Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was a German poet and essayist. He is best known as the author of witty and subversive prose works, travel books, political and journalism. His liberal views and his attacks on orthodoxy made him a lightning rod among his contemporaries and successive generations.
Heine was born in Dusseldorf which was then occupied by France and which later became part of Prussia after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. He received a doctorate of law from Gottingen and converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to improve his prospects for a post in government or at a university. He was however unsuccessful, and took up writing. He achieved early literary with the publication of his first volume of Reisebilder (Travel Sketches; 1824) Die Harzeise (Journey through the Harz Mountains; 1826,) and with the volume of collected poems Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs; 1827.) The latter sold progressively well, and was printed 13 times during Heine’s lifespan.
In 1831, Heine moved to Paris to report on the French Revolution and settled there permanently. Thereafter, his works became more political and acerbic. By 1835, the German government had banned his works. Heine uncle and patron died in 1844, leaving Heine poor. Yet, he produced A Winter’s Tale (1844,) a fictionalized account of his 1843 visit to Germany, and a collection of poetry New Poems (1844.)
Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and other composers set many of Heine’s early lyric poetry to music.
One of Heine’s most famous poems, “Die Lorelei,” based on a German fairytale of an enthralling, seducing mermaid who lures seamen to their death, was set to music by numerous composers, including Friedrich Silcher and Franz Liszt.
Great genius takes shape by contact with another great genius, but, less by assimilation than by fiction.