Songs of Love and Grief
by Heinrich Heine
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

A Bilingual Anthology Translated
in the Verse Forms of the Originals

by Walter W. Arndt

foreword and notes
by Jeffrey L. Sammons

Northwestern University Press
Evanston, Illinois; 1995

227 pages October 2003

  
A nice selection of Heine

This is a neat little book — or not so little if one considers both languages, German and English side by side. Songs of Love and Grief is only a fraction of Heinrich Heine's poetical output, but it is a subtly enchanting selection.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was of German-Jewish background, had substantial family and publishing ties in Hamburg, but spent most of his life elsewhere in Germany and ultimately in exile in Paris.
  

Arndt as translator

Walter W. Arndt is a translator of Goethe's Faust, of Pushkin and a number of other poets. He is strong for verse translation of verse, and notably for trying to recreate the original poetic structure (or "verse forms") in the target language. So Arndt's translations are strikingly poetical; he is not only a sensitive reader of poetic intentions, but as we see in his translations, a fine poet himself in English. Arndt is my favorite translator of Faust.

In Arndt's big bilingual translation Pushkin Threefold, the translator describes himself as "born at Constantinople in 1916 as a citizen of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg" — not a citizen of the Second Reich. Arndt studied at Oxford, spent the beginning of World War II briefly in the Polish Army, then

he escaped from a German POW camp, spent a year in the Polish underground at Warsaw forging Nazi documents, and made his way to Istanbul by way of Berlin in 1940.

Walter Arndt spent the latter part of the war in American intelligence work. Altogether (I give only a fraction of his background; see Arndt's A Picaro in Hitler's Europe), Arndt seems unusually credentialed as a good European (in Nietzsche's phrase), perhaps thusly sensitive to Heine's being of Germany but not entirely at home there. Lost loves plus spiritual exile often intertwine one's love-longing and homeland-longing; we feel it here in Heine.
  

The highest conception of the lyric poet

Song lyrics, yes, most amazingly! Jeffrey L. Sammons in his interesting Foreword tells us,

It has been said that no poet other than the biblical psalmist has been set to music more often than Heine. To date some eight thousand settings of his works have been identified.

Nietzsche, himself a poet and composer, and strongly influenced by Heine in some key philosophical ideas as well as in style, says:

The highest conception of the lyric poet, Heinrich Heine gave to me. I seek in vain in all the realms of thousands of years for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine sarcasm without which I cannot imagine perfection. I estimate the value of human beings, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive the god apart from the satyr. [...] It will be said one day that Heine and I have been by far the foremost artists of the German language —

Friedrich Nietzsche
Ecce Homo, II, 4
translated by Walter Kaufmann
  
A Nietzschean connection

I'd like to mention a couple of selections in Songs of Love and Grief that bring to mind a Nietzschean connection. We are given several excerpts from Germany. A Winter's Tale, published in 1844, the year of Nietzsche's birth. Sammons calls this mock-epic "the greatest political poem in the German language". Surely the verse below is one of the passages which Nietzsche later read thoughtfully. Addressed to Emperor Frederick I, Barbarossa, waiting with his knights under the mountain for Germany's greatest need, Heine says:

Nor do I like your flag any more;
Since student fraternity weeks
The black, red, and gold has been spoilt for me
By those bonehead Germania freaks.
from Germany. A Winter's Tale; Chapter XVI
  

The following sweet little lyric ("Das Fraulein stand am Meere") seems an arrow aimed straight from Heine to Nietzsche:

Young miss stood on the seashore,
By heavy sighs undone,
Moved to a rueful seizure
By the setting of the sun.

"Dear Miss, cheer up, look shoreward,
This is a well-worn turn;
The sun goes under forward
And comes back up astern."

This must have fermented and sweetened and recurred to Nietzsche's mind while he was creating Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
  

Simple & elegant

But there are plenty of discriminating poems in this sampling, and we need not read them with any sense of philosophical overbearing. Most of these Songs of Love and Grief are simple, rather short, elegant lyrics. Many have a haunting quality, gain easily in depth on rereading. This little one ("Der Tod das ist die kuhle Nacht") is a favorite of mine here:

Death is the cool of night,
Life is the sultry day;
It's darkening, I am sleepy;
The day has tired me.

Over my bedstead rises a tree;
In it the young nightingale sings;
It sings of nothing but love —
Deep in my dreams it rings.
  

  

© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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