Heine’s first line of defence was quite worthless. It was the cheap and common defence of the commonplace, fastidious nature that has hardly courage to exist outside its nest of culture. His second line was stronger, and it is most fully set out in the preface to his Lutetia, written only a year before his death. He there expresses the artist’s fear of beauty’s desecration by the crowd. He dreads the horny hand laid upon the statues he had loved. He sees the laurel groves, the lilies, the roses—“those idle brides of nightingales”—destroyed to make room for useful potato-patches. He sees his Book of Songs taken by the grocer to wrap up coffee and snuff for old women, in a world where the victorious proletariat triumphs. But that line of defence he voluntarily abandons, knowing in his heart, as he said, that the present social order could not endure, and that all beauty it preserved was not to be counted against its horror.
It is at the end of the same preface that the well-known passage occurs, thus translated by Matthew Arnold:
“I know not if I deserve that a laurel-wreath should one day be laid on my coffin. Poetry, dearly as I have loved it, has always been to me but a divine plaything. I have never attached any great value to poetical fame; and I trouble myself very little whether people praise my verses or blame them. But lay on my coffin a sword; for I was a brave soldier in the war of liberation of humanity.”
The words appear strangely paradoxical. No one questions Heine’s place among the poets of the world. As a matter of fact, he was quite as sensitive to criticism as other poets, and his courage was not more conspicuous than most people’s. But, nevertheless, those words contain his last and true defence against the scorn of revolutionists, or men of affairs, like Boerne. There is no need to make light of Boerne’s achievement; that also has its high place in the war of liberation. But, powerless as the word may seem, there was in Heine’s word a liberating force that is felt in our battle to this day. He did not wield the axe himself, but behind him has moved a mysterious figure, muffled in a cloak—a Lictor following his footsteps with an axe—the deed of Heine’s thought.
THE BURNING BOOK