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Heinrich Heine was born in Düsseldorf, Germany. He was known as Harry until he converted to Christianity when he was in his 20s. His father was a successful textile merchant and Heine followed in his father's footsteps by studying business.
He soon realized he did not have much aptitude for business and switched over to law. While at the university, he became known for his poetry. His first book was a collection of his travel memoirs called "Reisebilder" ("Travel Pictures") in 1826.
Heine was one of the most influential German poets in the 19th century, and German authorities tried to suppress him because of his radical political views. He was also known for his lyrical prose, which was set to music by classical greats, such as Schumann, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.
One of Heine's famous poems, "Die Lorelei," is based on a German legend of an enchanting, seducing mermaid who lures seamen to their death. It has been set to music by numerous composers, such as Friedrich Silcher and Franz Liszt.
Here is Heine's poem:
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet, Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schat nur hinauf in die Höh.
Ich glaube, die Welllen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.
English translation (not always translated literally):
I don't know what it means
That I am so sad
A legend of bygone days
That I cannot keep out of my mind.
The air is cool and night is coming.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain dazzles
With evening's final ray.
The fairest of maidens is sitting
Up there, a beautiful delight,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She's combing her golden hair.
She holds a golden comb,
Singing along, as well
And spellbinding melody.
In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized by it with a savage woe.
He does not look upon the rocky ledge
But rather high up into the heavens.
I think that the waves will devour
The boatman and boat in the end
And this by her song's sheer power
Fair Loreley has done.
Heine's Later Writings
In Heine's later writings, readers will note an increased measure of irony, sarcasm, and wit. He often ridiculed sappy romanticism and over exuberant portrayals of nature.
Though Heine loved his German roots, he often critiqued Germany's contrasting sense of nationalism. Eventually, Heine left Germany, tired of its harsh censorship, and lived in France for the last 25 years of his life.
A decade before he died, Heine became ill and never recovered. Though he was bedridden for the next 10 years, he still produced a fair amount of work, including work in "Romanzero und Gedichte" and "Lutezia," a collection of political articles.
Heine did not have any children. When he died in 1856, he left behind his much younger French wife. The cause of his death is believed to be from chronic lead poisoning.