Heinrich Heine: Thrashing the Romantic School-Master
Throughout Heine's life, he cherished Don Quixote, and in 1837, at the age of 40, he wrote an
introduction to the immortal satire. He describes how it affected him differently at different times of
"In my childish forthrightness I took everything for utter seriousness; however ridiculously
the poor hero was toyed with by fate, I was nonetheless convinced that it must be a natural
consequence of heroism, being laughed at even as much as receiving bodily wounds, and it
chagrined me all the more, because I could empathize with it in my soul. - I was a child and
unacquainted with the irony that God had brought into the world, and which the poet had emulated
in his printed microcosm, and I could shed the bitterest tears when the noble knight, for all his
gallantry, received only ingratitude and a sound thrashing. For I, yet unpracticed in reading,
pronounced every word aloud, so that every bird and tree, brook and flower could listen in, and
because such innocent creatures of nature, like children, know nothing of worldly irony, so they
too took it all for utter seriousness and wept along with me over the suffering of the poor knight;
even a veteran oak tree sobbed, and the waterfall shook violently his white beard and seemed to
chide over the badness of the world."
"...Later on, as I ripened to manhood, I reacquainted myself a bit with Dulcinea's
unfortunate cavalier, and I began to laugh over him. 'The fellow is a fool,' I said."
"...What fundamental idea guided the great Cervantes, as he wrote his great book? Did he
intend only the ruin of the romance novel, the reading of which was all the rage in Spain at his time,
so much so that spiritual and secular prohibitions went unheeded? Or did he want to hold up to
ridicule all manifestations of romantic enthusiasm, particularly heroism? Evidently he aimed at a
satire against the aforementioned novels, which he, by illuminating their absurdities, wanted to bring to
general mockery and downfall. In this he succeeded most brilliantly: for what neither the
admonitions of the pulpit nor the threats of the chambers could accomplish, was effected by a poor
author with his quill: he wrecked the romance novel so thoroughly, that soon after the appearance of
"Don Quixote" the taste for those books died out throughout Spain, and no more were printed. But
the quill of the genius is always greater than he himself, it reaches out beyond his intentions of the
time, and without his being clearly conscious of it, Cervantes wrote the greatest satire of romantic
enthusiasm. He never anticipated this, he, himself a hero, who spent the better part of his life in
knightly battles and in old age often rejoiced over the fact that he had fought in the battle of
Lepanto, although he had paid for this glory with the loss of his left hand."
Four years later, Heine began work on "Atta Troll." He had become the master of irony, and in fact, his tongue rarely left his
cheek; he developed the capacity to address the most profound of issues with a fiery passion, and
yet, a hint of mischief as well. It irked him not a little when his ironic excursions were taken,
childishly, for "utter seriousness," and of this he complains in the foreword to "Atta Troll." Then, in
the final chapter, which is written in the form of a letter to August Varnhagen von Ense, who had
been a mentor of sorts to Heine, he writes of the poem he has just presented:
Ah, it is perhaps the final
Woods-song of Romanticism!
...when in fact, he has just completed the most thorough and merciless ridicule of romanticism, in all
of its many facets, that the world had seen.
Heine selects as the protagonist for his mock-saga a dancing bear, an image that is
thoroughly and essentially comical. In the course of the poem, his bear escapes captivity, and
proclaims himself the leader of a revolution against the dominion of humans. He makes political
orations laced with quasi-Marxist rhetoric, and holds forth about the profound artistry of his
dancing. The bear becomes the perfect vehicle for tweaking every kind of self-important and
pompous fool on Heine's long list of candidates. The poet makes analogies, comparing his bear to
epic heroes such as Odysseus, of Homer's Odyssey, and Roland, celebrated in the Chanson de Roland
and Orlando Furioso. Lest anyone should miss the point, he begins the final chapter with these lines:
"Where in Heaven, master Ludwig,
Have you picked up all this crazy
Stuff?" And so, these very words did
Cry the Cardinal of Este,
After he had read the poem, that
Sung of all of Roland's furies,
That Ariosto dedicated
To his Eminence, obeisant.
In 1841, for reasons of health, Heine took a vacation in the Pyrenees mountains in the northerly Basque region of Spain, which were the site of the epic battle where Roland fell, and which became the
setting for "Atta Troll." The political environment there was shaped by the First Carlist War, in
which Don Carlos, the pretender to the Spanish throne, roamed the mountains at the head of a gang
of brigands. All of this finds its way into Heine's saga, along with Prince Felix Lichnowski, a
German aristocrat who made common cause with Carlos, and for his trouble was immortalized by
Heine as "Schnapphahnski" ("Atta Troll" was published in 1847, one year before Lichnowski died at
the hands of German peasants during the uprisings of 1848.)
There is no facet of romanticism that escapes Heine's penetrating gaze. He takes aim at the
Gothic novel by means of his character Uraka, widely believed to be a witch, and her son Laskaro,
widely believed to be a dead man, brought back to life by mother's magic potions; Uraka lives in a
quaint little hut, perched on the mountainside, full of herbal remedies and stuffed vultures. Heine
takes a swipe, in passing, at the musical romanticism of Giacomo Meyerbeer, and spends a chapter
mocking the Swabian school of poets which produced Uhland, Mörike, and Kerner.
However, Heine's epic never becomes a soapbox. His commentary is always woven
seamlessly into his narrative, and at the beginning of chapter three, he announces his disdain for
Dream of summer nights! Fantastic,
Pointless is my song. Yes, pointless
Just like love, or just like living,
Like creator and creation!
Only its own zest obeying,
Whether galloping or flying,
In the realm of fable bustles
My belovéd Pegasus.
Not a virtuous and useful
Cart horse for the bourgeoisie,
Nor a mount for warring parties
That, pathetic, stamps and whinnies!
But while operating within the "realm of fable," Heine retains the prerogative of sniping at his very
real targets, as he does throughout the poem.
Ultimately, Heine delivers a devastating blow to romanticism, not by making strident
denunciations, but rather by following in the path of Cervantes, and "illuminating its absurdities."
As Heine puts it in his foreword to "Atta Troll," "...I wrote it for my own joy and pleasure, in the
whimsical dreaminess of that Romantic school, where I lived out the most pleasant years of my
youth and finally thrashed the schoolmaster."
Translating the works of H. Heine into English is a daunting task. He engages in an
exuberant word-playfulness that can only be compared to the punning of William Shakespeare,
and like Shakespeare, he coined a host of expressions which have enriched his native language.
However, as with Shakespeare, much of Heine's German has become archaic, and I wish to
acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Norbert Juffa and the participants in the LEO translators' forum, who helped me to unravel things beyond
the scope of any dictionary.
Heine was also a consummately educated and literate writer; I have found it necessary to
provide extensive annotations, in order to assist the reader with Heine's many references to literary
and historical personages and events. In addition, since Heine never misses an opportunity to poke
fun at his various contemporary rivals and opponents, I have attempted to sort this out as well. But
what may seem, at first blush, to be an ingenious crazy quilt of allusions and digressions turns
out, in the end, to be a seamless and enthralling tapestry.
Because of the frequent references, throughout "Atta Troll," to a poem by Ferdinand
Freiligrath entitled "Der Mohrenfürst" ("The Moorish Prince"), I have provided a translation of that
poem as a prologue to Heine's work (Heine included strophe 5 of the poem as a motto, prior to the
foreword in the first edition of "Atta Troll.")