V. HEINRICH HEINE (from Essays in Criticism, First Series)
“I know not if I deserve that a laurel-wreath should one day be laid on my coffin. Poetry, dearly as I have loved it, has always been to me but a divine plaything. I have never attached any great value to poetical fame; and I trouble myself very little whether people praise my verses or blame them. But lay on my coffin a sword; for I was a brave soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.”
Heine had his full share of love of fame, and cared quite as much as his brethren of the genus irritabile whether people praised his verses or blamed them. And he was very little of a hero. Posterity will certainly decorate his tomb with the emblem of the laurel rather than with the emblem of the sword. Still, for his contemporaries, for us, for the Europe of the present century, he is significant chiefly for the reason which he himself in the words just quoted assign. He is significant because he was, if not pre-eminently a brave, yet a brilliant, a most effective soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.
To ascertain the master-current in the literature of an epoch, and to distinguish this from all minor currents, is one of the critic’s highest functions; in discharging it he shows how far he possesses the most indispensable quality of his office, — justness of spirit. The living writer who has done most to make England acquainted with German authors, a man of genius, but to whom precisely this one quality of justness of spirit is perhaps wanting, — I mean Mr. Carlyle, — seems to me in the result of his labours on German literature to afford a proof how very necessary to the critic this quality is. Mr. Carlyle has spoken admirably of Goethe; but then Goethe stands before all men’s eyes, the manifest centre of German literature; and from this central source many rivers flow. Which of these rivers is the main stream? which of the courses of spirit which we see active in Goethe is the course which will most influence the future, and attract and be continued by the most powerful of Goethe’s successors? – that is the question. Mr. Carlyle attaches, it seems to me, far too much importance to the romantic school of Germany, — Tieck, Novalis, Jean Paul Richter, — and gives to these writers, really gifted as two, at any rate, of them are, an undue prominence. These writers, and others with aims and a general tendency the same theirs, are not the real inheritors and continuators of Goethe’s power; the current of their activity is not the main current of German literature after Goethe. Far more in Heine’s works flows this main current, Heine, far more than Tieck of Jean Paul Richter, is the continuator of that which, in Goethe’s varied activity, is the most powerful and vital; on Heine, of all German authors who survived Goethe, incomparably the largest portion of Goethe’s mantle fell. I do not forget that when Mr. Carlyle was dealing with German literature, Heine, though he was clearly risen above the horizon, had not shone forth with all his strength; I do not forget, too, that after ten or twenty years many things may come out plain before the critic which before were hard to be discerned by him; and assuredly no one would dream of imputing it as a fault to Mr. Carlyle that twenty years ago he mistook the central current in German literature, overlooked the rising Heine, and attached undue importance to that romantic school which Heine was to destroy; one may rather note it as a misfortune, sent perhaps as a delicate chastisement to a critic, who, — man of genius as he is, and no one recognises his genius more admirably than I do, — has, for the functions of the critic, a little too much of the self-will and eccentricity of a genuine son of Great Britain.
Heine is noteworthy, because he is the most important German successor and continuator of Goethe in Goethe’s most important line of activity. And which of Goethe’s lines of activity is this — His line of activity as “a soldier in the war of liberation of humanity.”
Heine himself would hardly have admitted this affiliation, though he was far too powerful-minded a man to decry, with some of the vulgar German liberals, Goethe’s genius, “The wind of the Paris Revolution, ” he writes after the three days of 1830, “blew about the candles a little in the dark night of Germany, so that the red curtains of a German throne or two caught fire; but the old watchmen, who do the police of the German kingdoms, are already bringing out the fire engines, and will keep the candles closer snuffed for the future. Poor, fast- bound German people, lose not all heart in thy bonds! The fashionable coating of ice melts off from my heart, my soul quivers and my eyes burn, and that is a disadvantageous state of things for a writer, who should control his subject-matter and keep himself beautifully objective, as the artistic school would have us, and as Goethe has done; he has come to be eighty years old doing this, and minister, and in good condition :— poor German people! that is thy greatest man!”
But hear Goethe himself: “If I were to say what I had really been to the Germans in general, and to the young German poets in particular, I should say I had been their liberator. ”
Modern times find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules, which have come to them from times not modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward; yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation, that it by no means corresponds exactly with the wants of their actual life, that, for them, it is customary, not rational. The awakening of this sense is the awakening of the modern spirit. The modern spirit is now awake almost everywhere; the sense of want of correspondence between the forms of modern Europe and its spirit, between the new wine of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the old bottles of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, or even of the sixteenth and seventeenth, almost every one now perceives; it is no longer dangerous to affirm that this want of correspondence exists; people are even be- ginning to be shy of denying it. To remove this- want of correspondence is beginning to be the settled endeavour of most persons of good sense. Dissolvents of the old European system of dominant ideas and facts we must all be, all of us who have any power of working; what we have to study is that we may not be acrid dissolvents of it.
And how did Goethe, that grand dissolvent in an age when there were fewer of them than at present, proceed in his task of dissolution, of liberation of the modern European from the old routine He shall tell us himself. “Through me the German poets have become aware that, as man must live from within outwards, so the artist must work from within outwards, seeing that, make what contortions he will, he can only bring to light his own individuality. I can clearly mark where this influence of mine has made itself felt; there arises out of it a kind of poetry of nature, and only in this way is it possible to be original.”
My voice shall never be joined to those which decry Goethe, and if it is said that the foregoing is a lame and impotent conclusion to Goethe’s declaration that he had been the liberator of the Germans in general, and of the young German poets in particular, I say it is not. Goethe’s profound, imperturbable naturalism is absolutely fatal to all routine thinking; he puts the standard, once for all, inside every man instead of outside him; when he is told, such a thing must be so, there is immense authority and custom in favour of its being so, it has been held to be so for a thousand years, he answers with Olympian politeness, “But is it sol is it so to me?” Nothing could be more really subversive of the foundations on which the old European order rested; and it may be remarked that no persons are so radically detached from this order, no persons so thoroughly modern, as those who have felt Goethe’s influence most deeply. If it is said that Goethe professes to have in this way deeply influenced but a few persons, and those per- sons poets, one may answer that he could have taken no better way to secure, in the end, the ear of the world; for poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance. Nevertheless the process of liberation, as Goethe worked it, though sure, is undoubtedly slow; he came, as Heine says, to be eighty years old in thus working it, and at the end of that time the old Middle-Age machine was still creaking on, the thirty German courts and their chamberlains subsisted in all their glory; Goethe himself was a minister, and the visible triumph of the modem spirit over prescription and routine seemed as far off as ever. It was the year 1830; the German sovereigns had passed the preceding fifteen years in breaking the promises of freedom they had made to their subjects when they wanted their help in the final struggle with Napoleon. Great events were happening in France; the revolution, defeated in 1815, had arisen from its defeat, and was wresting from its adversaries the power. Heinrich Heine, a young man of genius, born at Hamburg, and with all the culture of Germany, but by race a Jew; with warm sympathies for France, whose revolution had given to his race the rights of citizenship, and whose rule had been, as is well known, popular in the Rhine provinces, where he passed his youth; with a passionate admiration for the great French Emperor with a passionate contempt for the sovereigns who had overthrown him, for their agents, and for their policy, — Heinrich Heine was in 1830 in no humour for any such gradual process of liberation from the old order of things as that which Goethe had followed. His counsel was for open war. Taking that terrible modern weapon, the pen, in his hand, he passed the remainder of his life in one fierce battle. What was that battle? the reader will ask. It was a life and death battle with Philistinism.
Philistinism — we have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing. At Soli, I imagine, they did not talk of solecisms; and here, at the very headquarters of Goliath, nobody talks of Philistinism. The French have adopted the term épicier (grocer), to designate the sort of being whom the Germans designate by the term Philistine; but the French term,— besides that it casts a slur upon a respectable class, composed of living and susceptible members, while the original Philistines are dead and buried long ago, — is really, I think, in itself much less apt and expressive than the German term. Efforts have been made to obtain in English some term equivalent to Philister or épicier; Mr. Carlyle has made several such efforts: “respectability with its thousand gigs,” he says; — well, the occupant of every one of these gigs is, Mr. Carlyle means, a Philistine. However, the word respectable is far too valuable a word to be thus perverted from its proper meaning; if the English are ever to have a word for the thing we are speaking of, — and so prodigious are the changes which the modern spirit is introducing, that even we English shall perhaps one day come to want such a word, — I think we had much better take the term Philistine itself.
Philistine must have originally meant, in the mind of those who invented the nickname, a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the chosen people, of the children of the light. The party of change, the would-be remodellers of the old traditional European order, the invokers of reason against custom, the representatives of the modern spirit in every sphere where it is applicable, regarded themselves, with the robust self- confidence natural to reformers as a chosen people, as children of the light. They regarded their adversaries as humdrum people, slaves to routine, enemies to light; stupid and oppressive, but at the same time very strong. This explains the love which Heine, that Paladin of the modern spirit, has for France; it explains the preference which he gives to France over Germany: “the French,” he says, “are the chosen people of the new religion, its first gospels and dogmas have been drawn up in their language; Paris is the new Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the Jordan which divides the consecrated land of freedom from the land of the Philistines.” He means that the French, as a people, have shown more accessibility to ideas than any other people; that prescription and routine have had less hold upon them than upon any other people; that they have shown most readiness to move and to alter at the bidding (real or supposed) of reason. This explains, too, the detestation which Heine had for the English : “I might settle in England,” he says, in his exile, ” if it were not that I should find there two things, coal-smoke and Englishmen; I cannot abide either.” What he hated in the English was the “ächtbrittische Beschranktheit, ” as he calls it, — the genuine British narrowness. In truth, the English, profoundly as they have modified the old Middle-Age order, great as is the liberty which they have secured for themselves, have in all their changes proceeded, to use a familiar expression, by the rule of thumb; what was intolerably inconvenient to them they have suppressed, and as they have suppressed it, not because it was irrational, but because it was practically inconvenient, they have seldom in suppressing it appealed to reason, but always, if possible, to some precedent, or form, or letter, which served as a convenient instrument for their purpose, and which saved them from the necessity of recurring to general principles. They have thus become, in a certain sense, of all people the most inaccessible to ideas and the most impatient of them; inaccessible to them, because of their want of familiarity with them; and impatient of them because they have got on so well without them, that- they despise those who, not having got on as well as themselves, still make a fuss for what they themselves have done so well without. But there has certainly followed from hence, in this country, somewhat of a general depression of pure intelligence : Philistia has come to be thought by us the true Land of Promise, and it is anything but that; the born lover of ideas. the born hater of commonplaces, must feel in this country, that the sky over his head is of brass and iron. The enthusiast for the idea, for reason, values reason, the idea, in and for themselves; he values them, irrespectively of the practical conveniences which their triumph may obtain for him; and the man who regards the possession of these practical conveniences as something sufficient in itself, some- thing which compensates for the absence or surrender of the idea, of reason, is, in his eyes, a Philistine. This is why Heine so often and so mercilessly attacks the liberals; much as he hates conservatism he hates Philistinism even more, and whoever attacks conservatism itself ignobly, not as a child of light, not in the name of the idea, is a Philistine. Our Cobbett is thus for him, much as he disliked our clergy and aristocracy whom Cobbett attacked, a Philistine with six fingers on every hand and on every foot six toes, four-and-twenty in number: a Philistine, the staff of whose spear is like a weaver’s beam. Thus he speaks of him : —
“While I translate Cobbett’s words, the man himself comes bodily before my mind’s eye, as I saw him at that uproarious dinner at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, with his scolding red face and his radical laugh, in which venomous hate mingles with a mocking exultation at his enemies’ surely approaching downfall. He is a chained cur, who falls with equal fury on every one whom he does not know, often bites the best friend of the house in his calves, barks incessantly, and just because of this incessantness of his barking cannot get listened to, even when he barks at a real thief. Therefore the distinguished thieves who plunder England do not think it necessary to throw the growling Cobbett a bone to stop his mouth. This makes the dog furiously savage, and he shows all his hungry teeth. Poor old Cobbett! England’s dog! I have no love for thee, for every vulgar nature my soul abhors; but thou touchest me to the inmost soul with pity, as I see how thou strainest in vain to break loose and to get at those thieves, who make off with their booty before thy very eyes, and mock at thy fruitless springs and thine impotent howling.”
There is balm in Philistia as well as in Gilead. A chosen circle of children of the modern spirit, perfectly emancipated from prejudice and commonplace, regarding the ideal side of things in all its efforts for change, passionately despising half-measures and condescension to human folly and obstinacy, — with a bewildered, timid, torpid multitude behind, — conducts a country to the government of Herr von Bismarck. A nation regarding the practical side of things in its efforts for change, attacking not what is irrational, but what is pressingly inconvenient, and attacking this as one body, “moving altogether if it move at all,” and treating children of light like the very harshest of stepmothers, comes to the prosperity and liberty of modern England. For all that, however, Philistia (let me say it again) is not the true promised land, as we English commonly imagine it to be; and our excessive neglect of the idea, and consequent in- aptitude for it, threatens us, at a moment when the idea is beginning to exercise a real power in human society, with serious future inconvenience, and, in the meanwhile, cuts us off from the sympathy of other nations, which feel its power more than we do.
But, in 1830, Heine very soon found that the fire-engines of the German governments were too much for his direct efforts at incendiarism. “What demon drove me,” he cries, “to write my Reisebilder, to edit a newspaper, to plague myself with our time and its interests, to try and shake the poor German Hodge out of his thousand years’ sleep in his hole? What good did I get by it? Hodge opened his eyes, only to shut them again immediately; he yawned, only to begin snoring again the next minute louder than ever; he stretched his stiff ungainly limbs, only to sink down again directly afterwards, and lie like a dead man in the old bed of his accustomed habits. I must have rest; but where am I to find a resting-place. In Germany I can no longer stay.”
This is Heine’s jesting account of his own efforts to rouse Germany: now for his pathetic account of them; it is because he unites so much wit with so much pathos that he is so effective a writer: —
“The Emperor Charles the Fifth sate in sore straits, in the Tyrol, encompassed by his enemies. All his knights and courtiers had forsaken him; not one came to his help. I know not if he had at that time the cheese face with which Holbein has painted him for us. But I am sure that under lip of his, with its contempt for mankind, stuck out even more than it does in his portraits. How could he but contemn the tribe which in the sunshine of his prosperity had fawned on him so devotedly, and now, in his dark distress, left him all alone 1 Then suddenly his door opened, and there came in a man in disguise, and, as he threw back his cloak, the Kaiser recognised in him his faithful Conrad von der Rosen, the court jester. This man brought him comfort and counsel, and he was the court jester!
“German fatherland! dear German people! I am thy Conrad von der Rosen. The man whose proper business was to amuse thee, and who in good times should have catered only for thy mirth, makes his way into thy prison in time of need; here, under my cloak, I bring thee thy sceptre and crown; dost thou not recognise me, my Kaiser? If I cannot free thee, I will at least comfort thee, and thou shalt at least have one with thee who will prattle with thee about thy sorest affliction, and whisper courage to thee, and love thee, and whose best joke and best blood shall be at thy service. For thou, my people, art the true Kaiser, the true lord of the land; thy will is sovereign, and more legitimate far than that purple Tel est notre plaisir, which invokes a divine right with no better warrant than the anointings of shaven and shorn jugglers; thy will, my people, is the sole rightful source of power. Though now thou liest down in thy bonds, yet in the end will thy rightful cause prevail; the day of deliverance is at hand, a. new time is beginning. My Kaiser, the night is over, and out there glows the ruddy dawn.
“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, thou art mistaken; perhaps thou takest a headsman’s gleaming axe for the sun, and the red of dawn is only blood.’
“‘No, my Kaiser, it is the sun, though it is rising in the west; these six thousand years it has always risen in the east; it is high time there should come a change.’
“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, thou hast lost the bells out of thy red cap, and it has now such an odd look, that red cap of thine! ‘
“‘Ah, my Kaiser, thy distress has made me shake my head so hard and fierce, that the fool’s bells have dropped off my cap; the cap is none the worse for that.’
“Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, what is that noise of breaking and cracking outside there?’
“‘Hush! that is the saw and the carpenter’s axe, and soon the doors of thy prison will be burst open, and thou wilt be free, my Kaiser!’
“‘Am I then really Kaiser? Ah, I forgot, it is the fool who tells me so!’
“‘Oh, sigh not, my dear master, the air of thy prison makes thee so desponding! when once thou hast got thy rights again, thou wilt feel once more the bold imperial blood in thy veins, and thou wilt be proud like a Kaiser, and violent, and gracious, and unjust, and smiling, and ungrateful, as princes are.’
“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, when I am free, what wilt thou do then?’
“‘I will then sew new bells on to my cap.’
“‘And how shall I recompense thy fidelity?’
“‘Ah, dear master, by not leaving me to die in a ditch!’
I wish to mark Heine’s place in modern European literature, the scope of his activity, and his value. I cannot attempt to give here a detailed account of his life, or a description of his separate works. In May 1831 he went over his Jordan, the Ehine, and fixed himself in his new Jerusalem, Paris. There, henceforward, he lived, going in general to some French watering-place in the summer, but making only one or two short visits to Germany during the rest of his life. His works, in verse and prose, succeeded each other without stopping; a collected edition of them, filling seven closely-printed octavo volumes, has been published in America;^ in the collected editions of few people’s works is there so little to skip. Those who wish for a single good specimen of him should read his first important work, the work which made his reputation, the Reisebilder, or “Travelling Sketches:” prose and verse, wit and seriousness, are mingled in it, and the mingling of these is characteristic of Heine, and is nowhere to be seen practised more naturally and happily than in his Reisebilder. In 1847 his health, which till then had always been perfectly good, gave way. He had a kind of paralytic stroke. His malady proved to be a softening of the spinal marrow: it was incurable; it made rapid progress. In May 1848, not a year after his first attack, he went out of doors for the last time; but his disease took more than eight years to kill him. For nearly eight years he lay helpless on a couch, with the use of his limbs gone, wasted almost to the proportions of a child, wasted so that a woman could carry him about; the sight of one eye lost, that of the other greatly dimmed, and requiring, that it might be exercised, to have the palsied eyelid lifted and held up by the finger; all this, and, besides this, suffering at short intervals paroxysms of nervous agony. I have said he was not pre-eminently brave; but in the astonishing force of spirit with which he retained his activity of mind, even his gaiety, amid all his suffering, and went on composing with undiminished fire to the last, he was truly brave. Nothing could clog that aerial lightness. “Pouvez-vous siffler?” his doctor asked him one day, when he was almost at his last gasp; —”siffler,”as every one knows, has the double meaning of to whistle and to hiss: — “Hélas! non,” was his whispered answer; “pas même une comédie de M. Scribe!” M. Scribe is, or was, the favourite dramatist of the French Philistine. “My nerves,” he said to some one who asked him about them in 1855, the year of the great Exhibition in Paris, “my nerves are of that quite singularly remarkable miserableness of nature, that I am convinced they would get at the Exhibition the grand medal for pain and misery.” He read all the medical books which treated of his complaint. “But,” said he to some one who found him thus engaged, “what good this reading is to do me I don’t know, except that it will qualify me to give lectures in heaven on the ignorance of doctors on earth about diseases of the spinal marrow.” What a matter of grim seriousness are our own ailments to most of us! yet with this gaiety Heine treated his to the end. That end, so long in coming, came at last. Heine died on the 17th of February 1856, at the age of fifty-eight. By his will he forbade that his remains should be transported to Germany. He lies buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, at Paris.
His direct political action was null, and this is neither to be wondered at nor regretted; direct political action is not the true function of literature, and Heine was a born man of letters. Even in his favourite France the turn taken by public affairs was not at all what he wished, though he read French politics by no means as we in England, most of us, read them. He thought things were tending there to the triumph of communism; and to a champion of the idea like Heine, what there is gross and narrow in communism was very repulsive. “It is all of no use,” he cried on his death-bed, “the future belongs to our enemies, the Communists, and Louis Napoleon is their John the Baptist.” “And yet,” — he added with all his old love for that remarkable entity, so full of attraction for him, so profoundly unknown in England, the French people, — “do not believe that God lets all this go forward merely as a grand comedy. Even though the Communists deny him to-day, he knows better than they do, that a time will come when they will learn to believe in him.” After 1831, his hopes of soon upsetting the German Governments had died away, and his propagandism took another, a more truly literary, character. It took the character of an intrepid application of the modern spirit to literature. To the ideas with which the burning questions of modern life filled him, he made all his subject-matter minister. He touched all the great points in the career of the human race, and here he but followed the tendency of the wide culture of Germany; but he touched them with a wand which brought them all under a light where the modern eye cares most to see them, and here he gave a lesson to the culture of Germany, — so wide, so impartial, that it is apt to become slack and powerless, and to lose itself in its materials for want of a strong central idea round which to group all its other ideas. So the mystic and romantic school of Germany lost itself in the Middle Ages, was overpowered by their influence, came to ruin by its vain dreams of renewing them. Heine, with a far profounder sense of the mystic and romantic charm of the Middle Age than Goerres, or Brentano, or Arnim, Heine the chief romantic poet of Germany is yet also much more than a romantic poet; he is a great modern poet, he is not conquered by the Middle Age, he has a talisman by which he can feel, — along with but above the power of the fascinating Middle Age itself, — the power of modem ideas.
A French critic of Heine thinks he has said enough in saying that Heine proclaimed in German countries, with beat of drum, the ideas of 1789, and that at the cheerful noise of his drum the ghosts of the Middle Age took to flight. But this is rather too French an account of the matter. Germany, that vast mine of ideas, had no need to import ideas, as such, from any foreign country; and if Heine had carried ideas, as such, from France into Germany, he would but have been carrying coals to Newcastle. But that for which France, far less meditative than Germany, is eminent, is the prompt, ardent, and practical application of an idea, when she seizes it, in all departments of human activity which admit it. And that in which Germany most fails, and by failing in which she appears so helpless and impotent, is just the practical application of her innumerable ideas. “When Candide,” says Heine himself, “came to Eldorado, he saw in the streets a number of boys who were playing with gold-nuggets instead of marbles. This degree of luxury made him imagine that they must be the king’s children, and he was not a little astonished when he found that in Eldorado gold-nuggets are of no more value than marbles are with us, and that the schoolboys play with them. A similar thing happened to a friend of mine, a foreigner, when he came to Germany and first read German books. He was perfectly astounded at the wealth of ideas which he found in them; but he soon remarked that ideas in Germany are as plentiful as gold-nuggets in Eldorado, and that those writers whom he had taken for intellectual princes, were in reality only common school- boys.” Heine was, as he calls himself, a “Child of the French Revolution,” an “Initiator,” because he vigorously assured the Germans that ideas were not counters or marbles, to be played with for their own sake; because he exhibited in literature modern ideas applied with the utmost freedom, clearness, and originality. And therefore he declared that the great task of his life had been the endeavour to establish a cordial relation between France and Germany. It is because he thus operates a junction between the French spirit, and German ideas and German culture, that he founds something new, opens a fresh period, and deserves the attention of criticism far more than the German poets his contemporaries, who merely continue an old period till it expires. It may be predicted that in the literature of other countries, too, the French spirit is destined to make its influence felt, — as an element, in alliance with the native spirit, of novelty and movement, — as it has made its influence felt in German literature; fifty years hence a critic will be demonstrating to our grandchildren how this phenomenon has come to pass.
We in England, in our great burst of literature during the first thirty years of the present century, had no manifestation of the modern spirit, as this spirit manifests itself in Goethe’s works or Heine’s. And the reason is not far to seek. We had neither the German wealth of ideas, nor the French enthusiasm for applying ideas. There reigned in the mass of the nation that inveterate inaccessibility to ideas, that Philistinism, — to use the German nickname, — which reacts even on the individual genius that is exempt from it. In our greatest literary epoch, that of the Elizabethan age, English society at large was accessible to ideas, was permeated by them, was vivified by them, to a degree which has never been reached in England since. Hence the unique great- ness in English literature of Shakspeare and his contemporaries. They were powerfully upheld by the intellectual life of their nation; they applied freely in literature the then modern ideas, — the ideas of the Renascence and the Reformation. A few years after- wards the great English middle class, the kernel of the nation, the class whose intelligent sympathy had upheld a Shakspeare, entered the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned on its spirit there for two hundred years. He enlargeth a nation, says Job, and straiteneth it again.
In the literary movement of the beginning of the nineteenth century the signal attempt to apply freely the modern spirit was made in England by two members of the aristocratic class, Byron and Shelley. Aristocracies are, as such, naturally impenetrable by ideas; but their individual members have a high courage and a turn for breaking bounds; and a man of genius, who is the born child of the idea, happening to be born in the aristocratic ranks, chafes against the obstacles which prevent him from freely developing it. But Byron and Shelley did not succeed in their attempt freely to apply the modern spirit in English literature; they could not succeed in it; the resistance to baffle them, the want of intelligent sympathy to guide and uphold them, were too great. Their literary creation, compared with the literary creation of Shakspeare and Spenser, compared with the literary creation of Goethe and Heine, is a failure. The best literary creation of that time in England proceeded from men who did not make the same bold attempt as Byron and Shelley. What, in fact, was the career of the chief English men of letters, their contemporaries? The gravest of them, Wordsworth, retired (in Middle-Age phrase) into a monastery. I mean, he plunged himself in the inward life, he voluntarily cut himself off from the modern spirit. Coleridge took to opium. Scott became the historiographer-royal of feudalism. Keats passionately gave himself up to a sensuous genius, to his faculty for interpreting nature; and he died of consumption at twenty-five. Wordsworth, Scott, and Keats have left admirable works; far more solid and complete works than those which Byron and Shelley have left. But their works have this defect, — they do not belong to that which is the main current of the literature of modern epochs, they do not apply modern ideas to life; they constitute, therefore, minor currents, and all other literary work of our day, however popular, which has the same defect, also constitutes but a minor current. Byron and Shelley will long be re- membered, long after the inadequacy of their actual work is clearly recognised for their passionate, their Titanic effort to flow in the main stream of modern literature; their names will be greater than their writings; stat magni nominis umbra.
Heine’s literary good fortune was superior to that of Byron and Shelley. His theatre of operations was Germany, whose Philistinism does not consist in her want of ideas, or in her inaccessibility to ideas, for she teems with them and loves them, but, as I have said, in her feeble and hesitating application of modern ideas to life. Heine’s intense modernism, his absolute freedom, his utter rejection of stock classicism and stock romanticism, his bringing all things under the point of view of the nineteenth century, were under-‘ stood and laid to heart by Germany, through virtue of her immense, tolerant intellectualism, much as there was in all Heine said to affront and wound Germany. The wit and ardent modern spirit of France Heine joined to the culture, the sentiment, the thought of Germany. This is what makes him so remarkable; his wonderful clearness, lightness, and freedom, united with such power of feeling, and width of range. Is there anywhere keener wit than in his story of the French abbé who was his tutor, and who wanted to get from him that la religion is French for der Glaube: “Six times did he ask me the question: ‘ Henry, what is der Glaube in French? ‘ and six times, and each time with a greater burst of tears, did I answer him — ‘It is le crédit.’ And at the seventh time, his face purple with rage, the infuriated questioner screamed out: ‘It is la religion;’ and a rain of cuffs descended upon me, and all the other hoys burst out laughing. Since that day I have never been able to hear la religion mentioned, without feeling a tremor run through my back, and my cheeks grow red with shame.” Or in that comment on the fate of Professor Saalfeld, who had been addicted to writing furious pamphlets against Napoleon, and who was a professor at Gottingen, a great seat, according to Heine, of pedantry and Philistinism: “It is curious,” says Heine, “the three greatest adversaries of Napoleon have all of them ended miserably. Castlereagh cut his own throat; Louis the Eighteenth rotted upon his throne; and Professor Saalfeld is still a professor at Gottingen.” It is impossible to go beyond that.
What wit, again, in that saying which every one has heard: “The Englishman loves liberty like his lawful wife, the Frenchman loves her like his mistress, the German loves her like his old grandmother.” But the turn Heine gives to this incomparable saying is not so well known; and it is by that turn he shows himself the born poet he is, — full of delicacy and tenderness, of inexhaustible resource, infinitely new and striking: —
“And yet, after all, no one can ever tell how things may turn out. The grumpy Englishman, in an ill-temper with his wife, is capable of some day putting a rope round her neck, and taking her to be sold at Smithfield. The inconstant Frenchman may become unfaithful to his adored mistress, and be seen fluttering about the Palais Royal after another. But the German will never quite abandon his old grand-mother; he will always keep for her a nook by the chimney-corner, where she can tell her fairy stories to the listening children.”
Is it possible to touch more delicately and happily both the weakness and the strength of Germany; — pedantic, simple, enslaved, free, ridiculous, admirable Germany?
And Heine’s verse, — his Lieder? Oh, the comfort, after dealing with French people of genius, irresistibly impelled to try and express themselves in verse, launching out into a deep which destiny has sown with so many rocks for them, — the comfort of coming to a man of genius, who finds in verse his freest and most perfect expression, whose voyage over the deep of poetry destiny makes smooth! After the rhythm, to us, at any rate, with the German paste in oui composition, so deeply unsatisfying, of —
“Ah! que me dites-vous, et que vous dit mon âme?
Que dit le ciel à l’aube et la flame à la flamme?”
what a blessing to arrive at rhythms like —
“Take, oh, take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn —”
“Siehst sehr sterbebljisslich aus,
Doch getrost! du bist zu Haus —”
in which one’s soul can take pleasure! The magic of Heine’s poetical form is incomparable; he chiefly uses a form of old German popular poetry, a ballad- form which has more rapidity and grace than any ballad-form of ours; he employs this form with the most exquisite lightness and ease, and yet it has at the same time the inborn fulness, pathos, and old- world charm of all true forms of popular poetry. Thus in Heine’s poetry, too, one perpetually blends the impression of French modernism and clearness, with that of German sentiment and fulness; and to give this blended impression is, as I have said, Heine’s great characteristic. To feel it, one must read him; he gives it in his form as well as in his contents, and by translation I can only reproduce it so far as his contents give it. But even the contents of many of his poems are capable of giving a certain sense of it. Here, for instance, is a poem in which he makes his profession of faith to an innocent beautiful soul, a sort of Gretchen, the child of some simple mining people having their hut among the pines at the foot of the Hartz Mountains, who reproaches him with not holding the old articles of the Christian creed : —
“Ah, my child, while I was yet a little boy, while I yet sate upon my mother’s knee, I believed in God the Father, who rules up there in Heaven, good and great;
“Who created the beautiful earth, and the beautiful men and women thereon; who ordained for sun, moon, and stars their courses.
“When I got bigger, my child, I comprehended yet a great deal more than this, and comprehended, and grew intelligent; and I believe on the Son also;
“On the beloved Son, who loved us, and revealed love to us; and, for his reward, as always happens, was crucified by the people.
“Now, when I am grown up, have read much, have travelled much, my heart swells within me, and with my whole heart I believe on the Holy Ghost.
“The greatest miracles were of his working, and still greater miracles doth he even now work; he burst in sunder the oppressor’s stronghold, and he burst in sunder the bondsman’s yoke.
“He heals old death-wounds, and renews the old right; all mankind are one race of noble equals before him.
“He chases away the evil clouds and the dark cobwebs of the brain, which have spoilt love and joy for us, which day and night have loured on us.
“A thousand knights, well harnessed, has the Holy Ghost chosen out to fulfil his will, and he has put courage into their souls.
“Their good swords flash, their bright banners wave; what, thou wouldst give much, my child, to look upon such gallant knights 1
“Well, on me, my child, look! kiss me, and look boldly upon me! one of those knights of the Holy Ghost am I.”
One has only to turn over the pages of his Romancero, — a collection of poems written in the first years of his illness, with his whole power and charm still in them, and not, like his latest poems of all, painfully touched by the air of his Matrazzen-gruft, his “mattress-grave,” — to see Heine’s width of range; the most varied figures succeed one another, — Rhampsinitus, Edith with the Swan Neck, Charles the First, Marie Antoinette, King David, a heroine of Mabille, Melisanda of Tripoli, Richard Coeur de Lion, Pedro the Cruel, Firdusi, Cortes, Dr. Döllinger; — but never does Heine attempt to be hübsch objectiv, “beautifully objective,” to become in spirit an old Egyptian, or an old Hebrew, or a Middle-Age knight, or a Spanish adventurer, or an English royalist; he always remains Heinrich Heine, a son of the nineteenth century. To give a notion of his tone, I will quote a few stanzas at the end of the Spanish Atridae, in which he describes, in the character of a visitor at the court of Henry of Transtamare at Segovia, Henry’s treatment of the children of his brother, Pedro the Cruel. Don Diego Albuquerque, his neighbour, strolls after dinner through the castle with him:
“In the cloister-passage, which leads to the kennels where are kept the king’s hounds, that with their growling and yelping let you know a long way off where they are,
“There I saw, built into the wall, and with a strong iron grating for its outer face, a cell like a cage.
“Two human figures sate therein, two young boys; chained by the leg, they crouched in the dirty straw.
“Hardly twelve years old seemed the one, the other not much older; their faces fair and noble, but pale and wan with sickness.
“They were all in rags, almost naked; and their lean bodies showed wounds, the marks of ill-usage; both of them shivered with fever
“They looked up at me out of the depth of their misery; ‘who,’ I cried in horror to Don Diego, ‘are these pictures of wretchedness?’
“Don Diego seemed embarrassed; he looked round to see that no one was listening; then he gave a deep sigh; and at last, putting on the easy tone of a man of the world, he said:
“‘These are a pair of king’s sons, who were early left orphans; the name of their father was King Pedro, the name of their mother, Maria de Padilla.
“‘After the great battle of Navarette, when Henry of Transtamare had relieved his brother. King Pedro, of the troublesome burden of the crown,
“‘And likewise of that still more troublesome burden, which is called life, then Don Henry’s victorious magnanimity had to deal with his brother’s children.
“‘He has adopted them, as an uncle should; and he has given them free quarters in his own castle.
“‘The room which he has assigned to them is certainly rather small, but then it is cool in summer, and not intolerably cold in winter.
“‘Their fare is rye-bread, which tastes as sweet as if the goddess Ceres had baked it express for her beloved Proserpine.
“‘Not unfrequently, too, he sends a scullion to them with garbanzos, and then the young gentlemen know that it is Sunday in Spain.
“‘But it is not Sunday every day, and garbanzos do not come every day; and the master of the hounds gives them the treat of his whip.
“‘For the master of the hounds, who has under his superintendence the kennels and the pack, and the nephews’ cage also,
“‘Is the unfortunate husband of that lemon-faced woman with the white ruff, whom we remarked to- day at dinner.
“‘And she scolds so sharp, that often her husband snatches his whip, and rushes down here, and gives it to the dogs and to the poor little boys.
”But his majesty has expressed his disapproval of such proceedings, and has given orders that for the future his nephews are to be treated differently from the dogs.
”He has determined no longer to entrust the disciplining of his nephews to a mercenary stranger, but to carry it out with his own hands.’
”’Don Diego stopped abruptly; for the seneschal of the castle joined us, and politely expressed his hope that we had dined to our satisfaction.”
Observe how the irony of the whole of that, finishing with the grim innuendo of the last stanza but one, is at once truly masterly and truly modern.
No account of Heine is complete which does not notice the Jewish element in him. His race he treated with the same freedom with which he treated everything else, but he derived a great force from it, and no one knew this better than he himself. He has excellently pointed out how in the sixteenth century there was a double renascence, — a Hellenic renascence and a Hebrew renascence, — and how both have been great powers ever since. He himself had in him both the spirit of Greece and the spirit of Judaea; both these spirits reach the infinite, which is the true goal of all poetry and all art, — the Greek spirit by beauty, the Hebrew spirit by sublimity. By his perfection of literary form, by his love of clearness, by his love of beauty, Heine is Greek; by his intensity, by his untamableness, by his ”longing which cannot be uttered,” he is Hebrew. Yet what Hebrew ever treated the things of the Hebrews like this?—
”There lives at Hamburg, in a one-roomed lodging in the Baker’s Broad Walk, a man whose name is Moses Lump; all the week he goes about in wind and rain, with his pack on his back, to earn his few shillings; but when on Friday evening he comes home, he finds the candlestick with seven candles lighted, and the table covered with a fair white cloth, and he puts away from him his pack and his cares, and he sits down to table with his squinting wife and yet more squinting daughter, and eats fish with them, fish which has been dressed in beautiful white garlic sauce, sings therewith the grandest psalms of King David, rejoices with his whole heart over the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egypt, rejoices, too, that all the wicked ones who have done the children of Israel hurt, have ended by taking themselves oflf; that King Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Antiochus, Titus, and all such people, are well dead, while he, Moses Lump, is yet” alive, and eating fish with wife and daughter; and I can tell you. Doctor, the fish is delicate and the man is happy, he has no call to torment himself about culture, he sits contented in his religion and in his green bed- gown, like Diogenes in his tub, he contemplates with satisfaction his candles, which he on no account will snuff for himself; and I can tell you, if the candles burn a little dim, and the snuffers -woman, whose business it is to snuff them, is not at hand, and Rothschild the Great were at that moment to come in, with all his brokers, bill discounters, agents, and chief clerks, with whom he conquers the world, and Rothschild were to say : ‘Moses Lump, ask of me what favour you will, and it shall be granted you;’ — Doctor, I am convinced, Moses Lump would quietly answer : ‘Snuff me those candles!’ and Rothschild the Great would exclaim with admiration: ‘If I were not Rothschild, I would be Moses Lump.”’
There Heine shows us his own people by its comic side; in the poem of the Princess Sabbath he shows it to us by a more serious side. The Princess Sabbath, ”the tranquil Princess, pearl and flower of all beauty, fair as the Queen of Sheba, Solomon’s bosom friend, that blue stocking from Ethiopia, who wanted to shine by her esprit, and with her wise riddles made herself in the long run a bore” (with Heine the sarcastic turn is never far off), this princess has for her betrothed a prince whom sorcery has transformed into an animal of lower race, the Prince Israel.
”A dog with the desires of a dog, he wallows all the week long in the filth and refuse of life, amidst the jeers of the boys in the street.
”But every Friday evening, at the twilight hour, suddenly the magic passes off, and the dog becomes once more a human being.
“A man with the feelings of a man, with head and heart raised aloft, in festal garb, in almost clean garb, he enters the halls of his Father.
”Hail, beloved halls of my royal Father! Ye tents of Jacob, I kiss with my lips your holy door-posts!”
Still more he shows us this serious side in his beautiful poem on Jehuda ben Halevy, a poet belonging to ”the great golden age of the Arabian, Old- Spanish, Jewish school of poets,” a contemporary of the troubadours : —
”He, too, — the hero whom we sing, — Jehuda ben Halevy, too, had his lady-love; but she was of a special sort.
”She was no Laura, whose eyes, mortal stars, in the cathedral on Good Friday kindled that world- renowned flame.
”She was no chatelaine, who in the blooming glory of her youth presided at tourneys, and awarded the victor’s crown.
“No casuistess in the Gay Science was she, no lady doctrinaire, who delivered her oracles in the judgment-chamber of a Court of Love.
“She, whom the Eabbi loved, was a woe-begone poor darling, a mourning picture of desolation . . and her name was Jerusalem,”
Jehuda ben Halevy, like the Crusaders, makes his pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and there, amid the ruins, sings a song of Sion which has become famous among his people : —
“That lay of pearled tears is the wide-famed Lament, which is sung in all the scattered tents of Jacob throughout the world.
“On the ninth day of the month which is called Ab, on the anniversary of Jerusalem’s destruction by Titus Vespasianus.
”Yes, that is the song of Sion, which Jehuda ben Halevy sang with his dying breath amid the holy ruins of Jerusalem.
”Barefoot, and in penitential weeds, he sate there upon the fragment of a fallen column; down to his breast fell,
“Like a gray forest, his hair; and cast a weird shadow on the face which looked out through it, — his troubled pale face, with the spiritual eyes.
”So he sate and sang, like unto a seer out of the foretime to look upon; Jeremiah, the Ancient, seemed to have risen out of his grave.
”But a bold Saracen came riding that way, aloft on his barb, lolling in his saddle, and brandishing a naked javelin;
”Into the breast of the poor singer he plunged his deadly shaft, and shot away like a winged shadow.
”Quietly flowed the Rabbi’s life-blood, quietly he sang his song to an end; and his last dying sigh was Jerusalem!”
But, most of all, Heine shows us this side in a strange poem describing a public dispute, before King Pedro and his Court, between a Jewish and a Christian champion, on the merits of their respective faiths. In the strain of the Jew all the fierceness of the old Hebrew genius, all its rigid defiant Monotheism, appear : —
“Our God has not died like a poor innocent Iamb for mankind; he is no gushing philanthropist, no declaimer.
”Our God is not love, caressing is not his line; but he is a God of thunder, and he is a God of revenge.
“The lightnings of his wrath strike inexorably every sinner, and the sins of the fathers are often visited upon their remote posterity.
”Our God, he is alive, and in his hall of heaven he goes on existing away, throughout all the eternities.
”Our God, too, is a God in robust health, no myth, pale and thin as sacrificial wafers, or as shadows by Cocytus.
”Our God is strong. In his hand he upholds sun, moon, and stars; thrones break, nations reel to and fro, when he knits his forehead.
”Our God loves music, the voice of the harp and the song of feasting; but the sound of church-bells he hates, as he hates the grunting of pigs.”
Nor must Heine’s sweetest note be unheard, — his plaintive note, his note of melancholy. Here is a strain which came from him as he lay, in the winter night, on his ”mattress-grave” at Paris, and let his thoughts wander home to Germany, ”the great child, entertaining herself with her Christmas-tree.” ”Thou tookest,”— he cries to the German exile, —
“Thou tookest thy flight towards sunshine and happiness; naked and poor returnest thou back. German truth, German shirts, — one gets them worn to tatters in foreign parts.
”Deadly pale are thy looks, but take comfort, thou art at home! one lies warm in German earth, warm as by the old pleasant fireside.
“Many a one, alas, became crippled, and could get home no more! longingly he stretches out his arms; God have mercy upon him!”
God have mercy upon him! for what remain of the days of the years of his life are few and evil. ”Can it be that I still actually exist? My body is so shrunk that there is hardly anything of me left but my voice, and my bed makes me think of the melodious grave of the enchanter Merlin, which is in the forest of Broceliand in Brittany, under high oaks whose tops shine like green flames to heaven. Ah, I envy thee those trees, brother Merlin, and their fresh waving! for over my mattress-grave here in Paris no green leaves rustle; and early and late I hear nothing but the rattle of carriages, hammering, scolding, and the jingle of the piano. A grave without rest, death without the privileges of the departed, who have no longer any need to spend money, or to write letters, or to compose books. What a melancholy situation!”
He died, and has left a blemished name; with his crying faults, — his intemperate susceptibility, his un- scrupulousness in passion, his inconceivable attacks on his enemies, his still more inconceivable attacks on his friends, his want of generosity, his sensuality his incessant mocking, — how could it be otherwise 1 Not only was he not one of Mr. Carlyle’s ”respectable” people, he was profoundly disrespectable; and not even the merit of not being a Philistine can make up for a man’s being that. To his intellectual deliverance there was an addition of something else wanting, and that something else was something immense; the old-fashioned, laborious, eternally needful moral deliverance. Goethe says that he was deficient in love; to me his weakness seems to be not so much a deficiency in love as a deficiency in self-respect, in true dignity of character. But on this negative side of one’s criticism of a man of great genius, I for my part, when I have once clearly marked that this negative side is and must be there, have no pleasure in dwelling. I prefer to say of Heine something positive. He is not an adequate interpreter of the modern world. He is only a brilliant soldier in the Liberation War of humanity. But, such as he is, he is (and posterity too, I am quite sure, will say this), in the European poetry of that quarter of a century which follows the death of Goethe, incomparably the most important figure.
What a spendthrift, one is tempted to cry, is Nature! With what prodigality, in the march of generations, she employs human power, content to gather almost always little result from it, sometimes none! Look at Byron , that Byron whom the present generation of Englishmen are forgetting; Byron, the greatest natural force, the greatest elementary power, I cannot but think which has appeared in our literature since Shakspeare. And what became of this wonderful production of nature? He shattered himself, he inevitably shattered himself to pieces against the huge, black, cloud-topped, interminable precipice of British Philistinism. But Byron, it may be said, was eminent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intellectual equipment of a supreme modern poet; except for his genius he was an ordinary nineteenth-century English gentle- man, with little culture and with no ideas. Well, then, look at Heine. Heine had all the culture of Germany; in his head fermented all the ideas of modern Europe. And what have we got from Heine? A half-result, for want of moral balance, and of nobleness of soul and character. That is what I say; there is so much power, so many seem able to run well, so many give promise of running well; — so few reach the goal, so few are chosen. Many are called, few chosen.