Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Heine today

The indefatigable marlene has opend the discussion on another German poet who is of great interest to me, too. I will chime in after trying to get hold of the essay Die Wunde Heine by T. W. Adorno, who should have much to say about this. (Not that I take Adorno as final authority on many subjects, but I find him really illuminating when it comes to literary criticism because of his penchant for debunking established wisdom)

BTW Die Wunde Heine is hard to translate. It means literally "The Wound Heine", which isn't really English. One has a choice between "Heine as [Open] Wound", "Heine's Wound", "Heine, the [Open] Wound" and perhaps other possibilities. I probably like the first one best.

Addendum: After starting this thread, I have translated two Heine poems I like. They may offer a good way to get into this topic.


Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I just saw a reference to the very first poet I ever read in German, Heinrich Heine. It was a stupid poem I thought, but I do remember the first line I think: Do bist wie eine Blume. (You are like a flower). Later on, however, I read other poems by him, one about the Lorelei that I really liked. In fact, if I can find it, I will post it here because it is, or so I thought at the time, worth sharing. I'd like to know a couple of things, first off being Do you personally like his poetry? Is he considered a good or great poet in Germany, and finally, Didn't he have some radical political convictions? I'm not through with Rilke by a long shot, but I am interested in learning more about Heine and this seemed a good place to start. I hope you don't mind my picking your brain in this unashamed fashion, but your comments, particularly on poetry, suggest it is an extraordinarily good brain to pick.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I'm very interested in learning if you do find that essay by Adorno,although you will probably have to explain to me what he says even if you do find an English translation. I always found him tough going.

Here's a link where you can find Heine's poem "Die Lorelei," which is lovely in the German but reads pretty awful in English. What's interesting and a real find for me is that Sylvia Plath wrote a poem about the Lorelei and it appears here as well:

I'd like to hear what you think of this translation. I think it pretty poor, but some of the lines from Plath are really memorable, for instance:

"Here, in a well-steered country,
Under a balanced ruler.
Deranging by harmony

Beyond the mundane order,
Your voices lay siege. You lodge
On the pitched reefs of nightmare...."

I think "deranging by harmony" and "on the pitched reefs of nightmare" are wonderful phrases. Less wonderful is how the music of Heine's "Die Lorelei" gets lost in translation at least in my opinion. I'd like to hear what you think.

Ulrich said...

Marlene: I'm still trying to get my hands on the article. And I'll get back to the translation and the Plath poem in a later comment--please bear with me. This is a huge topic, and I want to deal with it in some orderly fashion.

In order to get the discussion started, I decided to post some comments w/o doing further research. I will do this in several installments because we know that the chance for a text on the web to be read is inverse proportional to its length. The following two pieces are meant as a general introduction to the topic for readers not familiar with Heine.

Here is a short, quintessential Heine poem:

Das Fräulein stand am Meere
Und seufzte lang und bang,
Es rührte sie so sehre
Der Sonnenuntergang.

Mein Fräulein! Sein Sie munter,
Das ist ein altes Stück;
Da vorne geht sie unter
Und kehrt von hinten zurück.

The girl stood by the sea
breathing a long and anxious sigh,
she was so deeply moved
by the setting sun.

Dear Miss, be more upbeat,
this is an old story,
The sun goes down here in front
and will return from the back.

Heine loved to deflate false sentimentality and make fun of pomposity, authority, the church. It got him the nickname Spötter ("mocker") and earned him the undying hatred of all who felt ridiculed by him, or, to use the term in the gangland sense, a lack of "respect" on his part. Prussian censors banned his books on a regular basis because of their contents--the Nazis did the same later simply because he was Jewish.

Second exhibit: Read Erich Kästner's Der Handstand auf der Lorelei (The handstand on the Lorelei) by clicking on the respective link in the left-hand sidebar of my blog. It pokes fun at what's perhaps the most famous Heine poem, Die Lorelei. More importantly, the claim has been made that Kästner's somewhat snotty, ironic, and light tone and satirical intent owe everything to Heine, who "cleaned house" for German poetry and prepared the way for people like Kästner (who BTW shares with Heine the honor of having his books burned by the Nazis). Plausible as this theory is, I would like to add, though, that Goethe's Mephistopheles has pretty much the same voice, a major reason why he is perhaps the most appealing character in Faust--but this is really something for the experts to decide.

In my next comment, I will talk about Heine, the person, for whom I feel great affection. And in my third comment, I will start to talk about his poetry, about which I'm much more ambivalent.

Ulrich said...

Heine the Person:

I'm not expert enough to give any account of Heine (1797 – 1856), the man, that would hold up under scholarly scrutiny. But since I have been asked for a personal impression, I want to briefly explain why I feel great affection for him as a person, based, admittedly, on knowledge that is more anecdotal than systematic.

For starters, we are both Rhinelanders. Heine was born and grew up in Düsseldorf, some 40km down the Rhine River from Cologne (Köln), where I grew up. We Rhinelanders never liked the Prussians, whom we associate with militarism; reactionary, anti-enlightenment politics; moral rigidity etc. It is true that I personally never suffered under Prussian rule--I can only say that the 8+ years I spent in what was then West Berlin have not softened my dislike of anything "Prussian", a dislike I picked up initially from the tales my grandparents told (apologies to my friends who are Berliners--they know that I'm not talking about them). Heine, on the other hand, experienced Prussian rule first-hand--Düsseldorf fell to Prussia in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars

We Rhinelanders also know the Catholic Church from first-hand experience, which produces in some of us a decidedly anti-clerical attitude and a strong antipathy against the more reactionary aspects of the Church.

Heine's philosophical writings, journalism, and criticism are informed by intelligence and originality of thought--to parrot established opinion was of no interest to him. More generally, he comes across as a free spirit who rebelled almost as a matter of principle against established authority that uses its power to suppress personal freedoms, to stifle criticism, to regiment people's lives rigidly and dogmatically. In that, he was fearless, and he paid for it. He had his books banned by Prussian censors and died in exile in Paris.

What's not to like about a guy like this?

Well, there is his enthusiasm for Napoleon. When he describes how he witnessed the arrival of the French troups under Napoleon as a child in Düsseldorf, this event appears almost like an act of deliverance. For one, the French did away with restrictions on the activities of Jews, which allowed Heine to go to a good grammar school that had been closed to him before. But as much as he championed freedom of expression and from oppression later, he was no democrat--he preferred benign monarchs to the "rule of the multitudes".

A good starting point for a discussion of this more tricky aspect of his life and work is his ballad Die beiden Grenadiere (The Two Grenadiers), set memorably to music by Robert Schumann--it leads in the last stanzas to a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise (albeit followed by a short, more sober postlude).

It's the story of two soldiers returning from Napoleon's disastrous Russia campaign. One of them wants just to get back to his wife and child, whereas the other says "I do not care about wife and child--let them go begging if they starve--as long as my emperor, my emperor is in chains". This second soldier wants to be buried in French soil if he dies, to wait for resurrection should the emperor need him again.

Does Heine satirize the attitude he is depicting (like Swift did in "A Modest Proposal")? As far as I can see, there is just a bit too much approval implied for the second soldiers stand, and Schumann certainly takes the ballad at face value. But I am open to other opinions.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I loved your comments on Heine and can't add much to them because I really don't know enough. I did read a few blurbs on the web about him and one stuck in my mind because the author called him Germany's Byron, which makes sense because of the intense rhyming used by both--I'm remembering a graduate instructor who corrected my pronunciation of Byron's "Don Juan," saying the title had to rhyme with "ruin"--and the tendency to be heavily ironic toward romantic passion. I quote here as an example Heine's "I Love This White and Slender Body," translated by Louis Untermeyer:

I love this white and slender body,
These limbs that answer Love's caresses,
Passionate eyes, and forehead covered
With heavy waves of thick, black tresses.

You are the very one I've searched for
In many lands, in every weather.
You are my sort; you understand me;
As equals we can talk together.

In me you've found the man you care for,
And, for a while, you'll richly pay me
With kindness, kisses and endearments--
And then, as usual, you'll betray me.

Actually, it's Heine's ironic persona in so many of his other poems and quotes that, to me at least, seems strikingly missing in "The Two Grenadiers," and I agree with you, I don't think Heine is making fun of or trying to undermine the soldier's fervid devotion to his military leader. I think he admires it, which may be a result of his admiration for Napoleon.

When I was looking around for some Heine poems on the Web, I found the above and several others, none of which I much liked because the forced and consistent rhyming drove me nuts. However, I also found the free verse poem that you translated and posted, and I have to say the poem gave me a new impression of Heine's gifts and variety. Also, I thought your translation splendid. It really catches what I loved about the poem, the way in which the sound of the ocean calls up in the listener memories and feelings that are intensely felt but not easy to name or explain. I wonder if he did more poems like this one.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: This may remain a conversation just between the two of us, but was soll's?

As far as rhyming translations go, the one you quoted is the best I've seen so far--but then, Untermeyer was a good poet himself, no? I'm haven't been able to locate the original yet--it would be interesting to see what price he paid, if any. Have you found the original?

I also put up another Heine poem with a prose translation by me that you may want to look at. In any case, I'll be posting soon the promised comment with some observations on Heine as poet.

Ulrich said...

As I've said before, there are Heine poems that I really like, but to be honest, I do not find his stuff always good. A small indicator: He too often, for my taste, rhymes Schmerz ("pain") with Herz ("heart") in his love poems, a vulgar temptation offered in German that good poets have learned to resist. He also sometimes has to force the syntax to satisfy a given rhyme scheme (something that never happens, for instance, with Goethe). More generally, the poems sometimes sound trite or strike a sentimental note that does not always look like parody.

Or a poem starts with a real bang, like the one called Nachtgedanken ("night thoughts"):

Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht
Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht

When I think about Germany at night
I can no longer sleep--

two of his most-quoted opening lines. But then it doesn't really get anywhere--it lumbers along for ten more stanzas, none of which comes even close to the memorability of the opening.

It is true that his poems often have an easy, musical flow that has prompted many composers to set them to music. The most famous example is, of course, Die Lorelei. In fact, it has been so popular for a long time that even the Nazis could not afford not to include it in song books--they simply claimed "poet unknown", i.e. declared it a folk song; this is actually not so far fetched b/c it has indeed the simplicity and directness of such songs. (Heine was highly influenced by a collection of folk poetry collected and published by the Romatic poets Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim).

@marlene: The translation you found suffers from the usual problems that arise with rhymed translations (deviation from what the original says, forced rhymes and syntax). What's worse, one cannot sing all of it to the music--I'd prefer a non-rhyming version that would fit the well-known melody, its plaintive fall and 3/4 beat.

In any case, if you leave the music out, you have a straightforward account of what sounds like a folk tale. I do not know if Heine invented it or picked up an established legend--the point is, it doesn't matter, and I think it should. There are other Lorelei poems, like my favorite, by Clemens Brentano, that have a real edge to them--and I count the Plath one among them.

But just when you are ready to give up on him, he wins you back with stuff like the following put-down of the Prussian military as he encountered them again after years spent in exile (This is from a long cycle describing his trip through winterly German towns):

Still the wooden pedantic folks
Still the same right angle
In every movement and in their face
Still that frozen-solid pretention

But none of this should detract from the enormous influence Heine had on later generations of poets--I alluded to this in my first comment and don't have more to add here.

Ulrich said...

Oops--the correct spelling is "pretension"

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I found a translation of the first Heine poem I ever read and it is as awful as I remembered, although I am sure the German is more melodious, whatever the sappy sentiments. What's interesting is the contrast to Heine's often more ironic attitude toward romantic love. He really is not that easy to sum up in a line or two, which makes him all the more interesting.
I have no idea why the spacing is so screwy but I can't seem to fix it, and I have never seen the word "e'en" before.


by: Heinrich Heine (1799-1856)

'EN as a lovely flower,
So fair, so pure thou art;
I gaze on thee, and sadness
Comes stealing o'er my heart.

My hands I fain had folded
Upon thy soft brown hair,
Praying that God may keep thee
So lovely, pure and fair.

This English translation of "Du Bist Wie Eine Blume" was composed by Kate Freiligrath Kroeker (1845-1904).

Ulrich said...

I agree, totally, "awful" is the word. What on earth possesses translators to use archaic language (hast, thee) when the original doesn't? When the original, sappy as it may be, is as simple as a folk song? We saw this before in a translation of the Erlking, and I mentioned it as a major flaw of the common translation of Salome. It drives me up the wall!

The other interesting aspect of this particular translation is that being closer to the time when the original was written is also no guarantee for a better translation.

Ulrich said...

... and speaking of "e'en": I know it only from crossword puzzles--a typical "fill" when all else fails> It's typically clued as short for "evening" or the adverb "even", and these are the only meanings I have found in online duictionaries.

One more strike against this translation--if one knows that the first line of the original is as simple as "You are like a flower", one can only groan.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I couldn't agree more with your comments on translation. That being said, I am going to hunt down for you to evaluate the translation of the Heine poem that follows, from the Book of Songs. I think the poem is quite wonderful even in translation, and its suggestion of an exhaustion from life and longing for death makes me understand what I just read on a blog, that Rilke was influenced by Heine. When I read that, I though No way do I believe that, but I can hear Rilke in these lines, and I take back what I have sometimes muttered about Heine, clever but shallow:

Buch Der Lieder: Die Heimkehr: ‘Der Tod, das ist’ (I would translate this as the home coming, that is death)

Our death is in the cool of night,

Our life is in the pool of day.

The darkness glows, I’m drowning,

Day’s tired me with light.

Over my head in leaves grown deep,

Sings the young nightingale.

It only sings of love there,

I hear it in my sleep.

Now I'm going to look for the German to see, more precisely to have you tell me, if the translation has ruined the original's subtlety and ambiguity.

Ulrich said...

Marlene, I'm intrigued by the suggestion that Heine influenced Rilke. I have not heard this before and therefore cannot add to the discussion. But I'm interested in everything you may find out about this topic.

As to the poem Heimkehr: I agree, the English translation reads well. Some problems arise, though, when we look at the German original:

Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe,
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

A more literal, non-rhyming translation could go like this:

Death is the cool night,
Life is the humid day,
It's getting dark, I'm sleepy,
The day has made me tired.

A tree rises over my bed,
The young nightingale sings in it.
It's singing of nothing but love,
I hear it even in my dream.

We have again the case that the need to reproduce a given rhyme scheme leads the translation away from the meaning of the original. This is particular obvious for the interior rhymes in lines 1 and 2: kühle/schwüle. The corresonding English words do not rhyme--so the translator choses "cool/pool", missing the absolutely essential sense that the day was humid--and therefore tiring--and contrasts with the coolness of the night; in other words, the feeling of exhaustion and longing for relief you sensed in the translation is even stronger in the original--I'm impressed that you got it nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ulrich for doing what I claimed I would do and then didn't, find the original German version of the poem. I loved your translation and think it catches the dark sense of the poem without distorting it as the one I first posted did. I still like the first poem. I just think there are too many distortions of the original sense in an effort to create the end rhymes. The intrusion of the pool for humid is a case in point. As your translation shows, you can get that same sense of longing for an escape from day/life without distorting the original meaning. You just have to give up the rhyming and, in this case, I don't see that as a big loss. I wonder if anyone was ever able to do both, keep the original sense or meaning AND maintain the rhyming scheme. I think you probably need to be a poet in your own right to do it, which is something I think you have mentioned before. I will keep pursuing the influence of Heine on Rilke.

afgilliland@gmail.com said...

I have the book of poems written by Kate Freililigrath Kroeker in 1887. It has 280 pages,it's a little poem book about 3 by 4 inches. 5.10 2011 is todays date and I can be reached at afgilliland@gmail.com. Thank you,Sally

Anonymous said...

Ulrich- do you know why he wrote Der tod, das ist in the first place? Did an experience influence him, or did he just come up with it? I'm going to be performing this song and I'm trying to get a better feel of it.

Ulrich said...

No, not at the top of my head. I will check when the poem was written--in exile in Paris, Heine was increasingly ill: He spoke of his life in the "Matratzengruft" (mattress tomb), which could resonate in the poem. Anyway, who set it to music?

Anonymous said...

brahms composed the song

Ulrich said...

I checked: The poem was written in 1826 or so, when Heine was in his late twenties. He emigrated in 1931. So, the connection I thought possible does not exist.

PS. Using your hint, I went to YouTube and found a (very slow) version of the song. Since I am no expert in music, I'm extremely reluctant to voice an opinion vis-a-vis an expert. So, forgive me when I say that I think Brahms captures the mood of the poem in a very compelling way--the poem is all mood, to me. In fact, I like it better after listening to Brahms!

Anonymous said...

I agree! The way he used text-painting and the way it just flows off your tongue, helps you actually get into the character of the piece.