“Once the world was whole, in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Heinrich Heine wrote. “There was still a unity in the world and there were complete poets. We rightfully honor these poets and take pleasure in their poetry; but any aping of their wholeness is a lie.”
The German Heine (1797-1856), one of the greatest of the Romantics, bears only a partial resemblance to our image of them; a Keats, say, or a Shelley. True, there are his short lyric poems, in which emotion is so compressed under heat as to turn them crystalline, like diamonds tormented out of coal. But there is also a searing current of scorn and revulsion.
He is a “torn poet,” as he puts it; in no way a whole one. Byron comes the closest, perhaps, but compared to the scouring, witty Heine who laughs not until it hurts but because it hurts, Byron was a veritable lamb.
It is Heine’s torn condition, his allergy to beauty in capital letters while producing so much of it, that led critics to catapult him from the first half of the 1800s to the threshold of modernism, more than half a century later.
“Torn” describes the four episodes of “Travel Pictures,” just issued by Archipelago Press in a new, sometimes awkward translation by Peter Wortsman. Except for the best known of them, “The Harz Journey,” what little travel is done is largely around himself.
“There’s nothing more boring on this earth,” Heine writes in one piece, “than to have to read the description of an Italian journey, except maybe to have to write one — and the writer can only make it halfway bearable by speaking as little as possible of Italy itself.”
Frenetic digression is the mode, as if Heine were not simply exploring his feelings but goading them, the way one might jab at a wound as if to say: “You torment me? Very well, then I torment you.”
Darkness surrounds the wit, lightning flashes of sheer intelligence transform the darkness, and, it must be said, great windy stretches of self-indulging discourse blow throughout. One of these interminably mocks a minor poet, August von Platen, not so much as a homosexual but as a limp one, lacking the gusto of such classic poets as Petronius.
Heine was a perpetual flood, at his worst — at least for today’s reader — when unchecked, at his shivering best when dammed. Thus the splendor of his brief poems and, in these pieces, the moments where he rouses from rhetorical swoon to fix his incomparable glittering eye on the particular.
“Nature knows how to produce the greatest effects with the least means,” he declares, and it defines his own deceptively simple lyrics, with iron grief at their core. He could be censuring his own windy passages when he writes that von Platen was no true poet because “language never became his internal master, but he became a master of language, or rather he imposed his mastery like a virtuoso on an instrument.” A thunderous distinction to this day.
He writes of Milady, an aging love, spirited, witty and cast down only by a glimpse into the mirror. “I am still beautiful!” she retorts. He writes of Francesca, a dancing Italian courtesan who allows him all manner of liberties, but alas, coming from Mass, “her step was dark and Catholic … and just as in former nights her legs were lithe with sin, so were they now heavy with religion.”
Religion captivates him even as he, torn, rejects it. Jewish, a Protestant convert out of convenience, he has a Sancho Panza-like Jewish manservant dissect the different faiths.
Catholicism: “I see no pleasure in a religion in which our dear God, God help us, is dead, and it smells of incense just like at a funeral.” Protestantism: “A harmless religion, as clean as a glass of water, but it doesn’t do you any good either.” Judaism: “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Gives you nothing but scorn and shame. I tell you, it’s no religion at all, just a lot of hard luck.”
Heine refers here only once, bitingly, to German anti-Semitism. Pointing out a hunting area, he concedes the sport’s pleasure for some. “My ancestors, however, did not belong to the hunters, but rather to the hunted.”
His feelings towards Germany itself are more complex (political reaction caused him to immigrate to France). Seeing a line of emperors’ statues, he wonders why one brandishes a sword. “It must surely have some significance, since the Germans have the curious custom of always attaching a thought to whatever they do.”
Watching a military parade in Italy, he remarks that the commands are given in German. “Do we hold such sway in the world that German has even become the language of commandment? Or are we ourselves so accustomed to being commanded that German has become the dialect of obedience?”
But Germany was part of him, its landscapes and above all its language. One of his most bitterly moving poems speaks of the beautiful country he once had, where violets and the oak tree grew. “A dream said to me in German (how wonderfully it sounded): ‘I love you.’ It was a dream.”
After his death, a statue of Heine was offered to Düsseldorf. Nationalist sentiment caused it to be rejected. German-Americans then donated it to New York to be placed by Central Park. It was pronounced aesthetically inferior (this has always been a hard place to crack the art scene), and it stands now in the Bronx.