The Dutch Sensitivists

An excellent introduction by Edmund Gosse to Louis Couperus's 1891 novel Footsteps of Fate ('Noodlot') translated from the Dutch by Clara Bell. Gosse corresponded with Couperus but he wrote well informed  introductions similar to this to every book in Heinemann's long series of European novels. They show great scholarship and an enthusiasm for the emerging movements in writing in the last decade of the 19th century. While Britain had its aesthetic 1890s movement and the Celtic Twilight and the French their decadent writers the Dutch had the 'Sensitivists'…There are interesting references to the Dutch Browning (the poet Potgieter) also resident in Florence and also to Netscher the Dutch George Moore, a singular honour.


In the intellectual history of all countries we find the same phenomenon incessantly recurring. New writers, new artists, new composers arise in revolt against what has delighted their grandfathers and satisfied their fathers. These young men, pressed together at first, by external opposition, into a serried phalanx, gradually win their way, become themselves the delight and then the satisfaction of their contemporaries, and, falling apart as success is secured to them, come to seem lax, effete and obsolete to a new race of youths, who effect a fresh aesthetic revolution. In small communities, these movements are often to be observed more precisely than in larger ones. But they are very tardily perceived by foreigners, the established authorities in art and literature retaining their exclusive place in dictionaries and handbooks long after the claim of their juniors to be observed with attention has been practically conceded at home.

For this reason, partly, and partly also because the mental life of Holland receives little attention in this country, no account has yet been taken of the revolution in Dutch taste which has occupied the last  six or seven years. I believe that the present occasion is the first on which it has been brought to the notice of any English-speaking public. There exists, however, in Holland, at this moment, a group of young writers, most of them between thirty-five and twenty-five years of age who exhibit a violent zeal for literature, passing often into extravagance, who repudiate, sometimes with ferocity, the rather sleepy Dutch authorship of the last forty years, and who are held together, or crushed together, by the weight of antiquated taste and indifference to executive merit which they experience around them. Certain facts seem to be undeniable; first, that every young man of letters in Holland, whose work is really promising, has joined the camp; and secondly, that, with all the ferment and crudity inseparable from prose and verse composed in direct opposition to existing canons of taste, the poems and the stories of these young Dutchmen are often full of beauty and delicacy.

Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent

They have read much in their boyhood; they have imitated Rossetti and Keats; they have been fascinated by certain Frenchmen, by Flaubert, by Goncourt, particularly by Huysmans, who is a far-away kinsman of their own; they have studied the disquieting stories of Edgar Poe. But these exotic influences are passing away, and those who know something of current Dutch belles-lettres can realise best how imperatively a ploughing up of the phlegmatic tradition of Dutch thought was required before a new crop of imagination could spring up.

Rejecting the conventional aspects of contemporary Dutch literature, I will now attempt to give some sketch of the present situation as it appears to a foreign critic observing the field without prejudice. The last novelist of great importance was Madame Gertrude Bosboom-Toussaint, who was born in 1821. After having written a long series of historical romances for nearly forty years, this intelligent woman and careful writer broke with her own assured public, and took up the discussion of psychological questions. She treated the problem of Socialism in Raymond de Schrijnwerker and the status of woman in Majoor Frans. Madame Bosboom-Toussaint died in 1886, just too early to welcome the new school of writers, with whom she would probably have had more sympathy than any of her contemporaries. Her place in popular esteem was taken for a short time by Miss Opzomer (A.S.C. Wallis), whose long novels have been translated into English, In dagen van strijd ("In Troubled Times") and Vorstengunst("Royal Favour"). She had genuine talent, but her style was heavy and tedious. After the new wind began to blow, although she was still young, she married, went to Hungary, and gave up writing novels.

Three authors of importance, each, by a curious coincidence, born in the year 1826, fill up the interval between the old and new generation. These are Dekker, Busken-Huët, and Vosmaer. Edward Douwes Dekker, whose novel Max Havelaar dates from 1858, was a man of exceptional genius. Bred in the interior of Java, he observed the social conditions of life in the Dutch Indies as no one else had done, but his one great book remained a solitary one. He died in 1887 without having justified the very high hopes awakened by that extraordinary and revolutionary work. The career of Konrad Busken-Huët was very different. The principal literary critic of Holland in his generation, he aimed at being the Sainte Beuve of the Dutch, and in his early days, as the dreaded "Thrasybulus" of journalism, he did much to awaken thought. His volumes of criticism are extremely numerous, and exercised a wholesome influence during his own time. He died in Paris in April 1886. These two writers have had a strong effect on the prose style of the younger school of essayists and novelists. They lived long enough to observe the dawn of the new literature, and their relations with the latest writers were cordial if somewhat reserved.

What Douwes Dekker and Busken-Huët did in prose, was effected in poetry by Carel Vosmaer. This estimable man, who died in 1888, was well known throughout Europe as an art-critic and an authority on Rembrandt. In Holland he was pre-eminent as the soul of a literary newspaper, the Nederlandsche Spectator, which took an independent line in literary criticism, and affected to lead public taste in directions less provincial and old-fashioned than the rest of the Dutch press. Vosmaer wrote also several volumes of more or less fantastic poetry, a translation of Homer into alexandrines, and an antiquarian novel ,Amazone,1881. But Vosmaer's position was, above all, that of a precursor. He, and he alone, saw that a new thing must be made in Dutch poetical literature. He, and he alone, was not satisfied with the stereotyped Batavian tradition. At the same time Vosmaer was not, it may be admitted, strong enough himself to found a new school; perhaps even, in his later days, the Olympian calm which he affected, and a certain elegant indolence which overcame him, may have made him unsympathetic to the ardent and the juvenile. At all events, this singular phenomenon has occurred. He who of all living Dutchmen was, ten or fifteen years ago, fretting under the poverty of thought and imagination in his fatherland and longing for the new era to arrive, is at this moment the one man of the last generation who is most exposed to that unseemly ferocité des jeunes which is the ugliest feature of these aesthetic revolutions. I have just been reading, with real pain, the violent attack on Vosmaer and his influence which has been published by that very clever young poet, Mr. Willem Kloos (De Nieuwe Gids, December 1890). All that cheers me is to know that the whirligig of time will not forget its revenges, and that, if Mr. Kloos only lives long enough, he will find somebody, now unborn, to call _him_ a "bloodless puppet."

Of one other representative of the transitional period, Marcellus Emants, I need say little. He wrote a poem, Lilith, and several short stories. Much was expected of him, but I know not what has been the result.

The inaugurator of the new school was Jacques Perk, a young poet of indubitable genius, who was influenced to some degree by Shelley, and by the Florence of the Dutch Browning, Potgieter. He wrote in 1880 a Mathilde, for which he could find no publisher, presently died, and began to be famous on the posthumous issue of his poems, edited by Vosmaer and Kloos, in 1883.

The sonnets of Perk, like those of Bowles with us a hundred years ago, were the heralds of a whole new poetic literature. The resistance made to the young writers who now began to express themselves, and their experience that all the doors of periodical publication in Holland were closed to them, led to the foundation in 1885 of De Nieuwe Gids, a rival to the old Dutch quarterly, De Gids. In this new review, which has steadily maintained and improved its position, most of the principal productions of the new school have appeared. The first three numbers contained De Kleine Johannes (Little Johnny), of Dr. Frederik van Eeden, the first considerable prose-work of the younger generation. This is a charming romance, fantastic and refined, half symbolical, half realistic, which deserves to be known to English readers. It has been highly appreciated in Holland. To this followed two powerful books by L. van Deyssel, Een Liefde ("A Love") and De Kleine Republiek_ ("The Little Republic"). Van Deyssel has written with great force, but he has hitherto been the infant terrible of the school, the one who has claimed with most insolence to say precisely what has occurred to him to say. He has been influenced, more than the rest, by the latest French literature.

While speaking of the new school, it is difficult to restrain from mentioning others of those whose work in De Nieuwe Gids_and elsewhere has raised hopes of high performance in the future. Jacques van Looy, a painter by profession, has published, among other things, an exquisitely finished volume of Proza (Prose Essays). Frans Netscher, who deliberately marches in step with the French realists, is the George Moore of Holland; he has published a variety of small sketches and oneor two novels. Ary Prins, under the pseudonym of Coopland, has written some very good studies of life. Among the poets are Willem Kloos Albert Verwey, and Herman Gorter, each of whom deserves a far more careful critical consideration than can here be given to him.

Willem Kloos, indeed, may be considered as the leader of the school since the death of Perk. It was to Kloos that, in the period from 1880 to 1885, each of the new writers went in secret for encouragement, criticism and sympathy. He appears to be a man of very remarkable character. Violent and passionate in his public utterances, he is adored by his own colleagues and disciples, and one of the most gifted of them has told me that "Kloos has never made a serious mistake in his estimate of the force of a man or of a book." His writings, however, are very few, and his tone in controversy is acrid and uncompromising, as I have already indicated. He remains the least known and the least liked, though the most powerful, of the band. The member of the new generation whose verse and prose alike have won most acceptance is, certainly, Frederik van Eeden. His cycle of lyrical verse, Ellen, 1891, is doubtless the most exquisite product of recent Dutch literature.

For the peculiar quality which unites in one movement the varied elements of the school which I have attempted thus briefly to describe, the name Sensitivism has been invented by one of themselves, by Van Deyssel. It is a development of impressionism, grafted upon naturalism, as a frail and exotic bud may be set in the rough basis of a thorn. It preserves the delicacy of sensation of the one and strengthens it by the exactitude and conscientiousness of the other, yet without giving way to the vagaries of impressionism or to the brutality of mere realism. It selects and refines, it re-embraces fancy, that maiden so rudely turned out of house and home by the naturalists; it aims, in fact, at retaining the best, and nothing but the best, of the experiments of the French during the last quarter of a century.

Van Deyssel greets L'Argent with elaborate courtesy, with the respect due to a fallen divinity. He calls his friends in Holland to attend the gorgeous funeral of naturalism, which is dead; but urges them not to sacrifice their own living Sensitivism to the imitation of what is absolutely a matter of past history. It will be seen that Dutch Sensitivism is not by any means unlike French Symbolism, and we might expect prose like Mallarmé's and verse like Moréas'! As a matter of fact, however, the Dutch seem, in their general attitude of reserve, to leave their mother-tongue unassailed, and to be as intelligible as their inspiration allows them to be.

To one of these writers, however, and to one of the youngest, it is timethat I should turn. The first member of the new Dutch school to be presented, in the following pages, to English readers, is Louis Marie Anne Couperus. Of him, as the author of this book, I must give a fuller biography, although he is still too young to occupy much space by the record of his achievements. Louis Couperus was born on the 10th of June, 1863, at the Hague, where he spent the first ten years of his life. He was then taken in company with his family to Java, and resided five years in Batavia. Returning to the Hague, where he completed his education, he began to make teaching his profession, but gradually drifted into devoting himself entirely to literature. He published a little volume of verses in 1884, and another, of more importance, called Orchideïen (Orchids), in 1887, Oriental and luscious. But he has succeeded, as every one allows, much better in prose. His long novel of modern life in the Hague, called Eline Vere, which ran through De Gids, and was published in book form in 1889, is an admirable performance. Of Noodlot (literally to be translated "Fate" or "Destiny"), 1890, our readers will now judge for themselves. Mr. Couperus is at present engaged, as he tells me, on a novel called Extaze ("Ecstasy"). Such is the brief chronicle of a writer from whom much is expected by the best critics of his own country.

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