Periodic Poetry: Heine, “Entartung” (Deterioration)

Heinrich Heine was one of those poets whose brilliance is shown, not like a meteor in one or two major works, but rather in a lifetime of careful craftsmanship, with close attention to a variety of experiences and the diligence to compile a substantial body of work.

Heine’s initial success came from creating the kind of short, lyrical poems, perfectly constrained by metrical convention and inventive enough to attract the intention of Romantic composers. (We saw one of these works, “Die Heimkehr,” which Schubert put to music.) That body of work was itself quite substantial, but Heine moved on, writing more sophisticated verse, which displayed a variety of voices, many quite different from the earnest, wide-eyed pantheist, a voice far too often used by the early Romantics.

The generation of German writers (and writers influenced by German thinking) that flourished between the Revolution of 1830 and the failed Revolutions of 1848 contained an unusual number of free thinkers who chose to write in short observational, almost journalistic, prose and verse. Alexander Herzen is perhaps the best example of this. But even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels fall within this category, inasmuch as they were philosophers and social thinkers who felt most comfortable at the start writing as journalists. But Heine was also among them, even though he was more lyrical than mere journalist.

By 1844 when Neue Gedicthe was published, Heine was not yet 50, relatively successful, free from the heavy hand of Prussian censorship now that he lived in France and unaware of the disasters that the year 1848 would bring to Europe in general and himself in particular. All four of these factors allowed him to believe that those who thought the world was in decline were nothing but exhausted old men, and so, in the poem below, he gently satirized the world-view. We’ll return to Heine shortly to see how his views fared when it became clear that the world was in fact decomposing.


from Neue Gedichte (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe: 1844)

by Heinrich Heine

Hat die Natur sich auch verschlechtert,
Und nimmt sie Menschenfehler an?
Mich dünkt, die Pflanzen und die Tiere,
Sie lügen jetzt wie jedermann.

Ich glaub nicht an der Lilie Keuschheit,
Es buhlt mit ihr der bunte Geck,
Der Schmetterling; er küßt und flattert
Am End’ mit ihrer Unschuld weg.

Von der Bescheidenheit der Veilchen
Halt ich nicht viel. Die kleine Blum’,
Mit den koketten Düften lockt sie,
Und heimlich dürstet sie nach Ruhm.

Ich zweifle auch, ob sie empfindet,
Die Nachtigall, das, was sie singt;
Sie übertreibt und schluchzt und trillert
Nur aus Routine, wie mich dünkt.

Die Wahrheit schwindet von der Erde,
Auch mit der Treu’ ist es vorbei.
Die Hunde wedeln noch und stinken
Wie sonst, doch sind sie nicht mehr treu.


[translation by DK Fennell]

Has Nature also come a cropper
And taken on the faults of men?
I fancy even plants and creatures
These days tell falsehoods now and then.

I don’t believe the lily’s pureness,
Receptive to the motley fop,
The butterfly; he kisses, flatters,
Her innocence at last his stop.

O’er violets’ supposed chasteness
I linger not. The little crown,
With flirting fragrance all seduces.
In secret thirsts for wide renown.

I also doubt the heart-felt feeling
The nightingale attempts in song,
It overstates and sobs and quavers
Like me from practice for so long.

The Truth has dwindled from beneath us,
And with it Trust has also gone.
The dogs continue wagging, stinking,
But with their faithfulness withdrawn.

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