war against England, the northern provinces lost most of their colonies: the Cape Colony, Ceylon, Malaya, Sumatra were all taken by the English. Poverty and unemployment were on the increase, especially after Napoleon's Berlin and Milan Decrees of 1806 and 1807 which forbade all trade with England. Trade losses in the North were tremendous and industry declined at a rapid rate. After the Napoleonic period seven hundred thousand people, out of a population of just over two million, were dependent on charity.
Economically the South fared a little better than the North because of its greater wealth of raw materials and also because it was more fully integrated into the economic structure of France. The national debts of the South and the North after the Napoleonic period clearly show the difference: the South owed twenty-six million guilders, the North seven hundred and twenty-six millions, that is sixty-six times as much, or, per head of population, more than a hundred times as much. In 1815 when the North and the South were reunited into a new kingdom under King Willem I, the discrepancy between these figures proved one of the stumbling blocks on the road to a complete fusion.
In cultural respects, however, the South was affected more gravely by French rule than the North since the Dutch elements in its cultural life were severely repressed. Theatres were closed to plays in Dutch, Dutch books and magazines were banned, education became almost exclusively French. In the North the situation was slightly more favourable, at least until 1810. Whereas Napoleon regarded the country only as ‘an alluvium of the French rivers’, or alternatively as ‘a province of England’, his brother Louis who ruled as King of Holland from 1806 until 1810, tried to preserve some of the national identity by making concessions to the use of the Dutch language and by acting on occasion as a patron of the arts. Louis Napoleon, after all, was a kind of Sunday writer himself: he had published a short novel before he came to Holland, and published another one in 1808 under the title of Marie, ou les peines d'amour, later reprinted as Marie, ou
les Hollandaises. Though his knowledge of Dutch always remained sketchy, he took a certain interest in Dutch writing - from which Bilderdijk profited - and he was also instrumental in the foundation of the Royal Institute of Sciences, Letters and Art, the forerunner of the Royal Dutch Academy. But his attempt at independent rule ran counter to his brother's plans, and Louis was forced to abdicate in 1910, after which the North was officially incorporated into the French Empire.
The years of French domination were lean years as far as literature was concerned, and apart from Bilderdijk there were few writers who produced anything of value. The repression of national life and the strict censorship imposed by the French administration may to a large extent be blamed for this. Literature rarely flourishes under those conditions. Some of the writers protested against the general atmosphere of malaise and tried to do something about it, mainly by stirring up nationalist feelings and by recalling the days of the glorious past.
In prose it was Adriaan Loosjes who tried to give the Dutch a moral injection with his four-volume novel Het Leven van Maurits Lijnslager (The Life of Maurits Lijnslager), the first historical novel in Dutch literature. It was published in 1808, during the reign of Louis Napoleon. In the introduction to the book Loosjes stated that he wrote it ‘in order to divert my mind from the calamities that continue to fall upon my afflicted country’. Therefore, he said, he would transport himself to the country's most brilliant period, i.e. the seventeenth century, and specifically the period after the defeat of Spain. This he did, and he brought his hero into the world in the year 1600, two days after the decisive battle of Nieuwpoort. Maurits Lijnslager, a merchant, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He sets out on a grand tour of Europe, combining business with education, and wherever he goes he meets celebrities. He travels through Italy in the company of the painter Anthonie van Dyck, in Genoa he is shown around by Rubens, on the way there he squeezes in an interesting conversation with Galilei, in Switzerland he
meets an Englishman who turns out to be none other than the young Milton with whom he becomes firm friends, he makes the acquaintance of Vondel, visits Grotius in Paris and on the way back to Holland finds Admiral Michiel de Ruyter to be one of his travelling companions, while in his later years he strikes up a friendship with Admiral Cornelis Tromp.
The reader's credulity is stretched to the utmost in this book, but realism was obviously not Loosjes's main concern. Nor was romanticism, and though Maurits Lijnslager must be called a historical novel, it is certainly not a romantic one in the ordinary sense of the word. Everything in the book is presented and interpreted from the point of view of Enlightenment, and little or no attempt is made to present the past as it must have been. Loosjes's aim was not to recreate the past, but to put heart into the Dutch by showing them that in the past at least there was a great deal to be proud of. As such the book probably fulfilled its purpose. It was the first novel that dealt with the seventeenth century and judging from the literature that followed it, it must have acted as a great source of inspiration.
Four years later, in 1812, the poet Jan Frederik Helmers published De Hollandsche Natie (The Dutch Nation), a kind of poetic counterpart of Maurits Lijnslager. It is a poem in six cantos which celebrates the Dutch heritage, also with the accent on the achievements of the seventeenth century, spurring the Dutch on to draw strength from the past in order to overcome the ignominies of the present. As poetry it was undoubtedly weak, rhetorical and bombastic, but as an event it was important. The fierce nationalism of the poem was unacceptable to the censors and it was only published after it had been thoroughly toned down. Yet even the emasculated version was received with such enthusiasm that it, too, aroused the suspicion of the authorities. An order was issued to have Helmers arrested and sent to Paris to be tried, but he died before the police arrived. Though one may not think highly of Helmers as a poet, one must admire his
courage and his attempt to restore the national self-respect.
There were also poets who instead of protesting against the sterile apathy of the present, advocated complacency and advised their readers to count their blessings. As there were few to be found in the life of the nation, they concentrated on the family and the joys of domestic life.
Hendrik Tollens, born in Rotterdam in 1780, quickly became the recognized champion of this domestic poetry in which birthdays in the family, the beautiful eyes of a young son and the first tooth of a baby were celebrated with profound feeling. If, as one sometimes suspects, Tollens was trying to approach these subjects from a lighthearted angle, the conclusion must be that this approach failed dismally, since every attempt at humour was immediately drowned by the pompous and banal versification. In the three volumes of Gedichten (Poems) which were published between 1808 and 1815, Tollens's domesticity alternated with high-flown patriotic songs, but in either genre he proved himself to be merely an apostle of mediocrity, of self-satisfaction and smugness. It is significant for the general atmosphere in the country at that time that Tollens could become a venerated poet who was covered with honours, especially after 1819 when he carried off first prize in a national poetry competition with his Tafereel van de Overwintering der Hollanders op Nova Zembla (Tableau of the Wintering of the Dutch on Novaya Zemlya). It was a long poem, inspired by the fourth canto of Helmers's De Hollandsche Natie, but poetically even weaker than its model. Whereas Helmers, in spite of his rhetoric, now and then succeeded in lending an air of heroism to his characters, Tollens reduced them to a level of triviality. Yet Tollens was an even more popular poet than Helmers, and not only in the Netherlands: his Overwintering was translated into French and Frisian, twice into German and twice into English, including an American edition which came out in 1884.
The patriotic romanticism of Helmers and Tollens was represented in the South by Jan Frans Willems, who later
earned the epithet of ‘father of the Flemish movement’. Willems was born in 1793, became an archivist at Antwerp and later devoted much of his time to historical and philological studies. In his younger years he wrote plays and poetry, and made a great impression with his poem Aan de Belgen (To the Belgians), published in 1818, three years after the North and the South had been reunited to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is a strongly nationalist poem in which the author urged the Flemings not to forget their language and culture. It may be regarded as the southern analogue of De Hollandsche Natie, and, as in the case of Helmers, it was more important as a gesture than as poetry. Also, it was certainly a more positive reaction to the apathetic mood of the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic years than the complacency of Tollens.
The most original poet of his generation was Anthonie C.W. Staring. His first volume came out in 1786 and consisted of romantic poetry, mainly romances in the style of Rhijnvis Feith, sentimental and sombre, but at times also humorous and satirical. Staring was a friend of Feith's, and an admirer of his work, but never a slavish imitator, nor was he ever a one hundred per cent romanticist. Staring's mentality and temperament were of Enlightenment and Rationalism rather than of Romanticism. From his early poems it was clear that his strength did not lie in romantic mood pieces à la Feith or lyrical effusion à la Bilderdijk, but in anecdotal and narrative poetry. From the beginning his style was precise and clear-cut. If Bilderdijk was the most uneconomical poet of his time, one of the greatest word-spenders ever known, Staring was the very antipode of Bilderdijk. His poetry was concise and terse, at a time when conciseness and terseness were not regarded as anything of high value. Small wonder, then, that his contemporaries, used as they were to the broad flow and the explicitness of Bilderdijk, Helmers, Tollens and many others, complained about Staring's obscurity. Another charge brought against him was the ragged form of some of his poems. Staring was the first
poet to break with the dictates of classical metre by which his predecessors and most of his contemporaries - including again Bilderdijk, Helmers and Tollens - were still inescapably bound. He did away with their strict syllable counting and wrote lines of irregular length in which rhythm prevailed over metre. His strong sense of rhythm is one of the most striking technical qualities of Staring's poetry, and not surprising in a man who was deeply interested in music. He drew up plans for the improvement of singing in church, wrote texts for songs and also some cantatas with the specific aim, so he said, of providing work for Dutch composers.
In his choice of subject-matter Staring followed the romantic taste for medieval history and legend, in particular those of Guelderland where he lived all his life as a member of the landed gentry. He wrote about the medieval rulers of Guelderland, on local events during the Eighty Years' War, on the student Jaromir who pretended to be the devil, on the Vampire, on the Nordic god Thor, but also on the first steam-train, the pines on his estate and on love. His poetry reflects little of the political upheavals of his time. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the establishment of the Kingdom of Holland, the annexation of the Netherlands by France, the liberation of 1813, the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, the reunification of the North and the South, the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and the subsequent separation - all events which rocked the country - are barely mentioned in his work. There is a short poem on the battle of Waterloo and a few poems on the Belgian Revolution, when emotion overwhelmed his customary sobermindedness and he exhorted the young men of the Netherlands to fight against what was regarded as Belgian treachery. Otherwise he cultivated his garden, looked after his estate and wrote agricultural brochures on the manufacturing of resin, on asphalt roads, the planting of American poplars and the destruction of fieldmice.
Staring was not a popular poet as Helmers or Tollens were, and probably never will be. He was an erudite man,
very well-read, and with interests that ranged from poetry to agriculture, and from archaeology to the study of dialects. His erudition, in combination with his unusually terse diction, makes considerable demands on his readers. He himself expressed this with a touch of irony in one of the many epigrams which he wrote:
Krijn las, en zei, zoo tusschen waken
en dutten in: ‘dat - kon - wel - klaarder - zijn!’
Voor die half slapen, lieve Krijn,
Staring's romanticism was really no more than skin-deep and manifested itself mainly in his choice of subjects. When he was writing, the first wave of romanticism with Feith as its chief exponent, had lost much of its original momentum. In the 1820s, however, romanticism asserted itself again, and this time its influence was much stronger and far more widespread. This second phase of romanticism was also distinctly different from the first phase. The early romanticism of the 1780s was largely inspired by French and German literature; during the second phase the English influence became dominant, particularly through the work of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.
At the same time, the emphasis which until then had been placed on ‘feeling’, began to shift towards ‘imagination’. In 1822 Barthold H. Lulofs, a professor at Groningen and a great friend of Staring's, made a strong plea for a new romantic literature in the Netherlands, a literature based on history, folklore and dreams, and one which would give free rein to the ‘romantic play of the imagination’. A few years later, David J. van Lennep, professor of Classics at Amsterdam, followed this up in an essay which bore the
ponderous but programmatic title of Verhandeling over het Belangrijke van Hollands Grond en Oudheden voor Gevoel en Verbeelding (Treatise on the Importance of the Soil and Antiquities of Holland for Feeling and Imagination). In this paper he recommends the native landscape and local history as sources for the poet's imagination and drew attention to the fact that no-one in the Netherlands had yet followed in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott. A year earlier, in 1826, he himself had given an example in his poem Hollandsche Duinzang (Dutch Dune Song), written in classical anapaests, in which he recalled the historic importance of the dunes near Haarlem and lamented the loss of so many monuments of early history. David van Lennep's work made a great impression and its influence can be measured by the fact that almost all themes occurring in the literature between the 1820s and the early 1840s can be traced back to his Verhandeling.
Yet there were also sceptics, writers and scholars who had grown up in the tradition of classicism and who found it difficult to become enthusiastic about the new approach to literature. In 1833 Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen carried a review of Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse by its editor Jacob Yntema, in which the question was asked: What can Europe expect from a nation whose moral sense has become so barbarised that it finds pleasure, nay, delight in such monstrous literature? A year later a similar review of Hugo's Marie Tudor appeared in the same paper. Now Yntema was clearly not a sceptic but an uncompromising opponent of French romanticism. The most erudite and eloquent of the former was Jacob Geel. Born in 1789, he studied classics and became Librarian of the University Library at Leiden. He did not write much, and all his literary work is contained within Onderzoek en Phantasie (Inquiry and Fantasy, 1838), a single volume of essays and lectures. The quantity is small, but the writing is so clear and unpretentious for its time that Geel must be regarded as a real innovator in Dutch prose style.
In one of his essays, Gesprek op den Drachenfels (Discussion on Mount Drachenfels), dating from 1835 and written in the form of a Platonic dialogue, he weighed romanticism against classicism. The discussion is carried on by two friends, one of whom is fiercely in favour of romanticism whereas the other is a scornful opponent. The narrator himself, undoubtedly representing Geel's own point of view, endeavours to keep an open mind but in the course of the debate cannot help revealing his own grave doubts about romanticism and where it would lead. The discussion centres on the limits of reality and the rôle of description in literature. Naturally, nothing was resolved by the dispute, but its intellectual level and imaginative presentation make it stand out as a landmark in the debate on romanticism.
In spite of the reservations of Geel and others, literature was inexorably set on a course towards romanticism, one of whose first adepts was Jacob van Lennep, the son of David. He was born in 1802, studied law at Amsterdam, took a brief interest in theology, then entered the civil service and was appointed solicitor to the Treasury at the early age of twenty-seven. As a writer he took heed of what his father had written in the Verhandeling and began by publishing a number of romantic historical poems under the title of Nederlandsche Legenden (Dutch Legends), all set in the Middle Ages and written in short lines of three and four-beat iambics. After this publication, although he now and again returned to poetry, he concentrated mainly on prose and quickly developed into a very popular author of historical novels, modelled on Scott, especially the Scott of Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward.
Van Lennep's first novel, De Pleegzoon (The Fosterson), published in 1833, was set in the seventeenth century, the period which during the nineteenth century was long held up as an example to the present. As the title indicates, one of the main themes of the book is the tracking down of a mysterious parentage, which entails a great many adventures and unexpected happenings. Most of
Van Lennep's novels - De Pleegzoon as well as De Roos van Dekama (The Rose of Dekama), Ferdinand Huyck and several lesser known ones - have a strong picaresque element: they are just as much novels of adventure as they are historical novels, if not more so. They abound in mysteries, foster-children, supposititious sons, and parents who disappear and turn up again in the most unpredictable places and situations. Love stories in these books are never simple and straightforward, but of great complexity and apparent insolubility. They are not so because of the complexity of the characters, but because of the intricacies of the plot. Plot is the main thing in Van Lennep's novels, and one must still admire his deftness in constructing highly complicated situations and his elegant way of disentangling them. He was undeniably a narrator of unusual skill, for few writers would be able to hold the attention of their readers with as little character drawing as Van Lennep does. Most of his figures are sketchy, schematic and very flat in comparison to the characters in the novels of Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken, written about fifty years earlier. Van Lennep's characters conscientiously followed the plots that were mapped out for them, so that there is never any suggestion of the characters creating the plot.
Van Lennep's novels made him the most popular writer of his time. His sales were large, he went on lecture tours, read from his work to enthusiastic audiences, became the idol of the public and in his later years was generally regarded as the grand old man of Dutch letters. Success of this kind cries out for imitation, and after Van Lennep's books there followed a spate of historical novels. Gradually their character changed, the picaresque element receded into the background and more and more care was given to historical authenticity, something which Van Lennep had not paid a great deal of attention to. With the growing interest in historical detail, the historical novel often became a showcase in which the author devoted all his energies to a display of historical knowledge, making
light of plot and characterization.
Other writers, Aarnout Drost for example, made the historical novel into a novel of ideas. Drost's main work, Hermingard van de Eikenterpen (Hermingard of the Oak-Hills), published in 1832, presents a picture of Christianity in the fourth century, and although some reminiscences of the novel of adventure can still be found in it, its aim is to show that the only true form of Christianity is evangelical Christianity, as against a Christianity which aspires to attain secular power. This idea, obviously reflecting the author's own conviction, pervades the whole book and makes it into a far more personal novel than the non-committal adventure stories of Jacob van Lennep. Drost died in 1834 at the age of twenty-four, before he had been able to complete his second novel, De Pestilentie van Katwijk (The Plague at Katwijk), set in the seventeenth century. Small though his own oeuvre may have been, it opened up new possibilities for the development of the historical novel.
The first to adopt the new approach was A.L. Geertruida Toussaint. In her first novel, De Graaf van Devonshire (The Earl of Devonshire) of 1838, she immediately showed that the ideas of the historical period - in this case the time of Elizabeth and Mary Tudor - and the bearing of these ideas on the characters, were her main concern. The book still bears the stamp of Scott, but at the same time Geertruida Toussaint made it clear that she had certain reservations about Scott and that she did not want to be regarded as an uncritical imitator. In her preface to the book she stated that the only thing in which she had tried to follow Scott was the ‘authenticity of historical characters’, adding that this might absolve the author from many an offence against history itself. Her chief interest was in character, and was to remain so throughout her work, even though she sometimes was carried away by her own historical knowledge and heaped historical detail upon historical detail.
Her first work was on the whole well received, except by the leading critic E.J. Potgieter, who in the new literary
journal De Gids (The Guide) criticized her choice of English subject-matter and advised her to turn her attention to the history of the Netherlands. Her publisher was of the same opinion and asked her specifically to write a novel on the influence of the Reformation on daily life in the Netherlands. After two more novels on English history, she followed their advice and in 1840 published Het Huis Lauernesse (The House of Lauernesse), still her best-known book. It is set in the first years of the reign of Charles V when the Reformation was beginning to spread through the Low Countries and the Inquisition was claiming its first victims. The central idea of the book is akin to that of Hermingard van de Eikenterpen : pure Christianity will triumph over Christianity which seeks power, while its main theme is the impact made by the Reformation on the characters and the relations between them. As such it was a much more ambitious work than anything by Van Lennep or Drost. Het Huis Lauernesse, concerned as it is with the psychological implications of certain events on a set of characters, must be regarded as an early form of the psychological novel. This can also be said of her other books, most significant of which are the Leicester novels, a trilogy set in the period when the Earl of Leicester was Governor of the Netherlands. The psychology in all of these books is still static. The characters are seen and described from a given point of view, they react to one another, and the motivations of their actions and reactions are given unfailingly, and usually plausibly, but the characters themselves stay as they are and do not develop.
Only in one of her last novels, Majoor Frans (Major Frans) did Geertruida Toussaint - who was then married to the painter Johannes Bosboom - attempt to describe a character in development. Like Het Huis Lauernesse, Majoor Frans was written in response to a suggestion, in this case by Potgieter who after the publication of her latest historical novel had remarked that she ought to write a novel in a modern setting. In Majoor Frans, then, the psychology is no longer static, but
dynamic, since the novel closely follows the development to maturity of a wild and passionate young girl. In the history of the modern psychological novel, it was a decisive step forward. But Majoor Frans was published in 1874 and by that time the literary situation in the Netherlands was radically different from the 1830s and 1840s when Jacob van Lennep and Geertruida Toussaint published their first novels.
In the 1830s and 1840s the dominating prose genre was the historical novel, in the North as well as in the South. In the South - which after the separation of 1839 became the Kingdom of Belgium - the genre was energetically represented by Hendrik Conscience, born in 1812, the same year as Geertruida Toussaint. Conscience was also a follower of Scott's though closer in approach to Van Lennep than to Geertruida Toussaint. As a novelist he ranks well below either. His novels - exactly one hundred in all - are often clumsily put together and lack Van Lennep's sureness of touch in handling plot. His characterization is crude and superficial, there is often a complete lack of historical authenticity. But he was the first novelist to emerge from the South in a period which followed a two centuries long suppression of Dutch cultural life. For him there was no tradition of prose writing on which to fall back: if Wolff and Deken and Van Lennep must be regarded as pioneers in the field of the Dutch novel in the North, this qualification applies with double force to Conscience in the South. Also, his aim in writing was not solely literary. He was fiercely committed to the cause of the Flemings, and though he lacked in sophistication and technique, he did not lack in enthusiasm nor in the power to transmit it. His influence, therefore, was immeasurably more profound than the purely literary value of his work would indicate. He wrote with the express purpose of waking up the Flemings, of making them read again, as he said, and in that he certainly was successful. He became one of the most popular Belgian writers of all time, whose best books - De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders) and Jacob van Artevelde - are still read and whose work has been extensively translated into French, English and German.
While the novel of the 1830s and 1840s developed under the patronage of Scott, the poetry of those years bore the unmistakable imprint of Byron. It was an influence so strong that none of the young poets escaped it. The Byron vogue had started as early as 1822 when the poet Isaac da Costa published a partial translation of Cain which had come out in England only the year before. Da Costa belonged to the generation of Jacob van Lennep, and was a disciple and close friend of Bilderdijk who was so taken by Da Costa's translation that both he and his wife also began to translate Byron. It seems incongruous that the Byron vogue was initiated by Da Costa and Bilderdijk, who were both ardent Calvinists and anti-modernists, and to whom the spirit of Byron's poetry must have been entirely alien. Da Costa himself was well aware of this, and his translation of Cain was not only selective, but also polemic in the additions which he made to it. Nicolaas Beets, the most enthusiastic of the Byron imitators, was also a Calvinist and even a student of theology when he wrote his first Byronic poems. In 1834, at the age of twenty, he published José, Een Spaans Verhaal (José, A Spanish Tale), the next year Kuser and in 1837 Guy de Vlaming (Guy the Fleming). Passionate, insane, consumptive, incestuous and deeply miserable as his characters may be, they are really no more than pale shadows of Byron's personages. Beet's romanticism, just like Feith's fifty years earlier, seems unreal and artificial. After 1837 Beets shook off his Byronic mal de siècle, rejected his earlier poems and in an essay of 1839 spoke ashamedly about his ‘black period’. It was unfortunate that the Dutch poets were more impressed by the sombre seriousness of, say, The Corsair or Childe Harold than by the irony and mockery of Don Juan, for when Beets followed the style of the latter poem, as he did in De Masquerade of 1835, he was a great deal more successful. De Masquerade describes students' festivities at Leiden in a very entertaining style, full of playfully extravagant imagery, Byronic digressions, commentaries and ironic asides which one would not have thought possible of
the morbid author of Guy de Vlaming.
In 1842 the opponents of Romanticism, and in particular of the Byronic variety, launched a series of cutting attacks in the form of parodies and satires. A group of poets, of whom J.J.L. ten Kate and A. Winkler Prins were the most active, set up a critical magazine Braga , entirely written in verse, in which they ridiculed the Byron vogue and unmercifully trounced Beets. Though the imitation of Byron persisted in a slightly subdued form throughout the 1840s - as in Hendrik A. Meijer's De Boekanier (The Buccaneer) and Heemskerk - Braga certainly thinned out the field.
When Braga gave up the ghost in 1843 the art of parody did not die with it. On the contrary, thirteen years later it reached an all-time high in the work of Piet Paaltjens who published his first poems in the Leiden Students' Almanac of 1856. Piet Paaltjens was the pen-name of François Haverschmidt, who was born in Leeuwarden in 1835 and came to Leiden in 1852 to study theology. He was known as a cheerful and jolly student, but both in his prose sketches collected in 1876 as Familie en Kennissen (Relations and Acquaintances), and especially in his poetry one can discern beneath the conviviality the unconquerable melancholy which in 1894 made him put an end to his life. His output was small, but the single volume of poetry, Snikken en Grimlachjes (Sobs and Grimaces), which he did not publish until 1867, assured him of a unique place in Dutch romanticism. There is a strong element of parody in these poems, but it would be wrong to regard them as parodies pure and simple: Haverschmidt was part of romanticism, not an opponent of it. He did parody the romanticism of Beets, Heine, Goethe, Byron and several others, but there is always far more of himself present in these poems than the poets he cocked a snook at. As Nieuwenhuys rightly says, he wrote parodies of Beets because Beets was his favourite poet and he caricatured the suicidal man because he was one himself. Piet Paaltjens provided him with an outlet for his own melancholy, sentimental and macabre feelings, which he tried
to render harmless with irony and parody. The poems are in his own words ‘a good remedy for the very illness from which they seem to result’. Though they are often very funny because of the exaggerated use of the romantic style, their humour is not gratuitous but of a complicated self-protecting kind which does not really attack the romantics but tries to exorcize their demons, who were tormenting the poet himself. When Piet Paaltjens ran out of steam and stopped writing, the demons could no longer be warded off and destroyed Haverschmidt.
The poetry of Piet Paaltjens proved much more durable than the imitative romantic poetry of Beets which Braga and Paaltjens were laughing at. As far as Beets was concerned, their ridicule was unnecessary as he had ceased to write Byronic poetry as early as 1837, devoting himself to religious and domestic poetry until shortly before his death in 1903. When Braga appeared, his Byronic period was no more to him than a sin of his youth. Yet Beets is not remembered for his later poetry either, however impressive its quantity may be, but for another youthful sin, his book Camera Obscura which he published in 1839 under the pseudonym of Hildebrand.
Camera Obscura is a collection of sketches and stories written when Beets was still a student of theology at the University of Leiden. It is a book that links up with the humorist tradition of Laurence Sterne, Charles Lamb and Washington Irving, while the names of Heinrich Heine and Charles Dickens have also been invoked as literary ancestors. But Beets so thoroughly assimilated these various influences that one Camera Obscura. The Beets of this book was very different from the one who wrote the exalted and excited Byron imitations, or, for that matter, from the one who having become a minister of the church and later professor of theology, poured out volume after volume of sweet and sentimental verse. Camera Obscura, though mildly romantic and at times not unsentimental, is basically a realistic book
mainly concerned with description of character and observation of situation. As such it owes a considerable debt to the work of Wolff and Deken. Its humour is subtle and gently ironic, never offensive, never developing into satire. Beets was a critic of the bourgeois society of the 1830s, but a loyal critic. He never took up a far-out position, he never went to extremes, he ridiculed only what must have been obviously ridiculous to most of his readers: the woodenness of the student Pieter Stastok in De Familie Stastok or the bragging of the parvenu Kegge in De Familie Kegge . His ridicule is never malicious and always has an undertone of sympathy and understanding. He may laugh at Pieter Stastok, but at moments when it matters he takes his side; he may poke fun at the flashiness of Mr. Kegge, but the story has not been under way for very long before he makes the reader feel sympathetic towards him too. Only obvious villains, such as van der Hoogen in De Familie Stastok are dealt with harshly, for Camera Obscura is also a highly moral book in which the good are rewarded and the bad come to a sticky end. It was written in an excellent style which avoided all stiffness, stiltedness and grandiloquence. Beets's aim was, as he said, to strip the language of its Sunday suit - as Geel had done a few years earlier - and in doing so he made an important contribution to the development of Dutch prose writing. A failing of the book is the highly favourable role which the author reserved for himself and played with unflinching relish. Hildebrand, the ‘I’ in the book, can do no wrong. He is always the sensible, calm, noble young man who is master of every situation. He has an excellent sense of humour so long as he is looking at the others, but where he is concerned with himself, he becomes very serious indeed. Consequently, when he keeps himself out of the story, it gains considerably, as in the case of Een Oude Kennis (An Old Acquaintance) which describes the estrangement of two old friends. The stories of which the book is made up are really sketches, not novellas or short novels. The characterizations are sharp, but static, the situations are generally
loosely connected and without dramatic development. But the observations are uncannily shrewd and have given the book its lasting value. It has become a classic and is one of the two books of the nineteenth century that are most frequently translated, most widely read and most regularly reprinted. It was an immediate success when it came out, both with the general public and the critics. Only Potgieter, the leading critic of De Gids , took exception to it. Potgieter expected more from imagination than from realism, and he rejected the book as another example of the ‘desire to copy everyday life’. He complimented Beets on his drawing of character and the excellence of his style, but for the rest his praise was so faint as to be damning. The critical arrows which he aimed at his target were sharp enough, but fell wide of the mark. He accused Beets of pessimism, of lack of warmth and of an inhumane approach to his characters. Potgieter always identified himself entirely with the bourgeois society which Beets gently ridiculed, and he may have felt personally slighted by the book. Why else would he have over-reacted by calling De Familie Stastok a satire, when it was nothing more serious than a good-natured take-off of some of the stuffier representatives of that society?
Everhardus J. Potgieter was born in 1808 which made him Beets's senior by six years. He spent his early years in Zwolle, until in 1821 an aunt took him to Amsterdam because of financial and domestic difficulties at home. After more financial adversity, Potgieter and his aunt went to Antwerp as representatives of a sugar firm. They arrived there in 1826 when the North and the South still formed an uneasy United Kingdom. Potgieter, who was eighteen years old then, found himself in the midst of a complicated political situation, characterized by grievances of the Belgians against the Dutch administration, and tensions between Flemings and Walloons. The most useful literary contact he made in those years was with Jan Frans Willems, the champion of the Flemish movement. Potgieter's own part in the controversies of those days was that of an observer,
loyal to the Dutch but also sympathetic towards the demands of the Belgians. Four years later, when the Belgian Revolution broke out, he left Antwerp and went back to Amsterdam from where he was sent on a business trip to Sweden. Back in Amsterdam in 1832, he settled down and gradually built up a business of his own as a representative of various commercial firms.
Potgieter published his first poetry during his stay at Antwerp. It was romantic poetry in which the echoes of Byron, Lamartine and Victor Hugo can clearly be heard. In Sweden he wrote the poem Holland which no anthologist ever passes over and which begins with the following stanza:
Grauw is uw hemel en stormig uw strand,
Naakt zijn uw duinen en effen uw velden.
U schiep natuur met een stiefmoeders hand, -
After his return from Sweden, Potgieter joined up with a group of young writers who were frustrated by the conservatism of the literary magazines and were thinking of setting up a periodical of their own. The most prominent members of this group were Aarnout Drost, the author of Hermingard van de Eikenterpen and Reinier Bakhuizen van den Brink, a theologian, historian and philologist. In 1834 they brought out the first issue of a new magazine which they called De Muzen (The Muses). It was a magazine of high quality, too high-brow, in fact, to reach a wide audience: it never achieved more than eighty subscriptions and consequently lapsed after six months. Potgieter contributed prose and poetry to it, and also criticism. From the beginning his critiques were sharp and pulled no punches, though the early ones were written in a curiously self-conscious style, half serious and half humorous, obviously the
work of a man who was still trying to find a personal style and approach. Yet it was as a critic that he was to make his name and was to exercise his greatest influence on the course of Dutch literature.
His chance came in 1837, three years after the untimely demise of De Muzen, when as a result of a quarrel between two publishers a new periodical was set up. It was given the bold name of De Gids (The Guide), and while De Muzen was one of the shortest-lived of all Dutch literary magazines, De Gids was to beat all records for longevity and it is still going strong today. Potgieter became its chief editor, if not in name then in practice, and in a short while made it into the most influential magazine of its time. He displayed a tremendous energy, published poetry - romances and ballads in the romantic style -, short stories, sketches, and a great deal of criticism. In the prospectus of De Gids it had been announced that there was no proper critical review in the Netherlands and that it was a matter of national self-respect to alter this state of affairs. De Gids certainly did that. It became so critical, in fact, that because of its blue cover, it earned for itself the name of ‘de blauwe beul’ (the blue executioner).
In the first volume of De Gids Potgieter made his position clear. He advocated - as De Muzen had done - a criticism that was unbiassed and not directed at the author himself, but at the work. Yet his criticism was essentially moralistic and far more concerned with the author's approach to life and society than with questions of aesthetics or technique. In his elaborate and very appreciative review of Staring's poetry, for instance, he praised Staring's originality and versatility, his knowledge of seventeenth-century poetry and his ‘sensible view of life’, but stopped short of a technical analysis: ‘we regard it as superfluous to draw attention to the merits of his versification’, he stated, and asked: ‘what purpose would be served by a cold analysis of the beauties of these original poems?’ He also took issue with the Byronic vogue which was still raging in 1837, and when Beets
published his José he cautiously yet determinedly counselled him to turn in another direction. Potgieter was often a harsh critic, but his aims were constructive. He was assuming the leadership of the new generation of writers and in a paternally authoritarian manner tried to steer them in the direction which he regarded as the most rewarding. What he demanded from the young writers was originality, imagination, an interest in the past, particularly in the seventeenth century and also a belief in the virtues of the liberal bourgeois society in which he himself believed so strongly. When a work fell short of these demands, he reacted against it, however great its literary value might have been. He more or less told Geertruida Toussaint to switch from English to Dutch history, but when Het Huis Lauernesse turned out to be an apologetic Christian novel rather than a national historical novel, he declined to review it. He also rejected Camera Obscura , surely the most valuable prose book of the first half of the nineteenth century, because he regarded Beets's realism as a lack of imagination, and also because he was irritated by his disdain of the Dutch bourgeoisie.
Potgieter's creative work, too, gave evidence of his interest in national life. In 1841 he published one of his most successful stories: Jan, Jannetje en Hun Jongste Kind (Jan, Jannetje and Their Youngest Child), which in allegorical form discusses the decline of the Netherlands after the glory of the seventeenth century. All the sons of Jan - Janmaat the sailor, Jan Contant and Jan Crediet who represent Dutch trade, Jan Compagnie the adventurer who made good in the Colonies, and many others - made the country great through their energy and enterprise, but their achievements are jeopardized by the youngest son Jan Salie, a good-for-nothing who represents everything in Dutch life that is dull and apathetic. Nothing will ever move again in the Netherlands so long as Jan Salie is around. On New Year's Eve, father Jan and his sons decide to make a new start by getting rid of Jan Salie and consigning him to an institution. Potgieter was an optimist who foresaw a great future
for the country if only the spirit of Jan Salie could be overcome and be replaced by the vitality of the seventeenth century. Two years later he returned to the same subject in an impressive essay entitled Het Rijksmuseum te Amsterdam, in which he used the picture collection of the museum as the basis for a glorification of the seventeenth century, all the time urging the Dutch to revive the Golden Age, from the beginning of the essay with its repeated ‘there was a time when...’ to the ending with its exhortation to be inspired by the heritage of the past. He also tried to create a new national poetry with his Liedekens van Bontekoe (Songs of Bontekoe), published in 1840. It was a small volume of ten poems, written to seventeenth-century tunes and dealing mainly with seventeenth-century subjects. It was an interesting experiment and the poems were pleasant and clever enough, but the attempt itself was too artificial to have any lasting effect.
In his efforts to bring about a national revival, Potgieter had an energetic partisan in Bakhuizen van den Brink who joined the editorial board of De Gids in 1838. Bakhuizen was a very talented scholar and writer, but also a man who had great difficulty in organizing his personal life. He ran up some large debts and in 1843 hastily retreated to Belgium to avoid imprisonment. His departure was a heavy blow, not only to Geertruida Toussaint, to whom he was engaged but whom he never married, but also to Potgieter and De Gids. Other editors took his place, yet no-one could really replace him, and his absence was one of the reasons why in the late 1840s and the 1850s De Gids seemed to go down-hill. In those years Potgieter himself was becoming more and more discouraged and dejected when he realized that the revival for which he had worked so hard was as far away as ever. He became lonely and wrote far less than he did before.
In the late 1850s, however, the tide turned and in the 60s both Potgieter and De Gids embarked on a new and productive period which to a large extent may be attributed
to the emergence of the critical talent of Conrad Busken Huet. When Huet came into contact with Potgieter, he was a young clergyman with very liberal ideas and a great literary ambition. He was born in 1826, studied theology at Leiden, and became a minister at Haarlem in 1850. But, as he wrote in a letter to a friend, he knew more about French poetry than about the New Testament. His theology was unorthodox and strongly influenced by the Bible criticism of David Strauss, the author of Das Leben Jesu (1835). In 1858 Huet published his own ideas on modern theology in Brieven over den Bijbel (Letters on the Bible), a book that was decried by the conservatives and the orthodox, and applauded by the liberals, though even they were critical of Huet's colloquial style. Brieven over den Bijbel was not directly concerned with literature, but a few years earlier he had published a small collection of stories and sketches in Groen en Rijp (Green and Ripe), while in the years when he wrote his Bible criticism he was also publishing, under a pseudonym, a series of Brieven van een Klein-Stedeling (Letters from a Smalltownsman) which show a glimpse of the future satirical critic. In an attack on smugness and stolid respectability he wrote:
You take refuge in an appeal to Jan Salie? You try to win over our widows and the spinsters of our almshouses? You speculate on our national dislike of immodesty? You shake your powdered mane and throw dust into the eyes of the people? Go ahead, you Dutch scribes and pharisees! Constant dripping wears the stone, and even if your shining scalps were not only as smooth as a bare knee but also as hard as blue-stone, Truth will take revenge for the indignity offered her by you. With little drops she will drill a hole into that most respectable lid of your most unapproachable brains! Drilling such holes hurts!
This was hardly language that one expected from a minister of the Calvinist church in 1858, and it was not long before Huet's position in Haarlem became difficult. He hesitated for several years about what to do, until in 1862 he made up his mind, resigned from the ministry and accepted
appointment as foreign editor of a Haarlem newspaper. Two years earlier he had made his debut as a literary critic with an elaborate article on the poetry of Willem Bilderdijk in which he did irreparable damage to Bilderdijk's reputation. Potgieter immediately recognized Huet as the coming man in Dutch literary criticism and encouraged him to write regularly for De Gids . In 1863 he asked him to become a member of the editorial board, which Huet accepted. Potgieter, who was the life and soul of De Gids, expected much from Huet and treated him exceptionally well, allowing him much higher fees for his articles than any of the other editors and assigning practically all important reviews to him. Huet, ambitious and eager to establish himself was the literary critic, worked hard, and there is no doubt that with his editorship a new chapter began in the history of De Gids and literary criticism in the Netherlands.
Though Potgieter and Huet respected and admired each other greatly, their approach to literature and criticism showed marked differences. Huet was strongly influenced by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve whose Causeries du lundi (1851-1862) was one of his favourite books. Consequently, Huet always involved the whole of a writer's personality in his criticism, including all available biographical and psychological data, whereas Potgieter was more concerned with the writer's view of life and society. Potgieter always tried to keep personal matters out of his criticism. Huet did not believe in this and wrote deliberately, fearlessly, but sometimes unfairly, about the personal lives of his subjects. Nor did Huet seem to believe in the original critical program of De Gids as it was published in the prospectus of 1836: ‘to replace the sterile criticism of faults by the fruitful and noble criticism of beauty’. Potgieter always adhered to this, and though he did not lack sharpness, he was humane and praised whenever it was at all possible to praise. Huet, on the other hand, with unfailing accuracy discovered the Achilles' heel and then shot his arrow home. Compared with the causticity of Huet, Potgieter's sharpness seems mild. This
does not mean that Huet was a negative or destructive critic. He wrote appreciative articles on a great many writers, both Dutch and foreign, but throughout his critical work the accent more often fell on ‘fault’ than on ‘beauty’. He shared Potgieter's interest in the seventeenth century, but with more reservations. He was mainly attracted to Hooft, whereas Vondel, Bredero and Huygens meant less to him than they did to Potgieter. For Cats he had only scorn, and in a famous article he slated him for the first time so thoroughly that Cats's reputation has never been the same since.
In later years, Huet collected his articles in a series of books under the title of Literarische Fantasieën en Kritieken , twenty-five volumes in all and a monument of literary criticism. The first half of the title was curious and drew attention to the creative aspect of Huet's criticism. For in Huet the critic, the creative writer was never far behind. In 1864 he tried to fuse criticism with story-writing, which had the unforeseen result of leading to a break with De Gids. In the January issue of 1865 he published a dramatized book review: Een Avond aan het Hof (An Evening at the Court) in which he had the Queen and four of her companions make fun of a recent anthology. The Queen was not amused and had a sharp letter of protest written to the editorial board. To make matters worse, the same issue carried an attack by Huet on the Liberal Party to which De Gids was more or less committed. Both contributions caused a great stir. In Potgieter's view it was all a storm in a tea-cup, but the other editors were not to be pacified and Huet had to resign from De Gids. Potgieter then resigned in sympathy.
Huet's editorship of De Gids was brief, but forceful and influential, his collaboration with Potgieter fruitful. It is unlikely that Huet would have written as much as he did without Potgieter's constant encouragement and without the opportunities which Potgieter provided for him. Huet, in his turn, rendered Potgieter an important service by editing a volume of his prose, which became unexpectedly popular and gave Potgieter the recognition as a creative writer on which he
had no longer counted. Though Potgieter and Huet differed greatly in character and temperament, the bonds between them were firm, and to recover from the emotions of January 1865 they went to Florence together to take part in the large-scale celebrations commemorating the six-hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth. Poetically, the trip bore fruit in Potgieter's long poem Florence, published in 1868. It was his most ambitious poem so far. As a homage to Dante it was written in tercets, and in a series of tableaux it evoked Dante's life and work, and the Italian Renaissance in general. At the same time the whole poem was permeated with Potgieter's political idealism and his appreciation of the Italian unity which had been achieved only a few years earlier.
After 1865 the relation between Potgieter and Huet gradually became a little strained. Huet turned away from the liberal doctrine to which Potgieter attached so much value, and their views on national and international politics began to grow apart. Their friendship was severely tested in 1867 when Huet suddenly accepted an appointment as editor-in-chief of the Java-bode and sailed for the Indies in May 1868. Later that year it transpired that Huet's passage had been paid by the government and that he had committed himself to advise the government on ways and means to control the liberal press in the Indies. When this became known there was an outcry among the liberals over Huet's betrayal. Potgieter was deeply shocked and at first refused to believe it. Yet he continued to defend Huet whenever necessary: if there ever was a loyal friend, it was Potgieter. Huet himself was very conscious of the impropriety of his actions, and in a letter to his brother-in-law, Dr. J.C. van Deventer, he defended himself by saying: ‘You do not find it admirable that I, in order to obtain a free passage, have undertaken to draw up a report, and what is more (doubly precarious for a future journalist) to draw up a report on the press in the Indies. Nor do I. But on the other hand I do not see why I should be bound to perform a
continuous series of admirable deeds’. A cynicism perhaps, but in the same letter he made it clear that political liberalism had lost its meaning for him and that he regarded the liberal colonial policy as ‘humbug’.
In the same year 1868 there was another Huet-affair, for shortly after he left the Netherlands, his first novel Lidewyde came out. He had worked on it, off and on, for several years and had just finished it before his departure. It was eagerly anticipated, for during his years as a literary critic he had made enemies galore, and several of them could hardly wait to pounce on his book and settle some old scores. It was also quickly discovered that the book was immoral, and one of the critics wrote that Huet was like the devil who when he goes away, leaves his stench behind.
Lidewyde was an easy catch for the critics. It was a very full book, full of characters, full of ideas and full of criticism. But what Huet had wanted to depict in the first place was passion. ‘Art is passion’, he wrote in the introduction, but however much Huet may have professed that passion was the basis of all art, he did not succeed in transmitting much of it to his characters. They lack life and veracity, and more often than not they are just names that make pronouncements. Time and again Huet stops all action and indulges in straightforward essay-writing. His characters carry on long discussions on politics, history and art, in the course of which they have harsh things to say about literature, liberalism and life in general in the Netherlands. It would be unfair to identify Huet with all negative views expressed by the characters in his book, but on the other hand there is little doubt that he used the novel to air his views on a good many things that he detested. As a novel Lidewyde may be a failure, as a book it is important for the exposé it gives of Huet's ideas.
In the Indies, Huet developed into an excellent journalist and made the Java-bode into a first-rate newspaper. Potgieter assisted him from afar by sending in critical and essayistic material, and long letters full of literary news and
gossip. Potgieter's own literary activities in those years centred mainly on the preparation of his collected (or selected) poetry. The pièce de résistance of his new volume was a cycle of poems written in 1872 and 1873 under the title of De Nalatenschap van den Landjonker (Posthumous Papers of the Country Squire). Potgieter claimed to have been entrusted with these poems by a friend of his, a young country squire from Guelderland. The mystification was so successful that even writers who were as close to him as Geertruida Toussaint and Huet were misled by it.
De Nalatenschap is a very intricate work. The first part is made up of fourteen poems in which the country squire tells of his love for a beautiful woman; these love poems are interspersed by others which describe scenes from country life. The second part bears the title of Gedroomd Paardrijden (Dream Ride) and consists of one long poem of nearly four hundred stanzas of six lines each. It represents a dream in which the country squire rides on horseback through the past and witnesses several historical events, until, still within the framework of the dream, his love is fulfilled. Gedroomd Paardrijden is a remarkably varied poem, sometimes visionary, sometimes descriptive and narrative, but always very imaginative. It ranges from seriousness in its representation of Potgieter's beloved seventeenth century to humour and playfulness in its whimsical digressions. In no other poem did Potgieter realize his poetic potentialities so fully, probably because the framework of the dream - apart from serving as a unifying element - allowed him to give free rein to the imagination, which to him was always the first requirement of poetry:
Verbeeldingswereld zijn geen grenzen aangewezen
Als tijd en ruimte om 't zeerst 't onz' werkelijke doen:
Wat zij verdwenen wenscht, of wat zij wenscht verrezen,
Het deinst! het daagt! 't volstaat dat zij de zucht durft voên;
Des wijsgeers ergernis, die haar de les blijft lezen
De Nalatenschap van den Landjonker appeared in Potgieter's volume Poëzy II which was published in 1875. It was his last work, and he died in the same year.
A year later Huet returned from the Indies. In 1873 he had resigned from the Java-bode and had started a newspaper of his own, Algemeen Dagblad voor Nederlandsch-Indië (General Daily for the Netherlands-Indies) which he intended to conduct from Europe. After his return he felt out of place in the Netherlands and settled in Paris where he continued to be as productive as ever. He wrote two more novels: Josefine and Robert Bruce's Leerjaren (The Years of Apprenticeship of Robert Bruce) which were to be part of a large series of novels in the manner of Balzac but which were never continued. The new novels suffered from the same faults as Lidewyde : argumentativeness of the author and inability to bring characters to life. Huet was certainly not a born novelist. He was far more successful with his studies of the cultural history of the Netherlands. In 1879 he published Het Land van Rubens , followed three years later by Het Land van Rembrand . The latter is a thorough study of the seventeenth century, placed in perspective by introductory chapters on the late Middle Ages. Much of the information given in these books is, of course, antiquated and several of Huet's interpretations have later been refuted, but the books still stand as a very readable, intelligent and sensitive history of seventeenth-century civilization in the Low Countries. These books also helped considerably to reconcile public opinion in the Netherlands with Huet. Yet he lived long enough to offend the country once more. In 1886 he wrote an article in which he ridiculed the King and insulted the Queen. Another public outcry against Huet was
the result, and his cousin, who was the responsible editor, had to go to prison for it. While the country was still talking about the scandal, Huet died in Paris.
The influence which the activities of Potgieter and Huet had on Dutch literature was profound. For many years they were the dominating force, and they raised the standard of criticism to a level far above that of their predecessors. Reading through Huet's Literarische Fantasieën en Kritieken one gets a detailed picture of the literature of his time since all writers of any importance were reviewed by him. All but one, for Multatuli's Max Havelaar, which appeared in 1860, was reviewed neither by Potgieter nor by Huet. Their silence was all the more eloquent as Max Havelaar was, and still is, the most discussed novel in Dutch literature.
Multatuli was the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, born in Amsterdam in 1820. At the age of eighteen he went to the Indies where he made a rapid career in the colonial administration, serving in various places in Sumatra, the Celebes, Amboina and Java. In 1856 he was appointed Assistant-Resident of Lebak in West-Java. It was an unusual appointment for a man of his age and also a difficult one as Lebak was known to be a poor and troubled district where the population was oppressed by one of its own princes. Dekker was singled out for this position by the Governor-General himself who overruled a recommendation of his Advisory Council because he had been impressed by Dekker's interest in the welfare of the population. When Dekker arrived in Lebak he was therefore under the impression that he had been sent there with the specific purpose of rectifying the situation and removing the oppression. In a romantic-quixotic way he felt the chosen protector of the oppressed and thought that swift action was expected of him. So he carried on from where his predecessor had left off and began an investigation into the abuses of power in the district. After a few weeks in office, he brought a charge against the Indonesian prince who held the position of Regent. The charge was considered hasty and
insufficiently documented, and Dekker was advised to withdraw it. He refused, and by-passing his immediate superior, he addressed himself to the Governor-General. In doing so he consciously acted in defiance of the official hierarchy, feeling as he did that he stood in a special relationship to the Governor-General: he knew him personally, he had been appointed by him in a way which ran counter to custom, and he must have thought that he was justified in approaching him in a similarly unconventional way. He also felt that the Governor-General would agree with his point of view and would support him against the weakness and indifference of his chief, the Resident. The outcome, however, was otherwise. After the Council of the Indies had recommended his dismissal for lack of dispassionateness, caution and the necessary sense of subordination, the Governor-General only tried to soften the blow by relieving him of his duties in Lebak and transferring him to another district. Deeply hurt and seething with indignation, Dekker handed in his resignation. A few weeks later he left Lebak and made some attempts to be received by the Governor-General to put his case. The Governor-General, however, was preparing for his return to the Netherlands and refused to see him. Dekker stayed in Java for another year, trying to find a job, making one plan after the other. Finally he went back to Europe, travelling through France and Germany, and at last settled down in Brussels where in 1859 he wrote his novel about what had happened in Lebak.
This novel Max Havelaar was not his first excursion into literature. He had been writing from an early age - he even claimed that he had written a play when he was twelve - but he had never published anything. When he came to Brussels he had with him a play called De Eerloze (Dishonoured), written in 1844, in which he had dramatized his first clash with the administration. In 1843, when serving as District-Officer in West-Sumatra, he had been accused of embezzling funds. He was found innocent and was fully rehabilitated, but while the case was being investigated he
was suspended from office for about a year, during which time he had expressed his sense of humiliation in this play. He had also written a fictional diary, Losse Bladen uit het Dagboek van een Oud Man (Loose Pages from the Diary of an Old Man), a rather romantic work consisting of childhood reminiscences, anecdotes, poems and observations on his own character and prospects. This was the first thing he wrote, he said in the Diary, and soon he would be thirty-one years old, adding: ‘it is my firm intention to speak to the people’. Long before he wrote Max Havelaar, therefore, he had been toying with the idea of becoming a writer, and during his European leave in 1855 he had shown his play to a publisher who had, however, been non-committal.
In Brussels in 1859 he rewrote De Eerloze and immediately after it was finished wrote the novel in the incredibly short time of four to five weeks. He sent the manuscript to Jacob van Lennep who was then a celebrated novelist and a very influential man in Dutch letters. Van Lennep was impressed by the book and found a publisher for it. But Van Lennep, who was active not only in literature but also in politics, realized that the book contained political dynamite and had it published in a slightly toned-down version. To this end he forced Dekker, in an underhand way, to transfer the copyright to him, and it was only in 1875, after several court wrangles and the death of Van Lennep that the copyright reverted to Dekker and the uncensored version of the book became available.
When the first edition of Max Havelaar appeared in May 1860 it was an immediate and enormous success, a success which has endured to the present day. It has become an undisputed classic of Dutch literature, and what is more, a classic which is still alive and kicking, and still capable of arousing emotions. The centre of the book is an account of the events in Lebak which led to Dekker's resignation, yet Max Havelaar is much more than just a case-history of a civil servant who fell out with his government, more than just a novel of purpose or a novel of self-justification.
Certainly, Dekker wanted to justify his actions and he never made any bones about it. But what makes the book unique in the history of the novel is the form which he devised to present his case. The novel purports to be written by two people: Droogstoppel (Drystubble), an Amsterdam coffee-broker, and Stern, a young German who works in Droogstoppel's firm to learn the trade. Droogstoppel has been presented with a sheaf of papers by an old schoolfriend of his to whom he refers as Sjaalman (Scarfman, the man who is so poor that he wraps himself in a scarf for lack of an overcoat). From the material contained in these papers, Droogstoppel is going to write a book on coffee-auctions and the dangers that are besetting the market. Realizing that he cannot do it himself, he entrusts the task to young Stern in whose hands the book develops into a justification of Havelaar's actions in Lebak and an indictment of the Dutch colonial administration. Droogstoppel disagrees heartily with the course the book is taking, and now and then writes a chapter himself to redress the balance. These Droogstoppel-chapters are humorous and satirical, they provide comic relief in an otherwise very serious novel, but they also have a function that goes well beyond the simple one of diversification. Droogstoppel, the heartless hypocrite and philistine, is a critic of Havelaar and his comments warn the reader not to criticize Havelaar on pain of becoming another Droogstoppel, which is an unattractive prospect. The possibility of identifying with Droogstoppel is always present because of the subtle characterization: Droogstoppel is indeed an unsavoury character, but he is not all bad; he makes sense; he possesses several traits of a caricature but he is not a caricature all the way. The structure of the book is designed to coax the reader almost imperceptibly into accepting Havelaar and all he stands for. All elements of the book, including Droogstoppel's criticism of Havelaar and the numerous and ostensibly uncontrolled digressions, combine to achieve this effect.
Max Havelaar has often been called an incoherent book, a motley, a rambling novel, because of the constant switching
from seriousness to comedy, the double setting in Lebak and Amsterdam, the Droogstoppel-digressions, the great variety of styles, the poems and short stories that are thrown in at various stages. D.H. Lawrence, in his introduction to the American edition of 1927, stated bluntly: ‘As far as composition goes, it is the greatest mess possible’. Lawrence was very wrong, for in spite of its chaotic appearance Max Havelaar is an extraordinarily well-controlled and coherent novel in which all characters and all situations, however unrelated they may seem, are closely linked and arranged in such a way as to put one another in perspective. For instance, Droogstoppel or the Rev. Wawelaar (Twaddler) seem at first glance to add little of substance to the book. On closer examination, however, it appears that both of them, by debasing and perverting the ideals in which Havelaar professes to believe, bring the reader a great deal closer to accepting Havelaar's point of view.
Throughout the book the reader is given two basic views of Havelaar. The first is the view of Droogstoppel, the extreme realist, who regards him as an utter failure, and who through his callous judgments forces the reader to take Havelaar's side. The other view is given by Stern, a slightly sentimental, romantic young German ‘who enthuses’, according to Droogstoppel. This is one of Droogstoppel's observations that show perspicacity: Stern makes Havelaar his hero and exaggerates a little, not in his presentation of the facts - which have been checked over and over again and have been proved amazingly accurate - but in his larger-than-life portrait of Havelaar. Stern's romanticism, then, acts as a kind of safety-valve, for whenever the reader might feel that Multatuli is overdoing things and is presenting Havelaar in too favourable a light, he must at the same time realize that he is looking at Havelaar through the eyes of Stern. Towards the end of the book, when the novel-aspect is suddenly dropped and reality takes over in the form of the official correspondence about the events in Lebak, these two views of Havelaar are both rejected. Both
Droogstoppel and Stern are dismissed from the book, the latter with a few kind words, the former as ‘a miserable product of dirty greed and blasphemous hypocrisy’. And then, in the final page, even Havelaar is set aside by Multatuli, ‘for I am no fly-rescuing poet, no gentle dreamer like the down-trodden Havelaar’.
The stir caused by Max Havelaar was greater than any previous commotion in the history of Dutch literature. The book was discussed in Parliament and one of the speakers remarked with feeling that it had sent a shiver through the country. Its influence on Dutch colonial policy was considerable. One of the objects of Dekker's criticism was the so-called Kultuurstelsel (Culture System) whereby the Javanese were compelled to grow certain products prescribed by the government. The Culture System was introduced in 1830 and had been under heavy fire for some time when Dekker published his novel, but its opponents had not yet achieved any concrete results. Dekker's book provided them with a mighty weapon and after 1860 the system began to crumble away. No less important was the influence of Max Havelaar on the young generation of colonial civil servants who in the course of time were able to force through a more liberal colonial policy. At the same time one must be careful not to parade Dekker as an anti-colonialist. His quarrel with the government was about matters of policy, not about the principle of colonialism. He repeatedly warned the government that if it adhered to its traditional policy, the colonies would eventually be lost, a prospect which he regarded as disastrous.
In the literary field, the influence of Max Havelaar and Dekker's later work was immense, and few of his contemporaries and successors escaped the impact of his pungent style: Busken Huet, Carel Vosmaer, Jacques Perk, Willem Paap, Lodewijk van Deyssel, they all show at some time or other the influence of Dekker's style and ideas. To the writers of the Movement of the Eighties he was one of the few of the preceding generation whom they would accept,
and even in the twentieth century his influence can be seen, for instance in the work of Charles Edgar du Perron. Without exaggeration one may say that Dutch prose writing was never the same after the work of Dekker.
Max Havelaar is the classic of nineteenth-century literature in Dutch, but it is not a classic that has been laid to rest in a mausoleum where it attracts only an occasional curious visitor. It is a book that is still very much alive, much discussed and much read. Abroad, too, the book made a great impression. It was first translated into English, then into French and German. No less than five different German translations appeared between the two world wars, and new translations in English and French were published in 1967 and 1968 respectively. The German translations and anthologies of Wilhelm Spohr made Multatuli one of the most widely read authors in Germany in the last years of the nineteenth century. Max Havelaar holds the record of being the most translated novel in Dutch with editions also in Danish, Swedish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Armenian, Hungarian, Indonesian and Yiddish.
Dekker at first enjoyed the celebrity which the novel brought him: ‘When I want to light a cigar, everyone offers a match’, he wrote in a letter to his wife. But this state of satisfaction rapidly turned sour. He had written his book with a double purpose: improvement in the position of the Javanese, and rehabilitation for himself. The second objective was never achieved. Not long after his resignation a government committee investigated the charges that he had laid against the Regent and found them justified. Yet Dekker was not rehabilitated and was never offered reappointment. He resented this bitterly, regarded it as a great injustice and was never able to resign himself to it. He became embittered and turned more and more against the government and the Establishment in general. But he kept on writing.
Max Havelaar was followed in 1861 by Minnebrieven (Love Letters), a book which does not fit into any of the conventional literary categories. ‘Minnebrieven’, Dekker
wrote to his publisher, ‘means: my intimate opinions on matters of psychology, Christianity, colonial administration, literature etc. It will be an arabesque of sentiments’. The book was written in the form of a collection of letters exchanged by Max (Havelaar), Tine (his wife), and Fancy, who serves as the symbol of the imagination and who was inspired by Dekker's love for his niece Sietske Abrahamsz. On the one hand the book is an idealization of the relationship between the three of them, on the other it is a sequel to Max Havelaar, containing more documents and commentaries on the Lebak case, accusations levelled against the administration and instances of corruption, as well as poetry and stories. It was written with the same virtuosity as Max Havelaar, but with more saeva indignatio and wider-ranging attacks on the established order of things, especially in the nine Geschiedenissen van Gezag (Stories on Authority).
In the course of time Dekker developed into a scathing critic of society, and although he acquired a large following, he always remained a lonely figure who had little contact with the writers of his time. When Max Havelaar was published it received a favourable and sixty-page long review in De Gids , but the review was not written by Potgieter nor by Huet. Potgieter's aversion to Dekker was predictable: Dekker's iconoclasm was repulsive to him, he found him loud, vulgar and dangerous. In the case of Huet, things were more complicated as he seems to have blown now hot and now cold in his attitude to Dekker. In one of his letters Huet wrote that he could not stand Multatuli, but that can hardly have been the reason for his not reviewing him, for Huet wrote about many people whom he could not stand, and very eloquently at that. Moreover, in another letter he said that he had great admiration for Multatuli's work and called Max Havelaar ‘brilliant fireworks’. In 1864 Potgieter urged Huet to write against Dekker, stating that ‘it was time to seize Multatuli by the collar as this madman makes more young people unhappy than one thinks’. But
Huet did not react, probably because he was torn between his pro and anti-feelings. In the 1860s, when Dekker tried to make contact with Huet, he was put off, diplomatically but firmly. Huet gives the impression of having been frightened by Dekker's rapidly worsening relations with society. Huet, recognizing in Dekker several of his own ideas and characteristics, at that date still expected a great deal of society. In that same year 1864, he wrote to Dekker: ‘My attitude to society is less negative than yours, and as a result I am more prosperous. But I do not regard that as having any merit. Each of us must know what he wants’. In later years, when Huet himself was at loggerheads with society, he established closer contact with Dekker. He even gave Dekker who was always in penurious circumstances, a position as foreign correspondent for his Haarlem newspaper. Dekker was living in Germany at the time, and the year 1866 with the war between Austria and Prussia gave him much to write about. His instructions were to write neutral and unbiassed reports, which for a man of Dekker's temperament and pronounced ideas was an impossible task. He therefore invented the Mainzer Beobachter which he quoted extensively whenever he wanted to ventilate his personal opinions. It was three years before his mystification was discovered.
Before he went to Germany, Dekker began to write his Ideën (Ideas), numbered from 1 to 1282 and eventually collected in seven volumes. These Ideën are the most complete expression of a writer's personality to come out of the nineteenth century. No other writer has so freely and independently put on record what he thought of the society in which he was living. Dekker's range of interests was wide, and in the seven volumes one finds his opinions on politics as well as on religion, on the administration of the colonies, on the emancipation of women and the education of children, on literature, on himself. Some of the Ideën are short and snappy like a La Rochefoucauld aphorism, others run into many pages. But in every one Dekker is completely present, never hiding behind a mask, never sitting on the
fence. He was a moralist, whether he wrote a novel, a play or a political article, whether he analysed a piece of literature or the budget of the Dutch working class. At the centre of all his work lies criticism of one mode of behaviour and defence of another. His main attack was always directed at dogma, whether in religion, politics, education or literature. His ideas may not always have been original - one could easily draw up a list of his sources, which would include Rousseau, Voltaire, Lessing, August Lafontaine, Alphonse Karr and several others - but the force of his personality, his fearless non-conformism, and last but not least his uncluttered and highly original style of writing made him one of the most influential writers in the history of Dutch literature and Dutch society in general.
The Ideën also contain a five-act play and, scattered through the seven volumes, a long novel. The play is Vorstenschool (School for Princes) in which Dekker expounds his political and social ideas, and argues his preference for an enlightened and paternalistic monarchy. It was seen at the time as a skit on the Dutch Royal Family, but Dekker denied this by saying: ‘when our ancestors for the first time saw tea, they cooked it like spinach. I ask you to read, use and judge my play as a play’. The novel is Woutertje Pieterse , a novel of childhood and to a certain extent autobiographical. Like Max Havelaar, Woutertje Pieterse is an idealist living in an environment of narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. Like Max Havelaar also, Woutertje Pieterse is a curious blend of romanticism and realism. The earlier parts of the book are realistic in their great devotion to detail, in the description of Woutertje's clashes with his surroundings and above all in the sharp observation of the Amsterdam lower middle class in the 1830s. These parts are satirical, humorous, sometimes bitter and always without any illusions about the sweet days of youth. In the second half of the book, Dekker moved away from this realism and concerned himself more with Woutertje's dream world, symbolized by Fancy and repre-
sented by Princess Erica. In Dekker's characteristic fashion there are many digressions and there is a great deal of essayistic writing on education, child psychology, language and history. It was the first novel on childhood to appear in the Netherlands, and although it was followed by many others, it has never been surpassed.
While writing the Ideën, Dekker also published some shorter books: Duizend en Enige Hoofdstukken over Specialiteiten (Some Thousand Chapters on Specialists), an entertaining attack on ‘experts’, in particular ‘colonial experts’, and Millioenen-Studiën (Studies of Millions), an exposition of an infallible method of winning at roulette, interspersed with portraits of the gamblers and their public. In 1877 the last volume of Ideën appeared. It was to be his final work. Dekker died in Germany in 1887.
With the work of Dekker, the criticism of Busken Huet, and the stories and sketches of Beets, prose showed a greater diversity and a higher quality than poetry between 1840 and 1880. Apart from Potgieter, all but one of the poets of those years must be classed as minor poets. The one exception was Guido Gezelle, a Flemish priest from Bruges.
Gezelle was born in 1830 and published his first volume of poetry in 1858 under the title of Vlaemsche Dichtoefeningen (Flemish Exercises in Poetry). Unprepossessing though the title may have been, this volume gave a new direction to Dutch poetry: away from traditional romanticism and towards impressionism. It is true, Gezelle was and always remained a romantic at heart, it is also true that his first volume contained several echoes of Willem Bilderdijk's rhetoric, but on the other hand much of the poetry in this volume was characterized by an unusual spontaneity and originality. In his later volumes such as Gedichten, Gezangen en Gebeden (Poems, Hymns and Prayers), Tijdkrans (Cycle of Time) and Rijmsnoer (String of Rhyme), he shed all rhetorical diction and developed into a poet with one of the most personal styles in the Dutch language. He was strongly orientated towards England, in particular the England of the
Cardinals Newman, Manning and Wiseman, and he was influenced to a certain extent by Wordsworth and by Longfellow whose Hiawatha he translated. Yet in the case of Gezelle it is more than usually difficult to indicate where similarity ends and influence begins. Influences from outside certainly did not affect his poetry very deeply. The essence of it was entirely his own. What makes his poetry unique is his extraordinary sensitivity to nature. Gezelle showed that to those who can see and feel there is no hierarchy of values in nature. Nothing was too small, too slight, too inferior to be worthy of his attention. In this he was rather like Wordsworth, only more so. Gezelle wrote as if he was part of nature. No other poet has been able to express as he did the movement and rhythm of animals, birds, insects, plants, flowers, clouds, water. All his inspiration was drawn from his own highly developed sensory perception of nature, and often resulted in impressionistic nature poems describing a garden in bloom, the country under an overcast sky, a misty day in winter. In a life punctuated by disappointment, frustration and friction, he often seemed to withdraw from the world of man and to become a second St. Francis talking to the birds or another St. Anthony preaching to the fishes. In trying to capture the rhythms of nature, he developed a very musical style, sometimes strongly onomatopoeic and often approaching poésie pure, though never to the extent of sacrificing meaning to sound. His description of nature was never given for its own sake, but its ultimate and often explicitly stated aim was to glorify the creator of nature. However sensuous his poetry may be, in the last analysis it is religious. In Het Schrijverke (The Little Writer), an early and famous poem about the water-beetle which is called whirligig in English and a ‘little writer’ in Dutch, he ended with the lines:
Wij schrijven, herschrijven en schrijven nog,
and these lines are echoed throughout his work.
Though Gezelle's appreciation of nature never changed, his moods changed with the joys and sorrows of his personal life. In the years when he worked as a teacher at the seminary of Roeselare, and literally lived for his teaching, the tone of his poetry was almost ecstatic. In later years, after he had been removed from his teaching position, the mood was often one of melancholy and sadness. There were also times, between 1862 and 1877 for instance, when he wrote little poetry. In those years he took an active part in politics and became a staunch defender of the Flemish dialect from which he had always liberally borrowed words and phrases for his poetry.
Not everything Gezelle wrote was on the same high level. A considerable part of his poetry is too obviously moralistic and didactic. Also, he wrote a great deal of occasional verse which is often trite. But when he was at his best, his poetry had a sparkle and a movement that was unparalleled in the nineteenth century. During his lifetime he was given little recognition, either in Belgium or in the Netherlands. He died in 1899 and only in the last years of his life did it become clear that the new literary movement which had sprung up in the Netherlands and which was known as De Beweging van Tachtig (The Movement of the Eighties), was doing the very thing that Gezelle, singlehanded and without a program or theory, had done more than twenty years earlier: making a clean break with traditional and cliché-ridden romanticism, stressing sensory perception of nature as the poet's source of inspiration, and introducing a new type of imagery that was ‘visible’ and directly related to the world around. There was an important difference of approach, though, between Gezelle and the poets of the Movement of the Eighties: Gezelle's poetry was intrinsically religious and moralistic, whereas the poets of the Eighties were categorically anti-moralistic and subscribed to the doctrine of ‘art for art's sake’. As in the case of Gezelle, the poetic ancestry of the group was to be found in England, not in the work of the
Lake Poets, but in that of Shelley and Keats.
The members of the Movement of the Eighties were not the first to draw attention to Shelley and Keats. Both poets had been known in the Netherlands for many years. Potgieter had written about them, and Busken Huet and several other writers had frequently shown that they were aware of their existence. Yet before 1880 one does not find any traces of their influence on Dutch poetry. Round about that year the situation suddenly changed. The interest in the work of the English poets accelerated and developed in the following years into a Shelley and Keats vogue which was no less fervent than the Byron vogue of the 1830s. There was, however, a much greater natural affinity between the poets of the eighties and Shelley and Keats than there had been between the poets of the thirties and Byron, with the result that the poetry of the eighties was far more authentic and original than the Byronic poetry of the thirties. Shelley and Keats certainly stood godfather to the Movement - at a distance of about sixty years - but soon the Movement went its own course. It was a violent course, and time and again the members of the group loudly proclaimed themselves to be revolutionaries who were going to establish an entirely new literature. With unusual vehemence they turned against the preceding generation, excepting only Potgieter, Huet and Multatuli, and by the mouth of Lodewijk van Deyssel (pen-name of Karel Alberdingk Thijm), the most energetic and abusive critic of the group, pronounced their predecessors ‘buffaloes of mediocrity’, ‘indecent dwarfs’, and ‘eunuchs of the mind’. New movements are not generally noted for generosity towards the older generation, but no other movement has tried so hard to sweep away at one blow what was written before them. Their indignation was understandable. The rank and file of Dutch poets between 1850 and 1880 was undoubtedly mediocre, consisting largely of well-meaning clergymen whose homely and rhetorical poetry was primarily intended for the edification of their audience; it was a provincial poetry which no longer fitted in
the rapidly developing Dutch society of the seventies and eighties. The idea of art for art's sake, so enthusiastically embraced by the Movement of the Eighties, was a healthy and necessary reaction to this kind of poetry.
New movements, however revolutionary, do not fall from the skies, and before 1880 the ground had been prepared by several writers of whom Jacques Perk was the most important. He died in 1881, at the age of twenty-two, too young to have been a member of the group. But the others acknowledged him as their precursor and regarded his poetry as the beginning of the new era. The main body of Perk's work was Mathilde , a cycle of 107 sonnets. The use of the sonnet form was a new departure in itself. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the sonnet had become a rare form of expression and the poets of the eighties were the first to rediscover it and to explore its possibilities. Perk's predilection for the sonnet was inspired by the Renaissance and Baroque poets, and also by Goethe, to whose ‘Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben’ he paid homage in the opening sonnet of Mathilde: ‘De ware vrijheid luistert naar de wetten’ (Real freedom obeys the law). The Mathilde sonnets describe his love for a girl whom he met briefly during a summer vacation in the Ardennes, and who became his Muse, his Beatrice, his Laura. In the course of the sonnets, his love for her, always more platonic than erotic, gradually moved away from the actual person of Mathilde and developed into an adoration, later even a deification of Beauty, culminating in the second last sonnet:
Schoonheid, o Gij, Wier naam geheiligd zij,
Uw wil geschiede; kome Uw heerschappij;
Little of Perk's poetry was published in his lifetime. His worship of Beauty was too radical a break with the moralism of the established poets to become immediately acceptable, and De Gids, which was still the leading magazine, rejected his work. His Mathilde cycle was published posthumously in 1882 by another young poet, Willem Kloos, who had come to know Perk in the last year of his life, and who had encouraged and advised him when he was working on the Mathilde sonnets. After Perk's death, Kloos acquired the manuscripts and published them, not, however, without considerably rewriting several poems.
Like Perk, Kloos was born in 1859, and when the book came out, he was, like Perk again, practically unknown in the literary world. Kloos wrote a lengthy introduction to the book, an essay on the poetry of Perk and poetry in general, and it is this essay which is usually regarded as the manifesto of the Movement of the Eighties. Kloos stressed that imagination was ‘the root and the means and the essence of all poetry’; he professed his belief in the inseparability of form and content, and quoted with approval Leigh Hunt's definition of poetry as ‘imaginative passion’. He also referred briefly to Shelley's Defence of Poetry, too briefly really to do justice to the debt he owed him. He ended by saying that ‘poetry is not a soft-eyed maiden ..... but a woman, proud and powerful ..... poetry is not affection, but passion, not consolation, but intoxication’. Kloos's essay was certainly not a model of literary theory. Its arguments were a little vague and its postulates rather derivative, but it was eloquent and made up in conviction for what it lacked in depth.
In his early poetry Kloos showed himself to be closer to Keats than to Shelley. His Okeanos (Ocean), an epic fragment of 1884, was clearly written under the influence of Hyperion with its mythological story of an older generation which has to yield to a younger one, its use of blank verse and five-beat iambics. Yet one finds remarkably few echoes of Keats's images and metaphors, and the conclusion must be that by that time Kloos had already developed a poetic
language of his own. More of Keats is to be found in the early work of his friend Albert Verwey, born in 1865, whose Persephone and Demeter stemmed directly from Hyperion. The curious coincidence that the early poetry of Kloos and Verwey shows such clear influences of Hyperion, and not of, say, Endymion or Lamia , which were also generally known and admired, can to a certain extent be explained by the fact that the interest in Keats was sparked off by an excellent translation of Hyperion which Willem Warner van Lennep, Jacob van Lennep's half-brother, published in 1879 and which made a lasting impression on the young poets.
The awareness of having discovered a new basis for literature sharpened the desire in Kloos, Verwey and some other young writers to possess a journal devoted entirely to their aims and led in 1885 to the foundation of De Nieuwe Gids (The New Guide). The name was polemic and plainly showed that the new journal was going to make a stand against De Gids. It was set up by Kloos, Verwey, Frederik van Eeden, Willem Paap and Frank van der Goes who together formed the editorial board with Kloos acting as secretary. In the prospectus the editors proclaimed that their conception of literature was totally different from that expressed by the ‘authoritative magazines’, and that great changes in Dutch literature were urgently required. They added that De Nieuwe Gids was not intended to be an exclusively literary magazine, but that contributions on art, science, philosophy and politics were also welcome. Their ambition was to make it the rallying point for all those ‘who wish to speak on their subjects in a progressive sense’. For some years they succeeded in this. Apart from poetry and prose by Kloos, Verwey, Van Eeden and several others, the first volume also contained articles on modern chemistry, colonial policy and Roman Law. In the second year the painters Jan Veth and Willem Witsen became regular contributors and stood up for the new impressionist style of painters such as Anton Mauve, the Maris brothers, Hendrik Willem Mesdag. In later years, the composer Alphons
Diepenbrock regularly published articles on modern music. The originally poetic Movement of the Eighties therefore grew into a much wider-ranging Nieuwe Gids Movement which sought to bring about changes in social and political life as well as in the arts.
The first years of De Nieuwe Gids were a great triumph for the poetic principles of the Movement, particularly in the form they took in the sonnets of Willem Kloos. Kloos was as much a worshipper of Beauty as Perk had been, but less dogmatically so. He did not write the B of Beauty quite as large as Perk had done and was more concerned with the practice of art for art's sake than with the theory. More than with Beauty or Art, though, he was concerned with the Self. All his poetry was first and foremost introspection and self-analysis, from the early love sonnets and the melancholy poems of loneliness and death to the unending stream of turgid Binnengedachten (Inner Thoughts) which were published in the later volumes of De Nieuwe Gids. Kloos's inspiration was short-lived, and although he kept on writing until his death in 1938, little of the poetry written after his first volume Verzen (Poems, 1894) can be considered to be of much value. His best poetry was written between 1885 and 1888, and the sonnets of those years still stand as very successful examples of the individualist and subjective poetry that the Movement of the Eighties demanded. The subjectivity and introspection of these poems, together with the attention given to the musical sound, place them close to the poetry of the symbolist movement in France. One might even say that the early poetry of Kloos and Verwey, though sparked off by the romanticism of Keats and Shelley, represents in fact a Dutch variety of symbolism. Particularly in their views of the poet's place in society, the young Kloos and Verwey showed much more affinity to the symbolists than to the romanticists. Neither of them shared the romantics' hatred of society; like the symbolists, they regarded involvement with society as vulgar and below the dignity of the poet. Their aloofness was a far cry from
Shelley's self-confessed passion for social reform, and Kloos, however Shelleyan he may have been otherwise, always ignored the social side of Shelley's personality. To the Kloos and Verwey of the eighties, art was all, and society was something to be ignored. They made art into a religion, with Beauty and the Self as its twin gods, the ivory tower as its temple, and themselves as its high priests. Although the foundation of De Nieuwe Gids in 1885 almost coincided with the publication of Jean Moréas' Manifeste du Symbolisme in 1886, and although the analogies between the aims of the symbolists and the Dutch writers of the eighties are unmistakable, Kloos and Verwey seem to have been curiously unaware of them. They never expressed any great enthusiasm for the symbolist movement as such and they were certainly not in sympathy with the attacks made by the symbolists on naturalism. True, Kloos did express some reservations on Zola, reproaching him for his lack of concern with ‘inner life’ and the subconscious, but Lodewijk van Deyssel, also one of the leading men of the Movement though not an editor of De Nieuwe Gids, was one of Zola's most faithful apostles. In one of his articles on naturalism, he pitted Zola against the symbolists, and pronounced him winner on all counts. The best writers of the symbolist group in his opinion were, oddly, André Gide and Camille Mauclair, ‘but neither of them is really a symbolist, and both are weak, weak’. Kloos did not discuss symbolism extensively either. He dismissed Jean Moréas and Ernest Raymond as ‘just good artists, not masters’, and accused Mallarmé of ignoring his own emotions and sensations. He expressed unqualified admiration only for Verlaine and reserved for him the accolade of ‘France's greatest poet’. When Verlaine visited the Netherlands in 1892 he was received by the poets, but it is significant for the absence of any close relationship between the Dutch and French writers of those years that the initiative for Verlaine's visit had not been taken by the poets, but by a group of painters. From Verlaine's own account of this visit, Quinze Jours en Hollande, it also appears that
though he met Kloos, Verwey and Van Eeden, he had more contact with painters such as Philippe Zilcken, Willem Witsen, Isaac Israels and Jan Toorop.
The most ambitious poetic achievement of the 1880s was Herman Gorter's Mei (May), a long poem in the tradition of Keats and closely related to Endymion. Yet Mei was much less dependent on Keats than Kloos's Okeanos or Verwey's Persephone, and Gorter was the only poet of the group who could compete with the English poet on a footing of equality. In its imagery and descriptive passages, Mei is often reminiscent of Endymion, but it is hard to say whether the similarities are really derivative, or whether similarity of theme and atmosphere led to a similar way of expression. In some respects Mei actually has the edge on Endymion because of its stricter organization, its strikingly unconventional language, its extremely effective variation in blurring and accentuating rhyme, and its daring use of enjambement.
Gorter began writing Mei in 1887, when he was twenty-three - also Keats's age when he wrote Endymion - and published the first canto in De Nieuwe Gids in 1889. Kloos, Verwey and Van Eeden immediately welcomed it as the most complete expression of the poetic ambitions of the Eighties, and this high appreciation of the poem has endured. Mei is a lyrical narrative in which the poet relates a pseudo-mythological story of the month of May, represented as a young girl who cherishes a hopeless love for the blind god Balder. May is rejected by Balder because his absolute loneliness and self-sufficiency make a union impossible. A confusingly great number of interpretations of the poem have been given. Some regard it simply as the account of a tragic love story and relate it to an episode in Gorter's own life. Others regard Balder as a representation of the poet of the Eighties who retired into himself and was blind to the outside world. Others again find in it the realization that the eternal soul (Balder) can never unite with transitory beauty (May), or read it as a poem about poetry which expresses the impossibility of a union between the
poet's experience of nature (May) and the essence of nature (Balder). The various interpretations of Mei can all be defended up to a point, but in the last analysis none of them is entirely satisfactory. Mei is not an allegory, nor even a systematically symbolic poem, and any elaborate interpretation sooner or later breaks down on passages that resist integration into a system of symbols. It seems that Gorter aimed deliberately at symbolic vagueness, for the first draft of the poem was in several respects more explicit than the final version. Moreover, when after publication of the first canto the critics began to give conflicting interpretations of it, Gorter wrote in a letter to an uncle of his: ‘I wanted to make something with much light and with a beautiful sound, nothing else. There is a story in it and a little bit of philosophy, but that is so to speak by accident. I knew that the weakness of it is that the story and the philosophy are vague and unsteady, but in the days when I made it I could not do any better. I felt that I could make something with a beautiful sound and full of brightness, and therefore I wanted to do that and nothing else’.
A poet's insistence on what his intention was when he wrote a particular poem should not, of course, take the place of an interpretation, but in the case of Mei one must agree with Gorter that the light, the brightness and the musicality of which he speaks in his letter, rather than the philosophical or symbolic content constitute the value of the poem. Like Kloos, Gorter wrote out of a conviction that sensory perception, and particularly visual perception, was the source of poetry. In no other poem of the eighties was the theory more convincingly applied than in Mei. The backbone of Mei is its imagery, mainly inspired by the Dutch landscape, always ‘visible’ in accordance with the precept of Kloos, and brilliantly evocative. Its opening lines, with their stress on ‘newness’ and their visual representation of a memory, set the tone for the whole poem:
Een nieuwe lente en een nieuw geluid:
Ik wil dat dit lied klinkt als het gefluit,
Dat ik vaak hoorde voor een zomernacht,
In een oud stadje, langs de watergracht -
In huis was 't donker, maar de stille straat
After Mei Gorter's poetry developed towards extreme individualism. His volume Verzen (Poems) of 1890 was characterized by Kloos as ‘the most individual expression of the most individual emotion’, and this is still the most apt definition of it. In his attempt to formulate the most individual sensations, Gorter often charged the language to breaking point, and in several ways anticipated expressionism. In some of these poems the conventional syntax was discarded and replaced by strings of long and eccentric word-conglomerations, comparable to the compound words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but more extreme. Kloos, though full of praise for this volume, did not write about it as exuberantly as about Mei, but Van Deyssel almost broke the language barrier himself in trying to express his enthusiasm. This, he wrote, was preciesely what he had meant when five years earlier he had tried to define ‘sensitivism’.
It was not altogether surprising to find Van Deyssel, the champion of naturalism, on the side of Gorter's sensitivism, for in the eighties Van Deyssel himself was moving towards a hyper-individualist prose. In 1881, at the age of seventeen, when he began writing his novel Een Liefde (A Love), he started off in the naturalist tradition, but during the five years that it took him to write the book, he gradually shifted from naturalism to impressionism, i.e. from a detached description of reality to a view of reality as seen through the eyes of his tormented heroine Mathilde. This changing point of view showed that Van Deyssel was a strict
naturalist for only a short period of time and it also gave the book its peculiar heterogeneous character. In 1891 he officially took leave of naturalism in an article De Dood van het Naturalisme (The Death of Naturalism), and after that his prose became, like Gorter's poetry, a record of supremely individualist sensations in which the syntax, was often reduced to a stammer.
While Kloos, Gorter and Van Deyssel were carrying literature to the extremes of individualism and subjectivity, other contributors to De Nieuwe Gids were moving in the opposite direction. In 1889 radical socialists such as Domela Nieuwenhuis began to publish in the magazine, and Frank van der Goes, one of the original editors, became a convinced socialist himself. So for a while De Nieuwe Gids accommodated a group of a-social individualists together with a growing number of socialists. Their co-existence was uneasy, however, and of short duration. Tensions between the two camps developed rapidly and led in 1890 to a series of violent clashes. The polemics started with attacks by Van Eeden and Van Deyssel on Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward which Van der Goes had translated into Dutch. Van Deyssel, from the point of view of pure aestheticism, declared socialism to be ugly and dangerous to art. Van der Goes replied that to him a pauperized proletariat was a good deal uglier. Then Van Eeden wrote against both Van der Goes and Van Deyssel without committing himself either way. Kloos weighed in with a sharp article against Van der Goes and Van Eeden in which he supported Van Deyssel's point of view. The result of these polemics was an irreconcilable break between the originally purely aesthetic Movement of the Eighties and the more socially orientated Movement of De Nieuwe Gids as it had developed since 1885. Personal antagonisms between the editors, particularly between Kloos, Verwey and Van Eeden, also played a role in the disagreements and hastened the downfall of the magazine. Verwey broke with Kloos for personal reasons and resigned his editorship in 1890. His place was taken by the
socialist journalist P.L. Tak, but in 1893 Kloos scrapped all members of the editorial board and from that moment on published De Nieuwe Gids under his own name. Because of the irresponsible attitude of Kloos and the sycophants with whom he surrounded himself, the magazine went rapidly downhill. It managed to eke out an inglorious existence until 1943, but only as a caricature of its former self.
The change which the writers of the eighties brought about in the literature of the Netherlands was followed about ten years later in Belgium when a group of young writers under the leadership of August Vermeylen established a literary magazine Van Nu en Straks (Now and Later), published between 1893 and 1903. The writers of Van Nu en Straks were undoubtedly influenced by the Nieuwe Gids writers, but from the beginning they gave their magazine an identity of its own. The excessive individualism of the Eighties in the Netherlands did not appeal to them and they felt it to be slightly antiquated. None of the members of the Belgian group, neither Vermeylen himself, nor Prosper van Langendonck, Cyriel Buysse or Emmanuel de Bom, felt drawn towards the experiments of Gorter or Van Deyssel. Individualist though they were - and Vermeylen even said that most of them had anarchist leanings - they reacted against the artistic isolation of the Dutch writers of the Eighties and opted for an ‘art for the community’ along the lines of the theories of William Morris. Although Van Nu en Straks is often said to have done for Dutch literature in Belgium what De Nieuwe Gids did for the Netherlands, the Belgian writers were in actual fact more akin to the group which in the Netherlands supported De Kroniek (The Chronicle), a weekly paper which P.L. Tak started in 1895. The main difference between the nineties and the eighties, between De Kroniek and Van Nu en Straks on the one hand, and De Nieuwe Gids on the other, is best expressed in the words of Holbrook Jackson: ‘the renaissance of the nineties was far more concerned with art for the sake of life than with art for the sake of art’.
Apart from the ten years that separated the nineties from the eighties, the concept of art for art's sake was a luxury that many Belgian writers felt they could not afford. Their writing in Dutch was not only artistic self-expression, but also an assertion of the linguistic rights of the Dutch-speaking part of the population. As distinct from the Dutch writers in the Netherlands, they felt the need to be part of a community, and the writers of Van Nu en Straks were very conscious of their responsibilities in the linguistic battle between French and Dutch in Belgium. In the words of Vermeylen: ‘In order to be something, we must be Flemings. We want to be Flemings in order to be Europeans’. Vermeylen's main objective was to free Flemish literature from the provincialism in which it had been caught, excepting the work of Guido Gezelle who received his first proper recognition from the group of Van Nu en Straks. The revival of Dutch literature in Belgium during the nineties is in no small way attributable to Vermeylen. Whether he was successful in his endeavour to establish a communal art is a moot point, but he did give a strong impetus and also an intellectual basis to the Flemish movement. This, as well as his books on the history of art and literature - Geschiedenis der Europese Plastiek en Schilderkunst (History of European Sculpture and Painting) and De Vlaamse Letteren van Gezelle tot Heden (Flemish Literature from Gezelle to the Present Day) - made him one of the most influential Dutch-language writers in Belgium.
Van Nu en Straks showed the same combination of lyrical romantic poetry and naturalist prose as De Nieuwe Gids. The main poet of the group, Prosper van Langendonck, wrote sonnets which were reminiscent of Perk, and in their melancholy introspection sometimes also of Kloos. In 1893 Cyriel Buysse published the first Dutch-Belgian naturalist novel, Het Recht van den Sterkste (The Law of the Strongest), a sombre and pessimistic book about the Flemish countryside, written in the tradition of Zola and also influenced by the French-Belgian novelist Camille Lemonnier. In this
novel, and in the many that followed, there is nothing left of the idyllic approach to country life which had been dominant in Flemish prose before the nineties. His disillusioned view of society met with considerable resistance in Belgium, but Buysse's observation is so sharp and honest that one must agree with Vermeylen that his work is ‘the most complete open-air museum of real Flemish people’.
Disillusionment was also a characteristic element of a number of novels written in the Netherlands in the nineties, especially of Marcellus Emants's Een Nagelaten Bekentenis (A Posthumous Confession). Chronologically, Emants belonged to an older generation. He was born in 1848 and had written enthusiastically about naturalism before Van Deyssel or Buysse had ever heard of it. He began as a poet and wrote two long epic poems, Lilith and Godenschemering (Twilight of the Gods), an unusual venture in Dutch, but then turned to prose and wrote a number of plays and novels. Een Nagelaten Bekentenis, his masterpiece, appeared in 1894. In its pessimism, determinism and emphasis on heredity, it clearly comes out of the naturalist school, but it never becomes bogged down in over-attention to detail as Van Deyssel's work often does. Emants was an excellent narrator, but his novel really stands out for its razor-sharp psychological analysis. The main character of the book, Willem Termeer, has murdered his wife, and the whole book is an exploration of his reasons and motives. In the nineties, when the study of psychology and psychiatry began to gain ground, the novelists, too, began to pay more and more attention to psychiatric cases. Emants, a poet, playwright, novelist and journalist, but medically speaking a layman, was the first to make a psychiatric case the centre of a novel, but he was closely followed by Frederik van Eeden, who was a doctor and psychiatrist himself.
In the eighties Van Eeden had made his name with De Kleine Johannes (Little John), a semi-autobiographical, semi-symbolical novel. The book is rather dated now, but for many years it made Van Eeden the most popular author
of the Eighties and the darling of the reading public. He wrote a great deal of poetry and also some plays, but the book that will probably survive longer than any of his other works is his novel Van de Koele Meren des Doods (The Cool Lakes of Death) which he wrote between 1897 and 1900. In this book he portrayed the life of an over-sensitive woman, Hedwig Marga de Fontayne, from her childhood to her death at the age of thirty-three. The main purpose of the book was to show to what extent social and environmental factors determine the development, or in this case the dissolution, of a personality. Unlike the naturalists, Van Eeden completely and consciously ignored the influence of hereditary factors. Emants, in his Een Nagelaten Bekentenis, made it quite clear that to him heredity was the basis of the personality, and he argued that because of hereditary traits it was futile to try to change human nature. Van Eeden did not share his pessimism. He was a kind of world-reformer in the manner of Thoreau - whose Walden he imitated in the Netherlands - and he was convinced that the removal of social evils would lead to a harmonious development of the personality. In the preface to the second edition of the book he denied in so many words that the illness of the main character was inborn and inherited, and laid the blame for her destruction squarely on society. In the same preface he also protested against those critics who regarded the book as a case-history and not as a novel. His protest was justified, for Van de Koele Meren des Doods is undoubtedly fiction, though Van Eeden may have used case-histories from his own psychiatric practice just as he used experiences from his own life. As a novel the book is on the whole convicing though it is marred by long passages of stilted and often downright clumsy writing. Van Eeden's anti-naturalism was not confined to his disregard of hereditary factors but also extended to a dislike of intimate detail. In 1888 in a letter to Van Deyssel, which he never dispatched, he attacked Van Deyssel's explicitness in matters of sexuality and pleaded for a greater measure of pudeur. Yet although Van de Koele
Meren des Doods is a chastely written book, in its probing for the causes of mental illnesses and sexual inadequacies it went a good deal further than most novels of that period.
The greatest novelist to emerge in the nineties, and the true heir of naturalism in the Netherlands, was Louis Couperus, whose output, both quantitatively and qualitatively, left that of Van Deyssel, Emants and Van Eeden far behind. Couperus was born in 1863 in The Hague, spent six years in Indonesia and returned to the Netherlands in 1877. He made his debut in 1884 as a poet with a volume Een Lent van Vaerzen (A Spring-tide of Verse), followed two years later by a second volume Orchideeën (Orchids). They were not very impressive volumes, written in an ornate style, full of marble, azure, alabaster, antique vases and jet-black hair. In the eighties, when the accent lay on spontaneity and freshness of imagery, the artificiality of his poetry did not call forth any great enthusiasm. He was rather disheartened by the lukewarm reception his work was given and turned his back on poetry. In 1887 he began to write a novel which in his own words was to be a completely unpretentious story about his own environment, that is the upper middle class and aristocracy of The Hague. The book came out in 1889 under the title of Eline Vere and was an immediate success. It describes the last three and a half years in the life of a young woman, hyper-sensitive and romantic like Hedwig in Van de Koele Meren des Doods, who feels herself doomed to inactivity and aimlessness, and who in the end unwittingly commits suicide. Most of Couperus's characters live under a doom for which he himself always used the word ‘fate’ (Noodlot). This fate can be more closely defined as hereditary flaws in the mental make-up of his characters which bring about their downfall. Eline's inertia and her feeling of uselessness were inherited from her father, and also emerge in her cousin Vincent who, like Eline, is incapable of giving his life a positive aim. In his firm belief in the dominance of hereditary characteristics, Couperus was much closer to Emants and the naturalists than to Van
Eeden, though the latter's Hedwig is often reminiscent of Eline. The basis of Couperus's work is certainly naturalistic, but his style is quite different from what one normally associates with naturalism or realism. It is an uneven style, sometimes straightforwardly narrative, but often very mannered and precious. Yet although his mannerisms are at times insufferable, his skill as a narrator and his insight into character are so great that his work has not lost any of its value, whereas other mannerists of that same period - and there were quite a few - are now completely forgotten.
Eline Vere was followed by Noodlot (Fate), a gloomy novel about a triangle of two men and a woman who are destroyed by fate, i.e. by the inherited weakness in their characters. The next novel, Extaze (Ecstasy), was to be ‘a book of happiness’, but the almost hysterical platonic relationship in which the main characters express their inadequate feelings for each other seems to belie the promised bliss. In these novels Couperus probably tried to come to terms with his homosexual nature and his desire for heterosexual love, but whatever the books may have meant to him personally, from a point of view of literary value they remained far below the level of Eline Vere. The same can be said of the two fictional-historical novels Majesteit (Majesty) and Wereldvrede (World Peace), published between 1893 and 1895, and written in the atmosphere of utopian expectations which led to the Hague Peace Conference of 1893.
Of much more importance was his De Stille Kracht (The Silent Force) of 1900 written and set in Indonesia where he had gone back to live for a year. Like Eline Vere it is a novel which describes the complete disintegration of the main character. At the outset of the novel, Van Oudijck, a highly placed and capable administrator in Java, is at the height of his strength and power, but at the end of the novel he is ill, demoralized, beaten by mysterious forces beyond his control. Fate, which played such an important part in the earlier novels, is here transformed into Indonesian goena
goena, a magical force in which everyone believes but Van Oudijck. Couperus, who could be as tantalizing as Henry James - with whom he has more traits in common - does not solve the mystery, but leaves the possibility for a rational explanation open. His power to maintain a balance between the ghostly occurrences and their possibly rational origin gives the book its peculiar tension. It is written in a soberer style than Eline Vere, and also, it is one of the few books by Couperus which is not too long and ends when it should end.
Couperus was always at his best when he wrote about people and situations in a state of decline. In Eline Vere, for instance, he depicted the disintegration of Eline's life so convincingly that everyone is bound to agree when he says at the end of chapter 32: ‘Nobody could do anything for her’. When he then turns about, transplants Eline into a new atmosphere and introduces a young man who might be able to save her, the reader remains unbelieving and reacts with the feeling that the book is too long. The downward line of Eline's life has been drawn so convincingly that the upward line lacks all power of persuasion. In De Stille Kracht there is no attempt to balance or retard the decline of Van Oudijck by holding out hope, and the book is all the better for it. In the set of novels that follow it, however, one finds a similar structural weakness as in Eline Vere. The collective title of these four novels is De Boeken der Kleine Zielen (The Books of the Small Souls), and they were published in the years 1901 and 1902. They are also novels of decline and disintegration. The first part, De Kleine Zielen (The Small Souls), presents a large family in The Hague in their reactions on the return from abroad of the black sheep Constance. Her arrival works as a catalyst on the seemingly close-knit family and causes it to fall apart. The disintegration takes place in two phases: in the first novel we are shown the breaking up of the family relations, in the second and third novels, Het Late Leven (Late Life) and Zielenschemering (Twilight of the Souls), the destruction of the characters themselves is described. At the end of the
third novel the family has completely disintegrated. Then, in the fourth part, Het Heilige Weten (The Sacred Knowledge), a counter-movement begins, an attempt to balance the three books of disintegration with one of integration, when Constance's son Addy, a psychiatrist, tries to save what can be saved. Here Couperus repeated the mistake he had made in Eline Vere , only on a larger scale: the inevitability of the decline has been so powerfully suggested, that it is impossible for the reader to believe in an optimistic ending.
The first three volumes of De Boeken der Kleine Zielen together form an indisputable masterpiece and a high-water mark in Dutch novel writing. None of Couperus's contemporaries combined narrative power with sharpness of observation and insight into character as he did. He was the chronicler of a small section of Dutch society, i.e. the Hague upper ten, and particularly those who had relations with Indonesia, but he was not an uncritical observer. In De Boeken der Kleine Zielen he showed himself to be a severe social critic who saw right through the pretence and phoniness of people like the Van Lowe's, the central characters in the novel. Few of the members of that family escaped his criticism which though always cool and controlled, sometimes had a bite as sharp as that of Multatuli.
His next and last novel about the upper classes of The Hague and their Indonesian background, was Van Oude Menschen, De Dingen Die Voorbijgaan (Of Old People, the Things that Pass), published in 1906. Of all Couperus's novels, this one has the most unusual plot. The central characters are an old man of ninety-four and a woman of ninety-seven who sixty years before together murdered the husband of the woman. For sixty years they have lived with their secret which they believe is shared only by the doctor who, in exchange for one night of love, signed the death certificate. The book describes the last eight months in the lives of these three, just as Eline Vere described the last years of Eline's life, De Stille Kracht the last year of the
career of Van Oudijck, and De Boeken der Kleine Zielen the last years of a family. It is again a novel about people and situations in their last stages, and its sub-title could have been: the disintegration of a secret. For unbeknown to the three, the secret gradually crumbles away. The main line of tension in the novel is the question: will the three be allowed to die in their belief of having isolated the secret, or will they find in the last months of their lives that their sixty-year long attempt to guard the secret has been futile? The suspense is kept up in such a masterful way that most critics regard it as Couperus's best novel. Yet at the same time one must admit that Couperus, as in De Boeken der Kleine Zielen and in Eline Vere, failed to recognize the limits to which he was confined by his own power. When the old man dies as the first of the three, the race is over, the tension breaks, but the book goes on. After he has built up the situation to its logical conclusion, Couperus again seems to misjudge the finality of the conclusion and continues beyond it. It is a slight flaw, less distracting than in Eline Vere and De Boeken der Kleine Zielen, yet an unfortunate one in an otherwise perfectly constructed novel.
In his preoccupation with situations in decline, Couperus was clearly related to the so-called decadent writers such as Baudelaire, Barbey d'Aurevilly, De Gourmont, Gautier, Wilde, Douglas, Swinburne. His ‘decadence’ was never more clearly demonstrated than in his De Berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light) which he began to write in 1904 when Van Oude Menschen was not quite finished. It depicts the rise and fall of the child-emperor Heliogabalus, the Androgyne, in whom Jean Lombard, Flaubert and Gautier, and in Germany Karl Wolfskehl, were also very interested. Couperus counted this novel among his best books, but although one cannot deny its grandeur, it suffers seriously from an excess of descriptiveness, an over-abundance of adjectives and adverbs which tend to blunt and dull the senses of the reader. Couperus's writing was always threatened by two dangers: too elaborate description, and
repetitiveness. He could ward off these dangers easily in the novels in which the narrative element was strong - Eline Vere, Van Oude Menschen, De Boeken der Kleine Zielen - but when the word-painter began to dominate the narrator as in De Berg van Licht the damage done to the novel was considerable.
De Berg van Licht was by no means his last work. He wrote a great many more novels, such as Herakles (Hercules), Xerxes, Iskander (Alexander the Great), De Komedianten (The Comedians), Het Zwevende Schaakbord (The Floating Chessboard), but none of these really came up to the level of the earlier novels. In his later years he concentrated on journalism, travel stories and essayistic writing which made him one of the most successful Dutch journalists ever. He died in 1923
In Dutch literature, Couperus was a very unusual figure. Decadents were rare in the Netherlands, and so were dandies. Couperus was both, in his life as well as in his work. He powdered his style as he did his face, he manicured his sentences as he did his nails, he dressed up his novels in the same way as he dressed up his body. This dressing up and embellishing is one of his most conspicuous weaknesses, and together with his tendency to longwindedness and his fatal urge to continue a book beyond its logical ending, prevented him from becoming a second Tolstoi, Flaubert or Henry James, in whose class he potentially belonged. Yet if the distinction between major and minor writers is at all meaningful, Couperus was one of the major writers of his time, not only in Dutch literature but in European literature in general. His work has been frequently translated: fourteen of his novels appeared in England, thirteen in the United States, and several in Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Denmark, France and Spain.
The only other writer of this period to gain international fame was Herman Heijermans, who made his name not as a novelist - although he did write some novels and a large number of prose sketches - but as a playwright. When he
began to write, the Dutch theatre was in a bad way. Many arguments have been advanced to explain why this was so, ranging from the influence of the Calvinist Church to the anti-histrionic disposition of the Dutch. There is no easy answer to the question and most arguments seem to contain some grains of the truth without being entirely satisfactory. In any case, when after the classical era drama ceased to be regarded as the highest form of literary expression and when in the nineteenth century the novel became the leading genre, no new generation of playwrights stepped into the breach. Drama became a sideline for novelists and poets. Several attempts were made during the nineteenth century to revive interest in drama but none can be said to have inaugurated a theatrical golden age, either in the Netherlands or in Belgium.
Marcellus Emants was the most prolific dramatist of the eighties and nineties, and himself maintained that the theatre was his preferred medium. Yet his plays, historical and occasional pieces, and comedies, are all overshadowed by his novels and none of them have been able to hold repertoire. Frederik van Eeden and Albert Verwey were the only founding fathers of the Movement of the Eighties who every now and then wrote for the theatre. In 1885, when Van Eeden captivated his readers with De Kleine Johannes he also shocked then with De Student Thuis (The Student at Home), a play that was both satirical and realistic. After some vaguely idealist plays such as Lioba (1897), he wrote several social satires, but these did not exactly take the theatre by storm. The same can be said of Verwey's historical dramas Johan van Oldenbarneveldt (1895) and Jacoba van Beieren (1902). All these plays were eclipsed by the work of Herman Heijermans, the only Dutch dramatist after the seventeenth century to have made a contribution to European theatre in general.
Heijermans was born in Rotterdam in 1864 as the son of a well-known journalist. After some abortive business ventures he went into journalism himself and became drama critic and columnist with an Amsterdam newspaper. His first play, Dora
Kremer , was a resounding flop when first produced in 1893, but even before its première Heijermans had a second play ready, Ahasverus, which he protected with a Russian pseudonym and an elaborate publicity hoax. It was first performed precisely one month after Dora Kremer and was so enthusiastically received that André Antoine took it to Paris and produced it there the following month. After this success, his plays came thick and fast, at an average of one a year for the next thirty years. The early plays bear the imprint of Ibsen and some of the later ones show traces of the influence of Hauptmann, but on the whole Heijermans went his own way and worked out for himself how the new drama should be written. His ideas on dramatic structure were radically new and his play Ghetto of 1898 was the first example of a new approach.
Ghetto deals with a middle-class Jewish family in Amsterdam and the tensions which exist between the members of the family. For the details Heijermans could draw upon his own orthodox Jewish background and on some personal experiences. In the centre of the play stand a father and a son, Sachel and Rafaël, who bitterly oppose each other. The son has lost his respect for the father because he knows him to be a cheat in business, the father forbids the son to marry a Gentile girl and eventually drives her to suicide. All emphasis is placed on the analysis of the situation, rather than on its development or that of the characters. From this point of view the work may be termed, like several of Chekhov's plays, static rather than dynamic. Heijermans did not want to show an evolving situation but precisely a permanent one. Ghetto suggests that father and son will always be separated by their religious convictions and by their outlook on life whatever may happen. Quite independently of one another, Heijermans with Ghetto and Chekhov with Uncle Vanya (1901) broke in a similar manner and at about the same time with the Ibsonian drama of psychological development.
In 1900 Heijermans wrote Op Hoop van Zegen (The Good Hope), which was to be his greatest success. The play is set in
a North Sea fishing village and attacks shipowners who send out their crews in unseaworthy ships. Heijermans had lived in such a village and knew at first hand that the price paid for the fish was often the loss of human life. As a socialist, he depicted the plight of the sailors in terms of capitalists versus the working-class, but not in a crude black-and-white fashion. Not the shipowner, however callous he may be, but the sea is the greatest enemy. As in Ghetto, the dramatic events do not alter the basic situation. At the end of the play, the central character Kniertje, who has lost her husband and three sons to the sea, carries on as before, and so does the shipowner. The play does not eschew heavy effect and melodrama, but as a piece of late nineteenth-century social realism it has few equals. Its international success was enormous: in Germany alone it went through more than four hundred performances in Berlin and Leipzig, and it was also staged in numerous other cities, including Paris, London, New York, Moscow, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga, Vienna, Jerusalem and Belgrade.
After Op Hoop van Zegen, Heijermans achieved another great success with Schakels (Links, 1904), which was also widely produced abroad, notably in Berlin by Max Reinhardt. With this play Heijermans returned to the subject of family tensions which he had explored earlier in Ghetto. This time the family was not Jewish and the tensions were not caused by religious intolerance but by greed. The children of a well-to-do businessman scheme and plot to stop him marrying his housekeeper and try to get their hands on his money. The subject of the play has a great deal in common with that of Hauptmann's Vor Sonnenuntergang of 1932, and it is not impossible that Heijermans's play influenced Hauptmann's to a certain extent. The main difference between the two plays is that Hauptmann's protagonist completely breaks down during the play and in the end commits suicide, whereas Heijerman's main character, totally disillusioned though he may be, carries on, like Kniertje and Sachel, in a situation that is not essentially different from the one before the catastrophe.
Apart from these static dramas, which also include De Opgaande Zon (The Rising Sun, 1908) and Eva Bonheur (1916), Heijermans also wrote more conventional dramas of development and change, of which Glück Auf! (Good Luck!, 1911), about the exploitation of mineworkers, is the best-known, but in the main they lack the punch and bite of the former. He also tried his hand, with varying degrees of success, at farce, comedy, fantasy and satire. Towards the end of his writing career he scored a hit with De Wijze Kater (The Wise Tom-cat, 1917), a very amusing, very well-written and also very angry satirical farce about the hypocrisy and deceitfulness of human society.
As a playwright Heijermans deserves all the praise that has come his way, but this does not mean that his work is above criticism. He can be sentimental and rhetorical; he often spells out emotions instead of suggesting them; his characterisation is not always sharply defined; the intellectual content of his plays is not particularly substantial. Yet there is no doubt that he was a master craftsman who found the form and the words to give his social criticism its optimum impact. His explorations of the dramatic possibilities of the static play place him among the pioneering figures in European drama at the turn of the twentieth century.