Periodic Poetry: Heine, “Die Heimkehr XX”

The Young Heine in an engraving by Ludwig E. Grimm (1827) (Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin)

Heinrich Heine was a breath of fresh air to the generation that followed Hegel. He not only expressed the newly liberated attitudes of the young, he actually considered Hegel to be a pretentious bore. His early lyrical poems were romantic, erotic, wistful and witty. They announced a break with the heavy hand of German classicism represented by the long dead Schiller and the now very old Goethe.

The “Homecoming” collection that the following poem is part of treats Heine’s return to Hamburg in 1823 from his stay at the University of Berlin (where he had been sent by his generous uncle after he found Bonn and Göttingen stifling). Like any student returning home after a long absence, Heine is struck by a sense of loss. But it only creates the kind of melancholy that young people can experience. He will find much cause for real lament in his future. That will be for a later story, however.

The poem here was first published in 1824, then later collected and republished in the Buch der Lieder.

Die Heimkehr

from Buch der Lieder (1827)

by Heinrich Heine

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe—
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

No. XX

[translated by DK Fennell]

Still is the night, the avenues rest,
In that very house dwelt my sweetheart;
She has long since left this town,
But the house still stands on the very same spot.

There stands another who stares into space
And rings his hands in deep pain;
It chills me as I see his face—
The moon reflects my very own form.

You my double, you pale accomplice!
Why do you mock my love sickness,
That has tormented me on this same spot
So many nights, in other times?

This poem was set to music for tenor and piano by Schubert as one of the six songs by Heine in Schubert’s posthumously published collection “Swan Song” (Schwanengesang, D 957). Unlike his earlier Die schöne Müllerin, op. 20, D 795 (1820), and the late Winterreise, op. 89, D 911 (1827), both settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller, the Schwanengesang is neither a collection dedicated to the works of one poet nor even conclusively a song cycle. It is likely that the lugubrious setting of the Heine poem set out above owed much to Schubert’s impending sense of death (he was dying of either syphilis or the poisoning by mercury, then used to treat syphilis). I don’t find that the poem itself, either alone or in the context of the other “Homecoming” poems, warrants such treatment, although following Schubert most English translators turn what I feel is a youthful melancholy into a wail worthy of Isolde or something from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe. The use of Doppelgänger, which in folk-lore is a ghostly double that haunts someone on the eve of death, might justify all of these treatments, except that the poem begins, centers on and ends with a contemplation of the place and not Heine’s fear of ghosts or his own impending doom. That is why it is in the collection of “Homecoming” poems — it is a rumination on times past and the places which evoke them. You, however, can judge for yourself by listening to the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (himself a great Schubert interpreter and an authority on German lieder poetry in general) singing the poem in Schubert’s setting (to which Schubert gave the title “Der Doppelgänger,” which further shows, in my view, that Schubert was focusing on something that Heine was not):

    • jessedziedzic
    • October 20th, 2011

    Great writing…

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