Venus of the Louvre
by Emma Lazarus (1866)
Down the long hall she glistens like a star,
The foam-born mother of Love, transfixed to stone,
Yet none the less immortal, breathing on.
Time’s brutal hand hath maimed but could not mar.
When first the enthralled enchantress from afar
Dazzled mine eyes, I saw not her alone,
Serenely poised on her world-worshipped throne,
As when she guided once her dove-drawn car,—
But at her feet a pale, death-stricken Jew,
Her life adorer, sobbed farewell to love.
Here Heine wept! Here still he weeps anew,
Nor ever shall his shadow lift or move,
While mourns one ardent heart, one poet-brain,
For vanished Hellas and Hebraic pain.
The German poet Heinrich Heine struggled with a question of alliance between Hebraism, following the will of God and Hellenism, a search for truth in nature and reality. How did this affect his life’s work?
I first became acquainted with the German poet Heinrich Heine while reading the poem, Venus of the Louvre, an epigraph for Heine written by the celebrated American poet Emma Lazarus. You may know Lazarus from her sonnet, “The New Colossus”, in which she wrote to raise campaign funds to build a pedestal for Lady Liberty, with her famous lines now embossed on her pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
However, many Americans might not know that Emma Lazarus was a prolific professor of English at Princeton and was also a “woman of action; a secular, nationalist Jew” who aspired to emulate Disraeli, Spinoza and Heinrich Heine. (Schor).
After traveling abroad to France and Italy, Lazarus returned home and included some of her experiences in her poetry such as “Venus of the Louvre”, composed to honor Heine. According to Lew Fried in his article, “Shall Japeth Dwell in the Tents of Shem? Hellenism and Hebraism in Selected American Jewish Literature”, Lazarus is paying homage through this epigraph to a fellow poet and comrade, Heinrich Heine (40).
In his article, Freid explains that Heine wrote about his perpetual conflict as a Jew in “The Greek Heine” as he felt a question of alliance between Hebraism, self-conquest and following the will of God, or to Hellenism, a search for truth in nature and reality as the Greeks who tried to follow universal order. The Jewish faith scoffs Hellene as they obey God’s first commandment found in Exodus 20, “You shall have no other gods before me” (NIV). According to Fried, Lazarus stated that ‘“The Greek Heine, a creature of laughter and sunshine” was in conflict with the “somber Hebrew”’ as these Greek idols push the Hebrew God out of the text (42). Heine explained his reaction to seeing Venus in the Louvre:
‘I took leave of the lovely idols I had worshipped…And when I entered the lofty hall of the Venus, I lay for a long time at her feet and wept so bitterly. Venus looked down upon me compassionately and disconsolately as if to say ‘do you see I have no arms and I cannot help you’ (43).
I have admired, photographed and sketched this ancient Greek, marble statue, the Venus de Milo, many times in the Musée du Louvre and was acquainted with her background as the Aphrodite of Milos, created around 100 B.C. However, this statue became more intriguing after looking through the lens of Lazarus and Heine.
In the first two stanzas of “Venus of the Louvre”, Lazarus pays tribute to this “immortal…foam-borned Mother of Love/…Serenly poised on her world-worshipped throne”, even describing her current physical state of being “transfixed to stone…Times brutal hand maimed but could not mar”(458). Unlike the iconic Mona Lisa who is currently displayed in a large room full of paintings, the Venus de Milo has been exhibited by The Louvre with her very own alcove in the Greek Antiquities wing.
However, the main theme of this poem is not about the Venus statue from Milos, as denoted by the dramatic change of mood in the third stanza with the introduction of a “pale, death stricken Jew/ Her life adorer…Here Heine wept”(458). This is not uncommon for Lazarus as Jewish themes were sometimes present in Lazarus’s poetry as she was a prominent worker for Jewish causes and even organized relief of Russian Jewish refugees in New York after anti-Semitic violence in their home country. Consequently, one would wonder, “who is Heine and why is he weeping/ farewell to love” at the feet of Venus?
While reading Poets and Poetry of Europe, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I learned more about the background of Heinrich Heine’s . Heine was born in 1797 in Düsseldorf and studied law at the University of Bonn, Berlin and Gottingen. He would then move to Paris in 1830 but still contributed articles regularly to German newspapers. The most popular of his writings is the “Reisebilder” (Pictures of Travel).
Unlike Lazarus, on the other hand, Longfellow does not have much respect for Heine’s work stating, “the style of Heine is remarkable for vigor, wit, and brilliancy; but is wanting in taste and refinement”(349).
The ‘Reisebilder’ is a kind of ‘Don Juan’ in prose, with passages from the ‘Sentimental Journey.’ He is always in extremes, either of praise or censure ; setting at naught the decencies of life, and treating the most sacred things with frivolity. Throughout his writings are seen traces of a morbid, ill-regulated mind ; of deep feeling, disappointment, and suffering. His sympathies seem to have died within him, like Ugolino’s children in the tower of Famine. With all his various powers, he wants the one great power, — the power of truth. He wants, too, that ennobling principle of all human endeavours, the aspiration after an ideal standard, that is higher than himself.
The minor poems of Heine, like most of his prose-writings, are but a portrait of himself. The same melancholy tone, the same endless sigh, pervades them. Though they possess a high lyric merit, they are for the most part fragmentary ; — expressions of some momentary state of feeling, — sudden ejaculations of pain or pleasure, of restlessness, impatience, regret, longing, love.
This is the first negative review of a German poet’s works that I have read in Longfellow’s Poets and Poetry of Europe. Longfellow does not give any personal reasons for his strong dislike or criticisms of Heine. Perhaps Heine’s painful conflict between the Hellas and Hebraic became evident in his works.
I will close with a famous poem by Heinrich Heine, The Lore-Lei, to let my readers decide!
I know not whence it rises,
This thought so full of woe ;
But a tale of times departed
Haunts me and will not go.
The air is cool, and it darkens,
And calmly flows the Rhine,
The mountain-peaks are sparkling
In the sunny evening-shine.
And yonder sits a maiden,
The fairest of the fair ;
With gold is her garment glittering,
And she combs her golden hair :
With a golden comb she combs it;
And a wild song singeth she,
That melts the heart with a wondrous
And powerful melody.
The boatman feels his bosom
With a nameless longing move ;
He sees not the gulfs before him,
His gaze is fixed above,
Till over boat and boatman,
The Rhine’s deep waters run :
And this, with her magic singing,
The Lore-lei has done !
*A witch, who, in the form of a lovely maiden, used to place herself on the remarkable rock, called the Lurleyberg, overlooking the Rhine, and, by her magic songs arresting the attention of the boatmen, lured them into the neigh- bouring whirlpool.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Fried, Lew. Shall Japeth Dwell in the Tents of Shem? Hellenism and Hebraism. Selected. American Jewish Literature. 29 (2010). Purdue University Press. Web. 10 April 2016.
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845
Schor, Esther. Emma Lazarus. Nextbook/ Schocken. Web. 15 April 2016.