Heine gathers up and focuses for us in one vivid point all those
influences of his own time which are the forces of to-day. He appears
before us, to put it in his own way, as a youthful and militant Knight
of the Holy Ghost, tilting against the spectres of the past and
liberating the imprisoned energies of the human spirit. His interest
from this point of view lies, largely, apart from his interest as a
supreme lyric poet, the brother of Catullus and Villon and Burns; we
here approach him on his prosaic–his relatively prosaic–side.

One hemisphere of Heine’s brain was Greek, the other Hebrew. He was
born when the genius of Goethe was at its height; his mother had
absorbed the frank earthliness, the sane and massive Paganism, of the
Roman Elegies, and Heine’s ideals in all things, whether he would or
not, were always Hellenic–using that word in the large sense in which
Heine himself used it–even while he was the first in rank and the last
in time of the Romantic poets of Germany. He sought, even consciously,
to mould the modern emotional spirit into classic forms. He wrought his
art simply and lucidly, the aspirations that pervade it are everywhere
sensuous, and yet it recalls oftener the turbulent temper of Catullus
than any serener ancient spirit.

For Heine arose early in active rebellion against a merely passive
classicism; in the same way that fiercer and more ardent cries, as
from the East, pierce through the songs of Catullus. The mischievous
Hermes was irritated by the calm and quiet activities of the aged Zeus
of Weimar. And then the earnest Hebrew nature within him, liberated by
Hegel’s favourite formula of the divinity of man, came into play with
its large revolutionary thirsts. Thus it was that he appeared before
the world as the most brilliant leader of a movement of national or
even world-wide emancipation. The greater part of his prose works, from
the youthful “Reisebilder” onwards, and a considerable portion of his
poetic work, record the energy with which he played this part.

But whether the Greek or the Hebrew element happened to be most active
in Heine, the ideal that he set up for life generally was the equal
activity of both sides–in other words, the harmony of flesh and
spirit. It is this thought which dominates “The History of Religion
and Philosophy in Germany,” his finest achievement in this kind. That
book was written at the moment when Heine touched the highest point
of his enthusiasm for freedom and his faith in the possibility of
human progress. It is a sort of programme for the immediate future
of the human spirit, in the form of a brief and bold outline of the
spiritual history of Germany and Germany’s great emancipators, Luther,
Lessing, Kant, and the rest. It sets forth in a fresh and fascinating
shape that Everlasting Gospel which, from the time of Joachim of Flora
downwards, has always gleamed in dreams before the minds of men as the
successor of Christianity. Heine’s vision of a democracy of cakes and
ale, founded on the heights of religious, philosophical, and political
freedom, may still spur and thrill us,–even now-a-days, when we have
wearied of stately bills of fare for a sulky humanity that will not
feed at our bidding, no, not on cakes and ale. Heine is wise enough to
see, however imperfectly, that it is unreasonable to expect the speedy
erection of any New Jerusalem; for, as he expresses it in his own way,
the holy vampires of the Middle Ages have sucked away so much of our
life-blood that the world has become a hospital. A sudden revolution of
fever-stricken or hysterical invalids can effect little of permanent
value; only a long and invigorating course of the tonics of life can
make free from danger the open-air of nature. “Our first duty,” he
asserted in this book, “is to become healthy.”

Heine confesses that he too was among the sick and decrepit souls.
In reality he was at no period so full of life and health, so
harmoniously inspired and upborne by a great enthusiasm. He laughs
a little at Goethe; he fails to see that the Phidian Zeus, at whose
confined position he jests, was the greatest liberator of them all;
but for the most part his mocking sarcasm is here silent. It was not
until ten years later, when the subtle seeds of disease had begun to
appear, and when, too, he had perhaps gained a clearer insight into the
possibilities of life, that Heine realized that the practical reforming
movements of his time were not those for which his early enthusiasm
had been aroused. With the slow steps of that consuming disease, and
after the revolution of 1848, he ceased to recognize as of old any
common root for his various activities, or to insist on the fundamental
importance of religion. Everything in the world became the sport of his
intelligence. The brain still functioned brilliantly in the atrophied
body; the swift lightning-like wit still struck unerringly; it spared
not even himself. The “Confessions” are full of irony, covering all
things with laughter that is half reverence, or with reverence that
is more than half laughter–and woe to the reader who is not at every
moment alert! In the romantic, satirical poem of “Atta Troll,” written
at the commencement of the last period, this, his final altitude, is
most completely revealed. It needs a little study to-day, even for a
German, but it is well worth that study. The history of a dancing
bear who escapes from servitude, “Atta Troll” is a protest against
the radical party, with their narrow conceptions of progress, their
tame ideal of _bourgeois_ equality, their little watchwords, their
solemnity, their indignation at the human creatures who smile “even
in their enthusiasm.” All these serious concerns of the tribunes of
the people are bathed in soft laughter as we listen to the delicious
child-like monotonous melody in which the old bear, surrounded by his
family, mumbles or mutters of the future. “Atta Troll” is not, as
many have thought, a sneer at the most sacred ideals of men. It is,
rather, the assertion of those ideals against the individuals who would
narrow them down to their own petty scope. There are certain mirrors,
Heine said, so constructed that they would present even Apollo as a
caricature. But we laugh at the caricature, not at the god. It is well
to show, even at the cost of some misunderstanding, that above and
beyond the little ideals of our immediate political progress, there is
built a yet larger ideal city, of which also the human spirit claims
citizenship. The defence of the inalienable rights of the spirit, Heine
declares, had been the chief business of his life.

In the history of Germany, it was her two great intellectual
liberators, Luther and Lessing, to whom Heine looked up with the most
unqualified love and reverence. By his later vindication of the rights
of the spirit, not less than by his earlier fight for religious and
political progress, he may be said to have earned for himself a place
below, indeed, but not so very far below, those hearty and sound-cored


To reach the root of the man’s nature we must glance at the chief facts
of his life. He was born at Düsseldorf, on the Rhine, then occupied
by the French, probably on the 13th of December, 1799. He came, by
both parents, of that Jewish race which is, as he said once, the dough
whereof gods are kneaded. The family of his mother, Betty van Geldern,
had come from Holland a century earlier; Betty herself received an
excellent education; she shared the studies of her brother, who
became a physician of repute; she spoke and read English and French;
her favourite books were Rousseau’s “Emile” and Goethe’s elegies.
For novels or poetry generally she cared little. She preferred logic
to sentiment, and was careful of the precise value of words. Some
letters written during her twenty-fourth year reveal a frank, brave,
and sweet nature; she was a bright, attractive little person, and had
many wooers. In the summer of 1796 Samson Heine, bearing a letter of
introduction, entered the house of the Van Gelderns. He was the son of
a Jewish merchant settled in Hanover, and he had just made a campaign
in Flanders and Brabant, in the capacity of commissary with the rank of
officer, under Prince Ernest of Cumberland. He was a large and handsome
man, with soft blonde hair and beautiful hands; there was something
about him, said his son, a little characterless, almost feminine; “he
was a great child.” After a brief courtship he married Betty, and
settled at Düsseldorf as an agent for English velveteens. Harry (so he
was named after an Englishman) was the first child. From his rather
weak and romantic father came whatever was loose and unbalanced in
Heine’s temperament, and his ineradicable instinct for posing; it was
his mother, with her strong and healthy nature, well developed both
intellectually and emotionally, and her great ambitions for her son,
who, as he himself said, played the chief part in the history of his

Harry was a quick child; his senses were keen, though he was not
physically strong; he loved reading, and his favourite books were “Don
Quixote” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” He used to make rhymes with his
only and much-loved sister Lotte, and at the age of ten he wrote a
ghost-poem which his teachers considered a masterpiece. At the Lyceum
he worked well, at night as well as by day. Only once, at the public
ceremony at the end of a school year, he came to grief; he was reciting
a poem, when his eyes fell on a beautiful, fair-haired girl in the
audience; he hesitated, stammered, was silent, fell down fainting.
So early he revealed the extreme cerebral irritability of a nature
absorbed in dreams and taken captive by visions. It was not long after
this, at the age of seventeen, when his rich uncle at Hamburg was
trying in vain to set him forward on a commercial career, that Heine
met the woman who aroused his first and last profound passion, always
unsatisfied except in so far as it found exquisite embodiment in his
poems. He never mentioned her name; it was not till after his death
that the form standing behind this Maria, Zuleima, Evelina of so many
sweet, strange, or melancholy songs was known to be that of his cousin,
Amalie Heine.

With his uncle’s help he studied law at Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin. At
Berlin he fell under the dominant influence of Hegel, the vanquisher
of the romantic school of which Schelling was the philosophic
representative. Heine afterwards referred to this period as that in
which he “herded swine with the Hegelians;” it is certain that Hegel
exerted great and permanent influence over him. At Berlin, in 1821,
appeared his first volume of poems, and then he began to take his true

At this period he is described as a good-natured and gentle youth,
but reserved, not caring to show his emotions. He was of middle height
and slender, with rather long light brown hair (in childhood it was
red, and he was called “Rother Harry”) framing the pale and beardless
oval face, the bright, blue, short-sighted eyes, the Greek nose,
the high cheek bones, the large mouth, the full–half cynical, half
sensual–lips. He was not a typical German; like Goethe, he never
smoked; he disliked beer, and until he went to Paris he had never
tasted _sauerkraut_.

For some years he continued, chiefly at Göttingen, to study law. But
he had no liking and no capacity for jurisprudence, and his spasmodic
fits of application at such moments as he realized that it was not good
for him to depend on the generosity of his rich and kind-hearted uncle
Solomon, failed to carry him far. A new idea, a sunny day, the opening
of some flower-like _lied_, a pretty girl–and the Pandects were

Shortly after he had at last received his doctor’s diploma he went
through the ceremony of baptism in hope of obtaining an appointment
from the Prussian Government. It was a step which he immediately
regretted, and which, far from placing him in a better position,
excited the enmity both of Christians and Jews, although the Heine
family had no very strong views on the matter; Heine’s mother,
it should be said, was a Deist, his father indifferent, but the
Jewish rites were strictly kept up. He still talked of becoming an
advocate, until, in 1826, the publication of the first volume of
the “Reisebilder” gave him a reputation throughout Germany by its
audacity, its charming and picturesque manner, its peculiarly original
personality. The second volume, bolder and better than the first,
was received with delight very much mixed with horror, and it was
prohibited by Austria, Prussia, and many minor states. At this period
Heine visited England; he was then disgusted with Germany and full of
enthusiasm for the “land of freedom,” an enthusiasm which naturally
met with many rude shocks, and from that time dates the bitterness
with which he usually speaks of England. He found London–although,
owing to a clever abuse of uncle Solomon’s generosity, exceedingly
well supplied with money–“frightfully damp and uncomfortable;” only
the political life of England attracted him, and there were no bounds
to his admiration of Canning. He then visited Italy, to spend there
the happiest days of his life; and having at length realized that
his efforts to obtain any government appointment in Germany would be
fruitless, he emigrated to Paris. There, save for brief periods, he
remained until his death.

This entry into the city which he had called the New Jerusalem was an
important epoch in Heine’s life. He was thirty-one years of age, still
youthful, and eager to receive new impressions; he was apparently in
robust health, notwithstanding constant headaches; Gautier describes
him as in appearance a sort of German Apollo. He was still developing,
as he continued to develop, even up to the end; the ethereal loveliness
of the early poems vanished, it is true, but only to give place to
a closer grasp of reality, a larger laughter, a keener cry of pain.
He was now heartily welcomed by the extraordinarily brilliant group
then living and working in Paris, including Victor Hugo, George Sand,
Balzac, Michelet, Alfred de Musset, Gautier, Chopin, Louis Blanc,
Dumas, Sainte-Beuve, Quinet, Berlioz, and he entered with eager delight
into their manifold activities. For a time also he attached himself
rather closely to the school of Saint-Simon, then headed by Enfantin;
he was especially attracted by their religion of humanity, which seemed
the realization of his own dreams. Heine’s book on “Religion and
Philosophy in Germany” was written at Enfantin’s suggestion, and the
first edition dedicated to him; Enfantin’s name was, he said, a sort
of Shibboleth, indicating the most advanced party in the “liberation
war of humanity.” In 1855 he withdrew the dedication; it had become
an anachronism; Enfantin was no longer ransacking the world in search
of _la femme libre_; the martyrs of yesterday no longer bore a
cross–unless it were, he added characteristically, the cross of the
Legion of Honour.

A few years after his arrival in Paris Heine entered on a relationship
which occupied a large place in his life. Mathilde Mirat, a lively
grisette of sixteen, was the illegitimate daughter of a man of wealth
and position in the provinces, and she had come up from Normandy to
serve in her aunt’s shoe-shop. Heine often passed this shop, and an
acquaintance, at first carried on silently through the shop-window,
gradually ripened into a more intimate relationship. Mathilde could
neither read nor write; it was decided that she should go to school for
a time; after that they established a little common household, one of
those _ménages parisiens_, recognized as almost legitimate, for which
Heine had always had a warm admiration, because, as he said, he meant
by “marriage” something quite other than the legal coupling effected
by parsons and bankers. As in the case of Goethe, it was not until
some years later that he went through the religious ceremony, as a
preliminary to a duel in which he had become involved by his remarks on
Börne’s friend, Madame Strauss; he wished to give Mathilde an assured
position in case of his death. After the ceremony at St. Sulpice he
invited to dinner all those of his friends who had contracted similar
relations, in order that they might be influenced by his example. That
they were so influenced is not recorded.

It is not difficult to understand the strong and permanent attraction
that drew the poet, who had so many intellectual and aristocratic women
among his friends, to this pretty, laughter-loving grisette. It lay
in her bright and wild humour, her childlike impulsiveness, not least
in her charming ignorance. It was delightful to Heine that Mathilde
had never read a line of his books, did not even know what a poet was,
and loved him only for himself. He found in her a continual source of

He had need of every source of refreshment. In the years that
followed his formal marriage in 1841, the dark shadows, within and
without, began to close round him. Although he was then producing
his most mature work, chiefly in poetry–“Atta Troll,” “Romancero,”
“Deutschland”–his income from literary sources remained small.
Mathilde was not a good housekeeper; and even with the aid of a
considerable allowance from his uncle Solomon, Heine was frequently
in pecuniary difficulties, and was consequently induced to accept a
small pension from the French Government, which has sometimes been a
matter of concern to those who care for his fame. As years passed, the
enmities that he suffered from or cherished increased rather than
diminished, and his bitterness found expression in his work. Even
Mathilde was not an unalloyed source of joy; the charming child was
becoming a middle-aged woman, and was still like a child. She could not
enter into Heine’s interests; she delighted in theatres and circuses,
to which he could not always accompany her: and he experienced the
pangs of an unreasonable jealousy more keenly than he cared to admit.
Then uncle Solomon died, and his son refused, until considerable
pressure was brought to bear on him, to continue the allowance which
his father had intended Heine to receive. This was a severe blow, and
the excitement it produced developed the latent seeds of his disease.
It came on with symptoms of paralysis, which even in a few months gave
him, he says, the appearance of a dying man. During the next two years,
although his brain remained clear, the long pathological tragedy was

He went out for the last time in May, 1848. Half blind and half lame,
he slowly made his way out of the streets, filled with the noise of
revolution, into the silent Louvre, to the shrine dedicated to “the
goddess of beauty, our dear lady of Milo.” There he sat long at her
feet; he was bidding farewell to his old gods; he had become reconciled
to the religion of sorrow; tears streamed from his eyes, and she
looked down at him, compassionate but helpless: “Dost thou not see,
then, that I have no arms, and cannot help thee?”

“On eût dit un Apollon germanique”–so Gautier said of the Heine of
1835; twenty years later an English visitor wrote of him–“He lay on a
pile of mattresses, his body wasted so that it seemed no bigger than a
child under the sheet which covered him–his eyes closed, and the face
altogether like the most painful and wasted ‘Ecce Homo’ ever painted by
some old German painter.”

His sufferings were only relieved by ever larger doses of morphia;
but although still more troubles came to him, and the failure of a
bank robbed him of his small savings, his spirit remained unconquered.
“He is a wonderful man,” said one of his doctors; “he has only two
anxieties–to conceal his condition from his mother, and to assure his
wife’s future.” His literary work, though it decreased in amount, never
declined in power; only, in the words of his friend Berlioz, it seemed
as though the poet was standing at the window of his tomb, looking
around on the world in which he had no longer a part.

He saw a few friends, of whom Ferdinand Lassalle, with his exuberant
power and enthusiasm, was the most interesting to him, as the
representative of a new age and a new social faith; and the most
loved, that girl-friend who sat for hours or days at a time by the
“mattress-grave” in the Rue d’Amsterdam, reading to him or writing
his letters or correcting proofs. To the last the loud, bright voice
of Mathilde, when he chanced to hear it, scolding the servants or in
other active exercise, often made him stop speaking, while a smile of
delight passed over his face. He died on the 16th of February, 1856. He
was buried, silently, in Montmartre, according to his wish; for, as he
said, it is quiet there.


Throughout and above all, Heine was a poet. From first to last he was
led by three angels who danced for ever in his brain, and guided him,
singly or together, always. They were the same as in “Atta Troll” he
saw in the moonlight from the casement of Uraka’s hut–the Greek Diana,
grown wanton, but with the noble marble limbs of old; Abunde, the
blonde and gay fairy of France; Herodias, the dark Jewess, like a palm
of the oasis, with all the fragrance of the East between her breasts:
“O, you dead Jewess, I love you most, more than the Greek goddess, more
than that fairy of the North.”[4]

[4] “C’est le Bible, plus que tout autre livre,” a well-known French
critic wrote, “qui a façonné le génie poétique de Heine, en lui
donnant sa forme et sa couleur. Ses véritables maîtres, ses vrais
inspirateurs sont les glorieux inconnus qui ont écrit l’Ecclesiaste
et les Proverbes, le Cantique des cantiques, le livre de Job et ce
chef-d’œuvre d’ironie discrète intitulé: le livre du prophète Jonas.
Celui qui s’appelait un rossignol Allemand niché dans la perruque de
Voltaire fut à la fois le moins évangélique des hommes et le plus
vraiment biblique des poètes modernes.”

Those genii of three ideal lands danced for ever in his brain, and that
is but another way of indicating the opposition that lay at the root
of his nature. From one point of view, it may well be, he continued
the work of Luther and Lessing, though he was less great-hearted, less
sound at core, though he had not that element of sane Philistinism
which marks the Shakespeares and Goethes of the world. But he was, more
than anything else, a poet, an artist, a dreamer, a perpetual child.
The practical reformers among whom at one time he placed himself,
the men of one idea, were naturally irritated and suspicious; there
was a flavour of aristocracy in such idealism. In the poem called
“Disputation” a Capuchin and a Rabbi argued before the King and Queen
at Toledo concerning the respective merits of the Christian and Jewish
religions. Both spoke at great length and with great fervour, and in
the end the King appealed to the beautiful Queen by his side. She
replied that she could not tell which of them was right, but that
she did not like the smell of either; and Heine was generally of
the Queen’s mind. He sighed for the restoration of Barbarossa, the
long-delayed German Empire, and his latest biographer asserts that he
would have greeted the discovery of Barbarossa under the disguise of
the King of Prussia, with Bismarckian insignia of blood and iron, as
the realization of all his dreams. It is doubtful, however, whether
the meeting would be very cordial on either side. It would probably
be the painful duty of the Emperor, as of the Emperor of the vision
in “Deutschland,” to tell Heine, in very practical language, that he
was wanting in respect, wanting in all sense of etiquette; and Heine
would certainly reply to the Emperor, as under the same circumstances
he replied to the visionary Barbarossa, that that gentleman had better
go home again, that during his long absence Emperors had become
unnecessary, and that, after all, sceptres and crowns made admirable
playthings for monkeys.

“We are founding a democracy of gods,” he wrote in 1834, “all equally
holy, blessed and glorious. You desire simple clothing, ascetic morals,
and unseasoned enjoyments; we, on the contrary, desire nectar and
ambrosia, purple mantles, costly perfumes, pleasure and splendour,
dances of laughing nymphs, music and plays.–Do not be angry, you
virtuous republicans; we answer all your reproaches in the words
of one of Shakespeare’s fools: ‘Dost thou think, because thou art
virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’” What could an austere
republican, a Puritanic Liberal, who scorned the vision of roses and
myrtles and sugar-plums all round, say to this? Börne answered, “I
can be indulgent to the games of children, indulgent to the passions
of a youth, but when on the bloody day of battle a boy who is chasing
butterflies gets between my legs; when at the day of our greatest
need, and we are calling aloud on God, the young coxcomb beside us in
the church sees only the pretty girls, and winks and flirts–then, in
spite of all our philosophy and humanity, we may well grow angry….
Heine, with his sybaritic nature, is so effeminate that the fall of a
rose-leaf disturbs his sleep; how, then, should he rest comfortably
on the knotty bed of freedom? Where is there any beauty without a
fault? Where is there any good thing without its ridiculous side?
Nature is seldom a poet and never rhymes; let him whom her rhymeless
prose cannot please turn to poetry!” Börne was right; Heine was not
the man to plan a successful revolution, or defend a barricade, or
edit a popular democratic newspaper, or represent adequately a radical
constituency–all this was true. Let us be thankful that it was true;
Börnes are ever with us, and we are grateful: there is but one Heine.

The same complexity of nature that made Heine an artist made him a
humorist. But it was a more complicated complexity now, a cosmic game
between the real world and the ideal world; he could go no farther.
The young Catullus of 1825, with his fiery passions crushed in the
wine-press of life and yielding such divine ambrosia, soon lost his
faith in passion. The militant soldier in the liberation-war of
humanity of 1835 soon ceased to flourish his sword. It was only with
the full development of his humour, when his spinal cord began to fail
and he had taken up his position as a spectator of life, that Heine
attained the only sort of unity possible to him–the unity that comes
of a recognized and accepted lack of unity. In the lambent flames of
this unequalled humour–“the smile of Mephistopheles passing over
the face of Christ”–he bathed all the things he counted dearest; to
its service he brought the secret of his poet’s nature, the secret
of speaking with a voice that every heart leaps up to answer. It is
scarcely the humour of Aristophanes, though it is a greater force, even
in moulding our political and social ideals, than Börne knew; it is
oftener a modern development of the humour of the mad king and the fool
in “Lear”–that humour which is the last concentrated word of the human
organism under the lash of Fate.

And if it is still asked why Heine is so modern, it can only be said
that these discords out of which his humour exhaled are those which we
have nearly all of us known, and that he speaks with a voice that seems
to arise from the depth of our own souls. He represents our period of
transition; he gazed, from what seemed the vulgar Pisgah of his day,
behind on an Eden that was for ever closed, before on a promised land
he should never enter. While with clear sight he announced things to
come, the music of the past floated up to him; he brooded wistfully
over the vision of the old Olympian gods, dying, amid faint music of
cymbals and flutes, forsaken, in the mediæval wilderness; he heard
strange sounds of psaltries and harps, the psalms of Israel, the voice
of Princess Sabbath, across the waters of Babylon.–In a few years
this significance of Heine will be lost; that it is not yet lost the
eagerness with which his books are read and translated sufficiently