Heinrich Heine: “What is Dreaming?”
Excerpt, The Works of Heinrich Heine, Vol. 1, 157-160. Translated from the German by Charles Godfrey Leland..
What is dreaming? What is death? Is it only an interruption of life, and its full cessation? Yes, for people who only know the Past and the Future, and do not live an eternity in every moment of the Present, death must be terrible! When their two crutches, Space and Time, fall away, then they slip away into the eternal Nothing.
And dreams? Why are we not more afraid before going to sleep than to be buried? Is it not terrible that the body can be as if dead all night, while the spirit in us leads the wildest life … a life full of all those terrors of that parting which we have established between life and soul! When in the future both shall be again united in our consciousness, then there will be perhaps no more dreams, or else only invalids, those whose harmony has been disturbed, will dream. The ancients dreamed only softly and seldom; a strong and powerfully impressive dream was for them an event, and it was recorded in their histories…
And yet, what beautiful sweet dreams we have been able to dream! Our healthy descendants will hardly be able to understand them! All the splendours of the world disappeared from around us, and we found them again in our own souls; yes, there was the perfume of the trampled roses, and the sweetest songs of the frightened nightingales took refuge.
Thus I feel, and die of the unnatural anxieties and horrible dainties and sweet pains of our time. When I at night undress and lay me in bed, and stretch myself out at full length, and cover myself with the white sheets, I often shutter involuntarily, it seems so like being a corpse and burying myself. Then I close my eyes as quickly as I can to escape this fearful thought, and to save myself in the Land of Dreams.
It was a sweet, kind, sunshiny dream. The heaven was heavenly-blue and cloudless; the sea sea-green and still. A boundless horizon; and on the water sailed a gaily-pennoned skiff, and on its deck I sat caressingly at the feet of Jadviga. I read to her strange and dreamy love songs, which I had written on strips of rose-coloured paper, sighing yet joyful, and she listened with incredulous yet inclined ear and deeply loving smiles, and now and then hastily snatched the leaves from my hand and threw them in the sea. But the beautiful water-fairies, with snow-white breasts and arms, rose from the water and caught the fluttering love-lays as they fell.
As I bent overboard I could see clearly far down into the depths of the sea, and there sat, as in a social circle, the beautiful water-maids, and among them was a young sprite who, with deeply sympathetic expression, declaimed my love-songs. Wild enraptured applause rang out at every verse. The green-locked beauties applauded so passionately that necks and bosoms grew rosy red, and they praised cordially yet compassionately what they heard.
“What strange beings these mortals are! How wonderful their lives, how dire their destinies! They love, and seldom dare express their love; and when they give it utterance at last, they rarely understand one another.
And withal they do not lead eternal lives like ours; they are mortal. Only a little time is granted them to seek for happiness. They must grasp it quickly and press it hastily unto their hearts, ere it is gone. Therefore their songs of love are so deeply tender, so sweetly painful and anxious, so despairingly gay. Such strange blendings of joy and pain. The melancholy shadow of death falls on their happiest hours, and consoles them lovingly in adversity.
They can weep. What poetry there is in mortal tears…”