The Poet Karel van de Woestijne
In 2000 the Flemings were polled to discover which poem, out of a list of a hundred, they rated the best. Among those hundred poems there was just one by Karel van de Woestijne, one of the three poets of real stature that were born in Flanders in the nineteenth century. The poem in question, ‘Fever-song’ (‘Koortsdeun’), comes from his first published collection, My Father’s House (Het Vader-huis, 1903), but was probably written as early as 1895. Older poetry-lovers will be familiar from anthologies with its opening line, with its strong echoes of Verlaine: ‘It’s depressing that it rains in autumn’.
Van de Woestijne ended up dangling somewhere near the bottom of the list, while his rivals Guido Gezelle and Paul van Ostaijen each had two poems in the first twenty. There are a few other poems by Van de Woestijne that still ring a bell, but they were not selected. It is difficult to believe that this was because the people who compiled the list barely knew of him. After all, Van de Woestijne still features prominently in histories of literature. His work had an enormous influence on early twentieth-century literature and attracted many imitators. Even the more independent talents that began to emerge in Flanders and the Netherlands around 1910 — from the Flemish poets Jan van Nijlen and Richard Minne to Jacques Bloem, Adriaan Roland Holst and Victor van Vriesland who were among the top literary figures in the Netherlands in the 1920s and 1930s — later acknowledged how much they owed to Van de Woestijne. Which makes it all the more puzzling that a writer who, despite his aristocratic attitude and baroque rhetoric, once enjoyed such boundless admiration should now be almost totally forgotten.
What happened? In my view, the reason for the poet’s dwindling popularity is that attention has focused almost exclusively on his early work. The current impression of Van de Woestijne is of a poet who is passé, one who is decadent, overblown and gloomy. But when we concentrate on his later work — that from after the First World War — and set it in the context of its own time, it turns out to be surprisingly modern, with unexpected resonances for today’s reader. And part of this essential historical and contextual approach is to compare him with contemporary poets from other countries.
The coppersmith’s son
Socially, Karel van de Woestijne came from a less affluent background than those great turn-of-the-century writers, like Proust or Rilke, whose names have become household words. That he lacked private means, and unlike Yeats had no Lady Gregory to support him, may well have had a dramatic impact on his work and its Nachleben. Van de Woestijne was born in 1878 to a lower-middle-class family in Ghent. His father was a coppersmith with his own workshop. Some French was spoken at home, but at school Karel came into contact with the Flemish Movement, which was fighting for the rights of its own Dutch language. Consequently, it was in that language that he began to write; and so Dutch did not lose him to French literature, as happened with his better-off fellow-townsmen Charles van Lerberghe and Maurice Maeterlinck who were sent to the strictly French-speaking Jesuit college. In his youth Van de Woestijne became familiar with the two avant-garde periodicals of the day, De Nieuwe Gids in the North and Van Nu en Straks in the South. The latter appealed to him more, since it combined the individualism of the former with concern for the life and cultural advancement of poor backward Flanders.
Van de Woestijne never finished secondary school; yet in the 1920s he became a professor at Ghent University. Before reaching these heights, however, his life was dominated by a chronic shortage of money. His marriage — in 1904 — and growing family made it essential for him to earn a living. He became Brussels correspondent of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, later combining this position with a post as a junior civil servant in a ministry. The First World War turned his life upside down. He joined the so-called ‘passivists’, those who refused to seek greater independence for Flanders while the country was under German occupation — an attitude which did him no harm at all after the war, even though he had in fact maintained contacts with Germans (among them the poet and translator Rudolf Alexander Schröder). He won rapid promotion in the civil service and eventually became a professor.
There are many ambiguities in Van de Woestijne’s life and work. He was an ‘ivory tower’ poet, yet as a journalist he was at the heart of political life; he wrote introverted poetry, but his letters attest to a sense of humour and a great talent for gossip and scandal; he also championed the Flemish cause, though his cultural orientation was entirely French. He wrote his considerable oeuvre partly for money and partly because he had to. Writing came naturally to him; he was what was called a ‘poetic animal’, a born poet. But throughout his life he depended on publishing his poems to supplement his income. This was not always good for the quality of his work, but it does explain why, despite his many illnesses, he wrote so much.
His collected work comprises almost a thousand pages of poems and the same of prose, a sizeable volume of epic poetry and one of essays on the visual arts and literature. Then there is also the lengthy novel Towers of Clay (De leemen torens) which he wrote with Herman Teirlinck during World War I. For a long time this ‘pre-war chronicle of two cities’ (Ghent and Brussels) has been judged by standards derived from nineteenth-century narrative; and from this standpoint because of its digressions it cannot be considered a successful work. But read the book in a different way, for its portrayal of its age, its character as a roman-à-clef, its lyrical-ironic power, and you discover one of the most remarkable masterpieces in Dutch literature: still vivid, still challenging, worthy of a wider readership. Lastly there are the fifteen volumes of criticism and journalism written for the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant — a goldmine for historians and cultural historians.
Van de Woestijne’s poetry pleads to be read in the light of the social and cultural developments of his time. He saw himself as a ‘son of the seeking and doubting, the complicated, the analytical nineteenth century’. He belonged to the same generation as Paul Valéry and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, like him sharp observers of a self-fragmenting ego, but he died younger than either of them, in 1929, aged barely fifty. According to the general view, by then his poetic work — which falls into two trilogies, pre-war and post-war — was finished. Interestingly, though, at the time of his death he was planning a collection of odes similar to that by Paul Claudel.
A boy poet
Van de Woestijne was a prodigy, a ‘boy poet’, who soaked up French symbolism like blotting paper and reflected it in his own way. Work dating from before his 1903 debut collection My Father’s House bears the mark mainly of Verhaeren, Rimbaud and on occasion Verlaine. His first volume of poems also shows traces of minor symbolist poets like Henri de Régnier. Consequently, My Father’s House is often described as mood-lyric or atmospheric lyric. As in Rilke’s early poetry, the main concern is with musicality and atmosphere.
Only in a later phase do Van de Woestijne’s poems move closer to Baudelaire, with whom he is most commonly compared. Catholic scholars especially have stressed the dualism of spirit and senses which he is thought to share with Baudelaire, with the fleshly element represented primarily by woman. This decadent theme is further reinforced by complaints of weariness and impotence, by narcissism and longing for death, so that one can characterise this second phase of his work as decadent symbolism.
With the war, however, came a radical change. Hardship and especially the lack of freedom stimulated introspection and a yearning for God. His spiritual bent, a smouldering presence even before the war, intensified. Asceticism and a preoccupation with grief and suffering gave his new lyric an ever-stronger mystical content. This mystical inclination showed itself first in his prose. After a volume of mainly whimsical stories in the style of Jules Laforgue, before and during the war he found his own material in hagiographies and the Bible. This he transmuted into a virtuoso descriptive art with a moralistic or speculative-spiritualistic tone. After the war, in 1925, the moralising which had always been part of Van de Woestijne found even stronger expression in what is perhaps his most typical prose collection, Principles of Chemistry (Beginselen der Chemie).
Van de Woestijne achieved his greatest virtuosity in his epic poems, of which he published three collections. They are reworkings of classical myths, full of splendid Homeric metaphors — a technique in which his translation of the Iliad had made him an expert. Like many other poets of his day, he took the story of Helen as the starting-point for his narrative poems, and like Rilke he also reworked the myth of Orpheus. Most characteristic, however, are his adaptations of the Heracles myth. Heracles becomes the archetype of the earthly seeker after the absolute.
For these versions of myths, too, Van de Woestijne found models in French symbolism. Again and again we see his attachment to symbolism, which in the early years of the twentieth century had spread throughout Europe. Together with the Dutch poets P.C. Boutens and J.H. Leopold and the Dutch poet and theoretician Albert Verwey, Van de Woestijne is the movement’s leading representative in the Low Countries. And maybe, because he remained aloof from the Northern Dutch tradition and was geographically closer to France, he exemplified it more and better than did the Dutchmen.
‘A silken rose’
Placing a poet in a movement can be a useful way of defining his individual characteristics. And comparison can bring out that poet’s quality more clearly. That is certainly the case when one compares Van de Woestijne’s later work with the later Yeats, Rilke or Valéry, all of whom had been influenced by the short-lived French symbolist movement in the last years of the nineteenth century. Already before the First World War they were publishing poems which showed a greater awareness of earthly reality than those of their predecessors, while still seeking to connect with a supernatural ideal. Almost all these poets retained the mysticism of their predecessors, but they no longer dwelt in an ivory tower; in Valéry’s words, ‘il faut tenter de vivre’. Van de Woestijne did not resolve the conflict between himself and the world in his poetry, but neither did Valéry. In his poems the Fleming was searching for a universal humanity, and in this he came close to the neo-classicism of a writer like Jean Moréas, to whom he dedicated a cycle of poems on the occasion of his death.
The post-symbolist poets did not shrink from using modern subject-matter. Van de Woestijne, Yeats and the Russian Alexander Blok all wrote poems about airmen, though they were more interested in the fate of mankind, in the longing to transcend limitations or for death, than in the flying machines themselves. And like their predecessors they still saw themselves as magicians, as high priests of beauty; this is what differentiates them from the younger poets of the time, who were not averse to everyday language and topical subjects. The means to work that magic was sonorous musicality.
Apart from questions of influence, what Van de Woestijne has in common with the great post-symbolist poets is not only their turning towards life but, paradoxically, their evolution in later years to a more hermetic form of expression. This hermetic style indicates that they had become highly sensitive to the ambiguity of language. It seemed to them that this ambiguity better expressed the problems of existence than a simple naming of facts or events (realism) or the suggesting of a different reality through conventional or not-so-conventional analogies (symbolism). Their symbols — Rilke’s angel is one example — were intended to denote entities from an intermediate world, and they became so personal that the reader can only grasp them intuitively. In this they were closer to Mallarmé than to any other symbolist poet.
The post-symbolists gave new and constantly changing meanings to old conventional symbols or created new ones, which were also surprisingly ambiguous. That Rilke, Yeats and Claudel made the traditional symbol of the rose into an emblem of absolute beauty is well known. No-one has yet investigated, however, how often it appears, usually in comparisons, in poems by their contemporary Van de Woestijne. ‘Nothing that moves me more deeply than roses,’ he wrote in one of his short, succinct notes. From ancient times the rose has been a symbol of love and thus also of (feminine) beauty. In the Christian tradition, for instance in the mysticism of Jan van Ruusbroec, it is at the same time a symbol of Christ — who shed his blood for mankind — and thus also of the Resurrection. In poetry, however, it has also long been a symbol for the poem itself.
The rose derives its attraction from a combination of colour and scent with the danger it poses to humans — the danger of being pricked by its thorns and bleeding. Initially, Van de Woestijne associates roses both with the freshly dawning day and — entirely in line with symbolist preferences — with peaceful fading at night or in autumn: ‘no lovelier rose than that which bloomed / in the slant, decay-bringing evening red’.
In his late poems Van de Woestijne uses the symbol in more daring metaphors. In this bolder imagery it may retain its traditional connotations of tranquil transience: ‘Oh ageing day, you taste of water and of roses’, ‘I am the peace in which all roses wither’; its connotations of love (for children): ‘never has our dry mouth shone with sparks of dew / as does the rose of a child’s open mouth’ and that of pain: ‘There is no pain too great for us: / we gleam so much with happiness / that even the reddest, cruellest wound / adorns us like a rose’. Unexpectedly, though, Van de Woestijne also gives the rose a very material meaning, as artificial beauty. In the poem ‘Silence is the certainty’ (‘Stilte is de stelligheid’) we come upon an embroidered silken rose!
Also, in a poem reminiscent of Rilke the rose becomes an almost mystical image, as a symbol of mankind’s resurrection:
oh silent waters of the pools
which, sucked into the darkest earth
feel themselves ripen as they rise
up the veins within the tree;
—for: no waters will ever die
save in the furious bursting of a bud.
And I too shall not lose this life
Save as a rose in the eye of God.
The dark dancer
Other images too, less hackneyed than roses, are given mystical or esoteric meanings by Van de Woestijne and his contemporaries. The symbol of the dancer, for instance, derives from the old idea of the dance of the heavenly bodies. For the esoteric Yeats the dancer represents the unity of body and soul. It was the more intellectual Valéry who wrote most extensively about dance, in three of his longer texts. For him the dancer is an intermediary, at once physical and incorporeal in what his movements suggest, possessed of an autonomous beauty. In one poem Van de Woestijne, who was also fascinated by dancing couples and dance-halls, speaks of the dancer as fire and flame, an image highly reminiscent of a similar one in Valéry’s ‘L’âme et la danse’:
And I have danced like a pillar of fire;
of bliss a fiery pillar I have been
that made its mighty blaze a festival,
where it could fill the universe with light
in the own fire of the all-consuming poem.
Because of its autonomy, for the late Van de Woestijne the poetic image becomes an intermediary between himself and God: ‘image: panting dancer between God and me’. For Van de Woestijne God is the perfect dancer, himself merely the ‘mangy dancer’, sick and short of breath. In his story Arnulphus the saint performs a spiritual dance: ‘This is what you had now become, Arnulphus: God’s dancer. You could express your purified passion in dance, that was the manifest sign of your hard-won equilibrium. You had found your peace in the dance, you who had never known peace in all the years of your life, in the immobility of your solitude.’ Dance has now become, in Mathieu Rutten’s telling observation, an image of ‘inner, spiritual life’.
Other images in Van de Woestijne’s later poetry express the same introverted state, among them the strongly Rilkean image of the tree. The poet also forged symbols entirely his own such as that of the visitor, which somewhat resembles Rilke’s angel. Van de Woestijne shared with his more famous great contemporaries a desire for independence, which for instance manifested itself in their highly individual way of expressing themselves. In these poets, though, conscious obscurity was accompanied — again paradoxically — by greater simplicity and directness of expression. In both Yeats and Van de Woestijne we find old ballads and refrains alongside poems with long drawn-out phrases.
Unlike his great contemporaries, Van de Woestijne rarely dispensed with rhetoric. His poems were often plagued by exaggerated alliterations and over-elaborations, making them heavy and cumbersome. If a third of his work seems dated, it is because of this rhetoric. But even so, I have the same feeling when reading him as with the lighter, more volatile Gabriele d’Annunzio: in the best poems the deliberate thrust of the phrases adds an extra dimension to the already unique experience produced by this mix of life-weariness and vitalism, of a sense of sin and mystical intoxication. The result is the exaltation of the language.
Mario Praz once wrote in an essay on d’Annunzio that many people reacted to him as they did to ‘the scent of the rose’: lazy perfumers have so devalued the rose scent that the slightest hint of its presence is enough to damn a perfume as crude and vulgar. These days, it seems, the merest whiff of ecstasy makes people hold their noses. Even though it was engendered by the finest of all fragrances.
By Hans Vandevoorde
Translated by Tanis Guest
First published by The Low Countries, 2002