Netherlands – Leyden

WE travelled to Leyden from The Hague by the steam-tram, through cheerful domestic surroundings, past little Englishy cottages and gardens. It was Sunday morning, and the villagers of Voorburg and Voorschoten and the other little places en route were idle and gay.

In England light railways are a rarity ; Holland is covered with a net-work of them. The little trains rush along the roads all over the country, while the roadside willows rock in their eddying wake. To stand on the steam-tram footboard is one very good way to see Holland. In England of course we can never have such conveniences, England being a free country in which individual rights come first. But Holland exists for the State, and such an idea as the depreciation or ruin of property by running a tram line over it has never suggested itself. It is true that when the electric tramway between Amsterdam and Haar-lem was projected, the comic papers came to the defence of outraged Nature ; but they did not really mean it, as the aesthetic minority in England would have meant it.

The steam-tram journeys are always interesting; and my advice to a traveller in Holland is to make as much use of them as he can. This is quite simple as their time-tables are included in the official Reisgids. I like them at all times; but best perhaps when one has to wait in the heart of some quiet village for the other tram to come up. There is something very soothing and attractive in these sudden cessations of noise and movement in the midst of a totally strange community.

Leyden is a paradise of clean, quiet streets—a city of professors, students and soldiers. It has, I think, the prettiest red roofs in any considerable Dutch town : not prettier than Veere’s, but Veere is now only a village. Philosophers surely live here : book-worms to whom yesterday, today and tomorrow are one. The sense of commercial enterprise dies away : whatever they are at Amsterdam, the Dutch at Leyden cease to be a nation of shopkeepers,

It was holiday time when I was there last, and the town was comparatively empty. No songs floated through the windows of the clubs. In talk with a stranger at one of the cafés, I learned that the Dutch student works harder in the holidays than in term. In term he is a social and imbibing creature ; but when the vacation comes and he returns to a home to which most of the allurements which an English boy would value are wanting, he applies himself to his books. I give the statement as I heard it.

One of the pleasantest buildings in Leyden is the Meermansburg—a spreading almshouse in the Oude Vest, surrounding a square garden with a massive pump in the midst. A few pictures are shown in the Governors’ room over the entrance, but greater interest attaches to the little domiciles for the pensioners of the Meerman trust. A friendly concierge with a wooden leg showed us one of these compact houses–a sitting-room with a bed-cupboard in one wall, and below it a little larder, like the cabin of a ship. At the back a tiny range, and above, a garret. One could be very comfortable in such quarters.

Leyden has other hofjes, as these homes of rest are called, into one of which, gay with geraniums, I peeped—a little court of clean cottages seen through the doorway like a Peter de Hooch.

I did not, I fear, do my duty by Leyden’s many museums. The sun shone ; the boats swam continually down the Old Rhine and the New; and the sea at Katwyk and Noordwyk sent a call across the intervening meadows. Some day perhaps I shall find myself at Leyden again, when the sky is grey and the thirst for information is more strongly upon me. Ethnography, comparative anatomy, physiology —there is nothing that may not be learned in the Leyden museums; but such learning is not peculiarly Dutch, nor are the treasures of these museums peculiarly Dutch, and I felt that I might with a clear conscience leave them to others. Have we not Bloomsbury ?

I did, however, climb the Burg, which is a circular fortress on a mound between the two rivers, so cleverly hidden away among houses that it was long ere I could find it. It is gained through an ancient courtyard full of horses and carriages—like a scene in Dumas. From the Burg one ought to have a fine view, but Leyden’s roofs are too near. And in the Natural History Museum I walked through miles of birds stuffed, and birds articulated, until I felt that I could give a year’s income to be on terms again with a living blackbird—even one of those that eat our strawberries at sunrise.

I did not penetrate to the interior of the University, having none to guide me, but I was pleased to remember that Oliver Goldsmith had been a student there not so very long ago. Indeed, as I walked about the town, I thought much of Goldsmith as he was in 1755, aged twenty-seven, with all his books to write, wandering through the same streets, looking upon the same houses and canals, in the interval of acquiring his mysterious medical degree (ultimately conferred at Louvain). His ingenious project, it will be remembered—by those whose memories (like my own) cling to that order of information, to the exclusion of everything useful and improving—Goldsmith’s delightful plan for subsistence in Holland was to teach the English language to the Dutch, and in return receive enough money to keep him at the University of Leyden and enable him to hear the great Professor Albinus. It was not until he reached Holland that those adorable Irish brains of his realised that he who teaches English to a Dutchman must first know Dutch.

Goldsmith, who spent his life in doing characteristic things—few men have done more—when once he had determined to go to Holland, took a passage in a vessel bound for Bordeaux. At Newcastle-on-Tyne, however, on going ashore to be merry, he was arrested as a Jacobite and thrown into prison for a fortnight. The result was that the ship sailed without him. It was just as well for him and for us, for it sank at the mouth of the Garonne. In 1755, however, he was in Leyden, although by what route, circuitous or direct, he reached that city we do not know.

He lost little time in giving his Uncle Contarine an account of his impressions of Holland and its people. Here is a portion of a long letter : ” The modern Dutchman is quite a different creature from him of former times : he in everything imitates a Frenchman, but in his easy disengaged air, which is the result of keeping polite company. The Dutchman is vastly ceremonious, and is perhaps exactly what a Frenchman might have been in the reign of Louis XIV. Such are the better bred. But the downright Hollander is one of the oddest figures in nature : upon a head of lank hair he wears a half-cocked narrow hat laced with black ribbon ; no coat, but seven waistcoats, and nine pairs of breeches ; so that his hips reach almost up to his arm-pits. This well-clothed vegetable is now fit to see company, or make love. But what a pleasing creature is the object of his appetite ! Why she wears a large fur cap with a deal of Flanders lace : and for every pair of breeches he carries, she puts on two petticoats.

“A Dutch lady burns nothing about her phlegmatic admirer but his tobacco. You must know, sir, every women carries in her hand a stove with coals in it, which, when she sits, she snugs under her petticoats ; and at this chimney dozing Strephon lights his pipe. I take it that this continual smoking is what gives the man the ruddy healthful complexion he generally wears, by draining his superfluous moisture, while the woman, deprived of this amusement, overflows with such viscidities as tint the complexion, and give that paleness of visage which low fenny grounds and moist air conspire to cause. A Dutch woman and Scotch will bear an opposition. The one is pale and fat, the other lean and ruddy : the one walks as if she were straddling after a go-cart, and the other takes too masculine a stride. I shall not endeavour to deprive either country of its share of beauty ; but must say, that of all objects on this earth, an English farmer’s daughter is most charming. Every woman there is a complete beauty, while the higher class of women want many of the requisites to make them even tolerable.

“Their pleasures here are very dull though very various. You may smoke, you may doze, you may go to the Italian comedy, as good an amusement as either of the former. This entertainment always brings in Harlequin, who is generally a magician, and in consequence of his diabolical art performs a thousand tricks on the rest of the persons of the drama, who are all fools. I have seen the pit in a roar of laughter at this humour, when with his sword he touches the glass from which another was drinking. ‘Twas not his face they laughed at, for that was masked. They must have seen something vastly queer in the wooden sword, that neither I, nor you, sir, were you there, could see.

“In winter, when their canals are frozen, every house is forsaken, and all people are on the ice ; sleds drawn by horses, and skating, are at that time the reigning amusements. They have boats here that slide on the ice, and are driven by the winds. When they spread all their sails they go more than a mile and a half a minute, and their motion is so rapid the eye can scarcely accompany them. Their ordinary manner of travelling is very cheap and very convenient : they sail in covered boats drawn by horses; and in these you are sure to meet people of all nations. Here the Dutch slumber, the French chatter, and the English play at cards. Any man who Iikes company may have them to his taste. For my part I generally detached myself from all society, and was wholly taken up in observing the face of the country. Nothing can equal its beauty; wherever I turn my eye, fine houses, elegant gardens, statues, grottos, vistas, presented themselves ; but when you enter their towns you are charmed beyond description. No misery is to be seen here ; every one is usefully employed.

“Scotland and this country bear the highest contrast. There hills and rocks intercept every prospect : here ’tis all a continued plain. There you might see a well-dressed duchess issuing from a dirty close ; and here a dirty Dutchman inhabiting a palace. The Scotch may be compared to a tulip planted in dung ; but I never see a Dutchman in his own house but I think of a magnificent Egyptian temple dedicated to an ox. Physic is by no means here taught so well as in Edinburgh : and in all Leyden there are but four British students, owing to all necessaries being so extremely dear and the professors so very lazy (the chemical professor excepted) that we don’t much care to come hither.”

When the time came to make the “Inquiry into the State of Polite Learning” Leyden had to suffer. Gold-smith laid about him with no gentle hand. “Holland, at first view, appears to have some pretensions to polite learning. It may be regarded as the great emporium, not less of literature than of every other commodity. Here, though destitute of what may be properly called a language of their own, all the languages are understood, cultivated and spoken. All useful inventions in arts, and new discoveries in science, are published here almost as soon as at the places which first produced them. Its individuals have the same faults, however, with the Germans, of making more use of their memory than their judgment. The chief employment of their literati is to criticise, or answer, the new performances which appear elsewhere.

” A dearth of wit in France or England naturally produces a scarcity in Holland. What Ovid says of Echo may be applied here,

—’ nec reticere loquenti, Nec prior ipsa loqui didicit’—

they wait till something new comes out from others ; examine its merits and reject it, or make it reverberate through the rest of Europe.

” After all, I know not whether they should be allowed any national character for polite learning. All their taste is derived to them from neighbouring nations, and that in a language not their own. They somewhat resemble their brokers, who trade for immense sums without having any capital.”

Goldsmith did not finish there. His observations on the Continent served him, with a frugality that he did not otherwise practise, at least thrice. He used them in the ” Inquiry into Polite Learning,” he used them in the story of the Philosophic Vagabond in the Vicar of Wakefield, and still again in ” The Traveller.”

It was with his good Uncle Contarine’s money that Goldsmith travelled to Leyden. The time came to leave, and Oliver was again without resources. He borrowed a sufficient sum from Dr. Ellis, a fellow-countryman living there, and prepared for his departure. But on his way from the doctor’s he had to pass a florist’s, in whose window there chanced to be exhibited the very variety of flower which Uncle Contarine had so often praised and expressed a desire to possess. Given the man and the moment, what can you expect ? Goldsmith, chief among those blessed natures who never interrupt a generous impulse, plunged into the florist’s house and despatched a costly bundle of bulbs to Ireland. The next day he left Leyden with a guinea in his pocket, no clothes but those he stood in, and a flute in his hand. For the rest you must see the story of the Philosophic Vagabond.

Evelyn records an amusing experience at Leyden in August, 1641: ” I was brought acquainted with a Burgundian Jew, who had married an apostate Kentish woman. I asked him divers questions ; he told me, amongst other things, that the World should never end, that our souls transmigrated, and that even those of the most holy persons did penance in the bodies of brutes after death, and so he interpreted the banishment and savage life of Nebuchadnezzar; that all the Jews should rise again, and be led to Jerusalem ; that the Romans only were the occasion of our Saviour’s death, whom he affirmed (as the Turks do) to be a great prophet, but not the Messiah. He showed me several books of their devotion, which he had translated into English for the instruction of his wife ; he told me that when the Messiah came, all the ships, barks, and vessels of Holland should, by the power of certain strange whirlwinds, be loosed from their anchors, and transported in a moment to all the desolate ports and havens through-out the world, wherever the dispersion was, to convey their brethren and tribes to the Holy City ; with other such-like stuff. He was a merry drunken fellow, but would by no means handle any money (for something I purchased of him), it being Saturday ; but desired me to leave it in the window, meaning to receive it on Sunday morning.”

In an old book-shop at Leyden I bought from an odd lot of English books, chiefly minor fiction for travellers, the Colloquia Peripatetica of John Duncan, LL.D., Professor of Hebrew in the New College, Edinburgh. ” I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse the order,” is one of his emphatic utterances. Here are others, not unconnected with the country we are travelling in : “Poor Erasmus truckled all his life for a hat. If he could only have been made a cardinal ! You see the longing for it in his very features, and can’t help regarding him with mingled respect and pity.” Of Thomas à Kempis, the recluse of Deventer : “A fine fellow, but hazy, and weak betimes. He and his school tend (as some one has well said) to make humility and humiliation change places.” Finally, of the Bible : ” The three best translations of the Bible, in my opinion, are, in order of merit, the English, the Dutch, and Diodati’s Italian version. As to Luther, he is admirable in rendering the prophets. He says either just what the prophets did say, or that which you see at once they might have said.”

Leyden has two vast churches, St. Peter’s and St. Pancras’s. Both are immense and unadorned. I think that St. Pancras’s is the lightest church I was ever in. St. Peter’s ought to be filled with memorials of the town’s illustrious sons, but it has few. As I have said elsewhere, I asked in vain for the grave of Jan Steen, who was buried here.

It was while staying at Leyden that I saw my first Kermis, or fair, and ate my first poffertjes and wafelen. Writing as a foreigner, in no way concerned with the matter, I may express regret that the Kermis is not what it was in Holland. Possibly were one living in Holland, one would at once join the anti-Kermis party; but I hope not. In Amsterdam the anti-Kermis party has succeeded, and though one may still in that city at certain seasons eat wafelen and poffertjes, the old glories have departed, just as they have departed from so many English towns which once broke loose for a few nights every year. Even Barnet Fair is not what it was.

Noise seems to be the principal objection. Personally, I never saw any drunkenness ; and there is so little real revelry that one turns one’s back on the naphtha lamps in this town and that, in Leyden and the Hoorn, Apeldoorn and Middelburg, with the sad conviction that the times are out of joint, and that Teniers and Ostade and Brouwer, were they reborn to-day, would probably either have to take to painting Christmas supplements or earn their living at a reputable trade. It is not that the Dutch no longer drink, but that they now da it with more privacy.

The travelling temples reserved for the honour of poffertjes and wafelen are the most noticeable features of any Rermis. They are divided, quite like restaurants, into little cubicles for separate parties. Flowers and ferns make them gay ; the waiters may even wear evening dress, but this is a refinement which would have annoyed Jan Steen ; on the tables is white American cloth ; and curtains of coloured material and muslin, with bright ribbons, add to the vivacity of the occasion. To eat poffertjes and wafelen is no light matter : one must regard it as a ritual.

Poffertjes come first—these are little round pancakey blobs, twisted and covered with butter and sugar. Then the wafelen, which are oblong wafers stamped in a mould and also buttered and sugared. You eat twenty-four poffertjes and two wafelen : that is, at the first onset. Afterwards, as many more as you wish. Lager beer is drunk with them. Some prefer Frambozen lemonade.

To eat them is a duty ; to see them cooked is a joy. I have watched the cooks almost for hours. The poffertjes are made by hundreds at once, in a tray indented with little hollows over a fire. The cook is continually busy in twisting the little dabs of paste into the hollows and removing those that are ready. The wafelen are baked in iron moulds (there is one in Jan Steen’s “Oyster Feast”) laid on a rack in the fire. The cook has eight moulds in working order at once. When the eighth is filled from the pail of batter at his side, the first is done; and so on, ceaselessly, all day and half the night, Iike a natural law.

A woman stands by to spread butter and sugar, and the plate is whisked away in a moment. The Americans boast of their quick lunches ; but I am convinced that they borrowed celerity in cooking and serving from some Knickerbocker deviser of poffertjes and wafelen in the early days of New York. I wonder that Washington Irving omitted to say so.