The Journey to the Harz, by Heinrich Heine

The Journey to the Harz is a kind of travelogue, with a few poems interspersed which are inspired on the way by the writer’s impressions, such as the Japanese used to be so good at writing in centuries past. It recounts an expedition Heine made after leaving behind his university life in Göttingen (the life of the mind; of classical rational thought), travelling through the German countryside and climbing up the Brocken (a mountain of mystical fables), where he stayed the night in a tavern, before descending the next morning also the line of the river Ilse (all of which represent an irrational romanticism). It is not so much the journey which is the good part of the story (symbolic though one comes to consider it), but the poetical thoughts and ideas which it brings to Heine’s mind: – the ideas written in prose that is; I didn’t think so much of the poems.

Since we were on about ghosts recently, here is an excerpt where Heine meets the ghost of an arch-rationalist professor he once knew:

As the two iron tongues were silenced, and the stillness of death sank over the whole house, I suddenly seemed to hear, in the corridor before my chamber, something halting and shuffling along, like the unsteady steps of an old man. At last my door opened, and there entered slowly the late departed Dr. Saul Ascher. A cold fever ran through me. I trembled like an ivy leaf and scarcely dared to gaze upon the ghost. He appeared as usual, with the same transcendental-grey long coat, the same abstract legs, and the same mathematical face; only this latter was a little yellower than usual, the mouth, which formerly described two angles of 22-1/2 degrees, was pinched together, and the circles around the eyes had a somewhat greater radius. Tottering, and supporting himself as usual upon his Malacca cane, he approached me, and said in his usual drawling accent but in a friendly manner, “Do not be afraid, nor believe that I am a ghost. It is a deception of your imagination, if you believe that you see me as a ghost. What is a ghost? Define one. Deduce for me the conditions of the possibility of a ghost. What reasonable connection is there between such an apparition and reason? Reason, I say, Reason!” Here the ghost proceeded to analyze reason, cited from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, part II, section I, book 2, chap. 3, the distinction between phenomena and noumena, then went on to construct a hypothetical system of ghosts, piled one syllogism on another, and concluded with the logical proof that there are absolutely no ghosts. Meanwhile the cold sweat ran down my back, my teeth clattered like castanets, and from very agony of soul I nodded an unconditional assent to every assertion which the phantom doctor alleged against the absurdity of being afraid of ghosts, and which he demonstrated with such zeal that once, in a moment of distraction, instead of his gold watch he drew a handful of grave-worms from his vest-pocket, and remarking his error, replaced them with a ridiculous but terrified haste. “Reason is the highest—!” Here the clock struck one, but the ghost vanished.

Very enjoyable and beautiful stuff. I shall read more of Heine.

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5 thoughts on “The Journey to the Harz, by Heinrich Heine

  1. Poetry does tend to struggle in translation 😉 Having said that, I found Heine’s poetry in ‘Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen’ (‘Germany. A Winter’s Tale’) a little prosaic and tumpty-tum. As in this one, Heine has chats with imaginary people, such as a long-dead Emperor and the spirit of the city of Hamburg. All good fun, but the poetry doesn’t leave a lasting impression (not on me, anyway!).

  2. Yes, I’ve never considered translated poetry to be worth much – poetry is too based in its own language. And the Heine does come across in English like doggerel.

    On saying that, I’m reading a certain Russian poet at the moment who works very well in English – perhaps because of his strong overall vision.

  3. I think I’ve only ever read short pieces of this but I should read the whole once.
    I find the ghost quite wonderful as well.
    As for his poetry – I like it. It’s a bit like Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Melancholic.

  4. I have a German/English selection of his poetry somewhere, so someday maybe I shall study how the languages compare.

    This doesn’t take very long to read, and is thoroughly recommended.

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