Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Heinrich Heine in Italy

To Edward von Schenk*
Leghorn, August 27, 1828.

. . . In two or three weeks I shall be roaming the land of Dante, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo. There I shall read your lines. I know you are knee-deep in business. That is why I speak only of lines. After all, it isn't necessary that people of our sort write one another long letters. Our books are long letters, intended for people like us.

Sooner or later you will read in print what I think of Italy. I am plagued by my ignorance of Italian. I do not understand the people and cannot talk to them. I see Italy, but do not hear her. Yet I am not without company. The stones here speak, and I understand their dumb language. Even they seem to feel deeply what I am thinking. A broken column of the Roman period, a crumbling Lombard tower or a weather-beaten fragment of a Gothic arch understands me well. For I am myself something of a ruin wandering among ruins. Birds of a feather. . . .Often it seems to me that the old palaces wish to whisper some secret to me, and I cannot hear them for the dull noises of the day. Then I come again at night, and the moon is an excellent interpreter who understands the language of stones and can translate it into the dialect of my heart. Yes, at night I can understand Italy perfectly, for then the young nation with its young, operatic speech is asleep and the ancients rise from their cool beds and talk to me in their best Latin. There is something ghostly in coming to a land where one does not understand the living speech of a living people, and instead knows quite well the language which flourished a thousand years ago, and is long since dead, and is spoken only by midnight spirits--a dead tongue.

However, there is one language which can be understood by at least one half of the human race in all corners of the world, the fairer half, which is called par excellence, the fair sex. This language flourishes especially in Italy. What use are words where the eloquent eyes cast radiant glances deep into the heart of a poor Tedesco, eyes more eloquent than Demosthenes and Cicero, eyes--I am not lying--which are as large as stars?

Quand on parle du loup, il est derriere nous. Even at this moment, my pretty laundress is here, and I must stop washing my own linen. Adieu, poet of Belisarius. I often think of you when I see the laurel, and the more I think of you, the more I feel compelled to love you.

*Edward von Schenk (1788-1841) Poet, dramatist, politician; author of Belisarius.

-from The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine selected and edited with an introduction by Frederic Ewen (New York: Citadel Press, 1948) p. 374-375.

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