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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jacob Cats (1577–1660)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LIFE of Jacob Cats falls within the golden age of Dutch literature, represented in the north by Hooft, Roemer Visscher, and Joost van den Vondel, and in the south by the Zeeland circle of poets, among whom Cats was undoubtedly the greatest. There have been times when Cats’s was the one name among Dutch poets; in homes where no other books were found, one might at least be sure of finding the Bible and “Father Cats.” But it is doubtful whether he would be considered great outside of Holland. He is the most prosaic of poets, has limited power of language and a still more limited choice of versification; with these drawbacks he is, however, most characteristically Dutch, partly on account of his practical moral teachings and partly on account of the monotonous tic-tac of his verse. The erection of a monument in his honor in his native city, and the painting of his portrait by Rembrandt in 1635, were therefore well-deserved tributes to a man strangely representative of his nation. Yet, even in Holland, voices have been raised against his popularity. Busken Huet has called him “a miserable character, a personified mediocrity, a vulgar and vulgarizing spirit.”  1
  Jacob Cats, the youngest of four children, was born in Brouwershaven on the 10th of November, 1577. His mother died when he was only a few years old, and his father, member of the council in Brouwershaven, soon gave his children a stepmother. Cats praises her “good deeds and good management” in his verses; but it would seem as if her management were not in accordance with what the family considered beneficial to the children. One of the uncles adopted little Jacob, and sent him to the school of Master Dirk Kemp in Zierikzee. Here he met a young boy from Brabant who was cultivating poetry, and their daily comradeship awakened the same tastes in Cats. Master Kemp was a man who, although of good intentions, had not the power to carry them out; Jacob’s uncle accordingly took him out of school and sent him to the University of Leyden to study law.  2
  From Leyden he went to Orleans, where he took his degree, and then to Paris. When he had been here for some time, his uncle thought it wisest to call him back; and Cats’s career dates from his return to The Hague, where he settled as a lawyer. Very soon after he had taken up his practice he succeeded in saving a woman accused of witchcraft, and won the case of a young man who, in defending his father from a murderous attack, had killed the assailant. These cases called attention to Cats; he soon made a name for himself. His activity was then suddenly interrupted by a severe illness. He was forced to leave the damp climate of Holland, and went to England to seek the counsel of Queen Elizabeth’s famous physician Butler. The treatment gave him no relief, however; and he did not improve until after his return to Holland, where he met a learned alchemist, to whose skill he ascribed his cure. In 1603 he moved to Middelburg, and began life with new strength. He tells in one of his poems of his meeting in the French church with a young girl, with whom he fell in love at first sight; of his growing affection for her and his intention to marry her; of the report that her father had just lost all his money in a speculation; and he confesses with a most naïve and rather cynic frankness:—
  “For her in very truth, with but the least of cause
And with a joyful heart, I’d given up the ghost.—
Look ye, this evil lot that to the father fell
Has in an instant’s time my heart of love bereft!”
  3
  Immediately after this incident, Cats married Elizabeth van Valkenburg, a rich girl from Antwerpen. Her good sense, faithfulness, and housewifely virtues found a warm expression in the following words:—
                  “She was a worthy woman,
A foundation for a home, a model of truth.”
  4
  This period of Cats’s life, almost coincident with the twelve-years’ armistice ending in 1621, when the war with Spain was resumed, was one of varied activity. Aside from the duties of his practice, he gave much time to the diking of grounds neglected during the war, now in great danger from the sea; and while at his country-place Grijpskerke near Middelburg, where his “flock of children played under the trees,” he wrote the poems ‘Emblemata of Sinnebeelden’ (Emblemata or Emblems); ‘Maeghdeplicht’ (Maiden Duty), in 1618; ‘Selfstryt’ (Inward Strife), 1620; ‘Toonel der Mannelycke Achtbaerheyd’ (Scene of Manly Respectability), and ‘Houwelyck’ (Marriage).  5
  With the beginning of the war his own peace was at an end. Several of the grounds reclaimed from the sea were once more flooded to prevent the advance of the enemy. In 1621 he accepted the office of pensionary of Middelburg, his first step toward official statesmanship. In 1623 he was elected pensionary of Dordrecht, and although he hesitated in leaving Zeeland, he finally decided to accept the office. In 1625 he added to his duties those of Curator of Leyden University. His literary work was consequently laid aside.  6
  In 1627 Cats accompanied Albert Joachimi as ambassador to London to open negotiations for a navigation treaty. He was only partly successful in his mission, but was met with much consideration by Charles I., who decorated him with the order of St. Jovis. Shortly after his return he lost his wife after a brief illness.  7
  While he was writing ‘Trouwring’ (Wedding Ring), a collection of epic and lyric poems, he was elected Secretary of State in 1636, and in 1645 Keeper of the Great Seal and Governor. But he had the experience in his public life that a crown may often be a crown of thorns; and in 1651 he begged to be released from his burdensome office. His demand was granted, and on this occasion Cats fell on his knees in the presence of the States-General and thanked God for taking away his heavy burden. He was once more persuaded to join an embassy to England. Cromwell had meanwhile come to power; Cats and his fellow-travelers returned with but little accomplished, and the old statesman and poet saw himself free to spend the last years of his life on his place Zorgvliet, which he had built outside of The Hague on the way to Scheveningen, in the midst of the Dunes. Although he may not have been a great statesman, he had felt the responsibility of his calling. He was never quite equal to it, and often felt himself helpless and small against the encroachment of the Powers. But honesty and patriotism were his to the fullest extent.  8
  The last eight years of his life he spent in Zorgvliet in undisturbed peace. He returned to his literary labors and wrote ‘Ouderdom en Buitenleven’ (Age and Country Life), ‘Hofgedachten’ (Court Thoughts), and his rhymed autobiography ‘Twee-entaghtigjarig Leven’ (A Life of Eighty-two Years). He seems to have kept his warm interest and joy in life to the very last.  9
 
 
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