American Poetry 1922/Monolog from a Mattress


Heinrich Heine ætat 56, loquitur:

Can that be you, la mouche? Wait till I lift
This palsied eye-lid and make sure . . . Ah, true.
Come in, dear fly, and pardon my delay
In thus existing; I can promise you
Next time you come you'll find no dying poet—
Without sufficient spleen to see me through,
The joke becomes too tedious a jest.
I am afraid my mind is dull to-day;
I have that—something—heavier on my chest
And then, you see, I've been exchanging thoughts
With Doctor Franz. He talked of Kant and Hegel
As though he'd nursed them both through whooping cough
And, as he left, he let his finger shake
Too playfully, as though to say, "Now off
With that long face—you've years and years to live."
I think he thinks so. But, for Heaven's sake,
Don't credit it—and never tell Mathilde.
Poor dear, she has enough to bear already . . .

This was a month! During my lonely weeks
One person actually climbed the stairs
To seek a cripple. It was Berlioz—
But Berlioz always was original.

Meissner was also here; he caught me unawares,
Scribbling to my old mother. "What!" he cried,
"Is the old lady of the Dammthor still alive?
And do you write her still?" "Each month or so."
"And is she not unhappy then, to find
How wretched you must be?" "How can she know?
You see," I laughed, "she thinks I am as well
As when she saw me last. She is too blind
To read the papers—some one else must tell
What's in my letters, merely signed by me.
Thus she is happy. For the rest—
That any son should be sick as I,
No mother could believe."
                                              Ja, so it goes.

Come here, my lotus-flower. It is best
I drop the mask to-day; the half-cracked shield
Of mockery calls for younger hands to wield.
Laugh—or I'll hug it closer to my breast.
So . . . I can be as mawkish as I choose
And I give my thoughts an airing, let them loose
For one last rambling stroll before—Now look!
Why tears? You heard me say 'the end.'
Before . . . before I clap them in a book
And so get rid of them once and for all.
This is their holiday—we'll let them run—
Some have escaped already. There goes one . . .
What, I have often mused, did Goethe mean?
So many years ago at Weimar, Goethe said

"Heine has all the poet's gifts but love."
Good God! But that is all I ever had.
More than enough! So much of love to give
That no one gave me any in return.
And so I flashed and snapped in my own fires
Until I stood, with nothing left to burn,
A twisted trunk, in chilly isolation.
Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam—you recall?
I was that Northern tree and, in the South,
Amalia . . . So I turned to scornful cries,
Hot iron songs to save the rest of me;
Plunging the brand in my own misery.
Crouching behind my pointed wall of words,
Ramparts I built of moons and loreleys,
Enchanted roses, sphinxes, love-sick birds,
Giants, dead lads who left their graves to dance,
Fairies and phœnixes and friendly gods—
A curious frieze, half Renaissance, half Greek,
Behind which, in revulsion of romance,
I lay and laughed—and wept—till I was weak.
Words were my shelter, words my one escape,
Words were my weapons against everything.
Was I not once the son of Revolution?
Give my the lyre, I said, and let me sing
My song of battle; Words like flaming stars
Shot down with power to burn the palaces;
Words like bright javelins to fly with fierce
Hate of the oily Philistines and glide
Through all the seven heavens till they pierce
The pious hypocrites who dare to creep

Into the Holy Place. "Then," I cried,
"I am a fire to rend and roar and leap;
I am all joy and song, all sword and flame!"
Ha—you observe me passionate. I aim
To curb these wild emotions lest they soar
Or drive against my will. (So I have said
These many years—and still they are not tame.)
Scraps of a song keep rumbling in my head . . .
Listen—you never heard me sing before.

     When a false world betrays your trust
         And stamps upon your fire,
     When what seemed blood is only rust
         Take up the lyre!

     How quickly the heroic mood
         Responds to its own ringing;
     The scornful heart, the angry blood
         Leap upward, singing!

Ah, that is how it used to be. But now,
Du schöner Todesengel, it is odd
How more than calm I am. Franz said it shows
Power of religion, and it does, perhaps—
Religion or morphine or poultices—God knows.
I sometimes have a sentimental lapse
And long for saviours and a physical God.
When health is all used up, when money goes,
When courage cracks and leaves a shattered will,
Then Christianity begins. For a sick Jew,
It is a very good religion . . . Still,

I fear that I will die as I have lived,
A long-nosed heathen playing with his scars,
A pagan killed by weltschmerz . . . I remember,
Once when I stood with Hegel at a window,
I, being full of bubbling youth and coffee,
Spoke in symbolic tropes about the stars.
Something I said about "those high
Abode of all the blest" provoked his temper.
"Abodes? The stars?" He froze me with a sneer,
"A light eruption on the firmament."
"But," cried romantic I, "is there no sphere
Where virtue is rewarded when we die?"
And Hegel mocked, "A very pleasant whim.
So you demand a bonus since you spent
One lifetime and refrained from poisoning
Your testy grandmother!" . . . How much of him
Remains in me—even when I am caught
In dreams of death and immortality.

To be eternal—what a brilliant thought!
It must have been conceived and coddled first
By some old shopkeeper in Nuremberg
His slippers warm, his children amply nursed,
Who, with his lighted meerschaum in his hand,
His nightcap on his head, one summer night
Sat drowsing at his door. And mused, how grand
If all of this could last beyond a doubt—
This placid moon, this plump gemütklichkeit;

Pipe, breath and summer never going out—
To vegetate through all eternity . . .
But no such everlastingness for me!
God, if he can, keep me from such a blight.

    Death, it is but the long, cool night,
        And Life's a dull and sultry day.
        It darkens; I grow sleepy;
    I am weary of the light.

    Over my bed a strange tree gleams
        And there a nightingale is loud
        She sings of love, love only . . .
    I hear it, even in dreams.

My Mouche, the other day as I lay here,
Slightly propped up upon this mattress-grave
In which I've been interred these few eight years,
I saw a dog, a little pampered slave,
Running about and barking. I would have given
Heaven could I have been that dog; to thrive
Like him, so senseless—and so much alive!
And once I called myself a blithe Hellene,
Who am too much in love with life to live.
(The shrug is pure Hebraic) . . . For what I've been,
A lenient Lord will tax me—and forgive.
Dieu me pardonnera—c'est son metier.
But this is jesting. There are other scandals
You haven't heard . . . Can it be dusk so soon?

Or is this deeper darkness . . . ? Is that you,
Mother? How did you come? Where are the candles? . . .
Over my bed a strange tree gleams—half filled
With stars and birds whose white notes glimmer through
Its seven branches now that all is stilled.
What? Friday night again and all my songs
Forgotten? Wait . . . I still can sing—
Sh'ma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu,
Adonai Echod . . .
                       Mouche—Mathilde! . . .

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1977, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 45 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.