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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Joost van den Vondel (1587–1679)

THE LONG life of Joost van den Vondel, Holland’s greatest poet, was contemporaneous with the most brilliant period of the Dutch renaissance. As triumphant England in Elizabeth’s reign brought forth mighty children, so the new-born Republic of the United Provinces in its turn gave birth to such men as Hooft and Vondel, Brederoo and Huygens. The background of Vondel’s life was the city of Amsterdam, whose society, representative perhaps of the most assertive forces in Holland’s intellectual and spiritual development, was expressing its intense vitality in the pursuit of literature, of art, in the heats of religious controversy, seeking in a thousand ways to give metropolitan embodiment to the new-born national consciousness. To this city Vondel had come as a boy. He had been born at Cologne, November 17th, 1587; his maternal grandfather, Peter Kranken, had taken no mean rank among the poets of Brabant. His parents were Anabaptists, who moved from city to city in the pursuit of religious freedom, settling finally at Amsterdam.

Vondel, being designed for a tradesman, received but an indifferent education; his innate love of learning drawing him, however, to independent study, he was throughout his long life a student, seeking his inspiration at the fountain-heads of culture. In 1612 he produced his first drama, ‘Het Pascha,’ the subject of which was the Exodus of the Children of Israel. After the approved Dutch model, it was written in Alexandrines, in five acts, with choral interludes between. It gave little evidence of the genius which was to produce ‘Lucifer.’ For the next eight years Vondel did no original work, being seemingly satisfied with the leisurely development of his powers. The death of Brederoo, Holland’s greatest comic dramatist, left a high place vacant, which Vondel was soon to fill. In 1620 he published a second tragedy, ‘Jerusalem Laid Desolate’; and in 1625 a third, which secured him his fame. ‘Palamedes, or Murdered Innocence,’ owed its notoriety as much perhaps to the nature of its subject as to its intrinsic merits; appearing as it did at a time when all Holland was palpitating with religious controversy. In the hero of the play, Palamedes, the people of Amsterdam recognized Barneveldt; whose support of the Arminian doctrine had led to his execution in 1618 through the powerful influence of the Calvinists, headed by Prince Maurice of Nassau. Vondel at once became popular with the highest circles in Amsterdam and Holland. The obscure tradesman obtained fame in a night. Plunging into the controversy, he now began to wage war against the Counter-Remonstrants, as the Calvinists were termed; launching at them a great number of satirical pamphlets in verse, among the most noted of which are ‘The Harpoon,’ ‘The Horse-Comb,’ and ‘The Decretum Horrible.’

In 1638 an event occurred which diverted the genius of Vondel into another channel. The Dutch Academy, founded in 1617 as in the main a dramatic guild, had later coalesced with the two noted chambers of rhetoric, the “Eglantine” and the “White Lavender.” In 1638, on the strength of these reinforcements, it erected what it had long needed, a large public theatre. On the opening night a new tragedy by Vondel was presented,—‘Gysbreght van Aemstel,’ founded upon incidents in early Dutch history. For many years following, Vondel wrote Scriptural pieces for the theatre in the heroic style; among them, ‘Solomon,’ ‘Samson,’ ‘Adonijah,’ ‘Adam in Banishment,’ and ‘Noah, or the Destruction of the Old World.’ In 1654 appeared his great masterpiece, ‘Lucifer’; a tragedy of sublime conception, to which a peculiar interest is attached as being supposedly the work which suggested to Milton the subject of ‘Paradise Lost.’ Milton is known to have studied the Dutch language about the time of the production of ‘Lucifer’; there are verbal correspondences between the two plays. The theory of Milton’s indebtedness to Vondel has been considered by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, by Edmund Gosse, and by Mr. George Edmundson in a monograph entitled ‘Milton and Vondel.’ Vondel’s ‘Lucifer,’ however, is concerned with the fall of Lucifer and not with the fall of Adam.

The years following the production of his mightiest tragedy were full of labor and sorrow to Vondel. Reverses had come upon him; from 1658 to 1668 he was obliged to work as a clerk in a bank, a servant of hard taskmasters, who were incapable of appreciation of or reverence for his genius. In his eightieth year he was liberated from this slavery by the city of Amsterdam, from which he received a pension. Until his death in 1679 Vondel continued to write, his literary energy being seemingly inexhaustible. Among his works of this period is a rendition of the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid into Dutch verse. His entire writings fill nine quarto volumes, embracing almost every conceivable subject and every well-known verse form. Vondel remains the most powerful, and perhaps the most representative, poet of Holland, whose writings gave adequate embodiment to the manifold forces of her golden age. His ‘Lucifer’ was translated into English by L. C. Van Noppen (1898).