Heinrich Heine - Biography
Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was one of the greatest German writers of the nineteenth century. Heine is considered the last poet of romanticism and, at the same time as the one who overcame it. More specifically, Heine is famous for having not only managed to raise everyday language to the rank of poetic language, but also for having done something similar to cultural writings and travelogues, raising them to the level of art form. Importantly, Heine is generally regarded as having played a major part in conferring on German literature a kind of elegant lightness unknown until then. Heine was a poet and critic, author of the Book of Songs (1927), whose verses, both lyrical and satirical, have proven to have a universal appeal. Heine was close to both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, without sharing their political philosophy.
Heine was officially born on December 13, 1797 in Dusseldorf, in the Duchy of Berg, under the name of Harry Heine. If Heine’s birthplace has never raised the slightest doubt, the exact date of his birth, however is today still uncertain. All documents that could provide information on this subject have been lost over the last two centuries. Heine himself claimed, jokingly, to being “the first man of the century” because there was some evidence also that he might have been born on the first day of the new year of 1800. From time to time, Heine also mentioned 1799 as the year of birth. Heine specialists now consider the date of December 23rd, 1797 as the most likely. Following the French Revolution, his childhood and youth were spent in a time of great upheaval. Heine was still a teenager when he wrote his first love poems. Heine fell in love with one of his cousins, Amalie, the daughter of his uncle Salomon, who will be his patron for most of Heine’s life.
Few other works of German poets have been so often translated and set to music than that of Heine. As a critical journalist, politically engaged, essayist, satirist and polemicist, Heine was equally admired as he was feared. Heine’s Jewish background together with his political stance brought him hostility and ostracism. This role as a kind of marginal figure marked all, his life, his writings together with the turbulent history around the reception of his work.
A face and a beard like that of Shakespeare, Heinrich Heine who is famous for having said he had “neither God nor Master” remains one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century German Romantics era. Son of modest bankers, Heine himself worked for a time in a bank in Frankfurt while dreaming only of poetry and freedom. Rebelled against all authority, Heine went on to study law. Heine’s first writings were nostalgic, compiled in 1821 in the book Gedichte (“Poems”), and lured sailors by their fatal sound. As a poet Heine marked German culture strongly by the combination of legends and fantasy, which often were his leitmotiv. Guided by his heart, Heine published Die Nordsee. Erste Abteilung (“North Sea I” in 1826. Heine eventually completed his doctorate in law, but not for his social ambitions as much as in order to no longer be financially dependent.
Of Jewish origin, Heine struggled to find a place in German officialdom where anti-Semitism was common practice. Heine published his memories of trips under the title Buch der Lieder in 1827 which continues to occupy an important place in German literature. Wandering between Florence, Venice and Berlin, Heine settled in Paris in 1831 where he worked as a newspaper correspondent for the German newspaper Morgenblatt. It is there in the capital of freedom that Heine was able to focus on his poetry and satire while leading a dissolute life filled with women and wine. One of the ways to put it is to say that Heinrich Heine was a German writer of Jewish origin and of French passion. Heine embodied many of the contradictions of his era. Heine was split by his own membership in two complementary worlds in their antagonism: the Germanic and the Latin. According to his friend, the French writer Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), “Never was nature composed of elements more diverse than that of Heine: he was both gay and sad, skeptic and believer, tender and cruel, mocking and sentimental, classic and romantic, German and French, delicate and cynical, enthusiastic and full of composure. Everything but boring, he really was Euphorion, child of Faust and of the beautiful Helen.” Indeed, from the pen of this sagittarius sprang sarcastic whistling arrows which never missed their aim. Heine was also the great poet whose words Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many others put in countless music Lieder (type of German song from the Romantic period).
Heine only had one real contemporary equal: the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Both are champions of modern poetry. Both admired and wrote about the painters of their time, and especially Delacroix. Both were immersed in bitterness and need, and both equally hated the bourgeoisie. Neither of them indulged in illusions about love. Both cursed men in general but loved humanity with passion. Both died in exile. Heine was banned in Germany, while Baudelaire had to flee France for Belgium. Their poems were truly understood until well after their death, and it is partly through them that trouble became manifest in both the bourgeoisie and the nationalists. The poisonous beauty of their poetry never ceases to haunt us. Heine eventually published Shakespearean-sounding books such as Germany: A Winter’s Tale (in the original German: “Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen” and Atta Troll: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in the original German: Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum).
In February 1848, when the revolution broke out in Paris, Heine had a serious seizure. Almost totally paralyzed, Heine will spend his last eight years in bed in what he himself called his “mattress-grave”. Since 1845, Heine had a gnawing neurological disease, which worsened dramatically by successive seizures. In 1846, Heine was even declared dead. Several stays in health resorts in France in the mountainous region of the Pyrenees in 1846, or in the countryside near Montmorency in 1847, for example, unfortunately brought him no apparent relief. We must add to it all the inconveniences caused by the succession of disputes that Heine had for years with his cousin in Hamburg, Carl Heine.
February 17, 1856, Heinrich Heine took his last breath, perhaps riddled with syphilis as well, although there is no consensus on the matter. Three days later, he was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre in Paris, France. After his death, inflammatory rhetoric against Heine continued to grow and persisted for more than a century.
As part of the thousands of book that were burnt in Berlin in 1933 by the Nazis were Heine’s works. As a commemoration, the famous lines from the 1821 play Almansor written by Heine were engraved at the site: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”