Fliegende Holländer: Source (2023)


Heinrich Heine, 1831

First Book

Chapter VII

You certainly know the fable of the Flying Dutchman.It is the story of an enchanted ship which can never arrive in port,and which since time immemorial has been sailing about at sea. When it meets a vessel, some of the unearthly sailors come in a boatand beg the others to take a packet of letters home for them.These letters must be nailed to the ship - above all if no Bible beon board, and no horse-shoe nailed to the foremast. The letters arealways addressed to people whom no one knows, and who have long beendead, so that some late descendant gets a letter addressed to a far awaygreat-great-grandmother, who has slept for centuries in her grave. Thattimber specter, that grim grey ship, is so called from the captain, aHollander, who once swore by all the devils that he would get round acertain mountain, whose name has escaped me (1),in spite of a fearful storm, though he should sail till the Day of Judgement.The devil took him at his word, therefore he must sail for ever,until set free by a woman's truth. The devil in his stupidity has nofaith in female truth, and allowed the enchanted captain to landonce in seven years and get married, and so find opportunities to savehis soul. Poor Dutchman! He is often only too glad to be saved fromhis marriage and his wife-savior, and get again on board.

The play which I saw in Amsterdam was based on this legend.Another seven years have passed; the poor Hollander is more wearythan ever of his endless wandering; he lands, becomes intimatewith a Scottish nobleman, to whom he sells diamonds for a mere song,and when he hears that his customer has a beautiful daughter,he asks that he may wed her. This bargain also is agreed to. Next we see the Scottish home; the maiden with anxious heart awaitsthe bridegroom. She often looks with strange sorrow at a great,time-worn picture which hangs in the hall, and represents ahandsome man in the Netherlandish-Spanish garb. It is an old heirloom,and according to a legend of her grandmother, is a true portrait ofthe Flying Dutchman as he was seen in Scotland a hundred years before,in the time of William of Orange. And with this has come down a warningthat the women of the family must beware of the original.This has naturally enough had the result of deeply impressing thefeatures of the picture on the heart of the romantic girl. Therefore,when the man himself makes his appearance, she is startled, but notwith fear. He too is moved at beholding the portrait. But when heis informed whose likeness it is, he with tact and easy conversationturns aside all suspicion, jests at the legend, laughs at theFlying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew of the Ocean, and yet, as ifmoved by the thought, passed into a pathetic mood, depicting howterrible the life must be of one condemned to endure unheard-oftortures on a wild waste of waters - how his body itself is his livingcoffin, wherein his soul is terribly imprisoned - how life and deathalike reject him, like an empty cask scornfully thrown by the sea onthe shore, and as contemptuously repulsed again into the sea -how his agony is as deep as the sea on which he sails - his shipwithout anchor, and his heart without hope.

I believe that these were nearly the words with which the bridegroom ends.The bride regards him with deep earnestness, casting glances meanwhileat his portrait. It seems as if she had penetrated his secret;and when he afterwards asks, "Katherine, wilt thou be true to me?"she answers, "True to death."

I remember that just then I heard a laugh, and that it came not fromthe pit but from the gallery of the gods above. As I glanced up I sawa wondrous lovely Eve in Paradise, who looked seductively at me, withgreat blue eyes. Her arm hung over the gallery, and in her hand sheheld an apple, or rather an orange (2). But insteadof symbolically dividing it with me, she only metaphorically cast thepeel on my head. Was it done intentionally or by accident? That Iwould know! But when I entered the Paradise to cultivate the acquaintance,I was not a little startled to find a white soft creature, a wonderfullywomanly tender being, not languishing, yet delicately clear as crystal,a form of home-like propriety (3) and fascinatingamiability. Only that there was something on the left upper lip whichcurved or twined like the tail of a slippery gliding lizard. It was amysterious trait, and something such as is not found in pure angels,and just as little in mere devils. This expression comes not from evil,but from the knowledge of good and evil - it is a smile which hasbeen poisoned or flavored by tasting the Apple of Eden. When I see thisexpression on soft, full, rosy, ladies' lips, then I feel in my own acramp-like twitching - a convulsive yearning - to kiss those lips:it is our Affinity (4).

I whispered into the ear of the beauty: -"Yuffrou (5), I will kiss thy mouth."

"Bei Gott, Mynheer! that is a good idea," was the hasty answer,which rang with bewitching sound from her heart.

But - no. I will here draw a veil over, and end the story or picture ofwhich the Flying Dutchman was the frame. Thereby will I revenge myselfon the prurient prudes who devour such narratives with delight, and areenraptured with them to their heart of hearts, et plus ultra,and then abuse the narrator, and turn up their noses at him in society,and decry him as immoral. It is a nice story, too, delicious as preservedpineapple or fresh caviar or truffles in Burgundy, and would be pleasantreading after prayers; but out of spite, and to punish old offenses,I will suppress it. Here I make a long dash: --------

Which may be supposed to be a black sofa on which we sat as I wooed.But the innocent must suffer with the guilty, and I dare say that manya good soul looks bitterly and reproachfully at me. However, unto thoseof the better kind I will admit that I was never so wildly kissed as by thisDutch blonde, and that she most triumphantly destroyed the prejudicewhich I had hitherto held against blue eyes and fair hair.Now I understand why an English poet has compared such womento frozen champagne. In the icy crust lies hidden the strongest extract.There is nothing more piquant than the contrast between external coldand the inner fire which, Bacchante-like, flames up and irresistiblyintoxicates the happy carouser. Ay, far more than in brunettes doesthe fire of passion burn in many a sham-calm holy image with golden-gloryhair, and blue angel's eyes, and pious lily hands. I knew a blonde ofone of the best families in Holland who at times left her beautifulchateau on the Zuyder-Zee and went incognito to Amsterdam, and therein the theater threw orange-peel on the head of any one who pleased her,and gave herself up to the wildest debauchery, like a Dutch Messalina.

When I re-entered the theater, I came in time to see the last sceneof the play, where the wife of the Flying Dutchman on a high cliffwrings her hands in despair, while her unhappy husband is seen on thedeck of his unearthly ship, tossing on the waves. He loves her, andwill leave her lest she be lost with him, and tells her all his dreadfuldestiny, and the cruel curse which hangs above his head. But she criesaloud, "I was ever true to thee, and I know how to be ever true unto death!"

Saying this she throws herself into the waves, and then the enchantmentis ended. The Flying Dutchman is saved, and we see the ghostly shipslowly sink into the abyss of the sea. The moral of the play is thatwomen should never marry a Flying Dutchmen, while we men may learn fromit that one can through women go down and perish -under favorable circumstances!

The Works of Heinrich Heine
E. P. Dutton and Company, London; 1906.


  1. As I have heard the story, Vanderdecken, the captain,swore that he would "make the Cape" of Good Hope by a certain time, orbeat round it to all eternity. Vide Marryatt's novel
  2. Apfelsine.
  3. Ein Bild häuslicher Zucht.
    "A Creature not too good
    For human nature's daily food."
  4. Wahlverwandtschaft. Here better translated by"passional affinity."
  5. Yuffrou. Miss, young lady.

contributed by Stephen L. Parker

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31 May 2008


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