1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Huygens, Sir Constantijn

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HUYGENS, SIR CONSTANTIJN (1596–1687), Dutch poet and diplomatist, was born at the Hague on the 4th of September 1596. His father, Christiaan Huygens, was secretary to the state council, and a man of great political importance. At the baptism of the child, the city of Breda was one of his sponsors, and the admiral Justinus van Nassau the other. He was trained in every polite accomplishment, and before he was seven could speak French with fluency. He was taught Latin by Johannes Dedelus, and soon became a master of classic versification. He developed not only extraordinary intellectual gifts but great physical beauty and strength, and was one of the most accomplished athletes and gymnasts of his age; his skill in playing the lute and in the arts of painting and engraving attracted general attention before he began to develop his genius as a writer. In 1616 he proceeded, with his elder brother, to the university of Leiden. He stayed there only one year, and in 1618 went to London with the English ambassador Dudley Carleton; he remained in London for some months, and then went to Oxford, where he studied for some time in the Bodleian Library, and to Woodstock, Windsor and Cambridge; he was introduced at the English court, and played the lute before James I. The most interesting feature of this visit was the intimacy which sprang up between the young Dutch poet and Dr Donne, for whose genius Huygens preserved through life an unbounded admiration. He returned to Holland in company with the English contingent of the synod of Dort, and in 1619 he proceeded to Venice in the diplomatic service of his country; on his return he nearly lost his life by a foolhardy exploit, namely, the scaling of the topmost spire of Strassburg cathedral. In 1621 he published one of his most weighty and popular poems, his Batava Tempe, and in the same year he proceeded again to London, as secretary to the ambassador, Wijngaerdan, but returned in three months. His third diplomatic visit to England lasted longer, from the 5th of December 1621 to the 1st of March 1623. During his absence, his volume of satires, ’t Costelick Mal, dedicated to Jacob Cats, appeared at the Hague. In the autumn of 1622 he was knighted by James I. He published a large volume of miscellaneous poems in 1625 under the title of Otiorum libri sex; and in the same year he was appointed private secretary to the stadholder. In 1627 Huygens married Susanna van Baerle, and settled at the Hague; four sons and a daughter were born to them. In 1630 Huygens was called to a seat in the privy council, and he continued to exercise political power with wisdom and vigour for many years, under the title of the lord of Zuylichem. In 1634 he is supposed to have completed his long-talked-of version of the poems of Donne, fragments of which exist. In 1637 his wife died, and he immediately began to celebrate the virtues and pleasures of their married life in the remarkable didactic poem called Dagwerck, which was not published till long afterwards. From 1639 to 1641 he occupied himself by building a magnificent house and garden outside the Hague, and by celebrating their beauties in a poem entitled Hofwijck, which was published in 1653. In 1647 he wrote his beautiful poem of Oogentroost or “Eye Consolation,” to gratify his blind friend Lucretia van Trollo. He made his solitary effort in the dramatic line in 1657, when he brought out his comedy of Trijntje Cornelis Klacht, which deals, in rather broad humour, with the adventures of the wife of a ship’s captain at Zaandam. In 1658 he rearranged his poems, and issued them with many additions, under the title of Corn Flowers. He proposed to the government that the present highway from the Hague to the sea at Scheveningen should be constructed, and during his absence on a diplomatic mission to the French court in 1666 the road was made as a compliment to the venerable statesman, who expressed his gratitude in a descriptive poem entitled Zeestraet. Huygens edited his poems for the last time in 1672, and died in his ninety-first year, on the 28th of March 1687. He was buried, with the pomp of a national funeral, in the church of St Jacob, on the 4th of April. His second son, Christiaan, the eminent astronomer, is noticed separately.

Constantijn Huygens is the most brilliant figure in Dutch literary history. Other statesmen surpassed him in political influence, and at least two other poets surpassed him in the value and originality of their writings. But his figure was more dignified and splendid, his talents were more varied, and his general accomplishments more remarkable than those of any other person of his age, the greatest age in the history of the Netherlands. Huygens is the grand seigneur of the republic, the type of aristocratic oligarchy, the jewel and ornament of Dutch liberty. When we consider his imposing character and the positive value of his writings, we may well be surprised that he has not found a modern editor. It is a disgrace to Dutch scholarship that no complete collection of the writings of Huygens exists. His autobiography, De vita propria sermonum libri duo, did not see the light until 1817, and his remarkable poem, Cluyswerck, was not printed until 1841. As a poet Huygens shows a finer sense of form than any other early Dutch writer; the language, in his hands, becomes as flexible as Italian. His epistles and lighter pieces, in particular, display his metrical ease and facility to perfection.
 (E. G.)