This poet was Heinrich Heine, who dominated me longer than any one author that I have known.
We began to read Heine together when my vocabulary had to be dug almost word by word out of the dictionary, for the bookbinder's English was rather scanty at the best, and was not literary.
We walked home as far as his house, or rather his apartment over one of the village stores; and as he mounted to it by an outside staircase, we exchanged a joyous "Gute Nacht," and I kept on homeward through the dark and silent village street, which was really not that street, but some other, where Heine had been, some street out of the Reisebilder, of his knowledge, or of his dream.
The German of Heine, when once you are in the joke of his capricious genius, is very simple, and in his poetry it is simple from the first, so that he was, perhaps, the best author I could have fallen in with if I wanted to go fast rather than far.
I kept on writing as much like Heine as I could for several years, though, and for a much longer time than I should have done if I had ever become equally impassioned of any other author.
Lowell wrote me about something of mine that he had been reading: "You must sweat the Heine out of your bones as men do mercury," and his kindness for me would not be content with less than the entire expulsion of the poison that had in its good time saved my life.
It was in some prose sketch of mine that his keen analysis had found the Heine, but the foreign property had been so prevalent in my earlier work in verse that he kept the first contribution he accepted from me for the Atlantic Monthly a long time, or long enough to make sure that it was not a translation of Heine.
I will observe, in parenthesis, that Heine
says that a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself.
Here is the music, and the German words by Heinrich Heine
. This song has been a favorite in Germany for forty years, and will remain a favorite always, maybe.