Thursday, May 19, 2016

In a “mattress-grave,” poet Heinrich Heine died at 58 of mysterious paralysis


Heinrich Heine, German poet, journalist, and critic, was born in Düsseldorf, December 13, 1797, to Jewish parents, attended Catholic schools, and converted to Protestantism when he was twenty-seven because of regulations preventing Jews from working in the German civil service. 

Known for his lyric poetry that is remembered today in lieder by Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert, Heine is widely credited as predicting the evils of Naziism with a line from his 1821 play Almansor, “They that begin by burning books will end by burning people.” Indeed, his works were banned by the Nazi Third Reich as “degenerate.” Heine spent the last eight years of his life in what he called his “mattress-grave,” with a mysterious crippling paralysis.

After schooling he attended the universities of Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin, finally earning a law degree. He never practiced law, or worked in the civil service, but instead followed a literary path in poetry and playwriting, largely supported, somewhat grudgingly, by his wealthy banker uncle, Salomon Heine. He finally wound up in Paris, where he spent the rest of his life and produced the balance of his works, most notable of which are his early Book of Songs and the later Romanzero and Poems of 1853 and 1854. 

He had affairs with numerous women, in the course of which he acquired syphilis, which may have contributed to his later paralysis. When he was thirty-eight, He met an illiterate Parisian shopgirl named Crescence Eugénie Mirat, whom he preferred to call Mathilde. They began an affair, and two years later she moved in with him. Five years after that they were married, although that didn’t prevent his starting a torrid romance with a young German-born French writer named Camille Selden, which lasted until his death.

Constantly in poor health, with venereal diseases, chronic lead poisoning, and painful hemorrhoids, he eased his pain  with opium. In May of 1848 Heine suddenly fell paralyzed—perhaps the result of syphilis or untreated multiple sclerosis—and took to his bed, where he spent his last eight years, unable to move, suffering from spinal cramps, and partially blind. During this period he continued to work and returned to the Christian faith that he had earlier abandoned. In one of his lyric poems, he seems to look upon death as a welcome relief:
            Our death is in the cool of night,
            Our life is in the pool of day.
            The darkness glows. I’m drowning,
            The day has tired me with light.

            Over my head in leaves grown deep,
            The young nightingale sings.
            It sings only of love,
            I hear it in my sleep.
 
Heine died on February 17, 1856, at the age of fifty-eight. He is buried in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery.

No comments:

Post a Comment