The Shame of Being a Poet

View of Düsseldorf with the church of St. Andrew in the centre, by Jan van der Heyden and Adriaen van de Velde (1667)

Snippets 143.  Last week we looked at a quote from the opening to the memoirs of Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, a German lyric poet, whose words were set to music by composers including Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.   There is a large passage missing from the memoirs, due to some of the pages being burnt by his brother in order to keep their contents from publication, but fortunately the rest of the manuscript survived and has been translated into English a couple of times.  The following quotes, concerning Heinrich Heine’s school days, are taken from the 1910 edition, with a translation by Gilbert Cannan that is rather more florid than the 1884 publication we looked at last week.  The first quote is about the writer’s struggles with Latin, something that will probably be familiar to a lot of readers:

As for Latin, dear lady, I have not the least idea how that became so complicated. The Romans would not have had much time left for the conquering of the world if they had first had to learn Latin. These fortunate people knew from their cradles what nouns have the accusative in im. I, on the contrary, had to learn them by heart in the sweat of my brow… But, dear lady, the irregular verbs they are distinguished from the regular verbs in that they are more productive of thrashings they are indeed horribly difficult. In the dim cloisters of the Franciscan monastery, not far from the schoolroom there hung at that time a great crucified Christ of grey wood, a dreary form, that even now at times strides through my dreams of a night, and gazes mournfully at me with blank and bloody eyes before this I used often to stand and pray : “Thou poor, thou ever-tormented God, if everything is possible for Thee, then do thou look to it that I keep the irregular verbs in my head.”

Heinrich Heine’s talents of course lay in the more creative side of his academic studies, but creativity was not always encouraged:

But best of all for me was the French class of the Abbe d’Aulnoi, a French émigré, who had written a number of grammar books, and wore a red wig and hopped about gaily as he held forth on his Art Poetique and his Histoire Allemande. In all the school he was the only one to teach German history.

It can easily be imagined that there must come open hostility between myself and the old periwig. He denied in me all sense of poetry, and called me a barbarian of the forest of Teutoburg. It is still a horror to me that I was set to translate the speech of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin from the hexameters of Klopstock’s Messiad into French Alexandrines, taking the extract from the Professor’s Anthology! It was a refinement of cruelty, surpassing even the agony of the Passion of the Messiah, and even He would not have borne it in peace. God forgive me; I cursed the world and the foreign oppressors, and I came near to being an eater of Frenchmen. I might have been able to die for France, but to make French verses never!

The quarrel was pacified by the Rector and my mother. My mother was not at all pleased that I should learn to make verses, even if they were only French. She was in the greatest fear that I might become a poet that was the worst, she used to say, that could happen to me. The notions bound up with the name of poet in those days were not particularly honourable, and a poet was a poor devil out-at-elbows, who supplied occasional verse for a few shillings, and in the end died in the hospital. . .

Heine’s childhood was spent in Düsseldorf, which was under French occupation at the time, hence the suffering inflicting on him and the insult “barbarian of the forest of Teutoburg”.

About Roger Pocock

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This entry was posted in 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, Education, History, Memoirs, People, Poetry, School, Snippets and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Shame of Being a Poet

  1. Ged Maybury says:

    Little has changed. When I sparked off sideways for a few years into performance poetry, much to the delight of *most* of my audiences, my parents were aghast.
    (Well; my mother was perplexed but put a brave face on it and even attended a few of my recitations, while my father rolled his eyes (much as he did when I turned up with my first few novels thinking he’s be impressed (an impossibility)) and grunted something about ‘when are you going to get a real job?’.)


    • Wow. I (perhaps foolishly) would have thought those attitudes were confined to the past. That’s harsh. Any parent should be hugely proud of a child that gets something into print, as it’s such a hard road to get to that point.


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