Holland, v. 1 (of 2)
by Edmondo de Amicis
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I do not conceal the fact that one of my reasons for liking them was the discovery that Italy is much better known in Holland than I should have dared to hope. Not only did our revolution find a favorable echo there, as was natural in a independent nation free and hostile to the pope, but the Italian leaders and the events of recent times are as familiarly known as those of France and Germany. The best newspapers have Italian correspondents and furnish the public with the minutest details of our affairs. In many places portraits of our most illustrious citizens are seen. Acquaintance with our literature is no less extended than knowledge of our politics. Putting aside the fact that the Italian language was sung in the halls of the ancient counts of Holland, that in the golden age of Dutch literature it was greatly honored by men of letters, and that several of the most illustrious poets of that period wrote Italian verses or imitated our pastoral poetry,—the Italian language is considerably studied nowadays, and one frequently meets those who speak it, and it is common to see our books on ladies' tables. The "Divina Commedia," which came into vogue especially after 1830, has been twice translated into rhymed triplets. One version is the work of a certain Hacke van Mijnden, who devoted all his life to the study of Dante. "Gerusalemme Liberata" has been translated in verse by a Protestant clergyman called Ten Kate, and there was another version, unpublished and now lost, by Maria Tesseeschade, the great poetess of the seventeenth century, the intimate friend of the great Dutch poet Vondel, who advised and helped her in the translation. Of the "Pastor Fido" there are at least five translations by different hands. Of "Aminta" there are several translations, and, to make a leap, at least four of "Mie Prigioni," besides a very fine translation of the "Promessi Sposi," a novel that few Dutch people have not read either in their own language, in French, or in Italian. To cite another interesting fact, there is a poem entitled "Florence," written for the last centenary of Dante by one of the best Dutch poets of our day.

It is now in place to say something about Dutch literature.

Holland presents a singular disproportion between the expansive force of its political, scientific, and commercial life and that of its literary life. While the work of the Dutch in every other field extends beyond the frontier of the land, its literature is confined within its own borders. It is especially strange that, although Holland possesses a most abundant literature, it has not, as other little states, produced one book that has become European, unless we class among literary works the writings of Spinoza, the only great philosopher of his country, or consider as Dutch literature the forgotten Latin treatises of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Yet if there be a country which by its nature and history suggests subjects to inspire the mind to the production of such poetical works as appeal to the imagination of all nations, that country is Holland. The marvellous transformations of the land, the terrible inundations, the fabulous maritime expeditions,—these ought to have given birth to a poem powerful and original even when stripped of its native form. Why did not this occur? The nature of the Dutch genius may be adduced as a reason, which, aiming at utility in everything, wished to turn literature also to a practical end. Another tendency, the opposite of this, though, perhaps derived from it, is that of soaring high above human nature to avoid treading on the ground with the mass; a weariness of genius which gave to judgment the ascendency over the imagination; an innate love of all that was precise and finished, which resulted in a prolixity in which grand ideas were diluted; the spirit of the religious sects, which enchained within a narrow circle talents created to survey a vast horizon. But neither these nor other reasons can keep one from wondering that there should not be one writer of Dutch literature who worthily represents to the world the greatness of his country—a name to be placed between Rembrandt and Spinoza.

However, it would be a mistake to overlook at least the three principal figures of Dutch literature, two of whom belong to the seventeenth and one to the nineteenth century—three original poets who differ widely from each other, but represent in themselves Dutch poetry in its entirety: Vondel, Catz, and Bilderdijk.

Vondel, the greatest poet Holland has produced, was born in 1587 at Cologne, where his father, a hatmaker, had taken refuge, having fled from Antwerp to escape from the Spanish persecutions. While still a child the future poet returned to his country on a barrow, together with his father and mother, who followed him on foot, praying and reciting verses from the Bible. His studies began at Amsterdam. At fifteen years of age he was already renowned as a poet, but his celebrated works date from 1620. At the age of thirty he knew only his own language, but later he learned French and Latin, and applied himself with ardor to the study of the classics; at fifty he gave himself up to Greek. His first tragedy (for he was chiefly a dramatist), entitled "The Destruction of Jerusalem," was not very successful. The second, "Palamades," in which was delineated the piteous and terrible tale of Olden Barneveldt, a victim of Maurice of Orange, caused a criminal action to be brought against the author. He fled, and remained in concealment until the unexpectedly mild sentence was given which condemned him to a fine of three hundred florins. In 1627 he travelled in Denmark and Sweden, where he was received with great honors by Gustavus Adolphus. Eleven years later he opened the theatre at Amsterdam with a drama on a national theme, "Gilbert of Amstel," which is still performed once a year in his memory. The last years of his life were very unhappy. His dissipated son reduced him to poverty, and the poor old man, tired of study and broken down with sorrow, was obliged to beg for a miserable employment at the city pawnbroker's. A few years before his death he embraced the Catholic faith, and, seized with fresh inspiration, composed the tragedy of "The Virgin" and one of his best poems entitled "The Mysteries of the Altar." He died at a great age, and was buried in a church at Amsterdam, where a century afterward a monument was erected in his honor. Besides tragedies he wrote martial songs to his country, to illustrious Dutch sailors, and to Prince Frederick Henry. But his chief glory was the drama. An admirer of Greek tragedy, he preserved the unities, the chorus, the supernatural, substituting Providence for Destiny, and demons and angels (the good and evil spirits of Christianity) for the angry and propitious gods. He drew nearly all his subjects from the Bible. His finest work is the tragedy of "Lucifer," which, notwithstanding the almost insuperable difficulties of stage setting, was represented twice at the theatre in Amsterdam, after which it was interdicted by the Protestant clergy. The subject of the drama is the rebellion of Lucifer, and the characters are the good and bad angels. In this as in his other plays there abound fantastic descriptions full of splendid imagery, passages of powerful eloquence, fine choruses, vigorous thought, solemn phrases, rich and sonorous verse, while here and there are gleams and flashes of genius. On the other hand, his work is pervaded by a mysticism which is sometimes obscure and austere, by a discord between Christian ideas and pagan forms. The lyrical element predominates over the dramatic, good taste is often offended, and, above all, the thought and feeling, though aiming at the sublime, rise too high above this earth, and elude the comprehension of the human heart and mind. Nevertheless, historical precedence, originality, ardent patriotism, and a noble and patient life have made Vondel a great and venerated name in his country, where he is regarded as the personification of national genius, and is placed in the enthusiasm of affection next to the first poets of other lands.

Vondel is the greatest, Jacob Catz is the truest, personification of Dutch genius. He is not only the most popular poet of his nation, but his popularity is such that it may be affirmed that there is no other writer of any land, not excluding even Cervantes in Spain and Manzoni in Italy, who is more generally known and more constantly read, while at the same time there is perhaps no other poet in the world whose popularity is more necessarily limited to the boundaries of his own country. Jacob Catz was born in 1577 of a noble family in Brouwershaven, a town of Zealand. He studied law, became pensionary of Middelburg, went as ambassador to England, was Grand Pensionary of Holland, and, while he performed the duties of these offices with zeal and rectitude, he devotedly cultivated poetry. In the evening, after he had transacted affairs of state with the deputies of the provinces, he would retire to his home to write verses. At seventy-five years of age he asked to be released from further service, and when the stadtholder told him with appreciative words that his request had been granted, he fell on his knees in the presence of the Assembly of the States and thanked God, who had always protected him during the course of his long and exacting political life. A few days later he retired to one of his villas, where he enjoyed a peaceful and honorable old age, studying and writing up to the year 1660, when he died, in the eighty-first year of his life, mourned by all Holland. His poems fill several large volumes, and consist of fables, madrigals, stories from history and mythology, abounding in descriptions, quotations, sentences, and precepts. His work is pervaded with goodness, honesty, and sweetness, and he writes with frank simplicity and delicate humor. His volume is the book of national wisdom, the second Bible of the Dutch nation—a manual which teaches how to live honestly and in peace. He has a word for all—for boys as well as old men, for merchants as well as princes, for mistresses as well as for maids, for the rich as well as for the poor. He teaches how to spend, to save, to do housework, to govern a family, and to educate children. He is at the same time a friend, a father, a spiritual director, a master, an economist, a doctor, and a lawyer. He loves modest nature, the gardens, the meadows; he adores his wife, does his work, and is satisfied with himself and with other people, and would like every one to be as contented as he is. His poems are to be found beside the Bible in every Dutch house. There is not a peasant's cottage where the head of the family does not read some of his verses every evening. In days of sadness and doubt all look for comfort and find it in their old poet. He is the intimate fireside friend, the faithful companion of the invalid; his is the first book over which the faces of affianced lovers bend; his verses are the first that children lisp and the last that grand-sires repeat. No poet is so loved as he. Every Dutchman smiles when he hears his name spoken, and no foreigner who has been in Holland can help naming it with a feeling of sympathy and respect.

The last of the three, Bilderdijk, was born in 1756 and died in 1831: his was one of the most marvellous intellects that have ever appeared in this world. He was a poet, historian, philologist, astronomer, chemist, doctor, theologian, antiquary, jurisconsult, designer, engraver—a restless, unsettled, capricious man, whose life was nothing but an investigation, a transformation, a perpetual battle with his vast genius. As a young man, when he was already famous as a poet, he abandoned the Muse and entered politics; he emigrated with the stadtholder to England, and gave lessons in London to earn a livelihood. He tired of England and went to Germany; bored by German romanticism, he returned to Holland, where Louis Bonaparte overwhelmed him with favors. When Louis left the throne, Napoleon the Great deprived the favorite of his pension, and he was reduced to poverty. Finally he obtained a small pension from the government, and continued studying, writing, and struggling to the last day of his life. His works embrace more than thirty volumes of science, art, and literature. He tried every style, and succeeded in all excepting the dramatic. He enlarged historical criticism by writing one of the finest national histories his country possesses. He wrote a poem, "The Primitive World," an abstruse, gloomy composition which is very much admired in Holland. He dealt with every possible question, confounding luminous truths with the strangest paradoxes. He even raised the national literature, which had fallen into decadence, and left a phalanx of chosen disciples who followed in his steps in politics, art, and philosophy. Holland regards him not only with enthusiasm, but with fanaticism, and there is no doubt that after Vondel he is the greatest poet of his country. But he was possessed by a religious frenzy, a blind hatred of new ideas, which caused him to make poetry an instrument of sects: he introduces theology into everything, and consequently he could not attain to that free serene region beyond which genius cannot obtain enduring victories and universal fame.

Round these three poets, who represent the three vices of Dutch literature—of losing themselves in the clouds, of creeping on the ground, of entangling themselves in the meshes of mysticism—are grouped a number of epic, comic, satiric, and lyric poets, most of whom flourished in the seventeenth and a few in the eighteenth century. Many of them are renowned in Holland, but none possesses sufficient originality to attract the attention of the passing stranger.

The present condition deserves a rapid glance. Criticism by stripping from Dutch history the veil of poetry with which the patriotism of writers had clothed it, has placed it on the wider and more productive plain of justice. Philological studies are held in high honor in Holland, and almost all the sciences are represented by men of European fame. These are facts of which no scholar is ignorant, and a bare mention of them is sufficient.

In pure literature the most flourishing style is the novel. Holland has had its national novelist, its Walter Scott, in Van Lennep, who died a few years ago, a writer of historical romances which were received with enthusiasm by all classes of society. He was an effective painter of customs, a learned, witty writer, and a master of the art of dialogue and description, but, unfortunately, often prolix. He used old artifices, adopted forced solutions, and often was not sufficiently reticent. In his last book, "The Adventures of Nicoletta Zevenster," while admirably describing Dutch society at the beginning of this century, he had the unheard-of audacity to describe an improper house at the Hague. All Holland was in an uproar. His book was discussed, criticised, condemned, praised to the skies, and the battle still continues. Other historical novels were written by a certain Schimmel, a worthy rival of Van Lennep, and by a Madame Rosboon Toussaint, an accomplished author of deep study and real talent. Nevertheless, historical romance may be considered dead even in Holland. The modern novels of social life and the story meet with better fortune. Most prominent in this field is Beets, a Protestant clergyman and a poet, the author of a celebrated book entitled "The Dark Chamber." Koetsweldt is another of this class, and there are also some young men of great gifts who have been prevented from rising to any height by haste, the demon that persecutes the literature of to-day.

Holland has still another kind of romance which is its own. It might be called Indian romance, since it describes the habits and life of the people of the colonies. Of late years several novels have been published in this style, which have been received in the country with great applause and have been translated into several languages. Among these is the "Beau Monde of Batavia," by Professor Ten Brink, a learned, and brilliant writer, of whom I should like to be able to speak at length to attest in some degree my gratitude and admiration. But apropos of Indian romances, it is pleasant to notice how in Holland at every step one hears and sees something that reminds one of the colonies, as if a ray of the Indian sun penetrated the Dutch winter and colored the life. The ships which bring a breath of wind from those distant lands to the home ports, the birds, the flowers, the countless objects, like sounds mingled with faint music, call up in the mind images of another nature and another race. In the cities of Holland, among the thousands of white faces, one often meets men whose visages are bronzed by the sun, who have been born or have lived for many years in the colonies—merchants who speak with unusual vivacity of dark women, bananas, palm forests, and of lakes shaded by vines and orchids; young men who are bold enough to risk their lives amid the savages of the islands of Borneo and Sumatra; men of science and men of letters; officers who speak of the tribes which worship fish, of ambassadors who carry the heads of the vanquished dangling from their girdles, of bull and tiger fights, of the frenzy of opium-eaters, of the multitudes baptized with pomp, of a thousand strange and wonderful incidents which produce a singular effect when related by the phlegmatic people of this peaceful country.

Poetry, after it lost Da Costa, a disciple of Bilderdijk, a religious poet and enthusiast, and Genestet, a satirical poet who died very young, had few champions in the last generation, and these are now silent or sing with enfeebled voice. The stage is in a worse condition. The untrained, ranting Dutch actors usually appear only in French or German dramas, comedies which are badly translated, and the best society does not go to see them. Writers of great talent, like Hofdijk, Schimmel, and Van Lennep, wrote comedies which were admirable in many ways, but they never became popular enough to hold the stage. Tragedy is in no better condition than comedy and the drama.

From what I have said it would appear that there is not at present any great literary movement in Holland; but on the contrary, there is great literary activity. The number of books published is incredible, and it is marvellous with what avidity they are read. Every town, every religious sect, every society, has its review or newspaper. Besides this, there is a multitude of foreign books: English novels are in the hands of all; French works of eight, ten, and twenty volumes are translated into the national language. This is the more remarkable in a country where all cultivated people can read the originals, and it proves how customary it is not only to read, but to buy, although books are a great deal more expensive in Holland than elsewhere. But this superabundance of publications and this thirst for reading are precisely those elements which are injuring literature. Writers, in order to satisfy the impatient curiosity of the public, write in too great haste, and the mania for foreign literature smothers and corrupts the national genius. Nevertheless, Dutch literature has still a just claim to the esteem of the country: it has declined, but has not become perverted; it has preserved its innocence and freshness; what is lacking in imagination, originality, and brilliancy is compensated by wisdom, by the severe respect for good manners and good taste, by loving solicitude for the poorer classes, by the effective energy with which it advances charity and civil education. The literatures of other lands are great plants adorned with fragrant flowers; Dutch literature is a little tree laden with fruit.

On the morning when I left the Hague, after my second visit to the city, some of my good friends accompanied me to the railway-station. It was raining. When we were in the waiting-room, before the train started, I thanked my kind hosts for the courteous reception they had given me, and, knowing that perhaps I should never see them again, I could not help expressing my gratitude in sad and affectionate words, to which they listened in silence. Only one interrupted me by advising me to guard against the damp.

"I hope at least some of you will come to Italy," I continued, "if only to give me the opportunity of showing my gratitude. Do promise me this, so that I may feel a little consoled at my departure. I will not leave if some one does not say he will come to Italy."

They looked into each other's faces, and one answered laconically, "Perhaps." Another advised me not to change French gold in the shops. At that moment the last bell rang.

"Well, then, good-bye," I said in an agitated voice, pressing their hands. "Farewell: I shall never forget the glorious days passed at the Hague; I shall always recall your names as the dearest remembrance of my journey. Think of me sometimes."

"Good-bye," they all answered in the same tone, as if they were expecting to see me the next day. I leaped into the railway-carriage stricken at heart, and looked out of the window until the train started, and saw them all standing there, motionless, silent with impassive faces, their eyes fixed on mine. I waved a last farewell, and they responded with a slight bend of the head, and then disappeared from my sight for ever. Whenever I think of them I see them just as they were when I left them, in the same attitude, with their serious faces and fixed eyes, and the affection that I feel for them has in it something of austerity and sadness like their native sky on the day when I last beheld them.


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