North Sea Poems, Heinrich Heine
Selected, translated and introduced by Richard Crockatt
Arc Publications, 2021 £7.00
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) is one of the major figures in European poetry. But unless you’re a fluent German reader, his poems will be out of reach — which is where the translator steps in. Equally important is the selector. Fortunately, Richard Crockatt fills both roles here, and his selection is enticing.
Heine’s North Sea Poems (Die Nordsee) were published in 1827 as part of a longer collection, Buch der Lieder. The poems about the island of Norderney consisted of two cycles, twenty-two pieces in all, from which Crockatt has selected eleven.
The poems start on the seashore, move through a short sea journey and then return to harbour, ending with the pastoral ‘Epilogue’. Written in free verse — not Heine’s habitual rhyme schemes — there’s a continuous sense of movement. In ‘Dusk’, for example, we can feel ‘the wide white waves’ —
Driven in by the flood,
Foamed and roared ever closer
With a curious hissing, whispering and whistling,
Laughing and murmuring, sighing and seething,
But through it all the soothing sound of a lullaby
So many sounds, including human laughter and speech: there’s no single word for the sound of waves on the shore. They both roar and sooth simultaneously. This ought to be impossible, yet it isn’t.
Crockatt’s selection offers a lightly-drawn narrative, peopled both with mythic and human characters. ‘Declaration’ finds the poet writing —
With a thin reed I wrote in the sand:
‘Agnes, I love you!’
But the cruel waves gushed over
My sweet confession
Undaunted, Heine imagines seizing a tall Norwegian pine, plunging it into Etna’s red-hot crater and writing his declaration in blazing letters across the night sky.
A change of perspective, from first-person to observational third-person in ‘Questions’, shows a young man by ‘the desolate night-dark sea’ lost in existential questions, to which Nature is indifferent. The poet resists easy answers.
Any selection can only be an introduction but it should, ideally, tempt the reader to read further. This one does precisely that.