Dutch and Flemish literature

Dutch and Flemish literature, literary works written in the standard language of the Low Countries since the Middle Ages. It is conventional to use the term Dutch when referring to the language spoken by the people of the modern Netherlands, and Flemish when referring to that spoken by the Belgians who use the same language. This is inaccurate and many scholars would argue that Dutch and Flemish are dialects of a single language.

Flourishing from the 12th cent. onward, the earliest literature of the Low Countries displays a strong French and somewhat weaker German influence in its vocabulary and literary style. Middle Dutch literature shows the same general characteristics as the contemporary vernacular literatures; thus the bourgeois spirit was expressed in the works of Jacob van Maerlant and in the Dutch versions of Reynard the Fox. Hadewijch, John Ruysbroeck, and Gerard Groote spoke the language of mysticism. By the 14th cent., chivalry and scholasticism had waned, and by the 15th cent. mysticism was transformed as moral piety. Among the best-known of Dutch medieval dramas are Mary of Nimmegen and the morality play Elckerlijk, closely related to Everyman.

The greatest Dutch figure of the Renaissance, Erasmus, wrote in Latin, but other humanists—Jan van der Noot, Dirck Coornhert, Hendrick Spieghel, and the painter and poet Karel van Mander—used vernacular. Reformation polemics were represented by the Catholic Anna Bijns, and the Protestant Philip van Marnix. With the establishment of the republic and the subsequent commercial prosperity, came the Golden Age of Dutch literature; this is the period of the masters Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft and Joost van den Vondel, of the homely verse of Jacob Cats, of the comedies of Gerbrand Bredero, and of the works of Constantijn Huygens.

After the 17th cent. Flemish and Dutch literature declined. Pieter Langendijk and Joseph Addison's imitator Justus van Effen, the novelists Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken, were the chief Dutch writers in the 18th cent. In the 19th cent. Dutch and Flemish literature expanded on European lines, with the novelists Jacob van Lennep, Anna Bosboom-Toussaint, Eduard Dekker, and the Belgian Hendrik Conscience, and the poets Isaäc Da Costa, Hendrik Tollens, Everhardus Potgieter, and the Belgians Guido Gezelle, Albrecht Rodenbach, Pol de Mont, and Nicolaas Beets.

The 1880s saw a reorientation of Dutch letters under foreign influence, especially under that of French naturalism and the English poets Keats and Shelley. By 1900, impressionistic themes were emerging in poetry. The new forces were seen in novelists and short-story writers, such as Louis Couperus, and in the Belgians Stijn Streuvels and Felix Timmermans. Among the better-known poets are Roland Holst, Pieter Boutens, and Herman Gorter in the Netherlands, and Karel van de Woestijne in Belgium. The successful dramatist Herman Heijermans has a significant place in 20th-century Dutch literature.

After the 1940s, the psychological novel came to typify Flemish literature. The physician Simon Vestdijk, perhaps the greatest Dutch writer of the 20th cent., wrote psychological novels that revealed the influence of existentialism. His contemporary Gerrit Achterberg explored similar themes of life and death in his powerful poems. The diary of Anne Frank is only the best known of a vast number of works that concern the Dutch experience during World War II. The character of Dutch poetry was altered after the war when Lucebert (Lubertus Swaanswijk), whose work was related to the internationalist CoBrA group, rejected rhyme and meter and introduced surrealist elements into his verse. In fiction, the works of postwar Dutch writers such as Anna Blaman, Alfred Kossman, and Adriaan Van der Veen reveal the influence of both the Nazi occupation and existentialism. Indeed, the existentialist influence is found even in fictional works of the 1960s in which writers such as Willem F. Hermans, Jan Wolkers, and Harry Mulisch express their overpowering sense of absurdity and despair.

See J. A. Russell, Romance and Realism (1959); T. Weevers, Poetry of the Netherlands in Its European Context (1960); R. P. Meijer, Literature of the Low Countries (1978).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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