Martinus Nijhoff, a Dutch Master of Modernism

Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) belongs among the most important poets to have emerged from the Dutch-speaking countries in the twentieth century. He has always striven to make his poetry as timeless as possible and, given that he is still one of his country’s most widely read poets, he seems to have succeeded wonderfully. Nijhoff can be placed alongside T.S. Eliot and Paul Valery within the great European tradition of Modernism: a tradition that sought to distance itself from the avant-garde movements which had severed all links with the past and were steering a radical socio-political course. No matter how modern Nijhoff’s ideas and poetry, they always maintained a deep-rooted relationship with tradition.

More than any other poet in the Netherlands, Nijhoff laid great stress on the technical side of poetry; the mastery of the craft came before any form of romantic inspiration and self-expression. He repeatedly stated that a literary work of art was an autonomous construction in language that came about through hard work and had to be brought to life by the reader. He preferred to compare the poet to the carpenter rather than the prophet, and by taking precisely this stance on craftsmanship was in agreement with Valery and Eliot. Eliot once stated that the artist’s task was the same ‘as the making of an efficient engine or the turning of a jug or a table leg’. Like Valery, who once declared that the maker of the poem was not the right person to give it a meaning, Nijhoff has always refused to answer questions on the ‘intention’ of his work. The meaning was to be found in the text and not in the mind of the poet. He once explained: ‘Once a poem is completed, it means nothing, to me any more.’ Here a similar comment by Eliot can be cited. Having completed a poem, its maker addressed it as follows: ‘Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.’ Like Eliot’s, Nijhoff’s ideas are firmly grounded in reflection on the creative process, which he describes as a process of ‘de-personalisation’. Given that the content only emerges during the creative process and is controlled by language, a poem is not and cannot be a direct expression of feelings. Nijhoff defines the difference between a first and second-class writer as follows: the second-class writer ‘writes speculatively or reflectively. At the most, he creates a portrait or a vague buzzing of life. He himself remains a major component’. The first-class author, however, is ‘a writer who disappears in his work’. He lets ‘the artist die, so that the work of art might live’. In another context he once snapped at a colleague: ‘leave that heart of yours out of it!’ His ideas were anti-romantic and anti-expressive. These were the same ideas that pushed Eliot in the direction of autonomic poetics. According to Eliot too, poetry was not to be identified with the pouring forth of emotions. On the contrary, as he wrote in his famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. (…) Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.’ Emphasis was to be placed more on the form, the language and the technique and less on the content or on feelings and inspiration. ‘It is not the “what” that is of supreme importance but the “how”’ Nijhoff once stated.

Like other Modernists, Nijhoff was sceptical of a world that, since the nineteenth century, had lost its metaphysical ‘roof’. Being unwilling to replace it with a new ideology, he placed his faith in language; the literary work of art being perhaps the only thing left to go on in an existence that had become fragmented. But, unlike his Symbolist predecessors for example, he realised just how inadequate language could be. The reader can find many poems in his oeuvre about the creative sterility or powerlessness of language. Nijhoff thus put into words the paradox of being a modern twentieth-century poet in the Netherlands, as for example in his sonnet ‘Impasse’.

Nijhoff’s oeuvre is not all that extensive. If we leave aside his large collection of essays and criticism – the sole expression of Modernist autonomous poetics in the Netherlands at the time – his oeuvre consists of four collections of poetry and several unpublished poems. This small oeuvre however in itself constitutes an absolute milestone in Dutch poetry.

He made his debut with the collection The Wanderer (De Wandelaar) in 1916, at the age of twenty-two. The opening poem, which gave its name to the collection, clearly indicates that the poet has made no attempt at becoming a healing voice for a fragmented reality. The poem itself is a portrait gallery of artists from various periods in history, all of whom share a common lack of interest in the everyday world that surrounds them. Whether discussing a Renaissance artist, a poète maudit like Baudelaire or the ‘ivory-tower’ poetry of Mallarmé, the conclusion reached is that the roots of art past, present and future lie in a disturbed relationship with the world. The poet does not wander through a landscape but alongside it, and experiences the world as a backdrop. Reality has been reduced to a flat surface without perspective and the poet, being no longer able to act, has become a passive observer. Although other contradictory notes can be heard, the collection as a whole evokes a Modernist vision of doom, emptiness and loss. This is not expressed in the fragmented manner practised by the avant-garde, however, but in a traditional, highly controlled and refined way.

Eight years were to pass before Nijhoff was heard from again. In 1924, he established his name as an important poet once and for all with the publication of his collection Forms (Vormen), an example of mature craftsmanship. Reflection on poetry plays an important part in many of the poems. The challenge lies hidden in the form, in the language, in the word. Reality may be chaotic, but the poem creates a purity that can only be compared to the silence of death, as can be seen in ‘Song’ (‘Liedje’). The title of the collection is a poetic manifesto in itself. As opposed to the Expressionists’ and Dadaists’ insatiable desire for innovation, he upholds a classical mastery of form. The collection is therefore austerely composed. In its six parts the various aspects of human existence are examined poetically, a different answer being reached each time. The purity of a child, of death or of song is in sharp contrast with the poet’s splintered image of himself which, in turn, is softened by his viewing life as an enormous fête galante, as in the section ‘Al Fresco Dinner Parties’ (‘Tuinfeesten’). This collection is an inventory of possible complementary philosophies of life that, taken together, form a prismatic whole.

Ten years later, in 1934, Nijhoff’s third and perhaps most important collection New Poems (Nieuwe Gedichten) was published. Here again the title expresses a poetic manifesto: compared to his earlier work, there is a development towards a more earthly type of poetry that manifests an acceptance of life and everyday reality. Anyone in search of the metaphysical need not leave the realm of the earthly and journey towards an idealised and fictive paradise, but must remain with both feet firmly on the ground in order to discover how reality itself can assume metaphysical proportions. In one of his most beautiful poems, ‘The Song of the Foolish Bees’ (‘het lied der dwaze bijen’), he puts into words the discomfiture of the poet who has turned away from the world. The bees allow themselves to be lured away from house and home by some vague and unreal ideal, only to die in the blue: a clear allusion to Mallarmé. Only when it is too late, when they have been robbed of their bodies and like snow fall once again to earth, do they realise that the divine principle always was within their reach; it is in the making of honey – that drink of the gods – that the numinous manifests itself in ‘ordinary’ everyday reality. Nijhoff criticises in poetic terms those poets who focus their gaze upwards and therefore cannot or will not recognise the godlike dimension deep within everyday reality.

In New Poems (Nieuwe Gedichten) the modern world enters Nijhoff’s poetry: we encounter trains, cars and bikes, factories and lighthouses. The poetic world of nature is now replaced by a kitchen where the whistling of a kettle provides the accompaniment for a marital drama, as in the poem ‘Impasse’. Here Nijhoff shows his preference for the ordinary in language and for an everyday vernacular that is nonetheless loaded with a mythical significance: a process reminiscent of paintings by De Chirico. Nijhoff shows his true mastery of his art in the long epic ‘Awater’, a poem that can be considered as the zenith of Modernism in the Netherlands and can be read as an echo to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It deals with man’s alienation in the modern world, weaving century-old myth with everyday reality. The poet’s vision here is not directed horizontally but vertically. It is symbolised by the Orient Express, which has taken on the role of the new godhead, but which gives us no certitude of being saved or of there being a solution for the future. This new godhead is insensitive to human feelings: ‘Whatever hopes you cherish or reject, / it does not care, it is immune to even / the fancy of a travelling companion.’ In contrast to Eliot, Nijhoff attempts to capture fragmented reality in traditional poetic form. He even reproached his Anglo-Saxon colleague for having neglected his craft, for having broken verse like so many window panes. Nonetheless The Waste Land clearly resounds in the most important themes touched upon in the poem.

Like many other critical intellectuals, Nijhoff tried to provide an answer to the increasingly acute questions being posed in the thirties. Benda and Ortega Y Gasset were also to wonder where this uprising of the hordes would lead. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (see The Low Countries, 1993-94, 130-137) posed the same questions in his In the Shadow of Tomorrow (In de schaduwen van morgen, 1935), a book that achieved world-wide fame within a short time of its publication. Inspired by this book, Nijhoff wrote a cycle of sonnets in which he tried as a poet to explain the twilit gloom that then covered the world. The threat of the period is even more tangible in ‘Zero Hour’ (‘Het uur u’) (1937), Nijhoff’s last great poem as a lyric poet. In the poem, an unknown and mysterious man walks around a corner and through a street and the inhabitants are struck for an instant with the deepest self-reflection. Each one of them is forced to admit that they have betrayed their ideals and sacrificed them to an empty existence.

Although he did not die until 1953, Nijhoff wrote no poetry of any real significance after 1937. It was as if the great conflagration then unleashed upon the world had reduced his talent to ashes. He did however dedicate himself to translation, and did it so well that the yearly prize for translation in the Netherlands has been named after him. His preference was not only for Modern literature – he translated poems from the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a number of poems and the play The Cocktail Party by Eliot – he also produced Dutch equivalents of work by Romantics such as Hugo, De Vigny, De Musset and De Nerval. It was thanks to his extremely skilful pen that André Gide’s Paludes was made known in the Netherlands, and his Dutch version of the libretto to Ramuz and Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldat) was valued by the composer above the original.

By Wiljan van den Akker
Translated by Peter Flynn

First published in The Low Countries, 1996