Georg Heym

[This page by Nicholas Jacobs]

Georg Heym (1887-1912)

Georg Heym was born, the child of a German government lawyer and a German mother (née Taistrzik), in Hirschberg (now Jelenia Góra), in what was then Silesia (now Western Poland). A sister was born two years later. In 1900, when Heym was thirteen, the family moved to Berlin, where Georg attended high school. In 1904 he began his friendship with Ernst Balcke, which would end in their tragic deaths. In 1906 two poems by Heym appeared in a local paper.

Heym began student life in 1907 studying law in Würzburg, writing a diary and plays. In 1908 he moved to Berlin University, still studying law. Two Berlin sonnets were published in 1910, when Heym met Wilhelm Simon Guttmann, looking for plays for the newly-founded literary Neue Club in Berlin. Guttmann rejected Heym’s plays but introduced him to the Club as a poet in early May 1910. By then Heym was studying law in Jena, but soon returned to Berlin. After reading Heym’s sonnets, the young publisher Ernst Rowohlt offered him a contract – signed in January 1911 – for the poetry collection Der ewige Tag (The Eternal Day). Heym passed his law exams and took a job as an articled clerk in a Berlin suburb. In summer 1911 Heym began his friendship with Hildegard Krohn, the subject of his greatest love poems:

‘Deine Wimpern, die langen

Deiner Augen dunkele Wasser,

Laß mich tauchen darein,

Laß mich zur Tiefe gehn.’

‘Your eyelashes, long,

The dark waters of your eyes,

Let me sink into them,

Let me go to the depths.’

trans. by Antony Hasler

Heym continued to write poetry and short stories, and on occasion to read at the Neue Club. His audience included Karl Kraus, and the editors Franz Pfemfert and Herwarth Walden. He moved from law, briefly to the military, then to studying oriental languages. In November 1911 Rowohlt signed a contract for a book of short stories. In January 1912 he traveled from Munich to Metz to sign on as a military cadet. Back in Berlin, on 16 January 1912, in the early afternoon, Ernst Balcke and Georg Heym fall through the ice while skating towards the Wannsee from the island of Lindwerder on the frozen River Havel. Both drowned. Georg Heym was buried in the Alt Luisenhof Church in Charlottenburg.

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Because he was not a ‘war poet’ – killed in the war – like his exact contemporary Georg Trakl, or the slightly older Ernst Stadler, Heym has suffered relative neglect. Born in the same year as Rupert Brooke, comparison with him throws Heym into stark relief. Whereas Brooke was drawn to tradition, Heym was drawn to the new, not so much in a spirit of experiment as by a compulsion to express the hitherto unexpressed. Both were influenced by Keats, Brooke often seeming to imitate him, Heym absorbing Keats’s intensity into his own.

Trakl seems to have gained over Heym because of the consistent quality of his often obscure and suggestive poetry, whereas Heym’s poetry is more varied, containing more fight, humour – including satire – and love poetry. However, all good anthologies of First World War poetry include Heym, because of his remarkable premonition of world war in his 1911 poem ‘Krieg’ (‘War’), first published in his posthumous collection Umbra Vitae in 1912:

‘Eine große Stadt versank in gelbem Rauch,

Warf sich lautlos in des Abgrunds Bauch.

‘A mighty city sank in yellow smoke,

slipped in silence into the abyss’s throat.’

trans. Antony Hasler

For the slightly older and more sophisticated Ernst Stadler, who fell on 30 October 1914, having spent time studying as a Cecil Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, Heym was:

‘one of the most promising of young German poets, whose 1911 collection Der ewige Tag was more than promising. It brought a new ingredient, with something of perfection, into modern German poetry. Not the dubious perfection associated with precocious followers of Stefan George, but a perfection determined by the compulsion of its poetic vision and by the intensity of its means’ ( – Ernst Stadler, review of Der ewige Tag, in Cahiers Alsaciens 1, 1912)

It is therefore true poetic justice that Georg Heym was one of the few German poets of his generation to have one of his poems quoted – in German – in a British literary journal before the First World War, when T.E. Hulme, reporting on the Berlin literary scene in Spring 1914, quoted from one of Heym’s ‘Berlin Sonnets’ in his ‘German Chronicle’ in Harold Monro’s Poetry and Drama, London, June 1914:

‘Beteerte Fässer rollten von den Schwellen

Der dunken Speicher auf die hohen Kähne.

Die Schlepper zogen an. Des Rauches Mahne

Hing rußig nieder auf die öligen Wellen.’

‘From the dim warehouses thresholds barrels caulked

with tar went rolling down to the tall lighters.

The tugboats started. On the oily waters

A mane of soot was trailing from the smoke.’

trans. by Antony Hasler

The First World War put a stop to all such cultural exchange. Georg Heym was one of the earliest and remains one of the greatest German big-city poets. Under National Socialism he was part of an era of decadence, and publication of his poetry went virtually underground. He is long overdue for rediscovery one hundred years after his death.

Bibliography

Der ewige Tag (Leipzig: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, 1911) [The Eternal Day]

Umbra Vitae (Leipzig: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, 1912)

Der Dieb (Leipzig: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, 1913) [The Thief]

Dichtungen (Munich: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1922)

Dichtungen und Schriften, 4 vols, ed. by Karl Ludwig Schneider: vol.1, Lyrik; vol.2, Prosa und Dramen; vol.3, Tagebücher, Träume, Briefe; vol.4, Dokumente zu seinem Leben und Werk (Hamburg: Heinrich Ellermann, 1960-1968)

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Helmut Greulich, Georg Heym (1887-1912) Leben und Werk – Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte des deutschen Expressionismus (Berlin: Verlag Dr Emil Ebering, 1931) (the first and only substantial biographical work on Heym in German)

English Translations

Poems, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Antony Hasler (London: Libris, 2004; and London: Angel Books, 2009)

The Thief and other Stories, trans. by Susan Bennett (London: Libris, 1994)

Further Reading in English

Patrick Bridgwater, Poet of Expressionist Berlin – The Life and Work of Georg Heym (London: Libris, 1991)

David Midgley, ‘The Subversive Appropriation of Poetic Forms: Georg Heym (1887-1912)’, Oxford German Studies 41:3 (2012), 295-309

Walter H. Sokel, The Writer in Extremis – Expressionism in Twentieth-Century German Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959)

Further Reading in German

Lars Amann (ed.), Literatur für Leser 3/18 (2021): Themenheft zu Georg Heym: Georg Heyms nachgelassene Prosa und Schriften (Open Access)

Nina Schneider (ed.), Am Ufer des blauen Tags. Georg Heym: Sein Leben und Werk in Bildern und Selbstzeugnissen (Glinde: Hans-Jürgen Böckel, 2000)

Web Link

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/may/21/featuresreviews.guardianreview18

Michael Hofmann reviews Anthony Hasler’s translations of Heym