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Student Essay: Heine as a Socialist Poet


Innis Bryant

Compare Shelley's "England in 1819" to Heine's "Silesian Weavers." Both poems deal with social injustice; your job is to discuss how they express ideas and feelings about it. Give specific examples from the texts of both poems to support your ideas.

Shelley's "England in 1819”

"I had rather not have my hopes and illusions mocked by sad realities."

Shelley’s views on social injustice were influenced by the intriguing, revolutionary, political, and philosophical ideas of Thomas Paine and, mainly, William Godwin. No only in this poem, but in his other works, Shelley vigorously expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice. Like Heine, Shelley propagated his views on social injustice so often that it provoked controversy. Shelley himself, as well as others, consider him to be a democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist. Shelley detested the monarchy and aristocracy. Notwithstanding his detest of the aforementioned, Shelley was a member of the aristocracy. He was a great believer in the idea of the power of the human mind to change circumstances for the better, in a non-violent way. Like Byron and Keats, he was consistently liberal and further supported the French Revolution.

In England in 1819, Shelley no longer struggles to compare England with an Egyptian dynasty. This time, the poem is an exact account of the state of the Monarchy and the country. Shelley descriptively depicts the governing party as leeches of the society, who treat people with grave injustice. Furthermore, he presents a historical event in the poem, a massacre of innocent people, as hard-core evidence of the injustice of the ruling classes. His poem does not end with images of apocalypse, like Heine’s does, with doom and gloom. Along with his contemporaries, Shelley shares a common feature of the Romantics, endless optimism: All the acts of injustice and terror are ”graves from which a glorious Phantom may burst to illumine our tempestuous day.”

How did he come to his view of social injustices? Could it be that his upbringing influenced his adult expressions? Shelley, as a boy, opposed tyranny, dogma, and falsehood. He did it so openly and uncompromisingly that his family eventually disowned him. William Godwin’s Political Justice had a great influence on Shelley. It was published in 1793, and was considered to be a major piece of incitement to social rebellion. It was an attack on the established institutions of the aristocracy, such as property and religion. Political Justice, however, was not to light any political fires in England. Surely, after reading this piece, Shelley became a “Godwinian.” What was so spectacular about Godwin that Shelley adored? Godwin mirrored Rousseau philosophically and ran concurrently with Rousseau’s ideas of the nostalgia for the simple and the primitive. Godwin could foresee for mankind a perfect equality and happiness. Interestingly, he believed in the perfectibility of man. Godwin believed that it would be impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly. Therefore, man consequently could live in harmony without law and institutions. The institutions, such as government, law, property and marriage, were restraints upon liberty and obstacles to progress.

Impressed with Godwin’s idealism and philosophy of social (in)justice, Shelley wrote a letter to Godwin in 1812. Godwin replied to Shelley and expressed his desire to get to know him. Shelley was ecstatic that he had made this connection with Godwin and wrote a second letter. In this second letter, Shelley revealed that he was heir to an estate that would provide £6000 a year. Needles to say, this financial piece of information was of remarkable interest to Godwin. Godwin was always looking for cash and was ready to smooth-in with anyone who he thought could make a small "loan" to him. It was clear that Godwin would be most delighted if Shelley could come to London. Godwin accepted this rich young poet with open arms.

What does Shelley try to say in this poem about the social structure and its injustice? The king is "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying." The princes are "the dregs of their dull race," and flow through public scorn like mud, unable to see, feel for, or know their people,…clinging like leeches to their country until they "drop, blind in blood, without a blow." The English public is "starved and stabbed" in uncultivated fields. Shelley said that liberticidal influences and prey corrupt the army. The laws are "tempt and slay", while religion is Christ-less and Godless. Furthermore, the English Senate is like "Time's worst statute un-repealed." Each of these descriptions is like a grave from which "a glorious Phantom" may burst to illuminate "our tempestuous day."
Shelley was concerned with the real world around him. He was a denouncer of political power and a passionate advocate for liberty.

England in 1819 bitterly lists the flaws in England's social structure. As mentioned previously, King George is "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying". The nobility are insensitive leeches who are draining their country dry. Meanwhile, the people are oppressed, hungry, and hopeless. Their fields are untilled and the army is corrupt and dangerous to its own people. He goes on to say with savor of fervency that the laws are useless, religion has become morally degenerate, and Parliament, or a Senate, is "Time's worst statute un-repealed."

The metaphors Shelley uses throughout the sonnet (nobles as leeches in muddy water, the army as a two-edged sword, religion as a sealed book, Parliament as an unjust law…etc.) express his feelings (disgust) on the state of his nation. Surprisingly, he concludes with a note of passionate Shelleyean optimism:

"From these graves a glorious Phantom may burst to illumine our tempestuous day."

What this Phantom might be is not specified in the poem, but it seems to hint simultaneously at the Spirit of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and at the possibility of liberty won through revolution, as it was won in France. Something similar is found in Wordsworth's invocation of the spirit of John Milton to save England in the older poet's poem. But, that connection may be unintentional on Shelley's part. Shelley and Wordsworth strive for an apocalyptic ‘deus ex machina’ to save their country, but Shelley is certainly not summoning John Milton.

Social Injustice in Henrich Heine's "Silesian Weavers"

"The shuttle flies, the loom creaks loud,
Night and day we weave your shroud-
Old Germany, at your shroud we sit,
We're weaving a threefold curse in it,
We're weaving, we're weaving!" (p. 846)

Heine's poem emphasizes the struggles of the working class. At the same time it enshrine the efforts of those who labored to sustain the very bare needs they had. By all means, the poem is prophetic, which turns to realize in 1848 when the King was forced by revolution to grant a constitution to Prussia. Heine’s ability to discern the separation of classes, and address the issues effectively, is evident in Silesian Weavers. He was not afraid to state his opinions of the rich, or speak up for the poor.

In this rather short poem, which speaks about the oppression of the working class during the late Eighteenth century, Heine expressed political opinions whereby he characteristically favored the lower class. This poem was inspired by a protest against the working conditions of weavers in Silesia, a province of Prussia in Northeast Germany. Riots occurred in June of 1844, demanding better conditions. The controversy and provocation of this poem caused and contributed to the riots resulting and revolution. Consequrntly the King of Prussia was forced to allow a constitution for the people. Undoubtedly, Heine's stand on oppression still relates around the world today.

Even the United States was built on similar revolutionary tactics. This socio-political poem is a protest that calls for change and action about unacceptable working conditions. Heine uses the image of weaving very skillfully as the workers weave a shroud of death and a tapestry of "threefold doom" (1758).

In the same year the Silesian Weavers protested violently against intolerable working conditions and Heine sided with them in his poem: “Doomed be the fatherland, false name…where nothing thrives but disgrace and shame… Where flowers are crushed before they unfold …where the worm is quickened by rot and mold…we weave, we weave."'

Heine’s work transcended the borders of his own country. Friedrich Engel translated the poem into English, which later guaranteed that the poet became one of the most studied in Communist countries. Karl Marx also read Heine's poems and corresponded with him. This reader remembers sitting in the eighth grade, middle school Social Studies class many years ago where Heine, Engel, and Marx were exalted and praised for their efforts to spread communism and assimilate nations in its support. Much of the present southeastern Europe today continues to honor the views Heine expressed in this marvelous poem. However, with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the communist affiliations, Heine, sort of, took a back seat, but not silently and indolently. To date, Heine speaks to the democratic unions throughout the world of equal rights, state’s responsibility to honor and protect its workers, and humane treatment of all workers.

Historically speaking, Heine did not necessarily win the favors of governing parties with his Silesian Weavers. Heine set himself against those who wished the Revolution to be over and safely relegated to the past. The central question here was the relationship any new revolution would have to 1789. For Heine, it was not simply a question of repeating 1789 but looking to a new revolutionary wave even more radical than its forerunner.

There is no doubt that Heine is the true initiator of the Young Hegelians and the interpretation of Hegel's thought as revolutionary. He instills classical idealism with the German and French spirit. He instills the heritage of the German and French Revolutions. Therefore, he looked to a Franco-German alliance as the solution to the future revolution. This revolution would combine German philosophy and the French revolutionary experience. He believed that, ultimately, theory and practice would at last be united.

The relationship between the past and present also preoccupies Heine's poem. He challenges the ‘amnesia’ of bourgeois society, which worked hard to deny its birth on the barricades and lived only in a present without any reference to history. Heine saw conflict brewing beneath the surface of the Orleanist regime, which eventually confiscated the French Revolution of 1830. He counter-posed antagonism to harmony. Additionally he challenged traditional republicans who simply repeated the slogans of the past and focused solely on the nature of the political regime--monarchy or republic. However, Heine did not draw from this conclusion an approach that dismissed all political questions in favor of a purely social transformation:

“The bourgeoisie will before all things have order and protection of the laws of property--needs which a republic can satisfy as well as a kingdom. But these shopkeepers know...by instinct that a republic today would not represent the principles of 1789, but only the form under which a new and unheard-of reign of proletarians would realize all the dogmas of the community of property.”

What was his goal in the poem? Heine's goal was to preserve and invoke the 'spirit' rather than just the letter and idea of the Franco-German Revolutions. Heine was attentive to the altered context of France and Germany in the 1840s. Surely, he was sensitive to the rise of a new force, the Proletariat, and the increasingly explosive contradictions of bourgeois society that the Franco-German Revolutions left unresolved. He knew that it was not enough to just repeat the old republican formulas. However, neither a denial of the past, nor its simple repetition, rose to the needs of a new historical period.

Therefore, these are the themes summoned by Heine's reflections on the nature of the forthcoming revolution:

-Addressing of Antagonism over reconciliation,
-Addressing of the need for any new revolution to go beyond the limits of 1789, and
-Addressing of the 'social' question, but without falling into an apolitical retreat from confronting the stat.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) has been and is well known today in Europe among socialists. To date, public schools in Eastern Europe teach his views on socialism. His work was banned during the WWII Third Reich. The history has it that Hitler, after occupying Paris, ordered the poet's grave at Montmartre to be destroyed. There is a speech Hitler wrote in 1921 pulling down and degrading Henie’s theory and work as adversarial to the German sovereignty.

Nevertheless, Henie’s poem inspired many to their won social works. Engel translated it into English and promoted it fervently. Marx's own motivation for socialism came from witnessing the struggles of the Silesian Weavers and the message Heine proclaimed in this poem.

In conclusion, both poets concurrently speak of the social injustices from two different countries. Yet they describe almost one and the same symptoms of the societal suffering. Whereas Shelley tends to lean on the optimistic side of the social resuscitation, Heine directly points with his finger so as to intimidate and provoke the thought and inspiration of those underpowered to rise and move toward social reconstruction.


The Norton Anthology World Masterpieces: Maynard Mack, Sarah Lawall Ed. W.W. Norton & Co. Seventh ed. Vol. 2. New York. 118-620.

Heinrich Heine, Poetry and Prose, ed. Jost Hermand, Robert Holub; intro. Alfred Kazin, The German Library, ed. Volkmar Sander, 32 (NY: Continuum, 1982)

Shelley, Poetry, ed. Jost Hermand, Robert Holub; intro, Alfred Kazin, The German Library, ed.Volkamar Sander, 32 (NY:Continuum, 1982)