influence and as an adult he would always be devoted to the French for the introduction of the Napoleonic Code and trial by jury. He glossed over the more negative aspects of French rule in the Berg. Heine admired Napoleon as a promoter of revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality and despised the political atmosphere in Germany after Napoleon’s defeat.

As a young child Heine was sent to a Jewish school where he learned some Hebrew, but he then attended Catholic schools, learning French, and acquired a lifelong love of Rhineland folklore. Heine went to business school in Düsseldorf in 1814 and learned to read English. He moved to Hamburg in 1816 to become an apprentice at Heckscher and Co, his uncle’s bank, but showed no aptitude for business.

Heine had no talent for trade and entered the law at the University of Bonn in 1819. German politics was divided between the conservatives wanting to restore things back to pre-French Revolution and the liberals who wanted to replace absolutism with a representative and constitutional government. Heine was a radical liberal and took part in a parade which violated the Carlsbad Decrees that suppressed liberal activity.

Heine was more interested in studying history and literature than law. August Wilhelm Schlegel, a critic and thinker, had been engaged as a lecturer at the university and Heine heard him talk about the Nibelungenlied and Romanticism. He also found him a sympathetic critic for his early poetry. Heine began to acquire a reputation as a poet at Bonn. After a year, Heine left Bonn to continue his studies at the University of Göttingen. He hated the town that was part of Hanover and ruled by the King of Britain, the power that Heine blamed for the downfall of Napoleon. He also experienced an aristocratic snobbery that didn’t exist elsewhere. He hated studying law as he had to study the law that bolstered the reactionary government he so opposed. This and other events conspired to Heine’s hatred for this period of his life: expulsion from a student fraternity for anti-Semitic reasons and his cousin Amelia got engaged. Heine challenged another student to a duel(the first of ten such incidents) and the authorities stepped in and he was suspended from university for six months. His uncle then decided to send him to the University of Berlin.

Heine arrived in Berlin in 1821. The cosmopolitan city gave him access to notable cultural figures as lecturers, such as FA Wolf, Hegel and Franz Bopp. He also made valuable acquaintances with Varnhagen and his wife who held a leading salon in the city. He also met Karl Immermann, a satirist who encouraged Heine with his first verse collection. Whilst in Berlin Heine joined the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden, a society which attempted to achieve a balance between Judaism and modernity. Heine was not very religious and soon lost interest, but he began to investigate Jewish history, particularly the Spanish Jews of the Middle Ages.

In 1823 Heine left Berlin and joined his family in Lüneburg and began to write the poems of the cycle Die Heimkehr. He returned to Göttingen and again lost interest in law. In 1824 he set off on a break taking a trip through the Harz mountains. On his return he began writing Die Harzreise. In 1825 Heine concerted to Protestantism. The Prussian government had restored discrimination against Jews, introducing laws that excluded Jews from academic posts and Heine had ambitions of a university career. Heine saw conversion as ‘the ticket of admission into European culture’.

Heine was only suited for writing which made finding a job difficult as opportunities for professional writers were limited in Germany. The market for literature was small and as a result Heine was never able to cover his expenses. In 1826 he met Julius Campe in Hamburg, and Campe became his publisher. A liberal, Campe published as many dissident authors as he could, developing various techniques for evading the authorities. At the time any book of less than 320 pages had to be submitted for censorship so dissident works would be published in large print to increase the page count to more than 320. Censorship in Hamburg was lax but Campe had to worry about Prussia, the largest German state and the largest market for books. Before 1834, any book that passed the censor in a German state was able to be sold in any other states. When this legal loophole was closed print runs could be confiscated.

From the mid-1820s, Heine distanced himself from Romanticism by adding irony, sarcasm and satire to his poetry and poking fun at the over-sentimental romantic wonder of nature and the figures of speech in contemporary poetry and literature. Despite an increasing critical view of despotism and reactionary chauvinism among nobility and clerics as well as the narrow-mindedness of ordinary people in the rising German form of nationalism he nonetheless made a point of stressing his love for his homeland.

After the publication of Ideen: Das Buch Le Grand, Heine travelled to England to avoid the predicted controversy the publication would attract. He found the English commercial and prosaic and continued still blamed them for the defeat of Napoleon. On his return to Germany Heine a job co-editing a magazine, Politische Annalen in Munich. He did not find work on the magazine congenial, and instead he unsuccessfully tried to obtain a professorship at Munich University. Heine travelled to Italy, visiting Lucca, Florence and Venice. His trip was cut short by the death of his father. The aristocratic poet August von Platen had been annoyed by some epigrams by Immerman. Platen responded with a counterattack of anti-Semitic jibes about Heine in his plat Der Romantische Ödipus. Stung by the attack Heine responded in Der Bäder von Lucca attacking Platen’s sexuality. This literary exchange of personal attacks became known as the Platen affair.

Heine went to Paris in 1831 where he settled for the rest of his life. The move followed the 1830 July Revolution which Heine shared enthusiasm as he felt it had the potential to overturn the conservative order in Europe. It also liberated him from German censorship, and he was attracted by the new French utopian political doctrines of Saint-Simonianism. Heine became a celebrity in France and Paris offered a cultural richness unavailable in the smaller cities of Germany, but he also remained something of an outsider. He had no talent for the French language so write everything in German and translating into French with the help of a collaborator. Heine earned money as a French correspondent for the Allgemeine Zeitung with his first event coverage being the salon of 1831. Heine met Mathilde in 1834 and she moved in with him in 1836 until his death. The couple were married in 1841.

Heine and his fellow radical, Ludwig Börne became role models for a younger generation of writers known as ‘Young Germany’. They included Gutzkow, Mundt and Wienbarg. Liberal but not politically active they still fell afoul of the authorities with publications such as Wally die Zweiflerin. Heine continued to comment on German politics and society from a safe distance and his publisher was able to get around the censors. The relationship between Heine and Börne was a troubled one as Börne did not attack religion or traditional morality as Heine did, and the German authorities therefore hounded him less although his books were still banned as they appeared. In 1837 Börne died and Heine began writing a biography, a severely critical memorial of the man. Published in 1840 it was universally disliked by the radicals and alienated Heine from his public. The book contained attacks on Börne’s closest friend Jeanette Wohl and her husband challenged Heine to a dual, the last Heine would fight, he suffered a flesh wound to the hip. Before fighting, he safeguarded Mathilde’s future in the event of his death by marrying her.

When Frederick William IV ascended the Prussian throne in 1840 German poetry took a more directly political turn. During his early reign censorship was relaxed leading to the emergence of popular political poets called the Thendenzdichter. Heine consider these poets to be bad poets, but his own verse became more political too using satirical attack against the Kings of Bavaria and Prussia, popular torpor of the German people and the greed and cruelty of the ruling class.

In 1843 Heine’s distant relative and German revolutionary, Karl Marx and his wife arrived in Paris after the Prussian government had supressed Marx’s radical newspaper. Marx was an admirer of Heine and his early writings show Heine’s influence. Ultimately Heine’s ideas of revolution through sensual emancipation and Marx’s scientific socialism were incompatible but both writes shared the same negativity and lack of faith in the bourgeoisie.

Heine, who had not been well, fell paralyzed in May 1848 and had to be confined to bed. He would not leave what he referred to has his mattress grave until his death eight years later. He bore his suffering with stoicism and continued to work. His illness meant he paid less attention to the political revolutions occurring in France and Germany in 1848. However he was sceptical of the Frankfurt Assembly and continued to attack the Prussian King. He continued to work from his bed. He died on 17 February 1856 and is buried in the Paris Cimetière de Montmartre. His tomb, designed by Louis Hasselriis includes Heine’s poem Wo? (Where?) engraved on three sides.


Where at last will this wandering end
and a quiet place be marked as mine?
Under palms in the Southern sun?
Under lindens on the Rhine?

Will I be laid in a shallow grave
in a wilderness, by strangers’ hands?
Or find my rest near breaking waves
under a long expanse of sand?

It makes no difference. God will wind
his heaven round me there as here,
and like the lanterns of the dead,
at night the stars will hover near.

©JG Farmer 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s