History of Flemish Literature


By OCTAVE DELEPIERRE, LL. D. 8VO. London. John Murray. 1860.
“WHEN I write in Danish,” says Oehlenschläger, “ I write for only six hundred persons.” And so, in view of this somewhat exaggerated statement, he himself translated his best works into the more favored and more widely spread Germanic idiom. It requires a certain amount of courage in an author to write in his own native tongue only, when he knows that he thereby limits the number of his readers. We see in our own days, among the Sclavonic races, men whose writings breathe the most ardent patriotism, whose labors and researches are all concentrated within the sphere of their nationality, publishing, not in their own Polish, Czechish, or Serbian, but in German or French.
The history of language shows us a twofold tendency,— one of divergence from some common stem, followed by one of concentration, of unity, in the literature. Thus, in France, the Langue d’Oïl superseded the richer and more melodious Provencal ; in Spain the Castilian predominated; while for several centuries it has been the steady tendency of the High-German to become the language of letters and of the upper classes among the various Teutonic races. Since the Bible-translation of Luther, this central dialect has not only become the medium in which poet and philosopher, historian and critic address the nation, but it may be said to have entirely superseded the Northern and Southern forms. Whatever local or linguistic interest may be manifested for the works of Groth in the Ditmarsch Platt-Deutsch, or for the sweet Alemannic songs of Hebel, the centralizing tongue is that in which Schiller and Goethe wrote.
The allied Danish and Dutch have escaped this ingulfing process. The former, instead of retreating, seeks in the present to enlarge its circuit; and great are the complaints in Schleswig-Holstein of the arbitrary and despotic imposition of Danish on a State of the German Confederation. The present government of Holland has not remained inactive. Much has been done to encourage men of letters and counteract the Gallic influences which prevailed in the early part of the century.
But the Flemings speaking nearly the same language as their Protestant neighbors, where is their literature now? The language itself, in which are handed down to us some of the masterpieces of the Middle Ages, as “ Reynard the Fox ” and “ Gudrun,” is disregarded, even discountenanced, by Government. It is with a feeling of sadness that we read the annals of a literature which met so many obstacles to its progress. Despised by foreign rulers, thrust back by the Spanish policy of the Duke of Alva, its authors exiled and seeking refuge in other lands, its very existence has been a constant battling against the inroads of more powerful neighbors.
Surely, “if words be made of breath, and breath of life,” there is nothing a nation can hold more dear than its own tongue. Its laws, its rulers, may change, its privileges and charters be wrenched from it, but that remains as an heirloom, the first gift to the child, the last and dearest treasure of the man. Perhaps nowhere more than in Flanders do we meet with a systematic oppression of a vernacular idiom. From the days of the contests with France, through the long Spanish troubles and dominion, the military occupation of the country by the troops of Louis XIV., the Austrian rule, the levelling tendency of the French Devolution, and the present aping of French manners by the higher powers of the land,— through all this there has been but one long, continuous struggle, and the ultimate result is now too plain.
We find the Flemish spoken by nearly two-thirds of the inhabitants of Belgium, divided from the Walloon or Rouchi-Français by a line of demarcation running from the Meuse through Liege and Waterloo, and ending in France, between Calais and Dunkirk. It differs in no material points from the Dutch, being essentially the same, if we except slight differences in spelling, as ae for aa, ue for uu, y for ij. Both should bear but one common name, the Netherlandish. That differences should be sought can be accounted for only by the petty feeling of jealousy that exists between the neighboring states, their literary productions varying in grammatical construction scarcely more than the writings of English and American authors.
Mr. Octave Delepierro, who since 1830 has published some ten or twelve monographs relating to the antiquities and history of Flanders, has presented the English public during the course of the present year with a history of Flemish literature. With an evident predilection for authors south of the Meuse, Mr. Delepierre has nevertheless given us the first clear and connected account we possess of the history of letters in the Netherlands. Without careful or minute critical research, he has shown little that is new, nor has he sought to clear one point that wag obscure. His work is pleasant reading, interspersed with occasional translations, though scarcely answering the requisites of literary history in the nineteenth century. Having followed the older work of Snellaert,1 in the latter half of the volume, page for page, he has not even mentioned by name the authors of the last quarter of a century.
Let us glance at that portion of literature more particularly belonging to Flanders and Brabant.
The first expressions of the Germanic mind, the song of “Hildebrand,” “Gudrun,” the “Nibelungen,” have been handed down to us in a form which shows their origin to have been Netherlandish. The first part of “ Gudrun ” is evidently so; and we find, as well in many of the older poems of chivalry, as “ Charles and Elogast,” “Floris and Blanchefloer,” as in the national epos, intrinsic proofs that the unknown authors were from the regions of the Lower Rhine. These elder remnants, however, can scarcely be claimed by any one of the Teutonic races, as they are the common property of all; for we find the hero Siegfried in the Scandinavian Saga, as well as in the more southern tradition. Mr. Delepierre has translated the following snug. almost Homeric in its form, which belongs to this early period, when Christianity had not obliterated the memories of barbarous days : —
“ The Lord Halewyn knew a song: all those who heard it were attracted towards him.
“ it was once heard by the daughter of the King, who was so beloved by her parents.
“She stood before her father: ‘ O father, may I go to the Lord Halewyn? ’
“ ‘ Oh, no, my child, no! They who go to him never come back again.’
“ She stood before her mother: ‘ O mother, may I go to the Lord Halewyn ? ’
“ ‘ Oh, no, my child, no! They who go to him never come back again.’
“ She stood before her sister: ‘ O sister, may I go to the Lord Halewyn?’
“ ‘ Oh, no, sister, no! They who go to him never come bade again.’
“She stood before her brother: ‘ O brother, may I go to the Lord Halewyn?’
“ ‘ Little care I where thou goest, provided thou preservest thine honor and thy crown.
“ She goes up into her chamber; she clothes herself in her best garments.
“ What does she put on first? A shift finer than silk.
“ What does she gird round her lovely waist? Strong bands of gold.
“ What does she put upon her scarlet petticoat? On every seam a golden button.
“ What does she set on her beautiful fair hair? A massive golden crown.
“ What does, she put upon her kirtle? On every seam a pearl.
“ She GMSS into her father’s stable, and takes out his best charger. She mounts him proudly, and so, laughing and singing, rides through the forest. When she reaches the middle of the forest, she meets the Lord Halewyn.
“‘Hail!’ said he, approaching her, ‘hail, beautiful virgin, with eyes so black and brilliant ! ’
“ They proceed together, chatting as they go.
“ They arrive at a field in which stands a gallows. The bodies of several women hang from it.
“The Lord Halewyn says to her: ‘ As you are the loveliest of all virgins, say, how will you die? The time is come.’
“ ‘ It is well: as I may choose, I choose the sword.
“ ‘ But first of all, take off your tunic; for the blood of a virgin gushes out so far, that it might reach you, and I should be sorry.’
“ But before he had divested himself of his tunic, his head rolled off and lay at his feet; his lips still murmured these words:
“‘Go down there into that corn-field, and blow the horn, so that my friends may hear it.’
“‘Into that corn-field I shall not go, neither shall I blow the horn. I do not follow the counsel of a murderer.’
“ ‘ Go, then, down under the gallows, and gather the balm which you shall find there, and spread it over my bloody throat.’
“ ‘ Under the gallows I shall not go; on your bloody throat I shall spread no balm. I do not follow the counsel of a murderer.’
“ She took up the head by the hair, and washed it at a clear fountain.
“ She mounted her charger proudly, and, laughing and singing, she rode through the forest.
“ When she reached the middle of the forest, she met the mother of Halewyn. ‘Beautiful virgin, have you not seen my son? ‘
“ ‘ Your son, the Lord Halewyn, is gone hunting: you will never see him again.
“ ‘ Your son, the Lord Halewyn, is dead. I have his head in my apron, which is red with his blood.’
“ And when she arrived at her father’s gate, she blew the horn like a man.
“ And when her father saw her, he rejoiced at her return.
“ He celebrated it by a feast, and the head of Halewyn was placed on the table.”
Flemish writers claim as entirely their own that epic of the people, “ Reynard the Fox.” Their right to it was long contested; nor has anything been done since the labors of Willems, who, in opposition to the opinion of William Grimm, settles the authorship of the “ Reinaert de Vos” on Utenhove, a priest of Aerdenburg. It seems natural to suppose that this most popular of Middle-Age productions should have originated in the very region which later gave to the world a school of painting that incarnated on canvas the phases of animal life, taking its delight and best inspirations in the burlesque side of human passions.
In its first period, Flemish literature found some encouragement from its princes. John I. of Brabant fostered it, and even took, himself, the title of Flemish Troubadour. Under Guy of Dampierre, who neither in heart nor mind was sympathetic with the people he ruled, we find Maerlant, still revered by his country; his name is ever coupled with the epithet of Father of Flemish Poets. Didactic rather than poetical, his influence was great in breaking down the barriers which separated the people from the higher classes, by adapting to their own home-idiom the best productions of the age. About this period we find prevalent those Northern singers corresponding to the Trouvères, Troubadours, and Jongleurs. They are in Flanders the Spreker, Segger, and Vinder, who, when travelling through the country, took the name of Gezel, received in town or village, court or hamlet, as the wandering minstrel of the South. The golden age when sovereigns doffed their royal robes to lay them on the shoulders of some sweet-singing poet, as the old chronicles tell us, was of short duration in the North, if ever the Sproken or erotic poems may be said to have brought their authors into such favor. On the other hand, we find some of the wanderers arrested for theft and other crimes.
Little light has been thrown on their first ante-historical attempts. Until the late labors of German philologers, little had been done to clear up the confusion resting on this period of literary history. As yet the field has scarcely been explored beyond the regions not immediately connected with the literature of Germany. We have long historical poems of little interest, arranged without order, — interminable productions of thousands and ten thousands of lines of uncertain date, didactic and encyclopedialike, besides unmistakable remnants of a Netherlandish theatre.
The battle of Roosebeke, where the second Artevelde and his companions succumbed to superior numbers, was the last great enterprise of the Flemings against the French. Half a century earlier, a strong league had been formed against these powerful neighbors. In the interior, the country was divided into factions, — the partisans and enemies of France. Prominent were the Claumaerts and the Leliarts, from the lion’s claw and the fleur-de-lis which they respectively wore on their badges. The country, which has ever been one of the battle-fields of Europe, was abandoned to all the horrors of civil war. The Duke of Brabant was childless. The Count of Flanders gave his daughter, his only legitimate child, in marriage to the Duke of Burgundy; and the provinces soon came into the hands of those ambitions and restless enemies of the Court of France. It may easily be imagined that these events were not without their influence on a language deteriorated on the one hand by constant contact with a Romanic idiom, and in Holland by the transmission of the sovereign crown to the House of Avesnos.
The “Chambers of Rhetoric,” an institution peculiar to the Low Countries, reached their highest point of prosperity under the Burgundian rule. The wandering life of poets and authors had nearly ceased. The Gezellen, settled in towns, and moved by the prevalent spirit which prompted men of one calling to unite into bodies, naturally fell into corporations analogous to the Guilds. "Without attaching any very definite or clear idea to the term Rhetoric which they employed, these associations exerted great influence upon the whole literature of the Netherlands. Many would date their origin as far back as the early part of the twelfth century. In Alost, the Catherinists claimed to have existed as early as 1107, on the mere strength of their motto, AMOR VINCIT. At any rate, we are left entirely to conjecture with regard to the first beginnings of these literary guilds, which seem in many respects an imitation of the poetical societies of Provence. Every poet of note was a participant in them. In Flanders there was scarcely a town or village that did not possess its Chamber. Brabant, Holland, Zealand soon followed in the movement. One of the principal, the Fountain of Ghent, seems to have exercised a certain supremacy over the other confraternities of art.
The proceeding’s of these companies, protected at first by princes, were carried on with great magnificence. They were in constant communication with each other throughout the country. Their facteurs or poets composed songs and theatrical pieces, which were performed by the members. They had a long array of officers, with princely names ; and none was complete without a jester. Their larger assemblies were accompanied with long festivities, the solemn entry into a town or village being styled Landjuweel (Landjewel). The nobility mingled in them, incited by the example of Henry IV. of Brabant or Philippe-le-Bel. The wealth of the Netherlands was displayed on these solemnities, and the citizens rivalled their monarchs in magnificence. The burghers of Ghent and Bruges and Antwerp shone, on these occasions, in the gaudy pomp of princely patricians. All were invited to take part and dispute the prizes awarded by fair hands.
It can scarcely be expected that these guilds, composed in many cases of mechanics, should give rise to works of the highest order of merit. Their dramatic representations were rather gorgeous than tasteful, their attempts at wit little better than buffoonery, their humor mere personal vituperation. Yet even in matters of taste they are not much inferior to the then more pretentious academies of other lands. It was an age of long religious dramas, of tortured rhymes and impossible metres, when strange and new versification imported from France found favor among a people whose silks and linens and rich tapestries were destined to reach a wider circulation than all the poetical effusions of their guilds, the “ Lily,” the “Violet,” and the “Jesus with the Balsam Flower.”
It was Philip the Fair who, wishing to centralize the scattered efforts of these societies, established at Malines, in 1493, a sovereign chamber, of which he appointed his chaplain, Pierre Aelters, sovereign prince. With an admixture of religion, in accordance with the spirit of the Middle Ages, the sacred number was fifteen. There were fifteen members. Fifteen young girls were to form part of it, in honor of the fifteen joys of Mary. Fifteen youths were instructed in the art of rhetoric, and the assemblies were held fifteen times a year. Charles V. was the last chief of this assembly, which had previously been removed to Ghent. In 1577 it greeted the arrival of the Prince of Orange, but this was its last sign of vitality.
The Chambers of Rhetoric reached their climax in a time of fermentation. The impatience, the feeling of uneasiness and restraint, is felt in the drama of these days, which was wholly under the control of the Chambers. The stage, that “mirror of the times,” is often the first manifestation of the unquiet heaving and subsequent upbubbling in the fluid compost of the mass that constitutes a nation. When freely developed, it is the pulse-beat of the people. And so, throughout the Netherlands, at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, we find the allegorical drama giving way to more definite and direct personations. Those cold representations of vices and virtues, of vice in its nakedness, such as to render the reading, when not absolutely tedious, distasteful, to say the least, to our modern ideas, — all such aimless productions were giving way to the conscious expression of satire. Diatribes against prevalent abuses, personal invectives scarcely veiled, were fast becoming the order of the day. It is no wonder, then, that the guilds, which had found favor formerly, should gradually be crushed, in proportion as the rulers sought to check the spirit of reform. Among the authors of this period may be mentioned Everaert and Machet. The refrain was much cultivated, and not, like the drama, for the expression of dissatisfaction. Anna Byns, an oracle with the Catholic party, wrote when the language was in its most degenerate stale, under Margaret of Austria. She was styled the Sappho of Brabant, though her poems are all religious. They were translated into Latin, and were read as masterpieces till the middle of the last century.
A taste for religious writing prevailed in the Motherlands throughout the sixteenth century. William van Zuylen van Nyevelt first published a collection of the Psalms of David. These, in imitation of the French Calvinists, were sung to the most popular melodies. Zuylen found many imitators. The Catholic party composed songs in opposition to the Reformers ; and we have psalms and songs by Utenhove, the painters Luc de Heere and Van Mander, by Van Haecht and Fruytiers. A long list of obscure names, if we except those of Marnix and Houwaert, is mentioned as belonging to this period, — their works mostly didactic or controversial. Houwaert, a Catholic, one of the avowed friends and partisans of t he Prince of Orange, courted the Muses in the hottest days of civil strife. He published a poem, in sixteen cantos, entitled “ The Gardens of the Virgins,” tending to show the dangers to which the fair sex is exposed, and condemning as unreal all love not centred in God. With a remarkable fertility of composition he possesses an uncommon smoothness of versification, combined with a power, so successful in his age, of illustration from history or romance, from the sacred writings or the legendary lore of the people. The work was received in those days of trouble with unbounded enthusiasm. Brabant was thought to have given birth to a new Homer. His praises resounded in verse and song, and the young girls of Brussels crowned him with laurel.
The government of the Duke of Alva, and the succeeding years of revolution, were a period of desolation for Flanders. The Guilds of Rhetoric were dispersed; town after town was depopulated ; Ghent, the loved city of Charles V., lost six thousand families; Leyden, Amsterdam, Haerlem, Gouda, afforded refuge to the emigrants. The golden age of literary activity is about to dawn in the Dutch republic. In the other provinces the national language is more and more neglected. It gives umbrage to the foreign chiefs who act as sovereigns. With it they identify all the opposition that has prevailed against them. Archduke Albert carries his condescension no farther than to address in High-German such of his subjects as can speak only Flemish. His Walloons he treats with no more civility, answering them but in Spanish or Latin. Ymmeloot, lord of Steenbrugge, a native of Ypres, endeavors in 1614 to stem the current of opposition and reawaken a love for letters. He suggests many reforms in the versification, and gives the example. He is followed by many, and Ypres becomes for a time a centre of versifiers. But the spirit of originality has flown, and the literature of Holland is enriched with the name of many a Fleming who preferred exile to the new rule.
In 1618, the General Synod of Dordrecht decreed that a new translation of the Bible should be undertaken. Two Flemings, Baudaert and Walæus, and two Dutchmen, Bogerman and Hommius, completed it. Like the work of Luther, this tended in a great measure to fix the language, preventing the preponderance of one dialect over the other.
Foreign imitation begins to prevail in Flanders. Frederic de Conincq constructs dramas on the models of Lope de Vega, with the necessary quota of nocturnal visits, abductions, dagger-thrusts, and bravado. An action entirely Spanish is conducted in the veriest patois of Antwerp. Ogier follows in his footsteps, introducing upon the stage the coarsest language. He represents vice in its most revolting forms. His theory, as he himself explains it, is, that “ it is necessary to represent vice on the stage, as the Romans formerly on certain days intoxicated their slaves and showed them to their children, in order that they might at an early age become inspired with a disgust for debauchery.” Yet his comedies enjoyed the highest favor, and have been pronounced by native critics among the most remarkable and meritorious productions of the epoch. They are ever distinguished by vivacity, truth, and fidelity, in depicting the many-sided life of the people. He seems to have been a literary Ostade or Teniers, with less of ingenuousness and good-nature in the portraiture.
In the mean time the French language continues to gain ground every day. In Brussels, native authors seek in vain to oppose the encroachments of the “ Fransquillon,” as Godin first styles them; but, save the feeble productions of Van der Borcht, the Jesuit Poirtiers, and the Dominican Vloers, we find but translations and imitations. Moons versifies some hundreds of fables. A half-sentimental, sickly style, consisting only of praises, of self-abnegation, of pious ejaculations, prevails. It is the worst of reactions ; — the country, after its first outburst, had sunk into quietude, the lethargy of inaction.
Holland, on the other hand, is active and doing. Its poets and historians are at work, the precursors of Bilderdyk and Tollens, the poet of the people. Bruges, in the eighteenth century, produces two writers of merit,— Smidts and Labare. In French Flanders, De Swaen adapts from Corneille, and publishes original dramas. Many songs are composed both in the northern and southern provinces, mostly of a religious character. Philologers seek to revive the neglected idiom with little success. But the century is blank of great names. The Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres, established at Brussels by Maria Theresa, was composed of members totally unacquainted with the Flemish. It took no notice of the language beyond publishing a few prize-memoirs in its annals. The German barons who ruled cared little for their own tongue : how should they have manifested interest in that of their Belgian subjects ? The subsequent French domination was no improvement. On the 13th of June, 1803, it was decreed by the Republic,— “ In a year, reckoning from the publication of this present ordinance, the public acts, in the departments once called Belgium, . . . in those on the left bank of the Rhine, . . . where the custom of drawing up acts in the language of those countries may have been preserved, are henceforth to be written in French.” The Bonaparte rule was not of a nature to restore former privileges. In spite of the feeble remonstrances that were urged against such arbitrary measures, an imperial decree of 1812 enjoined that all Flemish papers should appear with a French translation.
Under the rule of King William, vigorous measures were employed to reinstate the native idiom. At first warmly seconded, Government, soon met with an unaccountable opposition even from its subjects. The Dutch was combated by those connected with education. It was ridiculed by the Walloon population. Since the independence of Belgium, the mouvement flamand has been felt more than once by the would-be French rulers. In 1841, a Congress was held in Ghent, where all the members of the Government spoke in Flemish ; energetic protests were addressed to the Chamber of Representatives, all with little avail. At present, though the language is nominally on a par with French, it meets with little encouragement. The philological labors of Willems entitle him to a place among the greatest of the present century ; he was until his death the leader of the intellectual movement of his country.
Of later authors, we may mention the laureate Ledeganck, Henri Conscience, whose works have now been translated into English, French, German, Danish, and Swedish, Renier Snicders, Van Duyse, Dantzenberg. Modern literature seems to have taken a new flight; it is animated by the purest love of country, by an arden t desire in its authors to revive the use of their native tongue. The tendency is rather Germanic. At the Singers’ Festival, held in Ghent a short time ago, the songs sung breathed a spirit of union and love for the sister languages. As a fair sample, we may quote the following : —
“ Welaen, Germaen en Belg tezaem ten stryd
Voor vryheid, tael en vaderland!
De vaen van't duïtsch en vlaemsohe zangverbond
Prael op’t gentsch eeregoud I
Wy widen vry zyn, ala de adelaer
Die stout op eigen wiekeo dryft,
Voor wien er slechts een koestring is, de zon.
Alom waer der Germanen tael
Zich heft en bloeid en’t volk, Daer is ons vaderland ! ”
  1. * Histoire de la Litterature Flamunde. Bruxelles. 1854.