Atta Troll. A Midsummer Night's Dream

An Epic Poem by Heinrich Heine


"Atta Troll" was begun in late Fall of 1841 and was fragmentarily published in "Elegante Welt" [Elegant World], when my friend Heinrich Laube had once again undertaken the editorship of that publication. The content and tailoring of the poem had to correspond to the tame requirements of that journal; for the time being, I wrote only the chapters that could be printed, and these too suffered through many an alteration. I nourished the intention to edit the entirety in a later completed version, but with this praiseworthy intention, as with all great projects of the Germans, like the cathedral of Cologne, Schelling's concept of God°, the Prussian constitution, etc., so it was with "Atta Troll" -- it was not completed. In such unfinished form, somewhat beautified and only polished on the surface, I commit it today to the public, submitting to a pressure that comes truly not from within.
        "Atta Troll" originated, as I said, in late fall of 1841, at a time when the great mob scene, in which my enemies of many different hues flocked together against me, had not yet quieted down. It was a very big mob, and I should never have believed that Germany could produce as many rotten apples, as those that flew at my head in those days! Our fatherland is a blessed land; perhaps there grow here no lemons and no golden oranges, and the laurel struggles but toilsomely forth from German soil°, but rotten apples flourish here in the most gratifying abundance, and all our great poets knew to sing a song thereof. In that riot, to which I should lose my crown and my head, I lost neither, and the absurd calumnies with which the rabble was incited against me are a pitiful dead letter, without my having to condescend to protest. With the changing times came my vindication, and as well the respective German governments, I must gratefully acknowledge, have rendered outstanding service to me. The arrest warrants, that from the German border onwards, at every station, awaited with yearning the homecoming of the poet, were properly redecorated every year, at the holy Christmastide, when the cozy little lamps twinkled in the Christmas trees. Due to such insecurity on the roads, the journey was just about spoiled for me in the German districts, and I celebrate therefore my Christmases abroad, and I will conclude my days abroad as well, in exile. The stout crusaders for light and truth, that accused me of fickleness and servility, go meanwhile about the fatherland in great security, as well appointed servants of the state, or as dignitaries of a guild, or regulars at a club, at which they patriotically refresh themselves evenings with the vine-juice of Father Rhein, and ocean-laced Schleswig-Holstein oysters.°
        I have indicated above, with a particular intention, the period in which "Atta Troll" was begun. In those days, the so-called political poetic arts were blossoming. The opposition, as Ruge° says, sold their leather and turned into poesy. The muses received strict instructions, that henceforth they should not gad about idly and frivolously, but rather they should enter into the service of the fatherland, like perhaps commissary cooks for Freedom or as washerwomen for Christian-German Nationhood. There arose most especially in the German grove of bards that vague, barren pathos, that useless haze of enthusiasm, that plunged with death-defiance into the ocean of the platitudes and always reminded me of the American sailor, who was so effusively inspired by General Jackson that he leapt from the tip of the mast into the sea, shouting "I die for General Jackson!" Yes, although we Germans possessed as yet no fleet, still we had many ardent sailors who died for General Jackson, in verse and prose. Talent was, in those days, a very awkward gift, because it brought one under suspicion of lack of character. Envious impotence had finally, after a thousand-year period of brooding, found a great weapon against the haughtiness of genius; it found namely the antithesis of talent and character. It was almost personally flattering for the great multitudes, when they heard it asserted that while the upright folk were, as a rule, bad musicians, and the good musicians, on the other hand, were usually anything but upright folk, yet the uprightness was the main thing in the world, not music. The empty head thumps for justification upon his full heart, and attitude is the clincher. I am reminded of an author in those days who reckoned it to be of special merit that he could not write; for his wooden style, he received a silver trophy cup.
       By the eternal gods! In those days it was necessary to advocate the inalienable rights of the spirit, all the more so in poesy. As such advocacy was the great business of my life, I all but ignored it in the present poem, and the tone as well as the subject of it was a protest against the plebiscite of the daily tribunes. And in fact, the first fragments that were published from "Atta Troll" aroused the gall of my character-heroes, my Romans, who, in not only a literary but even a societal response, went so far as to accuse me of deriding the most holy ideas of humanity. As to the aesthetic value of my poem, I readily disclaimed it, as I yet do today; 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. In this relation my poem is perhaps objectionable. But thou liest, Brutus, thou liest, Cassius, and thou too liest, Asinius, when ye assert that my mockery were to touch upon those ideas that are a precious achievement of mankind, and for which I myself have struggled and suffered so much. No, precisely because those ideas appear before the poet in the most glorious clarity and greatness, he is seized all the more irresistibly by the urge to laugh, when he sees how crudely, clumsily and awkwardly those ideas can be conceived by the parochial contemporary culture. He jests then more or less at their temporal bear-skin. There are mirrors which are so crookedly polished, that an Apollo himself must see a caricature reflected back in them, and bids us to laugh. But we laugh at the caricature, not at the god. Does it require a special caveat for a parody of a Freiligrathian° poem, such as frequently snickers wantonly forth from "Atta Troll" and more or less builds its comic substratum, to guarantee that it in no way aims at the diminution of the poet? I highly esteem that poet, especially now, and I count him among the most significant poets to come upon the scene in Germany since the July revolution [in France -ed.]. I got a look at his first poetry collection very late, namely, just at the time that "Atta Troll" was begun. It was likely due to my mood at the time that "Mohrenfürst" ["The Moorish Prince"] had such an amusing effect on me. This production, by the way, was vaunted as the most successful. For readers who are completely unfamiliar with this production -- and there may be some of those in China and Japan, or even on the Niger or Senegal -- for these I will observe, that the Prince of the Moors, coming out of his white tent at the beginning of the poem like an eclipse of the moon, also has a black belovéd, over whose dark visage the white ostrich feathers bob. But full of warrior's boldness he forsakes his tent to enter the negro-battle, where the drums rattle, festooned with skulls -- ah, there he finds his black Waterloo and is sold by the victors to the whites. These haul the noble African up to Europe, and here we find him once again in the service of a traveling equestrian troupe, who have entrusted to him the part of the Turkish drum in their artistic presentations. There he stands, dark and serious, at the entrance to the hippodrome, and drums, yet during the drumming he contemplates his former greatness, that he once was an absolute monarch, on the distant, distant Niger, and that he had hunted the lion, the tiger --

"His eye became moist; with thudding stroke
He beat on the drum, 'til it rattled and broke."

Written in Paris, December 1846
Heinrich Heine


Here, by darksome heights surrounded,
Mountain peaks that loom, defiant,
And by wild cascades of water
Lulled to slumber, like a vision,

Elegantly, in the valley
Nestles Cauterets°. The gleaming
Little houses; lovely ladies
On the balconies are laughing.

Down they gaze in hearty laughter
At the gaudy, teeming market,
Where there dance the bear and she-bear
To the wailing of the bagpipe.

Atta Troll and his companion,
That's the black one known as Mumma,
Are the dancers, and the Basques are
Cheering now in admiration.

Stiffly, gravely, with grandezza,
Dances noble Atta Troll,
Yet his shaggy marriage-partner
Lacks his dignified decorum.

Yes, methinks, it almost seems that
She indulges in the can-can,
And the crude and saucy rump-thrusts
Bring the Grand'-Chaumière° to memory.

And it seems the stout bear trainer,
Who conducts them chained together,
Does observe that in her dances
Immorality is lurking.

And he often has occasion
To correct her with the bullwhip,
And black Mumma takes to howling
'Til it echoes through the mountains.

This bear trainer carries on his
Pointed hat six bright madonnas,
To protect his head from hostile
Bullets, or from lice infesting.

On his shoulders hangs a gaudy
Altar-cloth, that's maybe posing
As a mantle; underneath it
Knife and pistol lie in waiting.

In his youth he was a monk, and
Later on a robber-captain;
To unite the both, he entered
In the service of Don Carlos.°

As Don Carlos had to flee, with
All the knights of his round table,
And most paladins were seeking
After honorable professions -

(So Schnapphahnski's° now an author) -,
Thus became our knight of faith a
Bear instructor, widely roaming
With his Atta Troll and Mumma.

And he has them both a-dancing
For the people at the markets; -
At the one in Cauterets
Dances fettered Atta Troll!

Atta Troll, who once resided,
Like a prince of wildernesses,
Free atop the lofty mountains,
Dances now before the rabble!

Yes, for money he disdains, he
Dances, he, who once was feeling,
In the majesty of terror,
Raised above the world around him!

Of his youthful days he's thinking,
Lost dominion of the forests,
Then the gloomy noises rumble
From the soul of Atta Troll;

He looks darkly like the negro
Moorish prince of Freiligrath,
And, as that one drummed so badly,
He'll dance badly out of anger.

He arouses no compassion,
Only laughter. Juliet is
Laughing from her balcony, at
Little leaps of desperation. --

Juliet, within her bosom,
Has no heart, she is a French girl,
Superficial. Yet her outside
Is so charming, so enchanting.

And her gazes are a dulcet
Web of rays, within whose meshes,
Like a little fish, our heart is
Captured, and must fondly flounder.

 Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 2005

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