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Dutch Literature in the Age of Rembrandt: Themes and Ideas.

Early modernists who cannot read Dutch quickly exhaust the few publications in English concerning the culture of the Netherlandic Golden Age: J. L. Price (1974), Deric Regin (1976), and Simon Schama (1987). For the most part, these cultural, social, and political studies have served to inform art historians, who, not surprisingly, constitute the largest audience for such writings. But Renaissance scholars curious about contemporary literary developments in the Netherlands have had, until now, no single English-language study of Dutch seventeenth-century literature to consult.

Maria Schenkeveld attempts to ameliorate this situation by describing the cultural context of early modern Dutch literary production. (This approach resembles E.K. Grootes' introductory study, Her literaire leven in de zeventiende eeuw [Leiden, 1984], a work surprisingly absent from Schenkeveld's bibliography.) Chapters are devoted to the socio-political and economic status of the poets (the strongest section); the relationship between literary writing, religious thought, and political content; and the poets' realism, i.e., their ability to depict everyday Dutch life. Later chapters deal with the representation of nature in literature and the relationship between the poets and the painters; a final section views the Netherlands as part of late Renaissance European letters. Most of these areas were touched on by Price and Regin, but they receive a much fuller exposition here. An appendix of translations of ten seventeenth-century poems imparts an impression of the literature.

The fundamental problem with Schenkeveld's exposition is that she seems unclear about the intended audience of the book. The title, emphasizing the age of Rembrandt, is an obvious marketing ploy targeted towards the prospective art-historical reader, and the profusely scattered reproductions of contemporary paintings and prints are constant reminders of the visual achievements of the age. But the book fails to replace earlier treatments of the subject because it lacks basic information about the careers of the main poets and an account of their writings and relationship to contemporary Dutch culture. To be sure, much useful contextual information is provided, but its utility will only be apparent to readers already familiar with the period.

Another problem with Schenkeveld's study arises from her inability to break away from the aesthetic prejudices that have marred earlier treatments of the subject. Her emphasis on literature and the visual arts, a favorite approach since Busken Huet's cultural histories Her land van Rubens (1879) and Het land van Rembrandt (1882), pits the poets against artists. Such a juxtaposition results in naive discussions of the "realism" and "landscape" of Dutch seventeenth-century literature and leads to the inevitable conclusion that early modern Dutch writers, though historically interesting, have little claim to world renown.

Schenkeveld reproduces two further failings of her predecessors. First, she neglects the considerable body of Latin writing from this period despite recent arguments that such texts are the province of national literary historians. Key figures, such as Daniel Heinsius, Caspar Barlaeus, Gerardus Vossius, Joseph Scaliger, and most notably, Hugo Grotius, are mentioned, if at all, only if they wrote also in Dutch, were translated into Dutch, or had contact with other Dutch writers. Secondly, Schenkeveld's enthusiasm for the Protestant northern Netherlands, causes her to overlook the Dutch-language literature of the Catholic South. It is distressing still to read about the efflorescence of bourgeois culture in the tolerant (!) and progressive North while the South is dismissed as an aristocratic court culture under the repressive control of Rome. That such a conservative culture can also produce great art (see Peter C. Sutton, The Age Rubens, 1993) remains unmentioned along with its large corpus of Latin and Dutch literary writing.

Not surprisingly, with such a large subject, there are some misrepresentations and omissions. For example, church historians will marvel at the relatively placid picture of the Reformed Church: there is little hint here of the bloody intensity of the Remonstrant/Counter-Remonstrant controversies after 1620. Art historians, too, may be disturbed: Pieter Lastman, Vondel's favorite painter, is nowhere mentioned, though considerable space is devoted to the poets' ties to the artists. And literary historians will be displeased with the bibliography: if the reader knows no Dutch, then it will be, for the most part, useless; if the reader does, then Schenkeveld's work is unnecessary. Moreover, major primary and secondary works are missing, e.g., standard editions of Hooft, Coster, Stalpart van der Wiele, De Decker (though favored with a print), and Anna Roemers Visscher; Pierre Brachin's essays on Golden Age writers; J. A. Worp's history of Dutch drama; Edgar van de Velde on Vondel and the plastic arts; and most notably, the journal, De zeventiende eeuw, expressly designed for interdisciplinary scholars of the Golden Age. In short, Schenkeveld has missed the opportunity to provide a much-needed English-language study of Dutch seventeenth-century literature. As it stands, novices will only be able to profit after they have read Price and Regin, and scholars will be troubled by the many omissions.

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Author:Parente, James A., Jr.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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