"Das Glück ist eine leichte dirne"
by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
Heinrich Heine was the first Jew to achieve any prominence in German literature. He seems not to have had much religious or ethnic feeling, though, and converted to Lutheranism in 1825 as a matter of convenience. One legacy of his Jewish roots was a blood relationship with Karl Marx: they were third cousins once removed. The two men — Marx twenty years the younger — were close friends in Paris during the 1840s until Marx was deported.
Outside the German-language zone, the best-known words that Heine wrote occur in one of his plays, after a Muslim character learns that some Christians have burned a Koran: "Where they burn books, eventually they will burn people too." The reason this line is famous is, that Heine's own books were among those publicly burned by Germany's Nazis when they came to power.
As a schoolboy in England circa 1960 I learned to sing Heine's poem Die Lorelei to Silcher's tune. Sixty years later I find I can still sing it; although if I mention this at a gathering, people leave the room in haste.
This poem seems not to have a title. It is referred to by just spelling out the first line.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Das Glück ist eine leichte Dirne,
Und weilt nicht gern am selben Ort;
Sie streicht das Haar dir von der Stirne
Und küsst dich rasch und flattert fort.
Frau Unglück hat im Gegenteile
Dich liebefest ans Herz gedrückt;
Sie sagt, sie habe keine Eile,
Setzt sich zu dir ans Bett und strickt.
Leonard Forster's prose translation, from The Penguin Book of German Verse:
Fortune is a wanton creature and does not like to stay long in one place. She smooths your hair back from your forehead, gives you a quick kiss, and flits away
Mrs Misfortune, on the other hand, soon takes you to her heart with firm affection. She says she is in no hurry, and sits and does her knitting by your bed.