Three Poems By Heinrich Heine
A new translation of three playful but deadly serious poems
Detail of “The Poet Heinrich Heine”, c.1831, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
I. Foreign Correspondent
Rushing to Prussia to write my story,
I reach a rustic, roadside cross
and, fixed to it fast, a fading figure.
My saviour cousin, they got your number.
Dismayed . . . deluded . . . desolate . . . dreamer!
You could not redeem a feeble plot.
Did you have to provoke the priesthood,
challenge the state and offend the council?
I am afraid your own time preceded
the miracle of the printing presses.
Otherwise, you could have composed
a treatise about the affairs of heaven.
The prudent censor would have deleted
the riskiest lines to let you off —
evading the pain, the trouble and even
the gossip of the crucifixion.
You might have waded more tactfully into
the rich in that Sermon on the Mount . . .
Misguided, lonely leader! How dared you
incite the bigotry of your neighbours?
And . . . you raised the audacious chutzpah
to drive the bankers out of the temple!
They’ve displayed your form on the cross,
as a warning, to the likes of me.
II. Morning Coffee
My beloved, my devoted
friend and woman brings my morning
treat to bed: strong brown and fragrant
coffee with white cream, for breakfast.
As she serves it flirting, joking,
with unending cooing, fooling,
you might think in all creation
there is not a sweeter laughter.
I imagine that the flutelike
intonation of her chatter
can be matched by angels only
and the songbirds’ lusty twitter.
Her white hand — a tender lily!
How her wafting, light, cascading
curls caress her rosy features!
Such a beauty — such great splendour!
Yet, this morning, it has struck me
(why? or why not?) that her waistline
might be just a shade more slender
. . . just a little. Just a touch.
III. The Power of Poetry
When I cried out my pain and pride and joy
you yawned: Get lost you silly boy!
When I set out my soul in poetry
your heart leapt up . . . you sang with me.
Heinrich Heine (1796-1857), a Jewish-German writer mostly based in Paris, was the great-grandfather of all poets and foreign correspondents devoted to human rights in a stiflingly illiberal world. He would have been extremely familiar with the effects of society’s loss of collective self-confidence, which we experience in our state of permanent security alerts, our lack of compassion for huge populations on the move, who risk everything to flee war and destitution, the resurgence of our populist, authoritarian political parties, the imposition by our rulers of mean domestic economic policies, and the proliferation of external military aggression. I translated these playful but deadly serious poems on my way to the Middle East to cover a conflagration of medieval brutality and callous personal cruelty.