reforms in the organization of finance, taxation, trade and agriculture, a more careful employment of economic resources, greater frugality and a determined cheese-paring might have slowed down the process, but the outcome was inevitable.
Dutch participation in the wars of the Spanish and Austrian succession is often blamed for the deterioration of the Dutch position in Europe, but since the southern part of the Low Countries was directly involved, staying out of the wars could have been more costly than taking part in them. The main object of Dutch foreign policy in those years was to contain France, which, because of the vulnerability of Paris, sought to extend its borders towards the north by gaining control of the southern provinces. During the Spanish Succession War the Dutch and the English occupied the whole of the South after having defeated the French. At the Peace Conference in 1713, however, the Dutch were outmanoeuvred by the diplomacy of the French and the English, with the result that the threat from France remained as serious as ever. The French ambassador is said to have summed up the situation as follows: ‘on traitera de la paix chez vous, pour vous et sans vous’.
Neither was participation in the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-1748) a political adventure. Apart from sending some auxiliary troops to Maria Theresa to whom it was bound by treaty, the Netherlands remained non-combatant until the French invaded Dutch territory. This time the war went badly, and only by military support from England and because of the internal weakness of France was the country saved from disaster.
Between 1780 and 1784 the Netherlands fought its fourth war with England, and this one finally sealed its fate as a European power. At this stage the English fleet outnumbered the Dutch by more than ten to one and the damage done to Dutch shipping, trade and prestige was enormous. After 1784 the Netherlands ceased to exist as a nation which could decisively influence European affairs. Eleven years later, in
1795, the Netherlands followed England into the Franco-Austrian war. A French invasion from the south, meeting with little resistance, and the subsequent pro-French ‘velvet revolution’ brought the country entirely into the orbit of France.
Decline of military and political power does not necessarily imply a decline of cultural creativity, and it would certainly be wrong to describe Dutch literature of the eighteenth century in terms of what was going on, or not going on, in political and economic life. Although the Netherlands may have been marking time and losing ground in many respects, its literature was developing in several new directions. Admittedly, the eighteenth century did not produce writers of the calibre of Hooft or Vondel, but it did produce some considerable talents who deserve to be judged on their own terms, and not as weak reflections of the radiant lights of the previous era or as the timid pathfinders of the great things to come in the following years. Some writers, of course, did continue in the tradition of the seventeenth century without being able to add much of value to it, but others were fully aware of developments abroad and gave clear evidence that literature at any rate was far from stagnant.
The dominating influence in the first half of the century was that of French classicism. Classicism was imported into the Netherlands where its achievements were to a large extent derivative, but before criticising the lack of originality one should realize that the theories of Dutch scholars such as Daniel Heinsius and Gerardus Vossius had had a profound influence on the formation of classical doctrine in France, and that the importation of classicism can also be regarded as a return to the Netherlands of several notions that had first been developed there. It has been shown by Edith Kern that both Racine and Corneille owed several of their ideas in drama to the theoretical works of both Heinsius and Vossius. Racine owned a copy of Heinsius's De Tragoedia Constitutione in the edition of 1643 which he must have studied
closely as evidenced by his annotations and his underlining of several passages. Corneille's notion of historical truth always establishing verisimilitude in literature was derived directly from Heinsius, as was his proposition that not the royal descent of the characters but the tragic quality of the action was essential to drama.1
The focal point of Dutch classicism was an association established in 1669 under the name of Nil Volentibus Arduum. Its founder was Lodewijk Meyer, a doctor, poet and philologist. Meyer had been a trustee of the Amsterdam theatre but had lost his position as a result of his opposition to the bombastic but very popular plays of Jan Vos, and also because of his outspoken preference for French classical drama. Then he established Nil Volentibus Arduum which was to be a scholarly and literary association for the study of the arts, the sciences and the literature, and which had the specific aim of introducing classical drama into the Dutch theatre. From the beginning the organizers intended Nil to become a body comparable to the Académie Française which had been set up in 1635. They wanted Nil to do the same things for Dutch language and literature as the Académie did for French: they wanted it to become a central authoritative body which would fix and codify the language, and lay down rules and regulations with which the writers would have to comply. They advocated a return to purity of language and simplicity of form which had both been lost, they claimed, during the seventeenth century. Their theoretical bible was Boileau's Art Poétique (1674), and Nil's own ars poetica,
Horatius Dichtkunst op onze tijd en zeden gepast (Horace's Poetics Applied to Our Time and Manners), published in 1677, shows parallels with Boileau's book but is unlikely to have been influenced by it. Poetry, it was argued, must be smooth, mellifluous, melodious. It must not have rough edges, its metre must be even, its vocabulary simple. Clarity was imperative. The obscurity in which some of the seventeenth-century poets had delighted, was anathema to the classicists. The fanciful and the fantastic were despised, restraint was considered of far greater value than spontaneity. In painting their preference was for Raphael; Rembrandt was still accused of having placed himself above the rules. The members of Nil often congregated at the house of Gerard de Lairesse, a very formal painter who in his Het Groot Schilderboek (The Great Book of Painting) of 1707 tried to do for painting what Nil was doing for literature.
After the groundwork done by Nil, classicism established itself in the years between 1713 and 1716 in the course of a series of polemics known as Poëtenoorlog (Poets' War), fought between classicists and anti-classicists, the advocates of the new and the defenders of the old. The classicists attacked the loftiness and unnaturalness of their predecessors and in particular the ‘big words’ of Vondel. Vondel's plays came in for a great deal of criticism because of their lack of action and their biblical subject-matter which, they said, placed them outside reality. Balthasar Huydecoper, one of the most influential men of letters of those days, published an elaborate critique of Vondel's work, setting out his offences against metre, inflection, conjugation and gender. This kind of formal criticism was, of course, not peculiar to Dutch classicism: Voltaire corrected Racine and Corneille in a comparable way, and Pope spoke of Shakespeare as ‘a sad sinner against art’.
There is no doubt that the classicists went too far in their desire to codify language and literature, and some of them never rose above the level of sterile dogmatism. They often confused craftmanship with art and they were inclined to
attach more importance to ‘good taste’ than to originality. In their insistence on regularity of metre, they failed to see that deviations from established metre were not necessarily clumsy but could be functional, while their constant reworking of a poem, their polishing and repolishing according to the law of Boileau, often polished the very life out of the poetry.
Yet the classical influence was by no means entirely negative. There was little cause for regret, for instance, when the plays of Jan Vos were swept off the stage by classical drama in the style of Racine and Corneille, nor can it be doubted that the reaction against exaggerated loftiness was a healthy one, even though Vondel's reputation suffered in the process. The criticism which the classicists levelled at the writers who preceded them often seems quibbling and trivial, but this, too, had its positive aspect as the classicists were the first writers to take an interest in the literature of a preceding period. The seventeenth-century writers had been almost entirely ignorant of what had been written by their predecessors and had shown no interest whatsoever in Middle Dutch or sixteenth-century literature. The classicists adopted a different approach and Huydecoper, the Vondel critic, was actually the first writer to make a thorough study of Middle Dutch language and literature. In Middle Dutch he hoped to find the original purity and simplicity which he thought the language should have possessed before the corruption of the seventeenth century set in. Although the motives behind his interest may have been unsound, the results were valuable and his edition of Melis Stoke's Rijmkroniek (Rhyme Chronicle) laid the foundations for the serious study of Middle Dutch.
Classicism made its greatest impact on drama, and Huydecoper himself wrote three dramas in the classical style, best known of which is Achilles (1719), a well-written and well-constructed, but rather dry and rhetorical play about the haughtiness and arrogance of Achilles. As in all classical dramas, reason plays an important part in it. The hero finds
himself beset by difficulties on all sides because he has left the path of reason and has allowed himself to become the plaything of passion. Reason only can resolve the tangle brought about by unrestrained passion, reason only can save the hero. These ideas are also to be found in the work of Lucas Rotgans, an older contemporary of Huydecoper's, whose Eneas en Turnus of 1705 is regarded as the best example of classical drama in Dutch. But if the plays of Huydecoper and Rotgans represent Dutch classicism in its purest form, this does not at all mean that they are the most valuable works of the period. They are examples of good workmanship, they show that their authors had a good grip on technique and - at any rate in the case of Rotgans - on the psychology of their characters, but there is something mechanical and lack-lustre about all of them, and their highly formalized language contributes to the impression that these plays were written to demonstrate the classical theory rather than from an emotional necessity.
Comedy, which was hardly touched by classicism, produced more convincing results than drama. It was profoundly influenced by the French comedy writers, especially by Molière, though one must add that it was not nearly as derivative as drama was. Pieter Langendijk, the leading writer of comedies and a great admirer of Molière's warned in the preface to his Het Wederzijds Huwelijksbedrog (The Mutual Marital Deceit) against an uncritical imitation of Molière, and stressed that long before Molière poets such as Hooft and Bredero had written excellent comedies which were more consistent and less eccentric than the plays of the Frenchman. Langendijk was probably referring to the often arbitrary dénouements of Molière and one must admit that he himself showed great deftness in untangling and resolving his plots
Langendijk was actually more productive as a poet than as a playwright, but his poetry has been almost entirely forgotten whereas three out of his ten plays are still performed regularly. As a playwright he gradually developed
from the comedy of character to the comedy of manners, but his best results were achieved in his earliest and most unpretentious period. One could even say that he never surpassed his very first play, Don Quichot op de Bruiloft van Kamacho (Don Quichote at Kamacho's Wedding), of which the first draft seems to have been written in 1699 when he was sixteen years old. In the play Don Quichote falls among Dutch peasants, which, apart from leading to some very funny scenes, also provided Langendijk with a situation in which he could develop what was to become the main theme of all his plays: the contrast between illusion and reality. One finds this theme in Het Wederzijds Huwelijksbedrog where both partners thoroughly mislead each other about their financial standing, in Krelis Louwen, in which a stupid farmer is coaxed into believing that he is Alexander the Great, and in Quincampoix of de Windhandelaars (Quincampoix or The Speculators), in which he attacked the gross speculations of the early eighteenth century. Langendijk may have made little attempt to explore the psychology of his characters, yet he was an excellent observer and a sharp, though good-humoured critic of society, who had the ability to make his moral points in a light-hearted manner.
Like the comedy writers, the lyrical poets also worked outside the mainstream of classicism. The classical doctrine left little scope for lyricism, and those who were lyricists by nature left the classicist theories to the epic poets, the playwrights and the prose writers.
The most considerable lyrical poet in the early years of the eighteenth century was Jan Luyken. Perhaps one should say: of the late seventeenth century, for although Luyken died in 1712 and published most of his work after 1700, his best volume, Duytse Lier (Dutch Lyre), dates from 1671. On the other hand this volume contains some poems that are so far removed from the form and ideas of seventeenth-century poetry that one feels justified in discussing Luyken among the writers of the eighteenth century. His modernity can be seen clearly from the following poem:
Droom is 't leven, anders niet;
't Glyt voorby gelyk een vliet,
Die langs steyle boorden schiet,
Zonder ooyt te keeren.
d'Arme mensch vergaapt zyn tyt,
Aen het schoon der ydelheyd,
Maar een schaduw die hem vlyt,
Droevig! wie kan 't weeren?
d'Oude gryse blyft een kind,
Altyd slaap'rig, altyd blind;
Dag en uure,
Waart, en duure
word verguygelt in de wind,
Daar me glyt het leven heen,
't Huys van vel, en vlees, en been,
Slaat aan 't kraaken,
Neither Vondel, Hooft, Bredero nor Huygens could have written this poem. Apart from laments for deceased relatives or friends, their poetry was hardly concerned with death. And when they did write about death, they looked at it ‘sub specie aeternitatis’, as a deliverance from life on earth. Luyken's approach is entirely different. Death in this poem is not the beginning of eternal bliss, it is not even peaceful sleep, but a sudden ending of a wasted life. In the last lines the poem expresses a tremendous fear, the fear that death will be experienced consciously as a transition into utter darkness. This realization of the nothingness, of the void which is death, gives this poem a very modern, almost existentialist aspect. There is no sentimentality in it, no
tearful self-pity such as one often finds in the death poetry of the later romanticists. Luyken simply says: ‘sad’, with a shrug of the shoulders. The irregular, asymmetrical form is neither that of the Renaissance and Baroque poets, nor that of the classicists. The poem is presented as one unit, but can be broken up into two stanzas of four lines each, rhyming aaab, cccb, followed by two stanzas of five lines of which the third and fourth lines may be read as augmented versions of the third lines of the first stanzas. These deviations from the symmetrical pattern are meaningful, stressing as they do the main notion: time, which is valuable and dear, is turned into nothingness.
The poem Air is an exception, however, and is not representative of Duytse Lier as a whole. It was placed at the end of the volume and expressed regret at what was warmly affirmed throughout the book, namely a life spent in the enjoyment of erotic love and the beauties of nature. In his nature poetry, too, Luyken was a modernist. In seventeenth-century poetry nature was mainly looked at from a utilitarian point of view. Vondel did not describe a landscape for its intrinsic beauty, but used it as a background or setting, as did medieval painting. To him the landscape only acquired meaning when man appeared. Luyken, on the other hand, was struck by nature without immediately thinking of its usefulness, and without moralizing about it. In this respect Duytse Lier anticipated the nature poetry of the romantics.
Luyken was twenty-two when he published Duytse Lier and in the last poems of the volume he was already dissociating himself from his former life which he regarded as futile, wasteful and as no more than a dream. A few years later he broke radically with it and returned to the pietist ideas in which he had brought up. His later poetry - volumes such as Jezus en de Ziel (Jesus and the Soul), Spiegel van het Menschelijk Bedrijf (Mirror of Human Affairs) - reflects his change of heart and shows a strong inclination towards mysticism, very much under the influence of the German mystic Jacob Böhme. These volumes of quiet religious lyricism
with an undertone of mystic passion are also known for their illustrations. They are emblem volumes for which Luyken, who was a painter and etcher by profession, made the etchings himself, sometimes in collaboration with his son Kasper. As an etcher he earned great fame with his illustrations for Hooft's Nederlandsche Historiën in the edition of 1702.
Several poets, of whom Hubert Poot was the most prominent, followed the example of Luyken's nature poetry. Poot, the son of a farmer, was born in a village near Delft in 1689, forty years later than Luyken. The combination of farmer and poet was an unusual one and Poot, the poet behind the plough, became quite an object of interest. In 1723 he left the farm for the city of Delft, where he tried, without success, to become a musician and a painter. A year later, after a period of heavy drinking and after having become thoroughly disillusioned with city life, he returned to the farm and stayed there till his death in 1733.
Poot's poetry is a curious mixture of naturalness and artificiality: it often reads like simplified Hooft, at another time it is full of mannerist elements in the tradition of Huygens. Hooft's echo can be clearly heard in the beginning of his poem Vliegende Min (Swift Love):
Galaté, myn schoone, kom;
whereas Huygens is present in the first lines of Zomersche Avont (Summer Evening):
De moede zonnewagen
Staet vrachtloos. D'avontzon
zinkt in de westerpekelbron.
Contrasts between artificiality and naturalness are to be
found specifically in his nature poetry. Poot, though a farmer, did not moralize about nature nor did he dwell on what could be gained from it. He was a sensitive observer of the Dutch landscape, but was more interested in the mood created by it, particularly on warm summer evenings and moonlit nights, than in the pictorial details. This probably explains why some of his poems contain elements that are entirely foreign to the landscape as he must have seen it around him. In one poem, for instance, clearly describing a Dutch landscape, he put milking cows in a winding valley, promised the farmer grapes and wine in autumn and observed a swift stream rushing down from steep rocks, though grapes in the Netherlands are only to be found in glass-houses and steep rocks and winding valleys nowhere at all.
The form of the poetry of Poot was on the whole freer than that of Luyken and his classicist contemporaries. Deviations from the established patterns of metre and rhyme occur frequently throughout his work, and although he did now and then use the alexandrine, the favourite form of the classicists, much of his poetry was written in lines and stanzas of irregular length. Poot's innovations were cautious and tentative, and were made intuitively rather than on the basis of a theory. But in the second half of the eighteenth century there was a great deal of theorizing about poetry and poetic form in the course of which concerted attacks were made on the classicist doctrine and its implications for the lyrical poet.
The main theorist of that period was Hieronymus van Alphen, an Utrecht barrister, who as a poet is now chiefly remembered for his children's verse, but whose theoretical works had a profound influence on the development of poetry. In 1778 he published a free adaptation of F.J. Riedel's Theorie der Schönen Künste und Wissenschaften which had come out eleven years earlier. In this book Van Alphen turned against the many rules that had been laid down by the classicists. They were detrimental to the
development of poetry, he argued, because the rules tended to make the poet a slavish imitator instead of helping him to develop into an original personality. Throughout his work Van Alphen stressed the importance of originality; it became the criterion by which he measured the value of a poet's work. Hooft and Vondel he regarded as really original, but in his own century he found few writers who could lay claim to originality; only Poot was worthy of such praise. In his second book, Digtkundige Verhandelingen (Essays on Poetry), he discussed the ‘means of improving Dutch poetry’. One of the suggestions he made was the adoption of blank verse, drawing attention to the work of Milton, Young and Thomson. He also came back to his demand for originality and counselled the poets to find a form for their poetry that would be in harmony with their ‘imagination’ and ‘sensitivity’ rather than follow the traditional patterns. Van Alphen's book may therefore be regarded as the first theoretical assertion in Dutch of romanticism against classicism.
The theories of Van Alphen caused a great stir and started a controversy that was to last for a considerable time, not the least because he seemed to think so little of the work of his contemporaries. His views on the desirability of blank verse were also strongly criticized. Yet several poets agreed with his ideas and began to put them into practice, among them Jacobus Bellamy.
In Bellamy's first volume, Gezangen Mijner Jeugd (Songs of my Youth) which came out in 1782, about half of the poems were written in blank verse. It was a volume of love poetry, written in a style of cultivated simplicity, and in its use of three and four beat iambics reminiscent of Anacreon and German anacreontic poets like Wilhelm Gleim, though Bellamy maintained that at the time of writing he had never read anything by Gleim and knew Anacreon only by name. Immediately after his first volume he began to publish under the pseudonym of Zelandus (he was born in the Zealand town of Flushing) a number of small volumes of political poetry entitled Vaderlandsche Gezangen (Patriotic Songs).
When these poems were published, the Netherlands was at war with England. It was a war which provided little food for the patriotic group of poets that suddenly appeared on the scene, and when the Dutch achieved a small success in the naval encounter at Dogger Bank, the poets certainly made the most of it and celebrated the event in a great number of poems and several plays. Bellamy also paid his tribute, and when the English put out peace feelers, he derided any attempt to make peace with these scoundrels before a satisfactory revenge was taken for all the Dutch ships they had captured.
Bellamy died in 1786 when he was only twenty-nine years old, and none of the poetry he left behind can really be called great. His love poems were pleasantly simple, melancholy rather than passionate, while his political poems were rhetorical and loud rather than fiery or angry. His importance lies mainly in his formal innovations which helped to give the later poets considerably greater freedom.
If classicism made little or no impression on the work of the lyricists, it left a far greater mark on that of the epic poets. Epic poetry was a much-practised genre in the eighteenth century, though no single epic of that period can be cited as a masterpiece. Neither Rotgans's Wilhelm de Derde (William the Third), nor Feitama's Telemachus and Hendrik de Groote (Henry the Great) have more than historical value. Much the same can be said of a fairly large number of biblical epics which were written in the first half of the century after the example of Vondel's Joannes de Boetgezant , with the rider that their historical interest is rather greater since these biblical epics did not develop in other literatures; only in German literature can some be found, but not before the second half of the eighteenth century. Most of these poems and their authors have now been forgotten, with the exception of Arnold Hoogvliet's Abraham de Aartsvader (Abraham the Patriarch), published in 1727, which was by far the best contribution to the genre.
The most characteristic non-biblical epic was written by
Willem van Haren, one of the most curious personalities in Dutch literature. He was a Frisian nobleman, born in Leeuwarden in 1710. At an early age he was elected delegate of the Frisian State Parliament to the Federal Parliament at The Hague. There he lived a hectic life, involving himself in several love-affairs and falling heavily into debt. Socially he faded out completely, and the finishing blow came when he was accused of embezzling State funds. In 1768 he put an end to his life by taking poison. He was a kind and spontaneous man, his friends said, and very talented, but also a man who lacked the self-discipline to develop his talents as they should have been.
His main work was the epic poem Friso, a poem about the legendary progenitor of the Frisians who came from Indian stock and settled in Friesland where he established the tribe of the Frisians. In his portrait of Friso, Van Haren showed himself to be a true disciple of eighteenth-century rationalism and enlightenment. Friso is the prototype of the modern king, of the enlightened monarch, the genuine rationalist who accepts only what is recognized by reason, and who rules his country not by power but by justice. As a poem, Friso is more interesting for its thought, for its expounding of the theories of enlightenment than for its poetic content, for Van Haren never really mastered the language as a poet should. It is not unlikely that his French education was the cause of this. As was customary for people of his social standing, his whole education had been in French, and, moreover, most of his official business and correspondence was conducted in French. There are good reasons to believe that this cramped his style when he began to write in Dutch. His poetry does not flow easily, it is often stiff and halting, and does not possess much grace or charm. Yet it was colossally praised and hailed as the great masterpiece of the new era by the eighteenth-century critics who had a habit of overstating their case and who without hesitation placed writers like Feitama and Hoogvliet well above Milton and Tasso.
Friso was published in 1741 and was followed a year later by a more lyrical poem, Leonidas, which tells the story of the Spartan hero who chose a glorious death in preference to a shameful retreat. Leonidas is not only more lyrical than Friso but also more verbose and rhetorical, and its only remarkable feature is perhaps that, as Van Haren himself claimed, it raised an army of twenty thousand men, which is no mean achievement for any poem. It was written at the time of the Austrian War of Succession, and the Netherlands, though bound by treaty to come to the aid of Maria Theresa, was hesitating whether to intervene or not. Van Haren's attack on the weakness and indolence of the Dutch goverment may indeed have influenced their decision to send auxiliary troops. The success of the twenty thousand men was not spectacular for they immediately settled down in their winter quarters, but that of the poem was. It was praised as highly as Friso had been, it was translated into French and drew an enthusiastic laudatory poem from Voltaire who compared Van Haren to Demosthenes and called him ‘Pindare au Parnasse’. Later critics liked it less: the nineteenth-century critic Busken Huet regarded it as nothing but ‘an eloquent newspaper article’ and was probably closer to the truth than Voltaire.
Of all lyrical poems which Willem van Haren wrote, only one has survived the two hundred years of changing literary taste that separate Van Haren from the present time. This poem, Het Menschelijk Leven (Man's Life), stands out from his other work through its simple style and the absence of Van Haren's customary rhetorical phrases. Though at first it seems to have been written on an impersonal plane, it is really his most personal poem, and held against the background of his own life it becomes a moving human document, lamenting the transitoriness of life, the vanity of man's undertakings and the vulnerability of his achievements.
Willem van Haren's life was tragic enough in itself but it assumes an extra dimension of doom when one sees that the life of his younger brother Onno Zwier van Haren followed
almost the same pattern. He was also a delegate of Friesland to the Federal Parliament, and later became president of the Privy Council. He was a personal friend of Stadtholder William IV, commanded great respect and was one of the best-known men in the country, but his fall was perhaps even greater and more tragic than that of his brother. In 1760 his two sons-in-law accused him of an attempt at incest with his daughters. It was agreed that no publicity should be given to the matter on the condition that Van Haren resign from Parliament. It has never really become known what the truth of the accusation was, but there is a strong suggestion that the sons-in-law were out to break him. Onno van Haren signed the promise and returned from The Hague to Friesland. A year later he thought better of it and went back to The Hague to resume his seat in Parliament. His sons-in-law then produced the document he had signed. The resulting scandal ruined Van Haren's political career and forced him to return to Friesland again. Then he suddenly began to write, perhaps, as Busken Huet has suggested, in order to find compensation for the failure of his political ambitions, to endeavour to achieve something in literature when political success had been placed out of reach. Huet might have been right, for Onno van Haren was no more a born poet than his brother Willem. Moreover, in much of his work one detects an undertone of self-justification and there is little doubt that he consciously used poetry to show his own personality to advantage. His first work, the verse drama Agon, Sultan van Bantam, published in 1769, gives clear evidence of this.
Agon is set in western Java in the seventeenth century, and the Sultan Agon is the only Javanese prince who still resist the authority of the Dutch East India Company and of the administration in Batavia. He is ageing, however, and wishes to abdicate in favour of his two sons between whom he intends to divide the country. But the sons are jealous of each other, and a feud arises between them. One of the sons works himself up to such a pitch of hatred of his father and
his brother that he betrays them and turns Bantam over to the Dutch.
The play was based on historical material but Onno van Haren used the material very freely. Events that had happened during the course of several years were compressed within the space of one day, as classical drama demanded, and the characters, as we know them from a historical study written by Van Haren himself, also underwent transformations. In Agon the Dutch are unqualified villains, the Javanese are the heroes. It was the first time that colonial subject-matter was brought on to the Dutch stage and it is remarkable that this first play was written entirely from the point of view of the Javanese. Van Haren was undoubtedly moved by the fate of the Javanese prince who lost the independence of his country under such tragic circumstances, but, undoubtedly also, he used the play as a vehicle for the anger he felt towards the Dutch for what had happened in his personal life. In Agon he must have recognized himself: the noble, wise and honest man who was downed by a base conspiracy. Agon reads like an idealized self-portrait, just as Friso reads like an idealized self-portrait of Willem van Haren. Agon and Friso could have been brothers, just as Onno and Willem were brothers. Like Friso, Agon is the typical enlightened monarch who impresses on his sons that they should rule their subjects according to law and justice, and not according to their own desires. Agon, and some of the other seventeenth-century Javanese look a little out of place with their eighteenth-century ideals of enlightenment and rationalism, but it says a great deal for Onno van Haren's ability as a playwright that in spite of this they come to life. They are not the wooden puppets one might have expected them to be, they are not even types, but individuals whose emotions and ideas never lack conviction. It was probably Van Haren's personal involvement that gave the play its life, for when he again tried his hand at drama - in a play Willem de Eerste (William the First) about the assassination of William of Orange - he did not produce
more than an indifferent classical tragedy.
Perhaps Onno van Haren should have concentrated earlier on comedy, for judging by the only one he wrote, he possessed undeniable talents for it. Admittedly, his Pietje en Agnietje of De Doos van Pandora (Pietje and Agnietje or Pandora's Box) was not an original play but a free adaptation of a French comedy. Yet his adaptation was so personal and showed such a gift for lighthearted satire that one might have expected a great deal from him as a comedy writer had he not died a year after the play was written (1779).
Pietje en Agnietje was written for the bicentenary of the Union of Utrecht of 1579 and urged the Dutch to return to their original virtues, to break with their desire for luxury and to stop all violence. Pietje and Agnietje, childhood sweethearts who live in an idyllic village, see their wedding day and their entire lives endangered by the contents of a box which Pandora, one of the guests at the wedding, gives them. The paradisiacal village is invaded by sickness, jealousy, hatred, corruption, dishonesty, and is taken over by a dictator who turns it into his private treasure-trove. Whatever happens around them, Pietje and Agnietje remain faithful to each other. Finally they decide to leave the village and are then taken by the gods to a ‘low-lying swampy country, full of water, reeds and rushes’, where they become the founders of the Dutch people.
Like his brother, Onno van Haren also wrote epic poetry, though of a different kind. In 1769 he published the first part of a long poem Aan het Vaderland (To the Fatherland), which in its subsequent editions was given the title of De Geuzen (The Beggars). It was written with the intention of creating a truly national epic poem, celebrating the role played by the House of Orange in the struggle for freedom and independence. From the point of view of structure, however, it is too disjointed to deserve the name of an epic. In four tableaux it describes the first success of the Dutch in the revolt against Spain, i.e. the capture of the town of Den
Briel by the Watergeuzen (Sea-Beggars); this was followed by a dream of William of Orange in which he foresees the future prosperity of the Netherlands; the third part gives an account of a delegation sent to England to ask for support from Queen Elizabeth, and the poem concludes with a description of the defeat of the Armada.
After the moderate success that Onno van Haren had achieved with his plays, De Geuzen was badly received by public and critics. Not so much because of its structural weakness, but because of its lack of polish, its irregular metre and impure rhymes. Van Haren took this criticism to heart and reworked the poem assiduously. An important part in the rewriting was played by two other poets, Willem Bilderdijk and Rhijnvis Feith, who assisted in polishing and repolishing De Geuzen until much that was characteristic and personal was polished out of it. Onno van Haren may not have been a great poet and may in several places have expressed himself clumsily, yet some of the irregularities in his poem were definitely functional, and when Bilderdijk and Feith ironed them out they often gave his lines an insipidity which they did not have in the original version. When Van Haren wrote: ‘D'ontemb're Lumei is verscheenen’ (The indomitable Lumei appeared), one might with Bilderdijk dislike the two elisions, but one has to grant Van Haren that his line, precisely because of the irregularity of metre produced by the combination of iambic and anapaestic, is far more lively and effective than Bilderdijk's polished version of it: ‘Lumei, die woestaart, is verschenen’ (Lumei, that ruffian, has appeared).
One can argue about the question whether or not the Van Harens and in particular Onno Zwier, ought to be regarded as classicists. Onno van Haren's work was certainly freer from the rules and regulations than the work of most of his contemporaries. Yet he, like his brother Willem, accepted the demands of the classicist doctrine, and his freer form must be considered as a slight deviation from the straight and narrow, and not as an attempt to discover new roads.
In contrast to his brother and to most other classicists, Onno van Haren was also interested in prose writing. He did not write what we now call creative prose, but studies and essays: biographical, historical, political, and also an essay on Dutch poetry. Novels, novellas and stories were not yet regarded as serious contributions to literature. The only writer of the first half of the eighteenth century who ventured into novelistic writing was Justus van Effen.
Van Effen, who was born in Utrecht in 1684, was like the Van Harens gallicized to a high degree, and in the first twenty years of his writing life he wrote exclusively in French. He made his mark as a founder and editor of a number of more or less literary magazines such as Le Misanthrope, Journal littéraire de la Haye, La Bagatelle, Le Nouveau Spectateur Français which all ran their courses between 1711 and 1731. These journals were all modelled on The Spectator of Addison and Steele whose work Van Effen came to know during the two visits he made to England, the second of which as secretary to the Dutch Ambassador. In England he also came in contact with the work of Jonathan Swift whose Tale of a Tub he translated into Dutch in 1721. Van Effen, though a great admirer of Swift's and a convinced moralist himself, entirely lacked Swift's savage satirical frame of mind. He was a critic of society and its morality, but a gentle one; his intention was to reform society, not with cutting sarcasm or the stentorian voice of the preacher of penitence, but by mildly ridiculing the mild vices of his contemporaries. In this he was guided only, as he put it, by the unchangeable principles of reason.
His best work was published in the Dutch journal he set up in 1731: De Hollandsche Spectator . At first it appeared weekly, later on every three or four days, with Van Effen as its main, sometimes sole contributor. On the whole the journal dealt with subjects of topical interest which has made it a valuable mirror of life in the first half of the eighteenth century. It attacked and ridiculed the dominating influence of all things French, as well as dandyism, the abundance of
titles, speculation in stocks and shares, abuses in university life, and so on. Van Effen often illustrated his critical essays with scenes taken from daily life and with conversations on which he had eavesdropped and which he recorded with great faithfulness. Sometimes these illustrations developed into short stories such as his account of the courting of Kobus en Agnietje, which may be regarded as the first novella in Dutch. It is a description of a very innocent love-affair between the daughter of a seamstress and a carpenter: a simple story about ordinary people, written in a simple style, mildly humourous and with a very natural sounding dialogue. It is not without sentimentality, though, and tears flow so freely that Van Effen seems to be anticipating the later romantic sentimentalists. Yet Van Effen's sentimentality was only occasional. In the presentation of his characters, his observations of every day life and his sharp ear for dialogue he was clearly a realist and the precursor of the later realists rather than of the romanticists.
Van Effen's importance as a prose writer can be measured more accurately by the prose he inspired than by what he wrote himself. In spite of his trying to write ordinary language and to avoid anything high-flown, his prose is often stilted and dry. When he died in 1735, De Hollandsche Spectator died with him, but it was succeeded by no less than forty other Spectators which continued his work and from which in the course of time the truly literary journals developed. Van Effen also fulfilled an important function by serving as a link between the literatures of France and England. It was he who in his French magazines introduced the ideas of Steele and Addison, and spectatorial literature in general to France. For Dutch literature his importance lies in his establishing a realist prose tradition out of which, about fifty years after his death, the first modern novel in Dutch was to grow.
This novel, De Historie van Mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, (The History of Miss Sara Burgerhart), was written by two women, Elizabeth Wolff and Aagje Deken. Elizabeth Wolff-
or Bekker, which was her maiden name - was born in 1738 which made her a few years older than Aagje Deken. She began as a poet in the elevated style of the late classicist period. Pope was her great example in those years and an early portrait shows her holding a copy of his Essay on Man. Her early poems were rational discussions of a number of general and abstract topics such as mankind, religion, virtue, freedom, tolerance, and were more indicative of a brilliant and erudite mind than of a great gift for poetry. Later on she also wrote lyrical poetry, and then concentrated for a time on satire, often inspired by local incidents which annoyed her. When, for instance, an elder of the church had to resign for having danced at his daughter's wedding, she ridiculed the mentality that had forced the resignation in a famous poem called De Menuet en de Domineespruik (The Minuet and the Minister's Wig), and when the Amsterdam theatre burnt down, she laughed at those who regarded the fire as a punishment of God in Zedezang aan de Menschenliefde (Moral Song to the Love of Man). Though she was married to a minister of the church when she wrote these poems, she was continually at loggerheads with the orthodoxy. She was a liberal with a very independent mind, as can also be seen from the prose pieces which she contributed to various spectatorial magazines and in which she gave her opinions, often didactic and always moralistic, on education, the relations between men and women, the function of literature, and many other subjects. She became a well-known writer and a controversial figure, with many enemies but also with a strong personal following. From a distance her career was watched with a mixture of admiration and concern by Aagje Deken, a poet who had published a volume of minor religious poetry. In 1776 the two met and became such firm friends that when in the following year Elizabeth Wolff's husband died, Aagje Deken came to live with her. They stayed together till they died in 1804, Aagje eight days after Elizabeth.
After they had set up house together, they at first
published separately, but soon they began to collaborate. The first fruit of their collaboration was not particularly impressive. It was a volume of poems, Economische Liedjes (Domestic Songs), intended as educational poetry for the not-so-well-off and containing moralistic poems about virtuous servants and charwomen who loved nothing better than to work hard.
Then, in 1782, they published De Historie van Mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, one of the lasting novels in Dutch literature. For the Netherlands the book was a new venture, so new that on the title page the authors included the words ‘niet vertaald’ (not translated). It was written in the form of an epistolary novel, like Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, books which were greatly admired by Wolff and Deken. Yet, however much they liked Richardson, they were not slavish imitators. On the contrary, they were able to create something quite original, and, from the point of view of form, to improve considerably upon Richardson's results. If the epistolary novel ideally gives a greater suggestion of authenticity than the straight narrative, Wolff and Deken came closer to the ideal than Richardson did. One of Richardson's weaknesses is the monotony of his style, i.e. the lack of stylistic variation in the letters. Wolff and Deken, on the other hand, made a point of giving each of their correspondents his or her own style. Also, the letters in their book seem to arise quite naturally from the given situation, whereas Richardson now and then had to resort to rather unconvincing situations in order to explain all the letter-writing. Naturalness was an important issue for Wolff and Deken, and in the preface to the book they comment on it: ‘In this novel you will not find the misdeeds which even an Englishman can only read with shudders, nor will you find any exaggerated virtues which are unattainable for us weak creatures. There is no duelling in this book. Once, however, a smack is given. There is no abduction nor drinking of poison. Our minds have not invented anything miraculous. Everything is natural’.
There is no doubt that the ideas of Rousseau had also left their mark on Wolff and Deken, but they did not share his great optimism, nor were they in agreement with the emphasis he had placed on spontaneity and the rejection of discipline. ‘An excess of liveliness can endanger even the best of girls, or plunge them into the saddest disasters’, the preface proclaims. They believed in moderation, and above all in education. Their book was written with the specific aim of educating young girls by pointing out to them the dangers which life held and by showing them the right approach.
The main character of the book is Sara Burgerhart, a young girl of eighteen when the book opens, whose vitality, intelligence, cheerfulness and lightheartedness are reminiscent of Elizabeth Wolff herself when she was young. Sara has been left an orphan at an early age and is brought up by an aunt, a miserly and hypocritical woman who treats her badly. Her guardian, Abraham Blankaart, a gruff and blunt man with a heart of gold, would have been able to help her, but he is in Paris and out of reach. Finally, Sara cannot bear it any longer: one day when her aunt is out, she locks the maid in the cellar and escapes. She goes to live with a widow Spilgoed, an excellent woman who leaves her a great measure of freedom. Too much freedom, in fact, for Sara becomes careless. Danger lurks in every corner. Sara is warned, but she does not listen, and then falls into the clutches of Mr. R., a rake. As had been hinted in the preface, R. does not abduct her: she goes with him of her own free will. She is saved, however, in the nick of time, but in such a state of shock that she becomes seriously ill. The incident with R. and her illness prove to be the turning point. Sara becomes more careful, more serious, and now accepts the hand of the noble Hendrik Edeling whom she had spurned before. After a number of difficulties, created mainly by differences in religion, have been solved, Sara and Hendrik marry and lead the traditional happy life.
The story of Sara was written to set an example, but it is a matter of great credit to the authors that they did not allow
the didactic element to run away with their novel. Though in places a little longwinded, it still makes extremely good reading. The characters are well-drawn and are surprisingly subtle for a novel of that period. The fact that Wolff and Deken, in contrast to Richardson, did not believe in the perfection of man and made no attempt to depict any of their characters as the perfect human being, had a great deal to do with the convincingness of their characters. Wolff and Deken were much more realistic than Richardson and less anti-rational. Feeling, sentiment and sentimentality which play such a large part in Pamela and Clarissa were handled by Wolff and Deken in much smaller quantities. The melancholy which pervades the work of Richardson did not find a place in Sara Burgerhart . Instead of it one finds humour, a mild kind of irony, and sometimes satirical passages that don't pull any punches, particularly where bigots and hypocrites are concerned. Wolff and Deken were not anti-religious, far from it, but they reacted sharply against any form of zealotry, and were on the whole more inclined to regard religion as an aspect of society and a function of social life, than as an expression of one's personal relation to God.
Encouraged by the success of Sara Burgerhart and by the demands of the reading public for a longer book - though Sara Burgerhart consisted of 800 pages of close print - they wrote a second epistolary novel, this time in eight large volumes. The first two volumes of this new book, Willem Leevend, are of the same quality as Sara Burgerhart, but in the later volumes the novel becomes very argumentative, and time and again the story gives way to long theological and philosophical discussions. In Willem Leevend the authors also took issue with the literature of sentiment that was being written in the 1780s. ‘A new-fangled disease’ is what they called sentimentality. They feared that it might develop into a national disease and for that reason opposed it strongly. They did not deny the value of ‘feeling’ and sensitivity, but they refused to regard those qualities as autonomous forces
beyond any rational control and they rejected the exaltation to which a writer like Rhijnvis Feith worked himself up in his novels. Also, they wholeheartedly rejected the melancholy and gloom which often accompanied the exaltation of the sentimental writers. Wolff and Deken were realists; they did not regard life as being perfect, but neither did they regard it as something unspeakably sad.
Wolff and Deken never revealed what precise form their collaboration took. When asked, they always insisted that both had an equal share in the books. The poet Bellamy who was acquainted with both women and whose fiancée was a close friend of Elizabeth Wolff, said in 1784: ‘Wolff is the vinegar, Deken the oil: the two together make a good sauce’. Others were more suspicious and found it hard to believe that Aagje Deken, who was no more than a mediocre writer before she met Elizabeth Wolff, could have contributed as much to the novels as her friend. Busken Huet was one of those. He claimed that all ideas in the books were Wolff's and that the lapses into the first person singular which occur occasionally in the prefaces are an indication of her principal authorship. Huet has not been able to prove his point, nor have other critics who maintained that all bright and cheerful letters were written by Wolff and the serious ones by Deken. It is quite possible, of course, that Wolff and Deken were right, and that Aagje Deken's contribution was as great as that of Elizabeth Wolff. Aagje Deken may have been a mediocre writer before their collaboration, but Elizabeth Wolff may have raised her to her own level, she may have acted as a pacemaker and may have inspired Aagje Deken to write far better than she did when she was writing alone. Other similar cases are known in literature. This still leaves open the question whether they made their contributions to the novels independently, or whether they rewrote one another's work.
The success of Sara Burgerhart was great. Within four years the book went through three editions, and it was translated into French and German. The first volumes of
Willem Leevend were also received with enthusiasm, but after that the interest of the readers waned. The book was not reprinted in Wolff and Deken's lifetime, nor was their third epistolary novel, Cornelia Wildschut, the least original of the three. The great success of Sara Burgerhart perhaps explains why the epistolary novel was written for a longer period of time in the Netherlands than in other countries. The twentieth century even saw a revival of the genre in De Leemen Torens (Towers of Loam) by the two Flemish writers Herman Teirlinck and Karel van de Woestijne, and in the novels which Simon Vestdijk wrote in collaboration with Jeanne van Schaik-Willing, Hendrik Marsman and Henriette van Eyk.
It was one of those curious quirks of history when in 1783, barely a year after Elizabeth Wolff and Aagje Deken published their first realist novel in Dutch, Rhijnvis Feith published the most notorious masterpiece of the literature of sentiment, a novel called Julia, one of the most tearstained books of all time. Its plot is simple. Eduard has fallen in love with Julia whom he met in a forest where she was praying for a soul-mate. Julia returns his love, but her cruel father refuses consent. Julia does not want to go against his wishes, yet she continues meeting Eduard. Preferably in cemeteries and on tombstones. Their embraces increase in intensity, and one day Julia just manages to stay within the bounds of spiritual love by uttering the word ‘immortality’. After this narrow escape they decide to part and Eduard retires to a lonely place. When Julia's father finally relents, Eduard rushes back to Julia, only to meet her funeral procession. Eduard retires into loneliness again. He buys a ruined castle not far from Julia's grave and prepares himself for death, spending most of his remaining days in a hollow tree which he regards as his coffin.
The book is full of the typical details of the literature of sentiment: Julia and Eduard are continually drawn towards cemeteries, they speak almost exclusively of death and eternity, they sigh and weep copiously. It is clear that Feith
was not a realist, but a romantic, and a very emotional one at that. Yet the intention of his novel was didactic, just as that of Sara Burgerhart was. Like Wolff and Deken, Feith wanted to educate and edify the young. What he wanted to describe was ‘true love’, which to him was closely related to virtue and religion: hence Julia's virtuous decision to call a halt to the love-making, and Eduard's and Julia's predilection for cemeteries and tombstones. In one of his letters Feith stated that if the young people were to realize the close relation between love, virtue and religion, they would not get married so rashly. He wanted to improve marriage, man, human relationships and society in general, which is precisely what Wolff and Deken were trying to do. When Wolff and Deken are classified as realists this does not mean that they were content to record reality as they saw it: they were intent on improving it. And when Feith is labelled a romantic this does not mean that he turned away from reality. His aims were as practical as those of Wolff and Deken. Sara Burgerhart and Julia were both written with the purpose of improving certain aspects of society; the difference lies in the approach, in the sugaring of the pill.
Looking back over the development of the Dutch novel in general, Sara Burgerhart is a much more modern book than Julia. Wolff and Deken were interested in character, in the reactions of their characters to one another, and particularly in the reasons why their characters acted as they did. Moreover, they made some attempt to show development of character, in Sara Burgerhart as well as in Willem Leevend . In Julia one finds nothing of the sort. There is no development in Feith's characters nor is there any psychological justification for their actions. His characters act out of a thick cloud of sentiment which completely obscures their motives.
Feith published his book with some misgivings. Who at such a time, he wondered, would agree with him that love was meaningless without virtue? While he feared that his novel would be ridiculed as too old-fashioned, the attack
came from another quarter. Several critics considered that Feith had gone too far, that his descriptions of Eduard and Julia's love-making were too suggestive, and that the book therefore was dangerous. Feith, who was afraid of being dismissed as an out-of-date moralist, found himself considered as a corrupter of morals and a dangerous modernist. To justify himself he wrote a second novel, Ferdinand en Constantia (1785) which distinguished itself from Julia by a slightly more elaborate plot, a happy ending and the absence of any highly charged passages. For the rest it was as resolutely sentimental as Julia was.
Feith's style of writing is usually in perfect harmony with his subject-matter: it is a very unnatural style, overflowing with images and metaphors, often bombastic, and sometimes grotesquely poetic. Yet among all the sentimental rhetoric one is repeatedly struck by passages of truly inspired writing and by images of great originality which show that Feith was a more genuine writer than has often been conceded. These passages occur in both his novels but more frequently in the short prose pieces which he had published earlier and which were re-issued with Julia. Otherwise these prose poems, as one would call them nowadays, were not particularly original. Their form was probably suggested to Feith by Salomon Gessner's Idyllen of 1756, and in the contents one finds elements from the work of James Macpherson (Ossian), Wieland and Baculard d'Arnaud, just as Julia occasionally shows that Feith had carefully read Rousseau's Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse and Goethe's Werther. Feith was a voracious reader, his knowledge of contemporary literature of France, England and Germany was extensive, and a great deal of his work was undoubtedly inspired by the work of other writers. This applies to his prose as well as to his poetry.
As a poet Feith was profoundly influenced by Klopstock and Herder, by Percy and Young, and by the French poet F.A. de Paradis de Moncrif whose romances he imitated. The romances as written by Feith and several other poets of
that period - Bilderdijk, Bellamy, Staring - were poems which described a touching event in a simple quasi-naive style. They were the first poems to go back to medieval poetry and they were written in a spirit of reaction against the well-polished rational poetry of classicism. Feith's romances, especially Alrik en Aspasia and Colma are worthy counterparts of his prose poems and novels in so far as they deal with tragic love and the transience of life, and abound in the customary sentimental attributes such as skulls, tombs and howling winds.
These novels and poems were written when Feith was in his late twenties and early thirties. In some of his later work, particularly in his long didactic poem Het Graf (The Grave), his always forcefully professed unworldliness acquired a more convincing ring of authenticity. Het Graf was written in 1792, a few years after Feith's administrative career as one of the burgomasters of Zwolle had come to an abrupt end because of political upheavals. A little later he went through a period of religious doubts, and Het Graf reads as an attempt to reject once and for all the uncertainties of the world in favour of the certainties of death and the hereafter. Het Graf is Feith's most personal poem, but at the same time it is part and parcel of the tradition of the English grave poetry as represented by Edward Young's Night Thoughts, Robert Blair's The Grave and Thomas Gray's An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
Feith's sentimental romanticism never became the mainstream of literature, but for a while it was read, praised and imitated by a small group of writers. One of these was Elizabeth Post who gained temporary fame with her novel Het Land (The Country). This is also an epistolary novel, in which two friends, Eufrozyne and Emilia, exchange letters about life in the country and life in the city, in the course of which Eufrozyne is converted to country life. In the manner of Feith, the book is full of discussions of religion, virtue and death, and from beginning to end is pervaded by a deep melancholy, though Elizabeth Post never quite plumbed the
depths of sentimentality as Feith did. Nature plays a large part in the book, in particular the beautiful disorder of nature. Strangely, in the observations of nature one finds now and again the same foreign bodies as in the poetry of Poot. Emilia, the one who lives in the country, writes about ‘my fatherland’, but if she really means the Netherlands her observation of winding valleys, high mountain ranges and vines clinging to the front of a house suggests that imagination sees more than eyes do.
Opposition to Feith and his followers was strong from the beginning. The chief opponents were writers like Hieronymus van Alphen and Jacobus Bellamy who, though modernists themselves and not entirely free from sentimentality either, turned against Feith's melancholy and gloom, and against the spinelessness and inertia of his characters which they regarded as demoralizing. As early as 1785 the leading literary magazine Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen which at first had supported romanticism, ridiculed Feith's work in a ‘Recipe for the preparation of something sentimental: Take equal amounts of exclamation marks and dashes, euphonious names of women, and pure heavenly, eternal love; sprinkle this with mixed herbs of soul-meltings, sighs, swoons, heart flutters, soul contractions, last farewells, last kisses, hand-pressings, sobs, death, the grave, eternal night, the unfathomable sea of eternity etc. Mix everything well, and pour a sauce of silent, soft, burning hot tears over it: it will be good’. Also, serious and scholarly attacks were made, such as the one by De Perponcher who accused the sentimentalists of not describing authentic feelings and sensations, but feelings that were artificial and had been made to order by the imagination. Feith replied elaborately to this criticism, denying the allegations and pointing out that no-one can judge the sincerity of someone else's feelings. The polemics went on for some time and did great harm to the sentimentalist cause. The greatest damage, however, was done by Johannes Kinker, a young man then who had just taken out his law degree. He was the editor of a critical
magazine De Post van de Helicon (Helicon Mail) which appeared during the years 1788 and 1789. In the first issue of the magazine he published a devastating parody of Feith's Alrik en Aspasia which hit harder than many a serious article.
In his assault on the literature of sentiment Kinker was assisted by Willem Bilderdijk. It was surprising perhaps to find Bilderdijk here as a devoted adversary of sentimentality as he had written some rather sentimental romances himself. Also, his attack on Feith was surprising as some years before they had collaborated closely while rewriting Onno Zwier van Haren's De Geuzen . But Bilderdijk was never a man known for consistency. In his life and work, theory and practice were often at cross purposes. He would formulate his views on various subjects - poetry, for instance, or marriage - and when he formulated the theory he was probably sincere and believed in what he was saying, but when it came to a practical application he often did the opposite. His life was full of clashes, conflicts between the two, or more, parts of his personality. His was a very complex personality which makes it impossible to attach a label to him that would cover all facets. He was a sentimentalist and also a critic of sentimentality; one could call him a romanticist, but his work is so full of classicist elements that he is often regarded as the last of the classicists.
Willem Bilderdijk was born in Amsterdam in 1756. When he was six years old he injured his foot so badly that he was unable to move about until he was eighteen. He sat at home and read. He read anything and everything and during those years acquired an extraordinarily extensive knowledge of the most divergent subjects. He claimed in a letter that when he was eighteen months old he knew the main data of biblical history, mythology, the Heidelberg Catechism, and what he called Universal History. At the same time he learned French, and was given the works of Jacob Cats, which he read. He also remembered that at two he had become world
weary and had been crying in his cradle longing for death. When he was three, he claimed in the same letter, he wrote love letters to a girl friend praising her soft neck and ivory knees. It has been said that a man could only falsify his youth to such an extent if he had led a very sheltered life and had never been laughed at by his play-mates. This is very true, and the isolation of his first eighteen years helps to explain not only the hyperbolic approach to his own youth but also some of the features of his poetry which often seems to move on stilts designed for giants.
Whether he was three years old or perhaps a little older, he certainly began to write at a very early age. Some poems, written when he was twelve, have been preserved and show that in those early years he was a faithful disciple of Cats. In 1775 he took part in a poetry contest and won first prize with a poem on the influence of poetry on the government of the state. With that poem he entered the literary world, and at the same time the world proper, as he was then well enough to move around. He went to Leiden to study law and when at Leiden published his first volume of poetry, Mijn Verlustiging (My Delight), a volume consisting of exuberant and very passionate love poems, original ones and translations from Greek poets such as Anacreon, Theocritus, Bion and Moschus. Passionate as these poems may have been - and they were more passionate than anything that had been written in Dutch before - the underlying principle of them was that the heart should not unconditionally gratify its desires, but that these desires should always remain under the control of reason. This, one might say, was also the main problem of Bilderdijk's personal life. His desires were many, and sometimes so great that his reason, which was not inconsiderable either, lost control. Afterwards, reason began to rationalize and hypocrisy took over from sincerity. The conflicts of his life were often thrashed out in his work for his poetry was largely autobiographical. Even the romances written between 1785 and 1795 were to a certain extent autobiographical poems, the medieval settings
of which only served as a disguise.
In 1795 the French revolution was transplanted to the Netherlands, and Bilderdijk, one of the most prominent anti-revolutionists, had to leave the country. He was a barrister at The Hague in those days and was exiled after having refused to sign the pledge of loyalty which the new government required of all civil servants and lawyers. The exile order did not entirely displease him as it provided him with an opportunity to rid himself, of his many creditors, and also of his wife whom he had ceased to love. He spent some time in Germany, then settled in London, and later went back to Germany. In London he fell in love with Katherina Schweickhardt to whom he considered himself married after a while. She seems to have been a great inspiration, for during the years of exile he was extremely productive, publishing a total of ten volumes of poetry, among them his best love poems. During his stay in England he also became intimately acquainted with English poetry, particularly with the Ossian poems which he admired so much that he translated almost all of them.
In 1806 the French-inspired ‘Batavian Republic’ came to an end and was replaced by the no less French-inspired ‘Kingdom of Holland’, with Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, as king. Bilderdijk approved of the new monarchical form of government, even though the king was a Frenchman, and when the sentence of exile had become null and void, he returned to the Netherlands. He came into contact with the king and in a short while his situation was radically altered. The king appointed him as his teacher of Dutch and Bilderdijk even wrote an ode Napoleon which turned the one-time exile into a poet laureate. In the first year of his return, too, he completed De Ziekte der Geleerden (The Illness of the Scholars), a didactic poem in six cantos, dealing with the various physical and mental illnesses and their cures. The most interesting part of the poem is the conclusion where the poet points out that his description of illnesses shows that man's destiny is not to be a scholar or
an artist, but to be man, a conclusion reminiscent of Pope's: ‘The proper study of mankind is man’ and anticipating Multatuli's motto of the 1860s: ‘the vocation of man is to be man’. Otherwise, De Ziekte der Geleerden is mainly remarkable for its immoderate length. Bilderdijk was an immoderate man, his handling of language and literary form was immoderate. As one of his critics wrote: he threw words about as if they were colossal boulders.
Bilderdijk's predilection for everything that was grand, elevated and colossal then led him to begin writing an epic poem very much in the tradition of Baroque poetry. It was called De Ondergang der Eerste Wareld (The Destruction of the First World), and was intended to describe the history of Paradise, a war between humans and titanic Paradisians and finally the destruction of Paradise by the Great Flood. The poem was never finished, however, and was abandoned after three or four months' work. In the preface Bilderdijk already sounded a note of defeatism by stating that neither the times nor the nation were poetic enough to savour an epic poem; this was due, he claimed, to the fashionable French poetry which was in reality anti-poetic, to the current theories which excluded from poetry everything that was poetic, and to the demoralizing effect of modern education. In spite of all this he began to write his epic in 1809, then ground to a halt the next year in the middle of the fifth canto whereas at least twenty were originally planned. The reasons for not finishing it he kept to himself. Only in a letter to Robert Southey did he express some of his feelings about it.
Bilderdijk had come to know Southey when he was exiled in England, and in 1825 he rescued him from a hotel at Leiden where Southey was laid up with an infected foot, not understanding anyone in the hotel nor being able to make himself understood, not even to the point of obtaining medical help. Bilderdijk acted as the friend in need and took him into his house for a few weeks, an event which the grateful Southey later commemorated in his poem Epistle to Allan Cunningham, full of praise for Bilderdijk, who, he
said, would be known by everyone ‘had not the curse that came from Babel clipt the wings of poetry’, describing him also as a man ‘who had received upon his constant breast the sharpest arrows of adversity’. Bilderdijk could have written this himself, and in a letter to Southey, alluding to what caused him to abandon his epic, he did say very much the same thing: ‘As for my Ondergang der Eerste Wareld, if it had been continued, I believe it would have had some applause, but in everything it was my lot to be crossed by the course of events. I dare presume that I might have been useful in some respects, but this satisfaction was denied to me’.
Southey and Bilderdijk had more in common than their views on Bilderdijk's adversities. Southey himself said of Bilderdijk: ‘he is as laborious as I have been; has written upon as many subjects: is just as much abused by the Liberals in his country as I am in mine, and does contempt them as heartily and merrily as I do..... The only child, Lodewijk Willem, is at home, Mr. Bilderdijk being as little fond of schools as I am’. Both were poets laureate, both wrote an inordinate amount, both have gone down a long way in the estimation of most critics. But there the comparison ends. Southey built up a great reputation during his lifetime by assiduity and by joining up with the new romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Hard work and conformity to the poetic mode of his time concealed for a while that his talent was small. Bilderdijk's talent, or genius perhaps, was highly original and without any conformist tendencies. He was not a poet who sought to make his mark by adapting himself to what was fashionable, but one who flew in the face of fashion. His originality, together with his intellect, his erudition and his passionate nature ensures that even his bad poetry still holds a fascination. Part of the fascination is undoubtedly due to an uncanny mastery of the language in which he was absolutely unrivalled by any poet of his time.
Like Southey, Bilderdijk practised almost every genre of literature under the sun: lyrical and epic poetry, drama, and
prose. In drama he expressed qualified admiration for the classicist tragedy of Corneille and Racine, but had only scorn for the ‘puerile whims’ of Shakespeare and the work of Schiller which he pronounced ‘savage’ and ‘raving’. In his own dramas he followed the classicist tradition, but tried to add more ‘dynamics’ to it and more ‘heart’. The results were unconvincing. His best known play, Floris V, was tossed off in three days and bears the mark of this in its verbosity and clumsy stage technique. It deals with the same characters as Hooft's Geeraerdt van Velsen, written almost two hundred years earlier, and was clearly written in opposition to it. In Hooft's play Floris was a tyrant who was lawfully deposed by the representatives of the people. Bilderdijk, on the other hand, regarded Floris as the noble prince and sovereign ruler. Written in 1808 when the Netherlands had been a kingdom for only two years, the play was used by Bilderdijk as a vehicle to make propaganda for the monarchical present against the republican past.
The first monarchy was short-lived. In 1810 the Kingdom of Holland was erased from the map and the country was annexed by France. Bilderdijk who had been living on a state pension ran into financial difficulties when his pension was withdrawn, as he found that however much he wrote, living from his pen was impossible. Southey also remarked on this when he was staying with the Bilderdijks: ‘the profits of literature here are miserably small. In that respect I am in relation to them [i.e. the Bilderdijks] what Sir Walter Scott is in relation to me’.
In those difficult years between 1810 and 1815 Bilderdijk wrote a short novel which may well be one of his more lasting works. Its full title is Kort Verhaal van eene Aenmerklijke Luchtreis en Nieuwe Planeetontdekking (Brief Account of a Remarkable Air Voyage and Discovery of a New Planet), and it is one of the very first science-fiction novels, written as it was in 1811, that is more than fifty years before Jules Verne's Cinq semaines en ballon. Bilderdijk published it anonymously, and perhaps to attract more
attention pretended that it had been translated from the Russian. The story is set in Persia where there are many rumours about miraculous flying machines made by the French. The narrator constructs a balloon and makes hydrogen gas to prove to the incredulous Persians that air travel is possible. When the balloon rises, his fellow traveller panics and jumps overboard, throwing all calculations out of gear. The balloon climbs much higher than it was intended to, and finally lands on an unknown planet between the earth and the moon, too small to have been observed from earth. The narrator explores the planet and finds some curious animals that prove to be edible. The water on the planet is bad, brackish and sulphurous, so that he is constantly plagued by thirst. Also - writers' blood tells - he laments the absence of paper. After he has been fiercely attacked by a flock of turkey-like birds, has found a mysterious skeleton and an inscription in Greek, he manages to repair the balloon and to produce a fuel that will send him back into the gravity of earth. He makes a perfect splashdown into the ocean and is picked up by a Russian ship.
The Remarkable Air Voyage was one of the few lighthearted and humorous works to come from Bilderdijk's pen. It caught his readers and critics by surprise and caused some of them to find hidden meanings, symbolism and satirical traits, though no-one was quite sure what the symbolism and satire meant. Otherwise, Bilderdijk's poetry of those years was sombre and morbid. In several poems he took leave of the world and the farewells followed one another in a rapid procession. Titles like Najaarsbladen (Autumn Leaves), Afscheid (Farewell) and Winterbloemen (Winter Flowers) speak volumes. He seems to have contemplated suicide in those days and for a considerable time took refuge in opium.
Then came 1815, the final defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in the Netherlands, or rather the establishment of the first really Dutch monarchy. Bilderdijk
was one of its most enthusiastic supporters and celebrated the new independence in two volumes of poetry entitled Hollands Verlossing (Holland's Liberation). He expected a great deal from the new king Willem I, for the country and no doubt also for himself. But disenchantment came quickly. When Bilderdijk expressed enthusiasm for the monarchy he was thinking in terms of an absolute monarchy. It was a rude awakening when he discovered that the new monarchy was a constitutional monarchy which he regarded as a despicable debasement of royal authority: accepting a constitution was identical with sanctioning the French revolution. In his personal aspirations, too, he was bitterly disappointed by the new regime, particularly when he was passed over for a professorship at Amsterdam on which he had set his heart. He went through a period of great bitterness and expressed himself in violently negative terms on any number of subjects: Napoleon, the French, the liberals, the constitution, the revolution, free thinking, the abolition of slavery, and so on and so forth. In a long didactic and at times humorous poem De Dieren (The Animals) he opposed the early notions of evolution and professed his belief that animals possessed a soul and were descendants of fallen angels.
Few poets have so consistently and so violently opposed the spirit of their own time as Bilderdijk did. He was an arch-conservative to whom any new development was anathema. Through his forceful personality and great eloquence his ideas became widely influential, in particular during the last years of his life - he died in 1831 - when as a kind of private professor he taught a course of Dutch history to a small number of selected students at Leiden. Among the members of that study group were Dirk and Willem van Hogendorp, sons of Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, a historian and founder of the Calvinist Anti-Revolutionary Party, Jacob van Lennep, a novelist and one of the leading men of letters in the middle of the nineteenth century, Isaac da Costa, a poet and Bilderdijks's most devoted disciple who in 1823 followed
in the footsteps of the master when he published his Bezwaren tegen den Geest der Eeuw (Objections to the Spirit of the Age). From this group, too, there originated in the first half of the nineteenth century the movement of the Reveil, a Calvinist movement which was active in literature and in politics, and which carried on Bilderdijk's fight against rationalism, enlightenment and liberalism. It is ironical that Bilderdijk who was in everything he did first and foremost a poet, left a greater mark on the development of political conservatism than on poetry. During his lifetime he was the giant who dominated the literary scene, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the more discerning critics began to write off a large part of his work as rhetorical and hollow. It takes a determined effort to find some convincing poems among the masses of verbose and overwritten poetry which he produced. Yet he was no mediocrity, but a typical case of ‘a genius, but...’ With his work, curiously hybrid in its classicist origin and romantic temperament, one may rightly say that the literature of the eighteenth century came to an end.