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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILLEM BILDERDIJK’S personality, even more than his genius, exerted so powerful an influence over his time that it has been said that to think of a Dutchman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was to think of Bilderdijk. He stands as the representative of the great literary and intellectual awakening which took place in Holland immediately after that country became part of the French empire. The history of literature has many examples of how, under political disturbances, the agitated mind has sought refuge in literary and scientific pursuits, and it seemed at that time as if Dutch literature was entering a new Golden Age. The country had never known better poets; but it was the poetry of the eighteenth century, to quote Ten Brink, “ceremonious and stagy.”  1
  In ‘Herinnering van mijne Kindheit’ (Reminiscences of My Childhood), a book which is not altogether to be relied upon, Bilderdijk gives a charming picture of his father, a physician in Amsterdam, but speaks of his mother in less flattering terms. He was born in Amsterdam in 1756. At an early age he suffered an injury to his foot, a peasant boy having carelessly stepped on it; attempts were made to cure him by continued bleedings, and the result was that he was confined to his bed for twelve years. These years laid the foundation of a character lacking in power to love and to call forth love, and developing into an almost fierce hypochondria, full of complaints and fears of death. In these years, however, he acquired the information and the wonderful power of language which appear in his sinewy verse.  2
  One of his poems, dated 1770, has been preserved, but is principally interesting as a first attempt. Others, written in his twentieth year, were prize poems, and are sufficiently characterized by their titles:—‘Kunst wordt door Arbeid verkregen’ (Art came through Toil), and ‘Inloed der Dichthunst op het Staets bestuur’ (Influence of Poetry on Statesmanship). When he went to Leyden in 1780 to study law, he was already famous. His examinations passed, he settled at the Hague to practice, and in 1785 married Katharina Rebekka Woesthoven. The following year he published his romance, ‘Elius,’ in seven songs. The romance ultimately became his favorite form of verse; but this was not the form now called romance. It was the rhymed narrative of the eighteenth century, written with endless care and reflection, and in his case with so superior a treatment of language that no Dutch poet since Huygens had approached it.  3
  The year 1795 was the turning-point in Bilderdijk’s life. He had been brought up in unswerving faith in the cause of the house of Orange, was a fanatic monarchist and Calvinist, “anti-revolutionary, anti-Barneveldtian, anti-Loevesteinisch, anti-liberal” (thus Da Costa), a warm supporter of William the Fifth, and at the entrance of the French in 1795 he refused to give his oath of allegiance to the cause of the citizens and the sovereignty of the people. He was exiled, left the Hague, and went to London, and later to Brunswick. This was not altogether a misfortune for him, nor an unrelieved sorrow. He had been more successful as poet than as husband or financier, and by his compulsory banishment escaped his financial difficulties and what he considered the chains of his married life. In London Bilderdijk met his countryman the painter Schweikhardt; and with this meeting begins a period of his life over which his admirers would fain draw a veil. With Schweikhardt were his two daughters, of whom the younger, Katherina Wilhelmina, became Bilderdijk’s first pupil, and, excepting his “intellectual son,” Isaak da Costa, probably his only one. Besides her great poetic gifts she possessed beauty and charm. She fell in love with her teacher and followed him to Brunswick, where she lived in his house under the name of Frau van Heusden. In spite of this arrangement, the poet seems to have considered himself a most faithful husband; and he did his best to persuade his wife to join him with their children, but naturally without success. In 1802 the marriage was legally annulled, and Frau van Heusden took his name. She did her best to atone for the blot on her repute by a self-sacrificing lovableness, and was in close sympathy with Bilderdijk on the intellectual side. Like him she was familiar with all the resources of the art of poetry. Most famous of her poems are the long one ‘Rodrigo de Goth,’ and her touching, graceful ‘Gedichten voor Kinderen’ (Poems for Children). Bilderdijk’s verses show what she was to him:—
  In the shadow of my verdure, firmly on my trunk depending,
Grew the tender branch of cedar, never longing once to leave me;
Faithfully through rain and tempest, modest at my side it rested,
Bearing to my honor solely the first twig it might its own call;
Fair the wreath thy flowers made me for my knotted trunk fast withering,
And my soul with pride was swelling at the crown of thy young blossoms;
Straight and strong and firmly rooted, tall and green thy head arises,
Bright the glory of its freshness; never yet by aught bedimmed.
Lo! my crown to thine now bending, only thine the radiant freshness,
And my soul finds rest and comfort in thy sheltering foliage.
  4
  Meanwhile he was no better off materially. The Duke of Brunswick, who had known him previously, received the famous Dutch exile with open arms, and granted him a pension; but it never sufficed. Many efforts were made to have his decree of exile annulled; but they failed through his own peevish insolence and his boundless ingratitude. King Louis (Bonaparte) of Holland extended his protection to the dissatisfied old poet; and all these royal gentlemen were most generous. When the house of Orange returned to Holland, William I. continued the favor already shown him, obtained a high pension for him, and when it proved insufficient, supplemented it with gifts. In this way Bilderdijk’s income in the year 1816 amounted to twenty thousand gold pieces. That this should be sufficient to keep the wolf from the door in a city like Amsterdam, Bilderdijk thought too much to expect, and consequently left in great indignation and went to Leyden in 1817.  5
  But these personal troubles in no way interfered with his talent. On the contrary, the history of literature has seldom known so great an activity and productiveness; all in all, his works amounted to almost a hundred volumes. What he accomplished during his stay in Germany was almost incredible. He gave lessons to exiled Dutch in a great variety of branches, he saw volume upon volume through print; he wrote his famous ‘Het Buitenleven’ (Country Life) after Delille, he translated Fingal after Ossian, he wrote ‘Vaderlandsche Orangezucht’ (Patriotic Love for Orange). After his return to Holland he wrote ‘De Ziekte der Geleerden’ (The Disease of Genius: 1817), ‘Leyden’s Kamp’ (Leyden’s Battle: 1808), and the first five songs of ‘De Ondergang der eerste Wereld’ (Destruction of the First World: 1809), probably his masterpiece; moreover, the dramas ‘Floris V.,’ ‘Willem van Holland,’ and ‘Kounak.’ The volumes published between 1815 and 1819 bore the double signature Willem and Wilhelmina Katherina Bilderdijk.  6
  But it was as though time had left him behind. The younger Holland shook its head over the old gentleman of the past century, with his antagonism for the poetry of the day and his rage against Shakespeare and the latter’s “puerile” ‘King Lear.’ For to Bilderdijk even more than to Voltaire, Shakespeare was an abomination. Then in 1830 he received the severest blow of his life: Katherina Wilhelmina died. This happened in Haarlem, whither he had gone in 1827. With this calamity his strength was broken and his life at an end. He followed her in 1831.  7
  He was in every way a son of the eighteenth century; he began as a didactic and patriotic poet, and might at first be considered a follower of Jakob Cats. He became principally a lyric poet, but his lyric knew no deep sentiment, no suppressed feeling; its greatness lay in its rhetorical power. His ode to Napoleon may therefore be one of the best to characterize his genius. When he returned to his native country after eleven years’ exile, with heart and mind full of Holland, it was old Holland he sought and did not find. He did not understand young Holland. In spite of this, his fame and powerful personality had an attraction for the young; but it was the attraction of a past time, the fascination of the glorious ruin. Young Holland wanted freedom, individual independence, and this Bilderdijk considered a misfortune. “One should not let children, women, and nations know that they possess other rights than those naturally theirs. This matter must be a secret between the prince and his heart and reason,—to the masses it ought always to be kept as hidden as possible.” The new age which had made its entry with the cry of Liberty would not tolerate such sentiments, and he stood alone, a powerful, demonic, but incomprehensible spirit.  8
  Aside from his fame as a poet, he deserves to be mentioned as Jacob Grimm’s correspondent, as philologist, philosopher, and theologian.  9
 
 
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