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This review is taken from PN Review 76, Volume 17 Number 2, November - December 1990.

PATHOS AND POLEMIC Heinrich Heine: The Lazarus Poems, with English versions by Alistair Elliot (Midnag/Carcanet) £5.95 pb

When, many decades ago, I wrote my only essay on Heine's work as a whole (included in Reason & Energy, 1957), I thought him a better prose writer than a poet. A purist in all things, but especially poetry, not old enough to have learned that a poet writes what and how he has to write, I quarrelled with the laxities and self-indulgences of Heine's verse, his too facile making-do with the forms current in his time, those of folksy lyric, mediaevalizing balladry and other Romantic modes that had become escapist, while sending up those very conventions, because he had seen through them. It took me a long time to understand why Heine needed to be an impure poet, in gist, tone, mood, even in diction and imagery, so as to tell the whole truth about himself and about an age as impure, as divided and mixed up, as he was.

In some of the late poems translated by Alistair Elliot, written on Heine's 'mattress grave' in Paris, in the face and in the teeth of physical decay that would have silenced any poet less indomitably courageous, the truth-telling attained a rawness and starkness that make one think not of Byron - the poet to whom Heine felt more akin than to any of his German contemporaries or immediate predecessors - but of Villon. Not that the nearness of death had purified him. His laxities and self-indulgences were as fluent and obtrusive as ever. Cliché and jargon ...


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