David Cooke applauds the efforts of Paul Vincent & John Irons in selecting and translating an anthology which spans 1000 years of Dutch poetry
100 Dutch-Language Poems Selected and translated by Paul Vincent & John Irons with an afterword by Gaston Franssen Holland Park Press. ISBN: 9781907320491 £12. 99
Although Dutch is a language spoken by some twenty three million of our closest neighbours in Holland and Belgium and is closely related to English, it is nonetheless doubtful that many readers of poetry in the UK could name a single Dutch or Flemish poet. So it is against this backdrop that one is grateful to the editors of 100 Dutch Poems for giving us the opportunity to explore uncharted terrain. Drawing their poems from a period of one thousand years right up to the present day, they make no claim to presenting a comprehensive or scholarly introduction to their chosen field. Nonetheless, within the parameters they have set themselves, this is a thorough and coherent text which gives the general reader just enough information to find their way around. It concludes with a substantial afterword by Gaston Franssen in which he explores the relationship between Dutch poets and their landscape. There is more than enough here to capture the interest of the monolingual English reader. However, each English version faces its Dutch original and, given the paucity of such material, this volume will surely be around for many years as a basic university text and may well tempt those with some grasp of German to aspire to a reading knowledge of Dutch, which is a halfway house between that language and our own.
It is clear from even a cursory glance that the two editors, Paul Vincent and John Irons, have given a great deal of thought to their selection of poems from across ten centuries. The first ten poems span a period of some four hundred years up to the end of the 14th Century. By the time we get to the 20th Century each group of ten poems represents a decade. One of the many pleasures of this collection is to note the frequent parallels with our own poetic tradition, but to see them refracted through a different lens. ‘All Birds Are A-Nesting’, the first poem, is by ‘Anon’ and is a brief lyric from the 11th Century in which love and courtship are seen in the context of the seasons:
All birds are a-nesting save me and thee why now do we tarry
The timeless simplicity of such a lyric could be matched with similar examples from our own tradition. By the time we get to the 12th Century one can detect the influence of the French courtly tradition and the German Minnesänger in Hendrik Van Veldecke’s ‘Whoe’er In Love So Wise Can Be’, the rhymes and metre of which are skilfully rendered by John Irons:
Whoe’er in love so wise can be That in love’s service he’ll withstand The pain from which he’d seek to flee, Good luck to him, the happy man!
The tone of ‘Reynard the Fox’ from the 13th Century is more sardonic and is influenced by the French satirical epic. ‘Lord Halewijn’ and ‘There Were Once Two Royal Children’ are dramatic ballads in a style that will be familiar enough to those who have read some of our own border ballads or who know their Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. With ‘Love’s Sweetest In Its Raging Storms’ by the great female poet and mystic, Hadewijch, we are presented with a powerful exegesis of the agony of love that transcends the merely conventional. Another standout poem, this time from the 16th Century, is ‘Ballad’ by Anna Bijns, a feisty polemic proclaiming the right of a woman not to marry:
To be a woman’s fine, a man is better. You maids, you widows keep this to the letter; Don’t haste or fret to see yourselves soon wed. It’s said that manless you are honour’s debtor; If finding food and clothes though does not fetter, Let no man master both your house and bed.
For many English readers this will inevitably remind them of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and her desire to speke of wo that is in marriage. From the realism of Bijns or the mordant tone of Anthonis De Roovere’s ‘Rondel’, in which he laments the lot of those at court who can’t fawn or flatter, we move on to the age of the Petrarchan sonnet as exemplified by Jan Van Der Noot: If anyone under the arc of the sky / Has tasted Cupid’s tyrannous dart, / It’s I … However fascinating it may be to compare the trajectories of Dutch and English poetry, this is an anthology of individual poems and it’s as such that they are to be judged and leave the strongest impression, enhanced frequently by astute pairings of poems that chime or contrast with each other. The 17th Century was an age still dominated by religion. ‘Devout Song’ by Gerbrand Adriaensz Bredero is a poem of religious fervour informed by bitter experience: What the world has to tell / I know all too well. It makes an interesting contrast with ‘Creation’ by Jacobus Revius in which the poet’s religious fervour rejoices in cosmic harmony. In Joost Van Den Vondel’s ‘My Young Daughter’s Funeral’ the poet’s belief in divine providence is pushed to the limit as he expresses his grief at the untimely death of an innocence child who skipped with ropes on nimble feet.
The affinity Dutch poets have with their landscape, which is illuminatingly explored in Franssen’s afterword, is no doubt analogous to that of their painters and comes increasingly to the fore from the 18th Century onwards. ‘On Holland’s Shore’ by Willem Bilderijk is the poem of a returning exile:
So, with stiff feet at last I’ve stepped From the flood that round me swept Onto Holland’s solid shore!
‘Remembrance’ by A.C.W. Staring is a love idyll set against a landscape. E. J. Potgieter may lament the austere panoramas and bad weather of his native land, yet extols its liberal values and the fact that Holland has been The refuge of those oppressed by harsh power. P.A. De Genestet in ‘Boutade’ is much less enamoured:
Oh land of filth and fog, of vile rain chill and stinging, A sodden fetid plot of vapours dank and damp, A vast expanse of mire and blocked roads clogged and clinging, Brimful of gamps and gout, of toothache and cramp!
In passing, mention should be made of the brilliance with which John Irons has found a raucous music of his own to convey that of the original. In the English version of Guido Gezelle’s ‘A little Leaf Once Fluttered’, the only poem translated by Gaston Franssen, he has cunningly matched a northern English dialect to the sounds of Dutch: A little leaf once floated down / to t’ watter / And flowing onto t’little leaf / cam’ t’ watter.
By the time that we have reached the end of the 19th Century, the pace slows down considerably. At this point one detects similarities with our own Fin de Siècle, although the French influence is much more pronounced and, perhaps, that of the francophile German, Stefan Georg. There are still plenty of landscapes, but the atmosphere tends to be somewhat rarified and informed by a fair amount of soul-searching, as in Willem de Kloos’s ‘The Trees Are Wilting At The Season’s End’. In Herman Gorter’s ‘The Silent Road’ the imagery is pared to esssentials as it is in the work of the Imagists or further afield the Russian Acmeists. The mood of Albert Verwey’s ‘The Terraces Of Meudon’ is that of an impressionist painting or a tone poem by Debussy:
The air is still: on endlessly far slopes The city extends in blond and rosy light – I’m drawn to sounds of mirth and chatty tropes: A young man kisses a face sweet and white.
Until the end of the 1950s most of the poetry gathered here is formally conservative. Strict rhyme schemes, however, start falling into disuse during the 1960s. Increasingly, the poems which stand out are those that are precisely observed or those in which the poem is based on a single trope that is exploited to the full. Many examples could be found but a few will suffice. M. Vasalis’s ‘The Idiot In The Bath’, is a stark portrayal of helplessness; while H.H. Ter Balkt’s ‘Hymn of Praise To The Walnut Tree’ brilliantly renders the actuality of the tree which then takes on a symbolic resonance. More abstract, perhaps, but also effective is Hans Andreus’s ‘The Empty Room Remains the Empty Room’:
The empty room remains the empty room. Only me in it and no one opens the door, no woman or friend, no stranger I’ve been through this before but now I am so many years older and it’s so much more difficult to believe that this will pass, and I shall walk perhaps not free of this sick man but still in the light again which I have loved.
100 Dutch Poems is an admirably conceived project which gives the uninitiated some insight in Dutch poetic traditions. By and large, it is well paced with plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast the style and subject matter of poems across centuries and decades. The standard of the English versions is uniformly good and, as been suggested above, can on occasion be inspired. It is sometimes suggested that you can only truly appreciate your own language by studying another. The same might be said of reading the poetry of another country. On these grounds alone this is a volume which can be enthusiastically recommended.