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The Correlation of Poetry and Prose in Heinrich Heine's HARZREISE

by Julian Scutts




Do Poets reveal in verse what they dare not say in prose?


Heinrich Heine wrote his celebrated literary  travelogue in 1826 when recalling a hiking tour he made that had led him  from the university town of Göttingen, where he had been a student a few years earlier, to Goslar following a route that wended its way along  the rocky heights of the Brocken with its romantic and even sinister associations with the eve of Walpurgis  before the first of May, and with  the legend of Ilse, a princess who was turned into a mountain stream bearing her name for divulging the secrets of a subterranean fairyland into which she had been initiated, Appropriately enough the four-week tour ended on the first of May.

     Heine termed Die Harzreise a Fragment, understandably enough in view of its promiscuous agglomeration  of subject matter, literary styles, high diction and gossip, its constant diversions prompted by chance encounters with diverse characters ranging from a celebrated doctor to a fanatic dreaming of a united Germany divided in 38 Gaue a full hundred years before such talk would be heard again.

     The year 1826 marked a decisive juncture in his life. He referred to himself as a Lutheran, making a passing  allusion to his recent conversion to the Protestant faith and his attendant abandonment of his Jewish family heritage. Among the facts known to educated Europeans without a special interest in German literature one could name the following. To the National-Socialists Heine remained a Jew whose lyrical works, annoyingly enough to them, had become so much a part of German popular culture that his most well-known poem “Die Lorelei’  was ascribed to ‘an unknown author’ when included in anthologies.  To the Orthodox Jewish mind Heine lost out too, being a deemed an apostate along with Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn. There is a Heine Street in Tel Aviv, albeit in one of its less than prestigious industrial suburbs. When a renowned medical college in Düsseldorf, Heine’s native city, was upgraded to university status in 1969, it was only in the teeth of strong opposition from the rector and trustees that this institute of learning was named after the city’s most illustrious son as the Heinrich-Heine-Universität.

     Like its author Die Harzreise defies easy categorization. It is immeasurably more than a literary travelogue, having as it does a bipartite composition. The prose discourse is introduced by a poem and subsequently poems find a place at various locations within the text. In view of the great complexity of the work I contrast the salient features of the introductory poem and the introduction to the body of the text written in prose.

Die Harzreise is headed by this poem


Schwarze Röcke, seidne Strümpfe,

Weiße höfliche Manschetten,

Sanfte Reden, Embrassieren –

Ach, wenn sie nur Herzen hätten!

Herzen in der Brust, und Liebe,

Warme Liebe in dem Herzen –

Ach, mich tötet ihr Gesinge

Von erlognen Liebesschmerzen.

Auf die Berge will ich steigen,

Wo die frommen Hütten stehen,

Wo die Brust sich frei erschließet,

Und die freien Lüfte wehen.

Auf die Berge will ich steigen,

Wo die dunkeln Tannen ragen,

Bäche rauschen, Vögel singen,

Und die stolzen Wolken jagen.

Lebet wohl, ihr glatten Säle!

Glatte Herren! glatte Frauen!

Auf die Berge will ich steigen,

Lachend auf euch niederschauen.


Black gowns, silk stockings, white courtly  cuffs, gentle (glib) speeches, formal embraces.Ah me, if only they had hearts. / Hearts in the breast,and love. Warm love in the heart – Ah,their sing-song to faked love pangs kills me.  / Up the mountains will I climb, where devout and humble cottages stand, where the breast  opens in freedom, and the free currents of air  waft,Where the dark fir trees tower, streams babble, birds sing, and the proud clouds scud apace. Farewell, ye bland (smooth, even) halls of learning, bland gentlemen, bland ladies.Up to the mountains will I climb and look down at you in laughter.

     The poet’s utter rejection of the alleged heartlessness and superficiality of polite society and the university establishment finds expression in the  wish to rise above it all by climbing mountains that overlook the town of Göttingen. The reference to fir trees is the first of many in subsequent poems, all of which contribute to the profound symbolism inhering in such trees that connects them with then current patriotic and even chauvinistic sentiments, thus raising a central question concerning Heine’s sense of identity. The poem resonates with the Romantic motif of escaping into nature, its forests and mountains, away from the corrupting influence of town and city life, which raises another important question, Heine’s relationship with the Romantic movement, which, though in decline, still made its presence felt in 1826. We do note a certain acerbic and satirical note in these verses that is not typical of most Romantic poetry, Byron’s apart?

     We find in ‘Hütte‘ (cottage, hut, cabin) a highly significant word, both in terms of its place in poetic tradition and the role it will assume in the poems that will follow in Die Harzreise. L. A. Willoughby, a leading scholar in Goethe studies in his time, stressed the significance of the close associations between the word ‘Wanderer‘ and ‘Hütte‘ throughout the body of Goethe’s poetry and prose writings in his seminal article ‘The Image of the “Wanderer“ and the “Hut“ in Goethe’s Poetry.‘[1] In short, Willoughby demonstrated by close reference to specific poems and novels that ‘Hutte‘ posed a stabilizing counterpoint to the Wanderer’s wide-ranging and poetentially erratic and aimless motions. Further, the hut represented the goal of the libido’s longing to find union with the anuma, often identified with hearth and home, the security of family life and commitment to society and its needs.

      In later poems in Die Harzreise the word ‘Hütte‘ evokes a cosy feeling of interiority, a refuge from raging winds and dark forces at large after nightfall. The scenes  reveal a close view of children in the loving care of their doting parents. Do such scene signal a nostalgic or regressive wish to return to early childhood and infancy?  There is a strangely revealing poem in which a father teaches his son about the persons of the Trinity. At first he tells of his coming to know  the Father, understandably enough from the viewpoint of a child. Then at at later time he began to understand the nature and quality of the Son, identified as a symbol of one suffering under an ignorant and oppressive establishment. Thirdly, he recognized in the Holy Spirit the power to enunciate the truths of freedom and enlightenment to all humanity. This credo reflects Heine’s  commitment to a central Christian doctrine but on his own terms and these  might not have accorded well with strict Lutheran piety. Perhaps this poem amounts to a thinly veiled apologia for his recent decision to enter the Lutheran church. In Die Harzreise he referred to himself as a Lutheran in a casual matter-of-fact tone and elsewhere  he justified  his conversion as a practical ploy to secure entry into European culture, or more to the point,  a bread ticket enabling him to embark on an academic career.One recalls the words imputed to Henry IV of France. ‘Paris is worth a mass.‘ His pragmatic almost  mercantile assessment of the role of religion could arguably extend to his near-deathbed utterance  that God would forgive him. Forgiving was His metier, after all.

     It is through words in poetry that  his deeper concerns emerge. The path to demonstrating this contention may seem somewhat circuitous at first, but here I follow arguments  proposed by Hans-Juergen Schrader in a chapter  included in a book edited by himself entitled The Jewish Self-Portrait in European and American Literature.[2] The contribution in question is entitled  ‘Fichtenbaum-Palmenbaum. Ein Heine-Gedicht als Chiffre deutsch-juedischer Identitätssuche‘  (‘Fir tree - palm tree, a poem by Heine seen as a token of a German-Jewish quest for identity‘). Schrader posits his argument on the well-documented significance of the fir tree as a symbol of all things German  and, in Heine’s time,  of the aspiration to achieve   a unified German nation, echoed strangely enough by the previously mentioned vagrant propagandist for a German nation divided into thirty-eight ‘Gaue.‘Add to this the Tannenbaum, the Christmas tree,  then the conifer becomes a very potent ethno-religious emblem indeed. The  first strophe of the poem treating a father’s exposition of the Trinity to his son is introduced by the word ‚Tannenbaum.“ Tannenbaum mit grünen Fingern / Pocht ans niedre Fensterlein,
( Fir (Christmas} tree with green fingers beats on the low little window)‘

     In contradistinction to the fir tree, Schrader argues in the course of his exposition of  the Fichtenbaum-Palmenbaum poem, we have in the palm tree  the symbol of the distant orient along with its biblical connotations and evocations of Jewishness throughout the ages. According to Schrader the poem reflects an unresolved  dichotomy set deep within Heine’s inner being.  One might object that the poem was composed long after 1826, in 1841 to be precise.[3] However, as Willoughby attested in his article cited earlier certain images that surface in frequently ocurring word are life-long in duration.

     The opening lines of the text in prose present a characterization of  Göttingen by listing features of the town in references to the most diverse  objects, locations and buildings, the incongruous jumbling together of which produces a very humourous and satirical effect. Among these strange aggregations the following is particulary noteworthy. The towns inhabitants include professors, students Philistines and cattle. The class to which cattle belong is esteemed to be the most important of all..Heine had personal reasons for casting aspersions on ptofessors. His earlier period of studies in Göttingen had not run smoothly. He suffered mobbing on account of his being a Jew and was finally sent down for his part in preparations for a duel. There was however a wider ideological factor that contributed to his dislike of the university. At the time the city was situated in the British Kingdom of Hannover. Heine in his childhood and youth  had imbued French culture ar a result of the French occupation of the Rhineland and he became an ardent admirer of Napoleon, his adulation of the emperor being famously reflected in his poem ‘Zwei Grenadiere.‘ The British, as those chiefly responsible for the defeat of Napoleon, were not in Heine’s good books. Göttingen served Heine as a point of departure like the city of destruction in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In poetry Heine might flee upwards. In prose he moved on the horizontal plane, into the surrounding scenes and places as far as Goslar. The main body of Die Harzreise, being in prose, is comparable in some regards to  other literary accounts of journeys by  contemporary authors, most notably Goethe, in whose Italiensche Reise and Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderen (Ausgewanderter in accordance with present grammar rule  (Conversations of German emigrés)  certain parallels can be traced. In the former case Goethe admixed high contemplations and verses with  nuggets of interesting informaton on objects encountered along  the way. In the latter case  garrulous interchanges between the author and fellow travelling companions garners the narrative with newsy tidbits and arouses a pleasant sense of conviviality.The trivial has its place too, as shown  in frequent mentions of bouts of drinking coffee, much as it had in Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey. Perhaps Heine’s apparently dismissive term Fragment with reference to Die Harzreise should not lead us into thinking that the work is the product of a flippant or  slapdash yielding to spontaneity. The work displays a high level of authorial control precisely in the manner it parades the author’s freedom to include anything whatsoever in any order whatsoever that suits that poet, again in a manner reminiscent of Sterne’s novelist fiction, particularly if we keep Tristram Shandy in mind.

    With Heine, as with Sterne, there is none of your Romantic brooding and moping  over the oppressive burden of self-consciousness produced by the modern author’s  claim to be an originaor and creator. Maybe Heine was just more skilfull than the Romantic poets in hiding feelings of self-doubt and lacking self-assurance or maybe, as I feel to be the more likely case , he saw through these feelings and the mental mechanics supporting them in  recognition of a new freedom afforded by the mind’s self-searching and constantly self-revising power of reflectivity, later to be defined by Wilhelm Dilthey and later still by Hans-Georg Gadamer, by turning the stuff of former delusions into manageable energies at the author’s command. In such terms the much bandied Romantic irony gives way to the  new form of irony evinced by Heine’s poetry. When a poet effectively debunks the poet within, are we left with Northrop Frye’s notion of  ‘fables of identity‘ promulgated in a book bearing the cited words in its title? [4] Not necessarily, I submit. We have already noted that only in poetry did Heine contend with the question of relating his Christian identity to his former Jewish one. Writing poetry means participation in what T. S. Eliot termed ‘tradition,‘ by which he meant an environment which almost, but not quite conclusively, submerges individual talent. True, tradition in this sense overlays the visible identity of the individual poet but tradition also shields it from the scrutiny of prying critics and behind such a shield a poet, even as an individual with personal concerns, hope and fears, may reveal what he or she may not dare to state  in prose.





Ein Fichtenbaum

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam

Im Norden auf kahler Höh,

Ihn schläfert; mit weißer Decke

Umhüllen ihm Eis und Schnee.

Er träumt von einer Palme,

Die, fern im Morgenland,

Einsam und schweigend trauert

Auf brennender Felsenwand


A  fir tree stands alone,

On a bare northern height,

Sleeping under a white blanket,

enfolded by snow and ice..

He (It) is dreaming of a palm-tree,

That, far away in the Orient,

Mourns  alone and silently

Upon a  burning wall of rock..


Heine plays on the gender difference between der Fichtenbaum and die Palme, a difference lost by the neuter ‘it’ that normally stands for ‘er’ and ‘sie’ when referring to objects.


[1]  Etudes Germaniques, Autumn, 1951.

[2]  Tübingen, 1996.

[3] The poem is to be found on the last page of this paper along with an English translation.

[4]  Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity,  University of Michigan Press, 1963.