1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Flemish Literature

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FLEMISH LITERATURE. The older Flemish writers are dealt with in the article on Dutch Literature; after the separation of Belgium, however, from the Netherlands in 1830 there was a great revival of Flemish literature. The immediate result of the revolution was a reaction against everything associated with Dutch, and a disposition to regard the French language as the speech of liberty and independence. The provisional government of 1830 suppressed the official use of the Flemish language, which was relegated to the rank of a patois. For some years before 1830 Jan Frans Willems[1] (1793–1846) had been advocating the claims of the Flemish language. He had done his best to allay the irritation between Holland and Belgium and to prevent a separation. As archivist of Antwerp he made use of his opportunities by writing a history of Flemish letters. After the revolution his Dutch sympathies had made it necessary for him to live in seclusion, but in 1835 he settled at Ghent, and devoted himself to the cultivation of Flemish. He edited old Flemish classics, Reinaert de Vos (1836), the rhyming Chronicles of Jan van Heelu and Jan le Clerc, &c., and gathered round him a band of Flemish enthusiasts, the chevalier Philipp Blommaert (1809–1871), Karel Lodewijk Ledeganck (1805–1847), Fr. Rens (1805–1874), F. A. Snellaert (1809–1872), Prudens van Duyse (1804–1859), and others. Blommaert, who was born at Ghent on the 27th of August 1809, founded in 1834 in his native town the Nederduitsche letteroefeningen, a review for the new writers, and it was speedily followed by other Flemish organs, and by literary societies for the promotion of Flemish. In 1851 a central organization for the Flemish propaganda was provided by a society, named after the father of the movement, the “Willemsfonds.” The Catholic Flemings founded in 1874 a rival “Davidsfonds,” called after the energetic J. B. David (1801–1866), professor at the university of Louvain, and the author of a Flemish history of Belgium (Vaderlandsche historie, Louvain, 1842–1866). As a result of this propaganda the Flemish language was placed on an equality with French in law, and in administration, in 1873 and 1878, and in the schools in 1883. Finally in 1886 a Flemish Academy was established by royal authority at Ghent, where a course in Flemish literature had been established as early as 1854.

The claims put forward by the Flemish school were justified by the appearance (1837) of In’t Wonderjaar 1566 (In the Wonderful year) of Hendrik Conscience (q.v.), who roused national enthusiasm by describing the heroic struggles of the Flemings against the Spaniards. Conscience was eventually to make his greatest successes in the description of contemporary Flemish life, but his historical romances and his popular history of Flanders helped to give a popular basis to a movement which had been started by professors and scholars.

The first poet of the new school was Ledeganck, the best known of whose poems are those on the “three sister cities” of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp (Die drie zustersteden, vaderlandsche trilogie, Ghent, 1846), in which he makes an impassioned protest against the adoption of French ideas, manners and language, and the neglect of Flemish tradition. The book speedily took its place as a Flemish classic. Ledeganck, who was a magistrate, also translated the French code into Flemish. Jan Theodoor van Rijswijck (1811–1849), after serving as a volunteer in the campaign of 1830, settled down as a clerk in Antwerp, and became one of the hottest champions of the Flemish movement. He wrote a series of political and satirical songs, admirably suited to his public. The romantic and sentimental poet, Jan van Beers (q.v.), was typically Flemish in his sincere and moral outlook on life. Prudens van Duyse, whose most ambitious work was the epic Artavelde (1859), is perhaps best remembered by a collection (1844) of poems for children. Peter Frans Van Kerckhoven (1818–1857), a native of Antwerp, wrote novels, poems, dramas, and a work on the Flemish revival (De Vlaemsche Beweging, 1847).

Antwerp produced a realistic novelist in Jan Lambrecht Damien Sleeckx (1818–1901). An inspector of schools by profession, he was an indefatigable journalist and literary critic. He was one of the founders in 1844 of the Vlaemsch België, the first daily paper in the Flemish interest. His works include a long list of plays, among them Jan Steen (1852), a comedy; Grétry, which gained a national prize in 1861; De Visschers van Blankenberg (1863); and the patriotic drama of Zannekin (1865). His talent as a novelist was diametrically opposed to the idealism of Conscience. He was precise, sober and concrete in his methods, relying for his effect on the accumulation of carefully observed detail. He was particularly successful in describing the life of the shipping quarter of his native town. Among his novels are: In’t Schipperskwartier (1856), Dirk Meyer (1860), Tybaerts en Kie (1867), Kunst en Liefde (“Art and Love,” 1870), and Vesalius in Spanje (1895). His complete works were collected in 17 vols. (1877–1884).

Jan Renier Snieders (1812–1888) wrote novels dealing with North Brabant; his brother, August Snieders (b. 1825), began by writing historical novels in the manner of Conscience, but his later novels are satires on contemporary society. A more original talent was displayed by Anton Bergmann (1835–1874), who, under the pseudonym of “Tony,” wrote Ernest Staas, Advocat, which gained the quinquennial prize of literature in 1874. In the same year appeared the Novellen of the sisters Rosalie (1834–1875) and Virginie Loveling (b. 1836). These simple and touching stories were followed by a second collection in 1876. The sisters had published a volume of poems in 1870. Virginie Loveling’s gifts of fine and exact observation soon placed her in the front rank of Flemish novelists. Her political sketches, In onze Vlaamsche gewesten (1877), were published under the name of “W. G. E. Walter.” Sophie (1885), Een dure Eed (1892), and Het Land der Verbeelding (1896) are among the more famous of her later works. Reimond Stÿns (b. 1850) and Isidoor Teirlinck (b. 1851) produced in collaboration one very popular novel, Arm Vlaanderen (1884), and some others, and have since written separately. Cyril Buysse, a nephew of Mme Loveling, is a disciple of Zola. Het Recht van den Sterkste (“The Right of the Strongest,” 1893) is a picture of vagabond life in Flanders; Schoppenboer (“The Knave of Spades,” 1898) deals with brutalized peasant life; and Sursum corda (1895) describes the narrowness and religiosity of village life.

In poetry Julius de Geyter (b. 1830), author of a rhymed translation of Reinaert (1874), an epic poem on Charles V. (1888), &c., produced a social epic in three parts, Drie menschen van in de wieg tot in het graf (“Three Men from the Cradle to the Grave,” 1861), in which he propounded radical and humanitarian views. The songs of Julius Vuylsteke (1836–1903) are full of liberal and patriotic ardour; but his later life was devoted to politics rather than literature. He had been the leading spirit of a students’ association at Ghent for the propagation of “flamingant” views, and the “Willemsfonds” owed much of its success to his energetic co-operation. His Uit het studenten leven appeared in 1868, and his poems were collected in 1881. The poems of Mme van Ackere (1803–1884), née Maria Doolaeghe, were modelled on Dutch originals. Joanna Courtmans (1811–1890), née Berchmans, owed her fame rather to her tales than her poems; she was above all a moralist, and her fifty tales are sermons on economy and the practical virtues. Other poets were Emmanuel Hiel (q.v.), author of comedies, opera libretti and some admirable songs; the abbé Guido Gezelle (1830–1899), who wrote religious and patriotic poems in the dialect of West Flanders; Lodewijk de Koninck (b. 1838), who attempted a great epic subject in Menschdon Verlost (1872); J. M. Dautzenberg (1808–1869), author of a volume of charming Volksliederen. The best of Dautzenberg’s work is contained in the posthumous volume of 1869, published by his son-in-law, Frans de Cort (1834–1878), who was himself a song-writer, and translated songs from Burns, from Jasmin and from the German. The Makamen en Ghazelen (1866), adapted from Rückert’s version of Hariri, and other volumes by “Jan Ferguut” (J. A. van Droogenbroeck, b. 1835) show a growing preoccupation with form, and with the work of Theodoor Antheunis (b. 1840), they prepare the way for the ingenious and careful workmanship of the younger school of poets, of whom Charles Polydore de Mont is the leader. He was born at Wambeke in Brabant in 1857, and became professor in the academy of the fine arts at Antwerp. He introduced something of the ideas and methods of contemporary French writers into Flemish verse; and explained his theories in 1898 in an Inleiding tot de Poëzie. Among Pol de Mont’s numerous volumes of verse dating from 1877 onwards are Claribella (1893), and Iris (1894), which contains amongst other things a curious “Uit de Legende van Jeschoea-ben-Jossef,” a version of the gospel story from a Jewish peasant.

Mention should also be made of the history of Ghent (Gent van den vroegsten Tijd tot heden, 1882–1889) of Frans de Potter (b. 1834), and of the art criticisms of Max Rooses (b. 1839), curator of the Plantin museum at Antwerp, and of Julius Sabbe (b. 1846).

See Ida van Düringsfeld, Von der Schelde bis zur Maas. Das geistige Leben der Vlamingen (Leipzig, 3 vols., 1861); J. Stecher, Histoire de la littérature néerlandaise en Belgique (1886); Geschiedenis der Vlaamsche Letterkunde van het jaar 1830 tot heden (1899), by Theodoor Coopman and L. Scharpé; A. de Koninck, Bibliographie nationale (3 vols., 1886–1897); and Histoire politique et littéraire du mouvement flamand (1894), by Paul Hamelius. The Vlaamsche Bibliographie, issued by the Flemish Academy of Ghent, by Frans de Potter, contains a list of publications between 1830 and 1890; and there is a good deal of information in the excellent Biographisch woordenboeck der Noord- en Zuid- Nederlandsche Letterkunde (1878) of Dr W. J. A. Huberts and others.  (E. G.) 

  1. See Max Rooses, Keus van Dicht- en Prozawerken van J. F. Willems, and his Brieven in the publications of the Willemsfonds (Ghent, 1872–1874).