Netherlands – The Dutch In English Literature

TO say hard things of the Dutch was once a recognised literary pastime. At the time of our war with Holland no poet of any pretensions refrained from writing at least one anti-Batavian satire, the classical example of which is Andrew Marvell’s ” Character of Holland ” (following Samuel Butler’s), a pasquinade that contains enough wit and fancy and contempt to stock a score of the nation’s ordinary assailants.

The poor Dutch were never forgiven for living below the sea-level and gaining their security by magnificent feats of engineering and persistence. Why the notion of a reclaimed land should have seemed so comic I cannot understand, but Marvell certainly justified the joke.

Later, Napoleon, who liked to sum up a nation in a phrase, accused Holland of being nothing but a deposit of German mud, thrown there by the Rhine : while the Duke of Alva remarked genially that the Dutch were of all peoples those that lived nighest to hell ; but Marvell’s sarcasms are the best. Indeed I doubt if the literature of droll exaggeration has anything to compare with “The Character of Holland.”

There is something rather splendid in the attitude of a man who can take a whole nation as his butt and bend every circumstance to his purpose of ridicule and attack. Our satirists to-day are contented to pillory individuals or possibly a sect or clique. Marvell’s enjoyment in his own exuberance and ingenuity is so apparent and infectious that it matters nothing to us whether he was fair or unfair.

The end is inconclusive, being a happy recollection that he had omitted any reference to stoofjes, the footstools filled with burning peat which are used to keep the feet warm in church. Such a custom was of course not less reprehensible than the building of dykes to keep out the sea. Hence these eight lines, which, however, would have come better earlier in the poem :

See but their mermaids, with their tails of fish, Reeking at church over the chafing-dish ! A vestal turf, enshrin’d in earthen ware, Fumes through the loopholes of a wooden square ; Each to the temple with these altars tend, But still does place it at her western end ; While the fat steam of female sacrifice Fills the priest’s nostrils, and puts out his eyes.

Not all the poets, however, abused the Dutch. John Hagthorpe, in his England’s Exchequer in 1625 (written before the war : hence, perhaps, his kindness) thus addressed the ” hollow land “;—

Fair Holland, had’st thou England’s chalky rocks, To gird thy watery waist; her healthful mounts, With tender grass to feed thy nibbling flocks : Her pleasant groves, and crystalline clear founts, Most happy-should’st thou be by just accounts, That in thine age so fresh a youth do’st feel Though flesh of oak, and ribs of brass and steel.

But what bath prudent mother Nature held From thee-that she might equal shares impart Unto her other sons—that’s not compell’d To be the guidons of thy wit and art ? And industry, that brings from every part Of every thing the fairest and the beat, Like the Arabian bird to build thy nest ? Like the Arabian bird thy nest to build, With nimble wings thou flyest for Indian sweets, And incense which the Sabean forests yield, And in thy nest the goods of each pole meets,- Which thy foes hope, shall serve thy funeral rites— But thou more wise, secur’d by thy deep skill, Dost build on waves, from fires more safe than hill.

To return to the severer critics—in 1664 was published a little book called The Dutch Drawn to the Lift, a hostile work not improbably written with the intention of exciting English animosity to the point of war. A great deal was made of the success of the Dutch fisheries and the mismanagement of our own. The nation was criticised in all its aspects—” well nigh three millions of men, well-proportioned, great lovers of our English beer “. The following passage on the drinking capacity of the Dutch would have to be modified today By their Excise, which riseth with their charge, the more money they pay, the more they receive again, in that insensible but profitable way : what is exhaled up in clouds, falls back again in showers: what the souldier receives in pay, he payee in Drink: their very enemies, though they hate the State, yet love their liquor, and pay excise: the most idle, slothful, and most improvident, that selleth his blood for drink, and his flesh for bread, serves at his own charge, for every pay day he payeth his sutler, and he the common purse.

Here are other strokes assisting to the portraiture “to the life” of this people: “Their habitations are kept handsomer than their bodies, and their bodies than their soules “.-” The Dutch man’s building is not large, but neat ; handsome on the outside, on the inside hung with pictures and tapestry. He that hath not bread to eat hath a picture.”—” They are seldom deceived, for they will trust nobody. They may always deceive, for you must trust them, as for instance, if you travel, to ask a bill of Particulars is to purre in a wasp’s nest, you must pay what they ask as sure as if it were the assessment of a Subsidy.”

But the wittiest and shrewdest of the prose critics of Holland was Owen Felltham, from whom I quote later. His little book on the Low Countries is as packed with pointed phrase as a satire by Pope : the first half of it whimsically destructive, the second half eulogistic. It is he who charges the Dutch convivial spirits with drinking down the Evening Starre and drinking up the Morning Starre.

The old literature tells us also that the Dutch were not always clean. Indeed, their own painters prove this: Ostade pre-eminently. There are many allusions in Elizabethan and early Stuart literature to their dirt and rags. In Earle’s Microcosmography, for example, a younger brother’s last refuge is said to be the Low Countries, ” where rags and linen are no scandal”. But better testimony comes perhaps from The English Schole-Master, a seventeenth-century Dutch-English manual, from which I quote at some length later in this book. Here is a specimen scrap of dialogue:

S. May it please you to give me leave to go out? M. Whither?

S. Home.

M. How is it that you goe so often home ?

S. My mother commanded that I and my brother should come to her this day.

M. For what cause ?

S. That our mayd may beat out our clothes. M. What is that to say ? Are you louzie ? S. Yea, very louzie.

Sir William Temple, the patron of Swift, the husband of Dorothy Osborne, and our ambassador at The Hague —where he talked horticulture, cured his gout by the remedy known as ” moxa,” and collected materials for the leisurely essays and memoirs that were to be written at Moor Park—knew the Dutch well and wrote of them with much particularity. In his Observations upon the United Provinces he says this : ” Holland is a country, where the earth is better than the air, and profit more in request than honour ; where there is more sense than wit ; more good nature than good humour, and more wealth than pleasure: where a man would chuse rather to travel than to live ; shall find more things to observe than desire ; and more persons to esteem than to love. But the same qualities and dispositions do not value a private man and a state, nor make a conversation agreeable, and a government great : nor is it unlikely, that some very great King might make but a very ordinary private gentleman, and some very extraordinary gentleman might be capable of making but a very mean Prince.”

Among other travellers who have summed up the Dutch in a few phrases is Sir Thomas Overbury, the author of some witty characters, including that very charming one of a Happy Milk Maid. In 1609 he thus generalised upon the Netherlanders : ” Concerning the people : they are neither much devout, nor much wicked ; given all to drink, and eminently to no other vice ; hard in bargaining, but just ; surly and respectless, as in all democracies ; thirsty, industrious, and cleanly ; disheartened upon the least ill-success, and insolent upon good inventive in manufactures, and cunning in traffick : and generally, for matter of action, that natural slowness of theirs, suits better (by reason of the advisedness and perseverance it brings with it) than the rashness and changeableness of the French and Florentine wits ; and the equality of spirits, which is among them and Switzers, renders them so fit for a democracy : which kind of government, nations of more stable wits, being once come to a consistent greatness, have seldom long endured.”

Many Englishmen have travelled in Holland and have set down the record of their experiences, from Thomas Coryate downwards. But the country has not been inspiring, and Dutch travels are poor reading. Had Dr. Johnson lived to accompany Boswell on a projected journey we should be the richer, but I doubt if any very interesting narrative would have resulted. One of Johnson’s con-temporaries, Samuel Ireland, the engraver, and the father of the fraudulent author of Vortigern, wrote A Picturesque Tour through Holland, Brabant, and part of France, in 1789, while a few years later one of Charles Lamb’s early ” drunken companions,” Fell, wrote A Tour through the Batavian Republic, 1801; and both of these books yield a few experiences not without interest. Fell’s is the duller. I quote from them now and again throughout this volume, but I might mention here a few of their more general observations.

Fell, for example, was embarrassed by the very formal politeness of the nation. ” The custom of bowing in Holland,” he writes, “is extremely troublesome. It is not sufficient, as in England, that a person slightly moves his hat, but he must take it off his head, and continue uncovered till the man is past him to whom he pays the compliment. The ceremony of bowing is more strictly observed at Leyden and Haerlem, than at Rotterdam or The Hague. In either of the former cities, a stranger of decent appearance can scarcely walk in the streets without being obliged every minute to pull off his hat, to answer some civility of the same kind which he receives ;’ and these compliments are paid him not only by opulent people, but by mechanics and labourers, who bow with all the gravity and politeness of their superiors.”

Such civilities to strangers have become obsolete.

“Dutch courage,” to which I refer below, is not our only use of Dutch as a contemptuous adjective. We say “Dutch Gold ” for pinchbeck, ” Dutch Myrtle for a weed. “I shall talk to you like a Dutch uncle ” is another saying, not in this case contemptuous but rather complimentary—signifying I’ll dress you down to some purpose “. One piece of slang we share with Holland : the reference to the pawnbroker as an uncle. In Holland the kindly friend at the three brass balls (which ” it is not generally known … are the ancient arms of Lombardy,” the Lombards being ” the first money-brokers of Europe “), is called Oom Jan or Uncle John.

There is still another phrase, ” Dutch news,” which might be -explained. The term is given by printers to very difficult copy—Andrew Lang’s manuscript, for example, was probably known as Dutch news, so terrible was his script, —and also to “pie “. The origin is to be found in the following paragraph from Notes and Queries. (The Sir Richard Phillips concerned was the vegetarian publisher so finely touched off by Borrow in Lavengro).

In his youth Sir Richard Phillips edited and published a paper at Leicester, called the Herald. One day an article appeared in it headed Dutch Mail, and added to it was an announcement that it had arrived too late for translation, and so had been cut up and printed in the original. This wondrous article drove half of England crazy, and for year, the best Dutch scholars squabbled and pored over it without being able to arrive at any idea of what it meant. This famous ‘ Dutch Mail’ was, in reality, merely a column of pie. The story Sir Richard tells of this particular pie he had a whole hand in is this :

” One evening, before one of our publications, my men and a boy overturned two or three columns of the paper in type. We had to get ready in some way for the coaches, which, at four o’clock in the morning, required four or five hundred papers. After every exertion we were short nearly a column ; but there stood on the galleys a tempting column of pie. It suddenly struck me that this might be thought Dutch. I made up the column, overcame the scruples of the foreman, and so away the country edition went with its philological puzzle, to worry the honest agricultural reader’s head. There was plenty of time to set up a column of plain English for the local edition.” Sir Richard tells of one man whom he met in Nottingham who for thirty-four years preserved a copy of the Leicester Herald, hoping that some day the matter would be explained.

I doubt if any one nation is braver than any other and the fact that from Holland we get the contemptuous term “Dutch courage,” meaning the courage which is dependent upon spirits (originally as supplied to malefactors about to mount the scaffold), is no indication that the Dutch lack bravery.