OUR next author is the celebrated fabulist, Jean Lafontaine, who was born at Château Thierry, in Champagne, in July, 1621, his father being an overseer of waters and forests, to which office the son succeeded. Lafontaine — whose face I do not find particularly prepossessing, with its large, thin, prominent nose, small chin, and air of skittish uncertainty — was an odd mixture of simplicity, shrewdness, laxity, and right feeling ; something like our own Oliver Goldsmith, but an extremer instance. His freedom from rivalry or ambition, his absence of mind, his neglectful incapacity for attending to his own business, were altogether abnormal. Such a character might turn out the most docile, easy-going, and attached of husbands, or the most wayward and intractable. Lafontaine partook of both these dispositions. He got on tolerably enough with his wife, and might have done the same to the end of the chapter; but at one moment he got away from her, and he never returned. At the persuasion of his family, who saw him inclined to nothing but idle amusement, he, at the age of twenty-six, married a pretty and engaging young lady, Marie Héricard, daughter of the lieutenant-général of La Ferté-Milon. She had plenty of sense and spirit, and, as long as they lived together, he constantly consulted her about his writings. He had no particular inclination for marrying, but he esteemed the lady both before and after their nuptials ; and it is said that their tone of mind and temper was a good deal alike, and that he, though there were some quarrels from time to time, owing to his careless way of life, did not find her really difficult to agree with. Some other people did. She, like her husband, lacked orderliness, application, and firmness, and was a great reader of romances. There is an amusing story about Lafontaine’s being incited to jealousy and a duel. A certain Captain Poignant, of the dragoons, frequented his house, and enjoyed the lady’s society more especially. Lafontaine’s was, indeed, not greatly enjoyable ; for he was taciturn, slovenly, and commonplace. The captain, however, gave no cause for suspicion ; but somebody set Lafontaine on the alert, and told him that it would behoove him to fight a duel. He called on the captain, who was comfortably asleep, and summoned him to follow to the field of honor. Here be explained the cause of his proceedings, and drew his sword, which at the very first pass was knocked out of his hand by his more expert antagonist; and Poignant then took Lafontaine home, and they were reconciled over their breakfast.
Some years of married life ensued, and the birth of a son ; which was not, perhaps, very welcome to Lafontaine, who is recorded to have had a marked dislike to children, — almost the last feeling one would have imputed to the fabulist. Then the Duchess of Bouillon, a lively lady who had prompted him to write his Contes, or narratives in verse, a work of very indecorous notoriety, took him with her to Paris. Here he at once settled down: partly, it would seem, because he liked the capital and its gayeties, partly because he disliked attending to his own affairs, which were somewhat involved ; not, apparently, because he had any rooted intention of quitting his wife ; though in fact he did quit her, and saw her henceforth only at rare intervals. His letters to her have been preserved, and they show (it is said) the same spirit of observation and discernment that we find in his Fables, He was in the habit of paying her a short visit each September, in company with a friend or two. On one occasion he had been persuaded to get thoroughly reconciled to her, but, calling at her house, and being told by the servant that she was at her devotions, he went away again, spent a couple of days with a friend hard by, and then returned to Paris. In the capital he had at first been housed with the lavish superintendent of finance, Fouquet; after his fall, with the English Princess Henrietta, wife of the French king’s brother ; then, for twenty years, with a lady of great distinction and amiability, Madame de la Sablière ; and after her death, in his old age, with another friend. The first set of his inimitable Fables, which were immensely popular, was published in 1668, when he was forty-seven years of age, — a masterpiece of naïveté, spirit, sprightliness, and felicitous tact.
Lafontaine had throughout his life shown the same indifferentism in religion as in other matters ; but near his end a priest took him in hand, and he evinced contrition for past irregularities, and is said to have become sincerely pious. His wife and son (he had once met and liked the latter in Parisian society, without knowing him until he was told of the relationship) do not seem, even after this change in his sentiments and demeanor, ever to have visited him. He died in March, 1695. The wife, since her husband’s disappearance, had continued living on her own independent property, which sufficed for her requirements. After his death she was pressed to pay some taxes; but the intendant of Soissons, D'Armononville, ordered that the family of Lafontaine, as a national benefactor, should be exempted from all public burdens ; and this immunity always continued, — a rare instance of honor to literary services.
Here is the epitaph which Lafontaine wrote for himself. I am sorry to spoil it in translation : —
Eating his income, then his capital,
Accounting property superfluous.
As for his time, he knew to spend it well:
He made two parts of it, and he would pass
One sleeping, and the other doing naught.”
The greatest comic dramatist of France, — the greatest for pure comedy, I believe, of the modern world,Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who upon going on the stage adopted the name of Molière, was born in Paris in January, 1622. His father was a furniture broker, who held the post of valet de chambre and upholsterer to the king. The son showed an early inclination for the theatre ; in 1641, aged nineteen, be became definitely an actor. He joined with a provincial actress, Madeleine Béjart; and they formed a company, which, in 1653, at Lyons, played his first regular comedy, L’Etourdi. With Madeleine he had a tie more than professional. In 1662, being then aged forty, and havin g meanwhile settled in Paris, and obtained a fine reputation as actor, author, and manager, and a post at court as well, he married a much younger sister of Madeleine, Armande Claire Elizabeth Béjart, aged at the utmost seventeen. Armande has generally been called the daughter of Madeleine ; but that is a mistake.
She was an actress, and attained eventually a great success in high comedy, playing with refinement, and singing with much taste. This union of the middle-aged actor with the girlish actress, a marriage of affection on his part, was a perilous experiment, and proved a very unfortunate one. After three years or so of marriage, Molière had but too good reason to suspect his wife’s fidelity. He understood her to be in love with the nobleman De Lauzun ; she, on being taxed with this, repelled the charge, but avowed an inclination for De Guiche, and closed the scene with tears and a fainting fit. The actor Baron seems also to have given Molière cause for marital disquietude about this time. The situation was all the cruder for him, as he had in his troupe both the elder sister Madeleine and another actress for whom he had had an attachment, Mademoiselle de Bric. A partial Separation took place between the poet and his wife ; and when he was shortly afterwards acting Alceste, the hero of his own Misanthrope, and she was performing the volatile lady of fashion, Celimène, they met only in the theatre. He still loved her, however, and found the severance, which lasted for something like seven years, very painful. At last, through the mediation of friends, they again came together, and another child was born to him. But the reconciliation was only ten months before the dramatist’s death. He expired in February, 1673, aged fifty-two, through pulmonary disease and the rupture of a blood-vessel ; having, on the previous evening, insisted, in the interest of the many poor persons whose living depended on the theatre, upon playing a part of his own Malade Imaginaire, in spite of the earnest dissuasions of his wife and of Baron. Two nuns were tending Molière when he died, stifled by the flow of blood; his wife, on hurrying into the chamber, found him lifeless.
Molière was kind-hearted, obliging, generous, quick in temper, observant, not talkative. He lived sumptuously in his later years, having an income of some thirty thousand livres. In person he was neither fat nor thin, rather tall, of fine carriage and a very serious air. His nose was large, and so was his thicklipped mouth ; his complexion brown ; his eyebrows black, heavy, and very mobile; his voice somewhat hard. He had an inclination to tragic acting, and a good faculty for it, but practically be was a comedian actor, famed for the parts of intriguing servants so characteristic of the drama of that epoch, or for high comedy, as in Orgon in the Tartuffe, or Harpagon in the Avare.
Whatever her conjugal misdoings, Madame Molière seems to have had a proper sense of her husband’s greatness ; for, when the Archbishop of Paris refused him burial, in accordance with the priestly prejudices of those times, she exclaimed with honest indignation, “ They refuse a grave to one to whom Greece would have erected altars! ” An order from the king intervened, and Molière was buried with maimed rites in the cemetery of St. Joseph, Rue Montmartre. Two or three years afterwards his tombstone got damaged by a curious casualty. The winter being excessively cold, his widow had a load of wood lighted on the stone to warm the poor of the district, and the slab split in the burning heat.
A detailed account has been given of a long conversation held with Molière while he was partly separated from his wife; in the course of this he called her “a person without beauty, whom people are willing to credit with some talent.” It is said, also, that an exceedingly sprightly scene in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, purporting to give some description of the heroine Lucile, is really aimed at Armande. This informs us that her eyes were small but piercing, her mouth large and loving, her stature moderate, her demeanor nonchalant and at the same time serious, her caprices frequent. This is just the sort of woman in whom a man can find much to complain of, but whom, if he has loved her once, he does not give up without a pang. Molière’s fondness for his wife is rumored to have led him into that lifelong quarrel with doctors which figures so largely in his plays. The story is that the couple were once lodging in the house of a physician whose wife notified a rise of rent, whereof Armande, in her free and easy way, would take no heed ; and then the lodgings were let over the heads of her and her husband, who rapidly paid off the medical faculty at large.
Madame Molière, only twenty-eight years of age at the date of her widowhood, and always careful of her own person and comfort, remarried with the comedian Gressinde. She quitted the stage in 1694, and died in 1700, aged fifty-five.
The last of our four French poets, the renowned dramatist Jean Racine, was born at La Ferté-Milon, in December, 1639, his father holding a superior post in the salt office. When barely of age, the son made his mark as a poet in an ode on the king’s marriage. This procured him a small pension, and he determined to adopt poetry as his profession, and came to Paris. He was appointed a gentleman in ordinary to the king, and, although not in orders, wore the ecclesiastical habit. His earliest tragedy, La Thébaïde, appeared in 1664 ; Andromaque, his first great success, and inferior, I think, to none that followed it, in 1668 ; Bajazet, Iphigénie, Phèdre, and others followed up to 1691, when he closed the roll with Athalie. As a poet Racine enjoyed general favor, not unembittered by envies and rivalries ; at last he mixed in politics, and this certainly in a way which entitles him to our esteem, but it proved his destruction. Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV.,asked Racine to compose a memoir on the miseries endured by the people in the closing years of the century. He complied, and drew a moving picture of their distresses. The king saw the manuscript, ascertained who was its author, resented the performance with the words, “ Because he is a poet, does he think to be a minister ? ” and forbade him the royal presence. Racine was not strong-minded enough to endure this reverse; and his chagrin, acting upon a bad state of health, — he suffered from abscess of the liver, — brought him to his death-bed in April, 1699.
In youth Racine was long in love with the actress De Champmêle, but she abandoned him for a more aristocratic lover. In 1677, when he was thirty-eight years of age, being disgusted at the cabals against his famous tragedy of Phèdre, he had serious thoughts of becoming a Carthusian monk ; but his confessor recommended him to marry instead, and he espoused Mademoiselle de Romanet, daughter of a Trésorier de France for Amiens,
— a lady, it is said, equally handsome and virtuous, who secured his affections,
— and he continued exemplary in all domestic relations. There were five children of the marriage: one son, Louis, became a poet of some name ; the eldest daughter entered a Carmelite convent. Several of the poet’s letters to another son have been preserved ; they contain many references to Madame Racine, always in an affectionate, homely tone. One letter, written late in life, speaks of her great care of the poet during an illness. There are also four letters from Madame Racine herself to the same son, from which we can perceive that she shared in the earnest religious sentiments of her husband. One of them relates to a proposal for the son’s marriage, and contains the following remarks: “It appears to us that the fortune which this girl would have brought you had made rather too much impression on your mind, and that you had not sufficiently reflected on what your father had mentioned to you of the temper of the person in question. I perceive, my dear son, that you are not aware of how much importance that is for the comfort of life ; this, however, is what has made us break off the affair.” An anecdote that has been recorded tends, like these remarks, to indicate that Madame Racine was not greedy of riches, and was devoted to her duties as a mother. It purports that the poet once brought home one thousand louis given him by the king; but he could not get his wife to pay any attention to this piece of good news, as she insisted, with some iteration, upon his reprimanding one of the children, who for two days past could not be made to mind his lessons.
Racine was of medium height, agreeable figure, open and lively countenance; a polite man, of soft manners, yet not free from rancor. His self-esteem was active, and easily chafed by criticism. His widow survived him. many years, dying in 1732, and having enjoyed meanwhile an annual pension of two thousand livres, granted, perhaps with some compunction, by the king.
Next and last the German poets claim our attention. Of them I select five, beginning with Lessing, and ending with a man of our own days, — Heine.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was one of the leading pioneers and chief figures of modern German culture,—poet, dramatist, art critic, religious inquirer. He brought to bear upon whatever he did an earnest, piercing, free, enlightened mind. His dramas of Minna von Barnhelm, Emilia Galotti, Nathan the Wise, his treatises on the sculptural and dramatic arts, his edition of the Wolfenbüttel Fragments, on subjects of religion and dogma, are all works of a strenuous, penetrating faculty, of the highest value to the foundation and evolution of German thought. Lessing, the son of a Lutheran minister, was born at Kamentz, in Saxony, in January, 1729. He began writing early, and soon distinguished himself as an opponent of French models for the literature of Germany. He moved a good deal about, — Leipsic, Berlin, Wittenburg, Breslau, Hamburg, and then Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel, where he was the ducal librarian. His courtship and marriage form a very distinct episode in his life, the one around which gathers most of the strictly personal interest of his career. At Hamburg, where he settled for a while in 1767, aged thirty-eight, he knew a prosperous silk manufacturer named König, with his wife Eva and family of children. The husband dying, the widow and Lessing fell in love ; but she had a great amount of complicated business to attend to in the interest of her children, and would not, therefore, entertain any proposal of early remarriage. She is described as a capable woman, of large, masculine intellect. Her intellect may have been masculine, but we are not to understand that her character was in any way disagreeably unfeminine, for all the evidence tells to a contrary effect. In August, 1771, the pair were formally betrothed ; but their nuptials were still deferred some years, until October, 1776, part of the interval having been spent by Lessing in traveling in Italy with Prince Leopold of Brunswick. During this time the lady’s patience and confidence were put to a severe trial, owing to the prolonged cessation of letters from her betrothed ; and that, again, as finally explained, was caused by the non-delivery of a whole series of her letters. At last they settled down to married life in Wolfenbüttel; Lessing’s debts, which had long harassed him, being finally cleared off. Four children of the first marriage lived in their house, and Lessing proved a very affectionate step-father, and altogether highly domestic. He regained cheerfulness, to which he had long been a stranger, and writing of his wife to his brother he said, “ I have ever held her to be the only woman with whom I should venture to live.” The house was well kept and hospitable ; the husband generous, and his amiable spouse still more so. Lessing was a good talker; and we are told that he always dressed well, and would play chess with some of his friends, and affect to smoke with others who were smokers. This exceptionally happy period of his life came to a rapid close in January, 1778, when, after little more than a year of marriage, his wife died in giving birth to a child which accompanied her to the tomb. A letter which he wrote at a later date says that he would gladly give up half of such life as might remain to him, could he but live the rest of it with her; and elsewhere he speaks of his marriage as “ a single year spent with a sensible woman.” In the brief period of his survival he would frequently write in the room where his Eva had died, having a favorite cat as his companion.
Theological controversy, in which Lessing was a resolute advocate of free thought and full inquiry, tempered by religious sentiment, and the production of his celebrated play Nathan the Wise occupied the three years’ residue of his life. His eyesight failed, paralysis attacked him, and he died on the 15th of February, 1781. Among traits of his personal disposition, it is recorded that the author of the Laocoön was prone to anger, self-reliant, and little sensitive to the beauties of natural scenery. His portrait shows us a good-looking face, — rather ordinary, yet at the same time exceedingly intelligent, — with dark eyes and an expression which combines composure and acuteness.
My second example of a German poet, Gottfried August Bürger, is scarcely of such high rank in his art that I would of my own accord have selected him ; but, as Karl Elze, in the passage already quoted, cites him as a poet unfortunate in marriage, I have felt bound not to pass him over. Bürger was the author of those deservedly renowned ballads of ghostly terror, Lenore and the Wild Huntsman, translated by Walter Scott ; also of numerous other poems of varied lyrical quality, not much known out of his own country. The son of a Lutheran minister, he was born on the first day of 1748, at Wolmerswende, in Halberstadt. He was fond of romantic solitude, lax in his morals (though his face, fleshy, with round eyes, small mouth, and the other features large, looks more lymphatic than passionate or imaginative), and was not successful in the practical affairs of life. A professorship at Göttingen, without fixed salary, formed his principal dependence. Certainly Bürger was a very luckless husband. Soon after he had, at a very early age, published Lenore, with wide-spread applause, he married a Hanoverian lady named Leonhart; but scarcely had he done this when he fell in love with her younger sister, the Molly of many of his poems. Betrayed and neglected, the ill-starred wife sank into an early grave, dying in 1784, and leaving two children. Bürger forthwith married her sister; and with her, however culpable, he might perhaps have been happy, but she too died, at the beginning of 1786, in childbed. This crushed his spirit and his genius; he succeeded, however, in completing the last of his important poems, named The Song of Songs, which he had projected as a sort of nuptial hymn, and which has been described as a strange compound of passion, devotion, and bombast.
After a space he thought of marrying for the third time. While pondering this purpose, he received a letter from Stuttgart, written by a young lady in cultivated and feeling language. She professed a great enthusiasm for his poetry, and offered to become his bride. The poet made some inquiries about the writer of this startling epistle ; then he went to Stuttgart, espoused her, and brought her home to Göttingen. The third wife proved the avenger of the first. She was faithless to her self-bespoken husband, and embittered the rest of his life ; and in less than three years he obtained a divorce. In great poverty, harassed by a bitter critique which Schiller had written, and broken down by these reiterated mishaps or retributions, Bürger came to the end of his career in June, 1794, aged forty-six. Such is the sufficiently dismal history of the author of Lenore.
I now come to one of the greatest and most comprehensive of the world’s intellects, Goethe ; one, also, of its very great poets, and (if considered dispassionately, without reference to our own special currents of sympathy or antipathy) one of its most stately, self-consistent, self-regulating characters as well. In the limits of an article like this, it is impossible for me even to indicate the general outlines of the literary career of such a hero of letters as Goethe ; let us simply remember him as the author of Faust and Wilhelm Meister, and pass on.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, or Von Goethe, as he was named when ennobled by the emperor in 1782. son of a doctor of law and imperial councilor, was born in Frankfort-on-the-Main on August 28, 1749; he died at Weimar on March 22, 1832, in his eighty-third year. He had many love affairs, which form a substantial part of his biography, and in which he showed, along with abundance of emotional susceptibility, a certain reluctance to commit himself finally and determine his fate for life. There was Gretchen, daughter of an inn-keeper ; Charitas Meixuer, a friend of his sister; the Lotte of The Sorrows of Werther; Frederika Brion, daughter of the pastor of Sesenheim; Lili Schönernauer, daughter of a banker ; Charlotte von Stein, the wife of the master of the horse at Weimar. This lady was, when Goethe first knew her, thirty-three years of age, and the mother of seven children. His attachment to her was ardent, especially from about 1775 to 1786, and the letters which he addressed to her cover a period of half a century. At a late date in his life (but here I am anticipating) he had a marked partiality for Marianne von Willemer, the bride of a Frankfort banker; she is the Zuleika of his poems the West-Oestliche Divan, and indeed she herself wrote some of the compositions in that series. There was also Bettine, the heroine of his socalled Letters to a Child.
Goethe, after a two years’ stay in Italy, returned to Weimar in 1788 ; and in the autumn of that year he met the woman who eventually became his wife. The poet, who was at this time president of the Chamber at Weimar, was walking through the park, when a girl named Christiane Vulpius tendered him a petition on behalf of her brother. She had golden curling locks, round cheeks, laughing eyes, and a neatly turned figure, presenting, it has been said, the general appearance of a young Greek Dionysus, or Bacchus. Goethe took a fancy to her, and they parted no more. It was not, however, until eighteen years afterwards, in 1806, that he married her, and thus legitimized his offspring; even then, as Christiane was a person of little education, he did not introduce her into the high society to which he belonged. The terrors of the French occupation made him, it is understood, anxious for the future position of his son ; hence his immediate motive for no longer delaying the marriage, — which, indeed, he would probably have carried into effect before but for Christiane’s own dissuasions. In October, after the disastrous battle of Jena, Weimar was plundered by the French, and Goethe’s property and possibly his life were on this occasion saved by the firmness of his Christiane. She proved a loving wife, and in most respects a good one: her greatest fault was the taint of intemperance inherited from her father. In spite of her lack of training, her quick mother wit made her to some extent available as an intellectual companion even to the author of Faust. When she died, not many years later, in 1816, he felt her loss bitterly. Others followed: Madame von Stein in 1827; the Grand Duke of Weimar in 1828. Goethe’s son died at Rome in October, 1830, the object of his tender affection, in spite of defects of character. The great poet outlived them all, and was not (as I have already said) laid to his rest until 1832. His daughter-in-law, Ottilie, had tended his last days.
There is an interesting account, one of the few which bring before us Christaine and Goethe together, of how she told him of the death of his beloved friend Schiller, which occurred in 1805, more than a year before the marriage was solemnized. “ No one,” we are informed, “dared to tell Goethe the sad news, but he saw in the faces of those who surrounded him that Schiller must be very ill. On the morrow of Schiller’s death, when Christiane entered his rooms, he said, ' Is it not true that Schiller was very ill yesterday ? ’ She began to sob. He then cried, ' He is dead ! ’ ' Thou hast spoken it thyself ! ’ she exclaimed. Once more he cried,
He is dead!’ and, turning aside, covered his weeping eyes with his hands.”
I need not attempt any description of Goethe’s appearance; he was august in person as in mind. In social feeling he was a decided aristocrat. He occupied the highest political positions in the Grand Duchy of Weimar ; and one reads with a smile that his official income did not exceed, at its highest, which he reached about 1816, some £450 per annum.
Leaving Goethe, we recur to Schiller; an almost inevitable transition when we are speaking of German poets. Friedrich Schiller—Johann Christoph Friedrich was the full name — was born ten years after Goethe, on November 10, 1759, at Marbach, in the Duchy of Würtemberg. His father was an officer in the ducal army. Goethe, I might already have remarked, was a conspicuous instance of vast early success in literature ; for he published his drama of Götz von Berlichingen in his twentyfourth year, and his novel of Werther in his twenty-fifth. Schiller was a still more extraordinary instance of the same kind ; his romantic drama, The Robbers, having been begun in his nineteenth year, and produced on the stage in his twenty-second, and having rapidly overrun all Germany and all Europe with his fame. Of his other works I will mention only two, — the double tragedy of Wallenstein and the Piccolomini, a late composition, and last of all the play of William Tell, published in 1804. Schiller began life as surgeon to a regiment ; but, having been put under arrest at Stuttgart for going without leave to Mannheim to see The Robbers acted, and wishing, generally to obtain more freedom of action, he decamped in October, 1782, and took up his residence at Mannheim, and henceforth he adhered to the career of letters. It was towards 1788 that he became acquainted with Goethe, and a firm personal friendship and literary alliance subsisted between the two illustrious competitors. Schiller’s time after this was chiefly divided between Weimar and a historical professorship which he held at Jena. He was made a noble of the German Empire and a citizen of revolutionary France. The latter was only a partially appropriate honor; for in fact Schiller, although ardently incited by the earlier days and prospects of the Revolution, disapproved its later developments, and hence became all the more tolerant of the old system of things. A pulmonary illness began in 1791, and finally carried him off, at Weimar, on May 11, 1805. His last words were that many things were growing clear to him.
Schiller had some early love affairs ; but he was still a young man, about twenty-nine, when he met at Rudolstadt the lady, Fräulein Lengefeld, who won his heart, and whom soon afterwards, in 1790, he married. His home was an entirely happy one; his means neither large nor scanty. “ Life,” he said, “ is quite another thing by the side of a beloved wife.” He spent his mornings chiefly with his wife and children, of whom he left four at his death, two sons and two daughters; and with his family he was cheerful and kind, though mostly rather shyly reserved. Madame Schiller seems to have been fully worthy of the distinction which befell her in becoming the poet’s wife; her character was perhaps not unlike that of the typical female impersonations in his works, gentle and loving, without forcible individuality.
Schiller was a man of friendly and candid nature ; somewhat eccentric in youth, and even at a maturer period, although he dressed plainly, and was willing enough to do other common things as a common man; his character unsullied ; his vehemence of spirit boundless, yet in ordinary intercourse he was free from hastiness and from anger. He was tall, but thin, never robust; pale, with auburn hair and extreme searching keenness of countenance; impulsive, and meditative too. He was wont to compose by night, taking stimulants meanwhile, chiefly coffee; and to retire to rest about three in the morning, sleeping on till ten.
And now I come to the last of my German — the last of my non-English — poets. Heinrich Heine has been called the German Voltaire ; also the Aristophanes of Germany. There was, indeed, something curiously composite in his nature and the character of his genius. He was not strictly a German, but a Jew, — a Jew by race, a German by nationality; a Frenchman by later residence and by preference of mind; a Jew by inherited faith, a Protestant at the age of twenty-five by worldly conformity, as the only inlet for practicing at the bar; in reality a skeptic and scorner from first to last. Heine was born at Düsseldorf in December, 1799.
In youth he was striking-looking, with long, auburn hair, and not of Jewish aspect ; his stature was ordinary ; his tendency was towards fatness, which had become considerable in his middle age, before the break-up of his constitution. His father kept a small draper’s shop ; but the poet had some expectations, which were not finally realized in full, from a millionaire uncle, Solomon Heine. He tried banking, commerce, and law, and gave them all up for literature. His first volume of poems was published with some success in 1822; his Pictures of Travel (in prose) and his Book of Songs were later, yet still early publications, and established his fame as the most remarkable and splendidly gifted writer in Germany, worthy to carry on the tradition of her literature when Goethe should be no more. That country, however, in its then political condition, was not the fitting home for sodaring a freelance and democrat and scarifying a satirist as Heine, who had, moreover, from the first been an avowed Napoleonic enthusiast. In 1831 he settled in Paris, and there remained, and his works soon became as popular in France as in Germany, His later years were a deplorable martyrdom. He had always been subject to outrageous headaches. Then his sight and his muscular power became affected, and paralysis — as it was commonly called, or, more strictly, softening of the spinal marrow — supervened. For eight years he was incapable of moving, and he might be found lying on his back, holding up an eyelid with his left hand to see, and with the other hand writing in pencil on large foolscap paper. “ He lay on a pile of mattresses,” says one writer, — a lady ; “ his body wasted so that it seemed no bigger than a child’s under the sheet which covered him, the eyes closed, and the face altogether like the most painful and wasted Ecce Homo ever painted by some old German painter.”
In Paris, Heine, who (after much youthful effusion of passion for his cousin Amalie and others) had long yearned for some settled home love, formed a connection in 1834 with a simple-minded and beautiful Parisian grisette, Cresccnce Mathilde Mirat, whom finally, in 1841, just before fighting a duel, he married. She made his life sweeter and his closing years endurable. “ For eight years,” he wrote in 1843, “I have had a frightful quantity of happiness.” She loved him truly and served him faithfully, and he never tired of singing her praise. Nonotte was her pet name. “ She was his doll,” says Meissner, “ whom he loved to dress elegantly in silk and lace ; whom he would gladly have adorned with the finest of all to be found in Paris.” She was continually at his bedside by day, and sat up for him at night, — lively and hopeful, always flattering herself that he must recover ; and Heinr on his part, with indomitable energy of soul and defiance of destiny, had some jest ever at his lips to keep up her spirits, and, his mental powers being unimpaired, he continued writing both prose and verse,— some of the most tender and pathetic of his last poems being addressed to his wife. Another very amiable trait was his affection for his mother, who survived him by three years : he took every precaution to prevent her becoming at any time aware of his fearful illness. For bis wife (who is still living) he did his utmost to secure an annuity after his death, and she has benefited largely, in the long run, by the sale of his works. Her education, however, was not such as to make these in any way intelligible to her: she once said, “People tell me that Henri writes very clever books, but I know nothing at all about them.” In the earlier period of his illness he was the object of attention from many visitors ; but these gradually fell off, and only a very few attached friends cheered from time to time the monotonous solitude of Heine and his devoted Mathilde. Their means, from various sources, were moderate, — never considerable. Perfectly calm in his last hours, he expired in February, 1856. His wife had lain down at one in the morning, and at four, before she had woke up, he was asleep forever.
I will relieve this painful story with a jest, — one of Heine’s own jests, and sure, therefore, not to be a bad one. As he lay on his couch of anguish, a lady came to visit him. “ I was quite uneasy yesterday,” he said. “ My wife had dressed and gone out about two o’clock. She had promised to return at four. It is half past four : she does not come. It is half past five : she does not come. It is half-past six: still she does not come. It is eight o'clock : my anxiety increases. Has she got tired of her sick husband, and gone off with an insinuating gallant ? In my painful distress I send the nurse into her room to ask whether Cocotte, the parrot, is still there. Yes, Cocotte is still there. Then a stone falls from my heart; I breathe again. Without Cocotte my good wife would never have gone away.”
Here I have done with the foreign poets, and in my next article I shall have to speak about those of the English race and tongue.
William M. Rossetti.