Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Heine is a great poet and wickedly funny. His poetry offers a glittering play of surfaces and ironic allusions. It encompasses a range of registers from the sublime to the ridiculous, although Heine agreed with Napoleon’s opinion that: ‘du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas’ (‘from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step’) https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/heine/legrand/legrand.html

Heine’s works explore his own deeply divided consciousness; because of this he is regarded as an important precursor of 20th-century literary modernism. In Die Bäder von Lucca; The Baths of Lucca (1830; in Volume 3 of Reisebilder; Travel Pictures ), Chapter 4, Heine explains that because the modern world is divided and disunited, modern poetry must lack unity as well, any sense of organic harmony would be false:

Ach, teurer Leser, wenn Du über jene Zerrissenheit klagen willst, so beklage lieber, daß die Welt selbst mitten entzwei gerissen ist. Denn da das Herz des Dichters der Mittelpunkt der Welt ist, so mußte es wohl in jetziger Zeit jämmerlich zerrissen werden. […] Einst war die Welt ganz […] und es gab ganze Dichter. Wir wollen diese Dichter ehren und uns an ihnen erfreuen; aber jede Nachahmung ihrer Ganzheit ist eine Lüge.


Ah, dear reader, if you want to complain about my being torn / my internal conflict [Zerrissenheit], then you should rather complain that the world itself is torn apart down the middle. Since the poet’s heart is the centre of the world, it had to be torn apart miserably in these present times […] Once the world was whole […] and poets were whole. We want to honour these poets and enjoy reading them, but every imitation of their wholeness is a lie.

Heine’s poetry therefore refuses semantic closure; everything he writes is relativised and modulated by a self-reflective irony. Reading Heine helps us to learn to negotiate contradictory desires. In his early work in particular (Buch der Lieder; Book of Songs, 1827) Heine enjoys creating a romantic mood and then puncturing it; this technique has been called Stimmungsbrechung (breaking the mood).

In 1819-1820 Heine spent a year studying law, history and literature at the University of Bonn. One of his tutors there was August Wilhelm Schlegel. He continued his studies at the University of Göttingen (1820-21) and the University of Berlin (1821-23). In Berlin he encountered the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, the Sanskrit scholar Franz Bopp, the Homeric scholar F. A. Wolf, the writer Karl Immermann, and the liberal diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense and his wife Rahel Varnhagen.

Heine was a non-practising Jew who converted to Christianity for career reasons upon his graduation in 1825, since many professions were forbidden to Jews. Heine moved to Paris in May 1831, inspired by the French Revolution of July 1830. He stayed there for the rest of his life, returning to Germany only briefly in 1843-44; this visit forms the subject of his masterpiece Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen; Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844). His other masterpiece Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum; Atta Troll: A Midsummer Night’s Dream was published in 1843 and revised in 1847.

Heine was loosely affiliated with the political and literary movement known as Das Junge Deutschland; Young Germany. He was friends with German revolutionaries including Karl Marx and Ludwig Börne, although he soon fell out with Börne, who claimed that Heine was politically immature and lacking in moral fibre.

From 1834 Heine lived with a Frenchwoman, Crescence Augustine Mirat, whom he called Mathilde; he married her in 1841. In 1848 he was disabled by disease and was bedridden for the rest of his life; he called his bedroom his ‘Matratzengruft’ (mattress crypt). His final works contain profound – and humorous – reflections upon religion and mortality.

Heine modelled his literary persona on Lord Byron and his work articulates the mid 19th-century shift from Romanticism to realism. Heine’s Romantic belief in the aesthetic autonomy of poetry clashed with his Romantic belief that poetry should express the soul of the common people. This latter belief led to Heine becoming interested in left-wing politics in the 1830s. In an 1851 preface to his drama William Ratcliff Heine draws attention to ‘The Great Soup Question’ [die große Suppenfrage] – in other words, something will have to be done about poverty in Germany. Heine thought that social justice in Germany would require a radical redistribution of wealth as the Communists planned, but he was extremely ambivalent about the prospect of a Communist revolution. In the preface to the French edition of Lutezia (published in 1855) he writes that he fears a Communist revolution since it would almost certainly lead to the suppression of art and poetry; however he points out that if we accept the basic premise that ‘all human beings have the right to eat’, then there is a certain logic which calls for a revolution.

Out of this tension between his Romantic, aristocratic inclinations and his wish for social justice Heine produced some fascinating texts. Michael Minden (in Modern German Literature, Cambridge: Polity, 2011, p. 175) memorably describes Heine as ‘the champagne socialist of German literature’.

Heine was a gifted essayist and travel writer, whose Reisebilder; Travel Pictures set a new standard for literary journalism. He wrote a history of religion and philosophy in Germany and a history of German Romanticism, and several reports from Paris for German readers. These prose writings are important: they influenced Marx and Nietzsche. His greatest prose work is arguably his critical portrayal of his fellow political exile in Paris, Ludwig Börne.

Heine’s poetry includes:

Gedichte; Poems (1822)

Buch der Lieder; Book of Songs (1827)

Neue Gedichte; New Poems (1844)

Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen; Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844)

Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum; Atta Troll: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1843/47)

Romanzero (1851)

Gedichte. 1853 und 1854; Poems: 1853 and 1854 (1854)

Heine’s prose writings include:

Briefe aus Berlin; Letters from Berlin (1822)

Reisebilder; Travel Pictures, 4 vols (1826-31)

Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski; The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski (1833)

Französische Zustände; French Affairs (1833)

Französische Maler; French Painters (1833)

Zur Geschichte der neueren schönen Literatur in Deutschland; On the History of New Literature in Germany (1833)

Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland; On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834)

Die romantische Schule; The Romantic School (1833/36)

Florentinische Nächte; Florentine Nights (1836)

Der Rabbi von Bacherach; The Rabbi of Bacherach (1840)

Ludwig Börne (1840)

Der Doktor Faust; Doctor Faust (1851)

Lutezia (1854)

Die Götter im Exil; The Gods in Exile (1854)

Geständnisse; Confessions (1854)

Memoiren; Memoirs (1884)

English Translations

The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version, trans. by Hal Draper (Oxford and Boston: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Heinrich Heine, Everyman’s Poetry, trans. and ed. by T.J. Reed and David Cram (London: J.M. Dent, 1997)

Heinrich Heine, Selected Prose, trans. and ed. by Ritchie Robertson (London: Penguin, 1993)

Heinrich Heine, Self-Portrait and Other Prose Writings, trans. and ed. by Frederic Ewen (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1948)

Heinrich Heine, Deutschland: A Winter’s Tale, bilingual edition, trans. and ed. by T.J. Reed (London: Angel, 1997)

Heinrich Heine, Germany: A Winter’s Tale, trans. by John Goodby (Middlesborough: Smokestack, 2005)

Further Reading in English

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Heine the Wound’, in Adorno, Notes to Literature, trans. by S. W. Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 80-90

Russell A. Berman, ‘Poetry for the Republic: Heine and Whitman’, in Berman, Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation & Nationhood (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp. 26-45

Max Brod, Heinrich Heine. The Artist in Revolt, trans. by Joseph Witriol (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1956)

Roger F. Cook (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Heinrich Heine (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)

George Eliot, ‘German Wit: Heinrich Heine’, in Eliot, Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 69ff.

Barker Fairley, Heinrich Heine. An interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954)

Mark H. Gelber (ed.), The Jewish Reception of Heinrich Heine (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1992)

Michael Hamburger, Reason and Energy. Studies in German Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), pp. 145-75

Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub (eds.), Heinrich Heine's Contested Identities: Politics, Religion, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Germany (New York and Bern: 1999)

Laura Hofrichter, Heinrich Heine, trans. by Barker Fairley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)

Georg Lukács, ‘Heinrich Heine as National Poet’ [1935], in Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, ed. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Libris, 1993), pp. 95-156

George F. Peters, The Poet as Provocateur. Heinrich Heine and His Critics (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)

Anthony Phelan, Reading Heinrich Heine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

S. S. Prawer, Heine. The Tragic Satirist. A Study of the Later Poetry, 1827-56 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961)

S.S. Prawer, Heine’s Jewish Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

T. J. Reed, ‘Happy Return?’, Times Literary Supplement, 10 October 1997, 3-4

T. J. Reed and Alexander Stillmark (eds.), Heine und die Weltliteratur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) [contains essays in English and German]

Ritchie Robertson, Heine (London: Halban, 2005)

Lucia Ruprecht, Dances of the Self in Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)

Jeffrey L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine. The Elusive Poet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969)

Jeffrey L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine. A Modern Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979)

Jeffrey L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine. Alternative Perspectives 1985-2005 (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006)

Azade Seyhan, Heinrich Heine and the World Literary Map: Redressing the Canon (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

J. P. Stern, ‘Heinrich Heine’s Contentious Muse’, in J.P. Stern, Idylls and Realities. Studies in Nineteenth Century German Literature (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 53-75

Susanne Zantop (ed.), Paintings on the Move: Heinrich Heine and the Visual Arts (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)

Further Reading on Heine and politics

Russell A. Berman, ‘Poetry for the Republic: Heine and Whitman’, in Berman, Cultural Studies of Modern Germany. History, Representation & Nationhood (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp. 26-45

Gordon A. Craig, ‘Heinrich Heine and the Germans’, in Craig, The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 125-142

Jürgen Habermas, ‘Heinrich Heine and the Role of the Intellectual in Germany’, in The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, trans. by Shierry Weber Nicholson, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 71-99

Gerhart Hoffmeister, ‘The Poet on the Margin and in the Center: Heinrich Heine and the German Condition’, Michigan German Studies 20 (1994), 18-32

Michael Perraudin, Literature, the Volk and Revolution in mid nineteenth-century German (Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2001), Chapters 1 and 5 on Heine

Nigel Reeves, ‘Heine and the Young Marx’, Oxford German Studies 7 (1973), 44-97

Nigel Reeves, Heinrich Heine. Poetry and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974)

Further Reading on Heine and religion

Ritchie Robertson, ‘“Conversations with Jehovah”: Heine’s Return to God’, in Denkbilder... Festschrift für Eoin Burke, ed. by Hermann Rasche and Christiane Schönfeld (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004), pp. 126-37

Further Reading on Heine and women

Robert C. Holub, ‘Heine’s “Mädchen und Frauen”: Women and Emancipation in the Writings of Heinrich Heine’, in From Goethe to Gide: Feminism, Aesthetics and the French and German Literary Canon 1770-1936, ed. by Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005), pp. 80-96

Diana Lynn Justis, The Feminine in Heine’s Life and Oeuvre: Self and Other (New York and Bern: Peter Lang, 1997)

Paul Peters, ‘A Walk on the Wide Side: Heine’s Eroticism’, in A Companion to the Works of Heinrich Heine, ed. by Roger F. Cook (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), pp. 55-103

Further Reading in German

Alexandra Böhm, Heine und Byron. Poetik eingreifender Kunst am Beginn der Moderne (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013)

Mounir Fendri, Halbmond, Kreuz und Schibboleth. Heinrich Heine und der islamische Orient (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1980)

Lydia Fritzlar, Heinrich Heine und die Diaspora. Der Zeitschriftsteller im kulturellen Raum der jüdischen Minderheit (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012)

Dietmar Goltschnigg, Charlotte Grollegg-Edler and Peter Revers (eds.), Harry… Heinrich… Henri… Heine: Deutscher, Jude, Europäer (Berlin: Schmidt, 2008)

Ludwig Marcuse, Heinrich Heine. Melancholiker, Streiter in Marx, Epikureer [1932/1951] (Zurich: Diogenes, 2008)

Fritz J. Raddatz, Taubenherz und Geierschnabel. Heinrich Heine: Eine Biographie (Zurich: Pendo, 1999)

T. J. Reed, ‘Heines Appetit’, Heine-Jahrbuch 22 (1983), 9-29

Further Reading in French

Marie-Ange Maillet and Norbert Waszek (eds.), Heine à Paris: Témoin et critique de la vie culturelle française (Paris: Éditions de l’éclat, 2014)

Web Links in English


Prose Texts by Heine


North American Heine Society

Web Links in German


The Düsseldorf critical edition of Heine’s works available to search online


Heinrich Heine Society in Düsseldorf


Heinrich Heine Institute and Museum in Düsseldorf