City Stories: Heinrich Heine -One of the City’s Favourite Sons

As a young man, there were those who attempted to squeeze Christian Johann Heinrich Heine into a square and constricting box. At first that box was labelled “merchant”, then “law student”, then “public servant”. Fortunately none succeeded. Heinrich Heine was a reluctant and ineffectual merchant, a middling student, and never set foot in the world of bureaucracy. He was, however, a brilliant writer.

Born in Düsseldorf in 1797, Heinrich Heine’s writing ranged from Romantic poems (including those detailing his unrequited love for unattainable cousins), through travel writing, a period as a foreign correspondent in Paris, and later satirical political works. Whilst his university days did little to instil in him a knowledge of law, the subject he was ostensibly studying, it was here that his literary career was truly born. Fleeing his university town of Göttingen – a place he described as ‘most pleasing to look at with your back turned to it’ – Heinrich Heine set off on a journey – both physical and internal – through the Harz Mountains. His reflections and commentary on this walking tour was to become The Harz Journey, an autobiographical piece that would later be expanded into the four volume Pictures of Travel and would bring him widespread attention and fame. This reputation was further enhanced when his poetry was set to music by both Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

Moving to France in 1831, Heinrich Heine, found a world vastly different from his provincial experience in Germany. In Paris, he would become something of a celebrity, writing searing articles on the state of German and French politics, culture and thought. He was no longer the failed student being expelled for dueling, instead he was now a celebrity with a firm place in literary society. This was a time of revolution and debate and a turbulent period for Heine in which his writings brought both notoriety and attack, including an 1835 decree banning all of his works in Germany. At odds with both his family and his Government, Heine lived out his days in Paris, eventually succumbing to syphilis in 1848. Heine would leave behind a collection of over thirty published works including volumes of poetry, plays and essays.

Heine Haus, the birthplace of Heinrich Heine, is one of the best places to explore his legacy in Düsseldorf. Now a bookstore and venue for literary events, Heine Haus restores its namesake to the centre of the city and is a lovely place to discover his works, to see those who have been inspired by his legacy, and just perhaps set about creating your own.