Donna Clara – Heinrich Heine’s Bad Romance

We were a bit voreilig with our posts – oops! Heinrich Heine’s work is at the centre of the second of OGN’s reading groups – this week, Alex Marshall gives us an insight into some of the complexities of Jewish life and literature in nineteenth-century Germany.
Donna Clara‘ (Buch der Lieder, 1827) is Heinrich Heine’s most direct and probably funniest commentary on antisemitism. In lush, mock-epic verse, Heine describes the courtship of a fair maiden, tired of the false promises and empty flattery of the court, by a handsome young knight, almost the very image of St George, interspersed with the sudden, gratuitous and frankly bizarre outbursts about Jews she subjects him to. When she asks the gallant knight his name, we instead hear his father’s: “Rabbi Israel von Saragossa“.
Lancelot Bears Off Guenevere, Tales of the Round Table, Andrew Lang (1908)
The relish and pride with which the young knight reveals this secret is matched only by the tolerance he shows, sitting patiently through no less than three antisemitic rants and only revealing his ancestry when asked about his identity. We’ve all indulged someone we fancied more than we would someone else, but is the knight’s superhuman patience that far away from the flattery of the other suitors in the court? Did he deceive poor Donna Clara by letting her fall in love with him, and can we blame him for it?
Since Heine based this poem on “personal experience” his readers might wonder just how long he spent, sitting at a dinner table, while the pretty girl opposite alternated lingering eye-contact with anti-Jewish tirades. Did Heine ever reveal his own roots to her, or is Donna Clara, like much great humorous writing, the product of a case of Treppenwitz?
Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
The mock-epic form adds greatly to the humour, but also expresses the underlying tensions between Heine’s German and Jewish identities. While German Romanticism loved to, well, romanticise Medieval Europe, Heine reminds us that, for Jews, the Middle Ages were not just a time of courtly love and shining armour, but fear, persecution, and ritual  humiliation. These myths that were the life-blood of German romantic nationalism, but for Heine, a German romantic nationalist who was also a Jew, they were what you might call problematic. As the poet imagines himself chivalrously winning the heart of a fair damsel, he wryly asks what the damsels in those days would have really thought of him.
But other questions come up. Has Donna Clara ever met a Jew before, or is she merely repeating what she heard elsewhere? Why does he not give his own name, but the obviously,Jewish name of his father, Israel? Is that really his father’s name or is he merely a “son of Israel”? Why does he stress his father’s rabbinical learning, unlikely to impress your average antisemite? Is he more proud of the scholar’s blood in his veins than his own knightly status? Has he, like many Jews in the nineteenth century, Heine included, had to convert to Christianity to get the job? And why St George, the Christian martyr and slayer of monsters who, although usually portrayed as a European knight, has his origins in Palestine?
Alex Marshall, University of Oxford

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