Heinrich Heine and the mattress tomb

Nicolás Roberto Robles 
Badajoz, Spain


Harry Heine was born in Bolkerstrasse, Düsseldorf, Germany. He jokingly described himself as the “first man of the century,” claiming that he had been born on New Year’s Eve 1800. Researchers have discovered, however, that December 13, 1797, is most likely the date of his birth. The oldest of four children, his father was the cloth merchant Samson Heine and he was a third-degree cousin of Karl Marx.

Napoleon’s entry in Düsseldorf which Heine witnessed
Figure 1. Napoleon’s entry in Düsseldorf. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia

Because of the French Revolution, Heine grew up during a period of great change. In 1811, when he was thirteen years old, Napoleon arrived in Düsseldorf. He later wrote about the impact of this event:

Ich weinte an jenem Tag. Mir sind
Die Tränen ins Auge gekommen,
Als ich den verschollenen Liebesruf,
Das »Vive l’Empereur!«, vernommen

I cried every day. I had
The tears coming in my eyes
When I, the lost acclamation,
That »Vive l’Empereur!«, heard

Deuschland. Ein Wintermärchen. Caput VIII


He attended the lyceum beginning in 1810, but left without a certificate in 1814 because, following family tradition, he was to prepare for a commercial profession at a commerce school. In 1816 he moved to the bank house of his wealthy uncle Salomon Heine in Hamburg. Until his uncle’s death in 1844, he supported his nephew financially, although he had little understanding of his literary interests: “If he had learned something right, he would not have to write books.” Since Harry had no inclination or talent for making money, his uncle finally set up a cloth shop for him in 1818. But “Harry Heine & Company” had to file for bankruptcy the very next year.

Illustration of Heinrich Heine in 1829
Figure 2. Heinrich Heine in 1829. Source: “Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5” (1905), Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, Seite 115. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia

Disagreements in the Salomon family, particularly Harry’s unhappy love for his cousin Amalie, probably convinced them to allow him to study far from Hamburg. Heine began studying law and camera science in 1819. He enrolled first in the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn but attended only one legal lecture, having to leave after just a few weeks for challenging another student over an insult. After one semester at Gottingen University, he moved to Berlin University, where he studied from 1821 to 1823. He soon made contacts within the literary circles of Berlin.

In June 1825, immediately after passing his exams, he took the name Christian Johann Heinrich. From then on, he called himself Heinrich Heine. Indifferent to religion, he believed baptism was “nothing but a mere fact of usefulness” and a baptismal certificate was merely the “Entre Billet to European Culture.” He was born into a Jewish family, went to a Catholic school, was baptized by a Lutheran pastor, and married in a Catholic church.

His plans to set up a law practice in Hamburg failed, as he found that many in that culture did not accept a baptized Jew like himself as their own. Heine was not prepared to resign himself to their insults without a fight. This was particularly evident in the so-called Platen affair, a literary dispute with the poet August Graf von Platen. Heine had made anti-Jewish remarks against Platen and others, blaming them for the fact that King Ludwig I of Bavaria did not give him a professorship, which he believed he deserved. As a result of this argument, Heine himself was also attacked for his Jewish origins.

During a recreational stay on Heligoland in the summer of 1830, Heine learned of the beginning of the July Revolution, which he welcomed enthusiastically. Because of increasing hostility toward his Jewish origins and political views—especially in Prussia—and tired of the censorship in Germany, Heine moved to Paris in 1831. Paris had a “similarly vitalizing meaning” for Heine as “for Goethe, the flight to Italy.”1 Heine soon became a celebrity in France. Paris offered a cultural richness unavailable in the smaller cities of Germany. He made many famous acquaintances (the closest were Gérard de Nerval and Hector Berlioz), but he always remained something of an outsider. He had little interest in French literature and wrote everything in German. In fact, in the preface of Deuschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter’s Tale), he wrote: “. . . ganz Frankreich wird uns alsdann zufallen, ganz Europa, die ganze Welt – die ganze Welt wird deutsch werden! (. . . then all of France will fall to us, all of Europe, whole world – the whole world will be German!). The poet was speaking spiritually, not of war.

In 1832 at the age of thirty-five, he developed paralysis of two fingers of the left hand, and never recovered function. This was followed by at least twelve separate episodes of remitting visual failure or diplopia between 1837 and 1855, paraparesis in 1845, and bulbar symptoms in 1846. In May 1848 he collapsed in the Louvre in front of the Venus de Milo. Almost completely paralyzed, he spent the remaining eight years of his life bedridden in what he called the “mattress tomb.”

Illustration by Sergey Solomko featuring Heinrich Heine.
Figure 3. Illustration by Sergey Solomko in the Jugend magazine, featuring Heinrich Heine. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia

Different diagnoses have been proposed for Heine’s condition. He was convinced that he had syphilis,2 and many of his symptoms would point to this diagnosis. The neurologist Roland Schiffter describes a type of “neurosyphilis in the form of chronic meningitis.”3 Many biographers adopted Heine’s self-diagnosis, but the final diagnosis is still in question. In the 1990s, an in-depth study of all contemporary documents on Heine’s medical history concluded that the poet had a complex tuberculous disease.4 An investigation of the poet’s hair in 1997 suggested chronic lead poisoning.5 Others have suggested that Heine may have had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or multiple sclerosis,6 which Charcot first described several years after Heine’s death.7 The argument against a syphilitic illness is that Heine’s intellect and creativity did not deteriorate during the final years of his life. In addition to purges, leeches, phlebotomies, and spa treatments, Heine was given huge quantities of opium derivatives for his spasms. Heine’s death may also, therefore, be explained by his long-standing and well-documented consumption of opium.8

Heinrich Heine died on February 17, 1856. According to the diary of the brothers Goncourt, when Heine heard that his wife was praying next to his deathbed that God would forgive him, he interrupted her: “God will forgive me – that’s what He’s there for.” Heine was buried in the Montmartre cemetery. His poem “Where?” is inscribed on the tombstone:

Wo wird einst des Wandermüden
Letzte Ruhestätte seyn?
Unter Palmen in dem Süden?
Unter Linden an dem Rhein?

Werd ich wo in einer Wüste
Eingescharrt von fremder Hand?
Oder ruh ich an der Küste
Eines Meeres in dem Sand.

Immerhin mich wird umgeben
Gotteshimmel, dort wie hier,
Und als Todtenlampen schweben
Nachts die Sterne über mir.

Where shall I, of wandering weary,
Find my resting-place at last?
Under drooping southern palm-trees?
Under limes the Rhine sweeps past?

Will it be in deserts lonely,
Dug by unfamiliar hands?
Shall I slumber where the ocean
Crawls along the yellow sands?

It matters not! Around me ever
There as here God’s heaven lies,
And by night, as death-lamps o’er me,
Lo, His stars sweep through the skies!

-Heinrich Heine, Wo? Neue Gedichte.



  1. Max Brod: Heinrich Heine. Biographie. Wallstein Verlag. 2015.
  2. Jan-Christoph Hauschild, Michael Werner: Der Zweck des Lebens ist das Leben selbst. Heinrich Heine. Eine Biographie, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 1997.
  3. Roland Schiffter: Das Leiden des Heinrich Heine. Fortschritte der Neurologie. Psychiatrie. 2005; 73: 30–43.
  4. Henner Montanus: Der kranke Heine. Metzler, Stuttgart 1995.
  5. H. Kijewski, W. Huckenbeck, U. Reus: Krankheit und Tod des Dichters Heinrich Heine aus der Sicht neuer spurenkundlicher Untersuchungen an Haaren. Rechtsmedizin. 2000; 10: 207–211.
  6. EH Jellinek. Heine’s illness: the case for multiple sclerosis. J Royal Soc Med. 1990; 83: 516-519.
  7. A Compton. The 150th anniversary of the first depiction of the lesions of multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1988; 51:1249-1252
  8. auf der Horst C . Heinrich Heine and Syphilis. Bogousslavsky J, Hennerici MG (eds): Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists – Part 2. Front Neurol Neurosci. Basel, Karger, 2007, vol 22, pp 105-120



NICOLÁS ROBERTO ROBLES, MD, is full professor of Nephrology at the University of Extremadura.


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  Literary Essays