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ROYAL INSTITUTION.- March 20, 1854.
JOSEPH DICKINSON, M.D., F.L.S., &c., PRESIDENT, in the Chair.
The SECRETARY announced that the Council had appointed Friday, the 31st March, at seven o'clock, to take into consideration, for the second time, the subject of the union of the learned societies.
Mr. Thomas RIGGE was ballotted for, and duly elected an Ordinary Member.
Dr. W. Ihne compared Horace's “ Ode to Pyrrha" with its translation into English by Milton.
The Rev. A. FISCHEL read a paper on
THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF JOOST VAN VONDEL. The United Provinces of the Netherlands are known in this country chiefly in connection with the English revolution, and other political events, in which they played a prominent part; perhaps, also in connection with the celebrated artists of the Flemish schools ; but little or nothing is known of their literature. In the absence of any information on the subject, it is thought that the Dutch, as a commercial people, have paid but little attention to letters. Far from this being the case, it may be shown that they have contributed more than their share to European literature ; and, although principally devoted to mercantile pursuits, have nevertheless produced poets, dramatists, philologists, and philosophers, whose works may be placed among the best productions of ancient or modern times. It is indeed a remarkable fact that all commercial people have distinguished themselves by literary genius. The ancient Greeks were as active in commerce as they excelled in the arts; the English, though less imaginative than the Germans, have nevertheless excelled them in literature; for, as Goethe* remarks,“ German literature is chiefly the offspring of English literature." Even the Americans, a people of recent birth, have
• Conversation with Ackermann, vol. I., p. 184.
produced some excellent poets. So also did the Dutch, at the time of their mercantile supremacy, excel in literature; whilst, with the decline of their commerce, their genius decayed. That their authors have obtained so little celebrity seems principally to be owing to their national language, which is hardly known beyond the borders of Holland. Those who composed their works in Latin have met with better success; and the names of Grotius, Erasmus, Buxtorf, and a host of others, have even obtained a world-wide reputation. There are, however, subjects which, being intended for the people, can be written in the national language only; such as the drama, epic, and satire. In this class of literature the Dutch have many productions not only of national interest, but of a literary significance also ; especially those of their greatest poet Joost Van Vondel, whose life and writings form the more immediate subject of this paper.
Joost Van Vondel was born at Cologne in the sixteenth, and lived during the greater part of the seventeenth century. It was an era favourable to the development of genius,--an age of great men and of great events. The world, long pregnant with religious conflict and political disaffection, was giving birth to new ideas and new principles. Liberty of conscience was no more claimed as a favour, but as a right; and self-government began to encroach on the privileges of monarchs. The layman began to doubt the infallibility of his priest, and the subject the divine right of his king. The old system was effete, and new principles, long suppressed by antiquated authority, began with great violence to rush into existence. In England, king and law were contending for supremacy, and events were ripening on the continent which made the Emperor of Austria bow submissively to the king of a petty country; whilst in the Netherlands, the reaction of conquered tyranny was severely felt in the excesses of a violent democracy. Whether such events call forth great men, or whether the latter call forth those events, it is difficult to decide ; but, seeing that at every emergency numbers of great men arise, it will not be hazardous to suppose that in troublous epochs, much genius is called into action which would otherwise have remained dormant. In ordinary times Cromwell might have remained the humble member of an obscure constituency, and Gustavus Adolphus unacknowledged "Majesty" among monarchs. Stirring events likewise call forth the power of the pen, and many an excellent composition we owe to the passing events of the day. So much is certain, that the political condition of his country called forth some of the best of Vondel's productions.
There was nothing, either in the position or in the education of our poet, that would have justified anything but the most ordinary expectations. His parents, both natives of Antwerp, had been compelled to leave their country in consequence of the persecutions raging against the Reformed Church, of which they were sincere adherents. They removed to Cologne, and, in the year 1587, rejoiced in the birth of a son, who was afterwards acknowledged as the head of the Dutch poets. After a few years they were advised to emigrate to Holland, where every one enjoyed liberty of conscience; and, accordingly, Vondel established himself first at Utrecht, and afterwards in Amsterdam, where he carried on the trade of a hosier. As it is usual to trace genius to its infancy it may be as well to state that our poet showed in his boyhood a great love of poetry; but his first efforts were by no means successful. He himself seems to have been unconscious of his own talent, as on his marriage, in the year 1610, he entered into the same business as his father. It was then that an anxious desire for information began to manifest itself in him. Leaving his business to the care of his wife, he began to take lessons of an Englishman in the Latin language, and further improved himself under the tuition of a certain Abbama. He was soon able to read the Latin authors fluently; and in his writings gives frequent proofs of his familiarity with them. At a later period of his life, he furnished his country with an excellent translation of Virgil and Ovid. He was now thirty-three years of age, and had as yet produced nothing worthy of himself, when a serious illness threatened to put an end to his life; and so severe were his sufferings that he was often heard to wish for a speedy death. But, once restored to health, his former love of learning revived ; and he joined a literary society, consisting of the most eminent literary men of his country, whose principal object it was to develope aud refine their national tongue.
The United Provinces of the Netherlands were, at that time, passing through a most dangerous crisis, in the transition from a despotic to a constitutional government. They had been united during a long resistance to the Spanish dominion. No sacrifice of property, or even of life, was considered too much for the destruction of the common enemy, and for the maintenance of the national liberties. But when the enemy was subdued, the unsettled elements of the nation began to disturb the public peace. Every sect and every party contended for preeminence. There were at that time many men, who, by their patriotism obtained a great influence over the opinions of the senate, and of the people. William of Orange stands foremost among these ; but there was one who, though playing a less conspicuous part, was not a less useful man. Joan Van Oldenbarneveldt was a lawyer, distinguished by his wisdom, patriotism, and moderation. His services led the nation through the war of independence, supported them under the presidency of William, and guided them even when Maurice was the Stadtholder. Whether it was the consequence of faction, or, as some say, the envy of Prince Maurice, this grey-headed lawyer was accused of high treason, having, it was alleged, received from the Spanish government a bribe to betray his people. The accusation was false; yet, after forty years of services to his country, he was publicly beheaded, amid the savage applause of a licentious mob. The dread of popular displeasure silenced all censure, but the event was not lost to the mind of Vondel. Greatly incensed at these democratic excesses, he composed satires, in which he most bitterly inveighed against this atrocious act. These satires were not published till many years after they were composed. But, not satisfied with this, he undertook to place his sentiments before the public in the form of a drama ; and as it would have been dangerous to expose himself to the fury of the people, he concealed the object of his drama under the colour of an ancient event. At a later period of his life he himself furnished annotations, showing who were the personages he had represented. The subject chosen for this purpose was the life of Palamedes, whose lamentable end is well known to the classical scholar. It is thus represented by Vondel. Palamedes, the son of Nauplius, king of Eubea, had, by his wisdom, obtained such influence among the Greek princes that nothing was undertaken without his advice; and in the expedition against Troy he was unanimously appointed general and leader. When Ulysses feigned madness, and was ploughing the beach in order to avoid being called to take part in the expedition, Palamedes detected the cunning by laying his young son Telemachus before the plough. The father suddenly stopped fearing lest he should hurt his child. From that time t'lysses directed all his endeavours to effect the ruin of Palamedes, in which, he was joined by Agamemnon and Calchas, who had long since been jealous of his influence. They spread reports of treason, forged a letter in which Priam offered him a bribe; and Ulysses, having hidden some gold coins under his tent, which afterwards were brought forward as conclusive proof of his guilt, Palamedes was convicted of high treason and put to death. Many of the ancient authors lament his death. Virgil says
Fando aliquod si forte tuas pervenit ad aures,
In the representation of living personages by ancient myths sufficient opportunity is afforded for satirical allusions. Happy as was the selection of Vondel in representing his hero's misfortune under the name of Palamedes, not less successful was he in the execution of the drama. There, perhaps, does not exist a drama so rich in satire. Shortly after the death of Prince Maurice this drama was published, and the object of the piece was discovered. The author was summoned to appear before the High Court at the Hague; but he concealed himself in the house of his sister, who so little sympathised with him, that she told him, “ He had better attend to his shop instead of writing books.” Sister," said he, “I'll tell these people some more truths :" whereupon he composed some powerful satires, which, however, his sister succeeded in destroying. At that time every province in Holland was, as it were, an independent republic, and in conformity with their acknowledged right, the city of Amsterdam refused to give up Vondel, but fined him 300 florins (£25) for libel.
Palamedes, like all his dramas, is entirely on the ancient model. All the unities are observed, chorusses are introduced, and strophes and antistrophes inserted between the acts. It contains scenes equal to any of the Greek dramas, such as Palamedes before the council maintaining his innocence, the description of his last moments, and several others, in which his character remains always the same, calm, conscious of his innocence, and confident of the support of the gods.
Among the many dramas composed by Vondel, there is none so interesting to the English reader as his “ Lucifer,” the subject of which is thus described by the author. Lucifer, the chief of all angels, proud, ambitious, and selfish, envied God's unlimited power, and the excellence of man, who, being created in the image of God, governed in his paradise the whole of the earth. This envy was greatly increased when Gabriel, the herald of God, declared all the angels to be but the ministering spirits created to serve God, and to watch over man, and that a glorious future was reserved for Adam. He, therefore, endeavoured, through his agents, Belial and Beelzebub, to sow discontent among the angels, and, concealing his real intentions under the pretext of defending their rights, aroused numbers into open rebellion; and, notwithstanding the admonition and entreaties of Raphael, led on the rebellious host against Michael, the general of God. His object had been to become like upto God, and to shut out man from heaven ; but his armies were defeated. Enraged at this defeat, he swore revenge,