Friday, March 15, 2013

Wafting winds of dusky night

“There’s nothing more boring on this earth than to have to read the description of an Italian journey, except maybe to have to write one — and the writer can only make it halfway bearable by speaking as little as possible of Italy itself.” - Heinrich Heine, 'The Baths of Lucca', 1829

Thus we are warned not to expect 'travel pictures' in Heine's Travel Pictures. When the landscape around Lucca is described, it is by his comic character, the Marquis Gumpelino: "How do you like this natural landscape?  What a marvelous creation!  Just look at the trees, the mountains, the sky, the river down there - doesn't it all look just like a painting?  Have you ever seen the like of it on stage?  The very sight of it makes you a poet, so to speak."  Heine can't disguise his contempt for such contrived sentiments and is accused in return by the Marquis of being "a torn man, a torn soul, a Byron."  Poor Byron, Heine thinks, to be incapable of such transports of emotion before a misty valley.  'Or was Percy Shelley right when he wrote that you'd espied nature in her maidenly nakedness, and so, like Actaeon, were ripped apart by her dogs.  Enough of this: we're getting to a better subject, namely Signora Leticia's and Francesca's apartments...'  And there follows a description of an erotic encounter with the second of these ladies that Byron would certainly have appreciated.

Heine monument on The Brocken

Heine's impatience with Romantic cliché is equally evident in the best known of his Travel Pictures, 'The Harz Journey'.  This walking tour, taken in 1824 during his first year of legal studies at Göttingen University, culminates in a night spent at a crowded inn at the summit of the Brocken.  All of the guests seem to be after a glimpse of the Sublime, assembling in a watchtower to witness the sunset.  Afterwards they return for a supper which gets increasingly rowdy as 'bottles emptied themselves out and heads filled up', whilst the wind outside on the mountain seems to be singing along.  Heine watches two young men about to have a quintessential Romantic moment by flinging open a window and gazing out at the night.  But in their tired and emotional state they open the door of a large cupboard instead.  '"Oh ye wafting winds of dusky night!" cried the first, "How refreshing is your breath upon my cheeks!"'  And after some more fine phrases, the second addresses a pair of yellow trousers, mistaking them for the moon: "Lovely art thou, daughter of the heavens..."


Hels said...

Isn't it interesting, and appropriate that travel pictures was written by a foreigner, for other foreigners. Italians wouldn't have needed such a book and would have, in any case, have a different view of their own country. But young Heine was freshly arrived from Germany and wanted to explore every aspect of his new life. I love his references to the Englishmen as well.

Plinius said...

For Heine's characters Italy is really just a charming setting: 'The Baths of Lucca' feels closer in spirit to 'Daisy Miller' than Goethe's 'Journey to Italy.'