Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School … again” Part 9 of 9

Excerpt, “The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine:  Edited, with an Introduction, by Havelock Ellis.” Walter Scott, London:  23 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row:  1887.

Part Nine …. The Romantic School

The Baron de la Motte-Fouqué  was formerly a major in the Prussian military service, and is one of the most conspicuous of those poet-heroes, or hero-poets, whose lyre and sword won renown during the so-called war of liberation.

His laurels are of the genuine kind. He is a true poet, and the inspiration of poetry is on his brow. Few authors receive such universal homage as did our good Fouqué. Now his readers consist only of the patrons of the circulating libraries. But that public is still large enough, and Fouqué may boast that he was the only one of the romantic school who was also received with favour by the lower classes. At the time when at the aesthetic tea-gatherings in Berlin it was the fashion to sneer at the fallen knight, in a little Hartz village I became acquainted with a lovely maiden, who spoke of Fouqué with a charming enthusiasm, and blushingly confessed that she would gladly give a year of her life if she might but once kiss the author of “Undine”—and this maiden had the prettiest lips that I have ever seen.

“Undine” is indeed a charming poem. This poem is itself a kiss! The genius of poetry kissed the sleeping spring, and as it opened its laughing eyes all the roses exhaled their sweetest perfumes, and all the nightingales sang; and the fragrance of the roses and the songs of the nightingales, all this did our good Fouqué clothe in words, and called it “Undine.”

I know not if this novel has been translated into French. It is the story of a lovely water-fairy who has no soul, and who only acquires one by falling in love with an earthly knight. But, alas! with this soul she also learns human sorrows. Her knightly spouse becomes faithless, and she kisses him dead. For in this book death also is only a kiss.

This “Undine” may be regarded as the muse of Fouqué’s poetry. Although she is indescribably beautiful, although she suffers as we do, and earthly sorrows weigh full heavily upon her, she is yet no real human being. But our age turns away from all fairy-pictures, no matter how beautiful. It demands the figures of actual life; and least of all will it tolerate water-fays who fall in love with noble knights. This reactionary tendency, this continual praise of the nobility, this incessant glorification of the feudal system, this everlasting knight-errantry balderdash, became at length distasteful to the educated portion of the German middle classes, and they turned their backs on the minstrel who sang so out of time. In fact, this everlasting sing-song of armours, battle-steeds, high-born maidens, honest guild-masters, dwarfs, squires, castles, chapels, minnesingers, faith, and whatever else that rubbish of the middle ages may be called, wearied us; and as the ingenuous hidalgo Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué became more and more immersed in his books of chivalry, and, wrapped up in the reveries of the past, he ceased to understand the present, and then even his best friends were compelled to turn away from him with dubious head-shakings.

His later writings are unenjoyable. The faults of his earlier works are repeated, only more glaringly. His knights are combinations of iron and sentimentality; they have neither flesh nor common-sense. His heroines are mere semblances of women; they are dolls, whose golden tresses daintily curl over features that are as pretty and as expressionless as flowers. Like the works of Walter Scott, so also do Fouqué’s romances of chivalry remind us of the fantastic tapestries known as gobelins, whose rich texture and brilliant colours are more pleasing to our eyes than edifying to our souls. We behold knightly pageantry, shepherds engaged in festive sports, hand to hand combats, and ancient customs, charmingly intermingled.

It is all very pretty and picturesque, but shallow, brilliant superficiality. Among the imitators of Fouqué, as among the imitators of Walter Scott, this mannerism of portraying—not the inner nature of men and things, but merely the outward garb and appearance—was carried to still greater extremes. This shallow art and frivolous style is still in vogue in Germany, as well as in England and France. Even if the portrayal no longer attempts to glorify the age of chivalry, but is directed to our modern affairs, it is still the same mannerism, which grasps not the essential points of phenomena, but merely the superficial and the accidental. In lieu of a knowledge of mankind, our recent novelists evince a profound acquaintance with clothes; they perhaps justify themselves by the old saying:

“The tailor makes the man.” How different from the older, especially the English, novelists! Richardson gives us the anatomy of the emotions. Goldsmith treats of the affections of his heroes pragmatically. The author of Tristram Shandy reveals to us the profoundest depths of the human soul; he opens, as it were, a crevice of the soul; permits us to take one glance into its abysses, into its paradise and into its filthiest recesses; then quickly lets the curtain fall over it. We have had a front view of that marvellous theatre, the soul; the arrangements of lights and the perspective have not failed in their effects, and while we imagined that we were gazing upon the infinite, our own hearts have been exalted with a sense of infinity and poetry. Fielding at once takes us behind the scenes, and there shows us all the emotions covered with deceitful rouge; the gross motives that underlie the most generous deeds; the colophony that is afterwards to blaze aloft into enthusiasm; the bass drum, while on it repose the drumsticks, which are destined to sound the furious thunder of passion.

In short, he shows us the whole interior machinery by which theatrical effects are produced; he exposes the colossal deceit by which men assume an appearance far different from the reality, and through which the truth and gladness of life are lost. But what need to cite the English as an example, since our own Goethe has given us in his Wilhelm Meister the best model of a novel?

Fouque’s romances are a legion in number; he is one of the most prolific of authors. The Magic Ring and Thiodolph the Icelander merit a specially favourable mention. His metrical dramas, which were not intended for the stage, contain great beauties. Sigurd the Serpent-slayer is a bold work, in which the ancient Scandinavian mythology is mirrored with all its gigantesque and magical characteristics. Sigurd, the chief personage of the drama, is a colossal creation. He is as strong as the rocky crags of Norway, and as fierce as the sea that beats around their base. He has as much courage as a hundred lions, and as much sense as two asses.

Herr Ludwig Uhland is the true lyric poet. He was born in Tübingen in 1787, and is now an advocate at Stuttgard. This author has written a volume of poems, two tragedies, and two treatises on Walther von der Vogelweide, and on the French troubadours. The latter are two small historical researches, and give evidence of a diligent study of the middle ages. The tragedies are entitled Louis the Bavarian, and Duke Ernest of Suabia. I have not read the former, nor is it considered the better of the two. The latter, however, contains many beauties, and pleases by its noble and exalted sentiments. It is fragrant with the sweet breath of poetry, such as we fail to find in the pieces that reap so much applause on the stage at the present day. German fidelity is the theme of the drama, and we see it here strong as an oak, defying all storms. German love blossoms, scarcely visible, in the far distance, but its violet-perfume appeals the more touchingly to our hearts.

This drama, or rather this poem, contains passages which are among the most precious pearls of our literature; notwithstanding which, the theatre-going public received, or rather rejected, the piece with indifference. I will not censure the good people of the pit too severely for that. These people have certain needs, which they demand that the poet shall gratify. The poet’s productions must not merely express the sympathies of his own heart, but must accord with the desires of the audience. The latter resembles the hungry Bedouin in the desert, who thinks he has found a sack of peas, and opens it eagerly, but, alas! they are only pearls.

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…Twenty years ago I was a lad, and what overflowing enthusiasm would I then have lavished upon Uhland! At that time I could better appreciate his merits than now; we were then more akin in modes of thought and feeling. But so much has happened since then! What then seemed to me so grand: all that chivalry and Catholicism; those cavaliers that hack and hew at each other in knightly tournaments; those gentle squires and virtuous dames of high degree; the Norseland heroes and minnesingers; the monks and nuns; ancestral tombs thrilling with prophetic powers; colourless passion, dignified by the high-sounding title of renunciation, and set to the accompaniment of tolling bells; a ceaseless whining of the Miserere; how distasteful all that has become to me since then! But once, it was, oh! so different. How often have I sat on the ruins of the old castle at Düsseldorf on the Rhine, declaiming the loveliest of all Uhland’s poems:—

A wandering shepherd, young and fair,
Beneath the royal castle strayed;
And when the princess saw him there,
Love’s longing thrilled the maid.

And then with accents sweet, she said,
“Oh! would that I might come to thee!
How white the lambkins there; how red
The flowerets on the lea.”

The youth made answer from below,
“If thou would’st but come down to me!
How rosy red thy cheeks do glow,
How white those arms I see.”

And every morn, with silent pain,
He drove his flock the castle by,
And gazed aloft, until again
His love appeared on high.

“Oh, welcome! welcome! princess sweet!”
His joyous tones rang bright and clear.
Then softly she in turn did greet,
“Kind thanks, my shepherd dear.”

Cold winter fled, spring came again,
The flowerets blossomed far and near.
The shepherd sought his love;—in vain!
No more did she appear.

“Oh, welcome! welcome! princess fair!”
His words were mournful now, and drear.
A spirit voice rang through the air,
“Farewell, my shepherd dear.”

And as I sat on the ruins of the old castle and recited this poem, at times I heard the water-fays of the Rhine mockingly, and with comic pathos, take up my refrain, and from amidst the sighing and the moaning of the river that ran below I could hear in faint tones——

“A spirit voice ring through the air,
‘Farewell, my shepherd dear.'”

But I would not let myself be disturbed by the bantering of the mermaids, even when at some of the most beautiful passages in Uhland’s poems they tittered ironically. At that time I modestly ascribed the tittering to myself, particularly when the twilight was sinking into darkness, and I raised my voice somewhat to overcome the mysterious feeling of awe with which the old castle ruins inspired me, for there was a legend that the ruins were haunted by a headless woman. At times I seemed to hear the rustling of her silken gown, and my heart beat quickly;—that was the time, and that the place, to be an enthusiast over the poems of Ludwig Uhland.

I hold the same volume again in my hands, but twenty years have flown since then, and I have seen much and learned much. I no longer believe in headless human beings, and the old ghost story has no longer power to move me. The house wherein I sit and read is situated on the Boulevard Montmartre; the fiercest turmoil of the day breaks in tumultuous billows around this spot, and loud and shrill are heard the voices of the modern epoch. First, a burst of laughter; then a heavy rumbling; next, drums beating quick time; and then, like a flash, the national guards dash by in quick march; and every one speaks French. And is this the place to read Uhland’s poems? Thrice have I again declaimed the concluding lines of the same poem, but I do not feel the keen, unspeakable pain that once thrilled me when the little princess died, and the handsome shepherd lad so pathetically calls to her, “Oh, welcome! welcome! princess fair!”

“A spirit voice rang through the air,
‘Farewell, my shepherd dear.'”

Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for this class of poems also partly arises from my experience that the most painful love is not that which fails to win possession of the object of its affections, or loses her through death. In truth, it is more painful to fold the loved one in our arms, and yet have her worry us with her contrariness, and her silly caprices, until night and day are rendered unendurable, and we are finally forced to close our heart against her who is most precious, and send the dear plague of a woman off in a post chaise—

“Farewell, oh! princess fair!”

Verily, more grievous than the loss through death is the loss through life; for instance, when the loved one in the spirit of mischievous coquetry turns away from us; when she insists upon going to a masked ball, to which no respectable person dare escort her; and when there, with jaunty dress and roguish curls, takes the arm of the first scamp that comes along, and leaves you all alone.

“Farewell, my shepherd dear!”

Perhaps Herr Uhland himself fared no better than ourselves. Perhaps his temperament has changed since then. With a few exceptions, he has produced no new poems in twenty years. I cannot believe that this beautiful poet soul was so stingily endowed by Nature, and had but one spring-time. No, I explain Uhland’s silence as the result of the contradiction between the tendencies of his muse and his political position. The elegiac poet, in whose ballads and romances the praises of the Catholic-feudal past were sung so beautifully; the Ossian of the middle ages has since then become a member of the assembly of notables in Wurtemburg, a zealous champion of popular rights, and a bold advocate of the equality of all citizens, and of freedom of opinion.

Herr Uhland has proved the absolute sincerity of his democratic and Protestant convictions by the great personal sacrifices that he has made in their behalf. In his earlier days he fairly earned the poet’s laurels, and now he has also won the bays of civic virtue. But just because he was so honest in his sympathy for the modern epoch, he could no longer sing the olden songs of the olden time with the former fervour. His Pegasus was a knightly steed that gladly trotted back to the past, but obstinately refused to budge when urged forward into modern life; and so our worthy Uhland smilingly dismounted, quietly unsaddled the unruly steed, and led it back to the stable. There it remains to this very day; like its colleague, the famous war-horse Bayard, it possesses all possible virtues, and only one fault; it is dead.

It will not have escaped keener eyes than mine, that the stately war-horse, decked with its brilliant coat of arms and proudly-waving plumes, was never rightly suited to its bourgeois rider, who, instead of boots with golden spurs, wore shoes with silk stockings; and who, instead of helm, wore the hat of a Tübingen professor. Some claim to have discovered that Herr Ludwig Uhland never was wholly in sympathy with his theme; that in his writings, the naive, rude, powerful tones of the middle ages are not reproduced with idealised fidelity, but rather they are dissolved into a sickly, sentimental melancholy. It is claimed that Uhland has taken up into his temperament the strong, coarse strains of the heroic legends and folk-songs, and boiled them down, as it were, to make them palatable to our modern public.

And in truth, when we closely observe the women in Uhland’s poems, we find that they are only beautiful shadows, embodied moonshine; milk flows in their veins, and sweet tears in their eyes; that is, tears which lack salt. If we compare Uhland’s knights with the knights in the old ballads, it seems to us as if the former were composed of suits of leaden armour, which were entirely filled with flowers, instead of flesh and bones. Hence Uhland’s knights are more pleasing to delicate nostrils than the old stalwarts, who wore heavy iron trousers, and were huge eaters, and still greater drinkers.

But that is no reason for finding fault with Herr Uhland; he did not seek to give an exact copy of the German past; perhaps he only wished to please us with a fanciful reflection, and so he mirrored a flattering picture by the crepuscular lights of his genius. This perhaps lends an especial charm to his poems, and wins for them the admiration and affection of many gentle and worthy persons. The pictures of the past cast some of their magic glamour over us, even in the feeblest conjuration.

Even the men who have warmly espoused the cause of modernism always retain a secret sympathy for the heritages of the olden time. Those ghostly voices of the past, no matter how faint their re-echo, marvellously stir our souls. Hence it is to be readily understood that the ballads and romances of our worthy Uhland not only received the most cordial applause from the patriots of 1813, from pious youths and sentimental maidens, but also from more powerful and more modern minds.