« PreviousContinue »
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 greatness in English literature of Shakespeare 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 Renaissance and the Reformation. A few years afterwards the great English middle class, the kernel of the nation, the class whose intelligent sympathy had upheld a Shakespeare, 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 Shakespeare 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 greatest of them, Wordsworth, retired (in MiddleAge 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 remembered, long after the inadequacy of their actual work is clearly recognized, 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 greater than that of Byron and Shelley. His theater 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 understood 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 boys 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 Göttingen, 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 Göttingen.” 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 grandmother; 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 our 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 flamme à la flamme?” what a blessing to arrive at rhythms like —
"Take, oh, take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn or
“Siehst sehr sterbeblässlich 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 fullness, 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 fullness; 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 traveled 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 lowered 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?
"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, 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 Cour 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 Atridæ, in which he describes, in the character of a visitor at the court of Henry