Friday, May 23, 2008

That was Heine!

That was Heine! and we,
Myriads who live, who have lived,
What are we all, but a mood,
A single mood, of the life
Of the Being in whom we exist,
Who alone is all things in one.

From Matthew Arnold's "Heine's Grave"

What to make of those lines of Arnold's? Not exactly in the spirit of the Heine poems I've been looking at all week, are they?

Heine spent the last seven or eight years of his life confined to bed, in severe pain, partly blind, victim of a degenerative illness. "The mattress-grave," he called it. I haven't read the poems from this period. Reading his autobiographical writing from this time, charming but sharp, mostly about his childhood, you (I) would never guess that he was so sick.

Later English poets loved this aspect of Heine.* They not only made hundreds of translations of Heine poems, but wrote dozens of poems about him, often titled "The Mattress Tomb" or something similar. Heine was the "Montmartre Martyr," a martyr to politics, to illness, to poetry. Much of this stuff seems overwrought to me. Heine was many things, sure, but let's not get too morbid about the author of:

And if you were my wedded wife
You'd be envied beyond measure,
Fun and frolic would fill your life
With nothing but joy and pleasure.

And if you scold or if you curse,
I'm the patient kind that bears it;
But if you fail to praise my verse,
It means divorce - that tears it!

Poem 72 of The Homecoming. That was Heine!

Sol Liptzin, The English Legend of Heinrich Heine (1954), has been very instructive on this subject.

* And our use of the word "Philistine" comes from Heine, through an essay of Arnold's. “James Thomson, the author of The City of Dreadful Night, wrote a lengthy article commending Arnold but expressing the belief that the latter had no need to introduce the terms Philistine and Philistinism from German. Thomson suggested popularizing the expressions Bumble, Bumbledom, Bumbleism.” (Liptzin, p. 79) Hats off to James Thomson!

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