Flemish literature  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Flemish literature is literature from Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. The older Flemish writers were contributors to Dutch literature in the broad sense of nationality; after the separation of Belgium, however, from the Netherlands, when Belgium became independent in 1830, there was a great revival of Flemish literature that distinguished from the Netherlands in language and culture.


16th century

Eduard de Dene

19th century

The immediate result of the Belgian Revolution was a reaction against everything associated with the Dutch, and a disposition to regard the French language as the speech of liberty and independence. The provisional government of 1830 suppressed the official use of the Dutch language, which was relegated to the rank of a patois. For some years before 1830 Jan Frans Willems (1793-1846) had been advocating the claims of the Dutch language. He had done his best to allay the irritation between the Netherlands and Belgium and to prevent a separation. As archivist of Antwerp he made use of his opportunities by writing a history of Flemish letters. After the revolution his Dutch sympathies had made it necessary for him to live in seclusion, but in 1835 he settled at Ghent, and devoted himself to the cultivation of Flemish. He edited old Flemish classics, Reinaert de Vos (1836), the rhyming Chronicles of Jan van Heelu and Jean le Clerc, etc., and gathered round him a band of Flemish enthusiasts, the chevalier Philip Blommaert (1809-1871), Karel Lodewijk Ledeganck (1805-1847), Frans Rens (1805-1874), Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert (1809-1872), Prudens van Duyse (1804-1859), and others.

Philipp Blommaert, who was born at Ghent on 27 August 1809, founded in 1834 in his native town the Nederduitsche letteroefeningen, a review for the new writers, and it was speedily followed by other Flemish organs, and by literary societies for the promotion of Dutch in Flanders. In 1851 a central organization for the Flemish propaganda was provided by a society, named after the father of the movement, the Willemsfonds. The Roman Catholic Flemings founded in 1874 a rival Davidsfonds, called after the energetic Jean-Baptist David (1801-1866), professor at the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Leuven), and the author of a Dutch history book on Belgium (Vaderlandsche historie, Louvain, 1842-1866). As a result of this propaganda the Dutch language was placed on an equality with French in law, and in administration, in 1873 and 1878, and in the schools in 1883. Finally in 1886 a Flemish Academy was established by royal authority at Ghent, where a course in Flemish literature had been established as early as 1854.

The claims put forward by the Flemish school were justified by the appearance (1837) of In 't Wonderjaer 1566 (In the Wonderful year) of Hendrik Conscience, who roused national enthusiasm by describing the heroic struggles of the Flemings against the Spaniards. Conscience was eventually to make his greatest successes in the description of contemporary Flemish life, but his historical romances and his popular history of Flanders helped to give a popular basis to a movement which had been started by professors and scholars.

The first poet of the new school was Karel Lodewijk Ledeganck, the best known of whose poems are those on the three sister cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp (De drie zustersteden, vaderlandsche trilogie, Ghent, 1846), in which he makes an impassioned protest against the adoption of French ideas, manners and language, and the neglect of Flemish tradition. The book speedily took its place as a Flemish classic. Ledeganck, who was a magistrate, also translated the French code into Flemish. Jan Theodoor van Rijswijck (1811-1849), after serving as a volunteer in the campaign of 1830, settled down as a clerk in Antwerp, and became one of the hottest champions of the Flemish movement. He wrote a series of political and satirical songs, admirably suited to his public. The romantic and sentimental poet, Jan van Beers, was typically Flemish in his sincere and moral outlook on life. Prudens van Duyse, whose most ambitious work was the epic Artevelde (1859), is perhaps best remembered by a collection (1844) of poems for children. Peter Frans Van Kerckhoven (1818-1857), a native of Antwerp, wrote novels, poems, dramas, and a work on the Flemish revival (De Vlaemsche Beweging, 1847).

Antwerp produced a realistic novelist in Jan Lambrecht Domien Sleeckx (1818-1901). An inspector of schools by profession, he was an indefatigable journalist and literary critic. He was one of the founders in 1844 of the Vlaemsch Belgie, the first daily paper in the Flemish interest. His works include a long list of plays, among them Jan Steen (1852), a comedy; Gretry, which gained a national prize in 1861; Vissers van Blankenberge (1863); and the patriotic drama of Zannekin (1865). His talent as a novelist was diametrically opposed to the idealism of Conscience. He was precise, sober and concrete in his methods, relying for his effect on the accumulation of carefully observed detail. He was particularly successful in describing the life of the shipping quarter of his native town. Among his novels are: In't Schipperskwartier(1856), Dirk Meyer (1860), Tybaerts en Cie (1867), Kunst en Liefde (Art and Love, 1870), and Vesalius in Spanje (1895). His complete works were collected in 17 volumes (1877-1884).

Jan Renier Snieders (1812-1888) wrote novels dealing with North Brabant; his brother, August Snieders (1825-1904), began by writing historical novels in the manner of Conscience, but his later novels are satires of contemporary society. A more original talent was displayed by Anton Bergmann (1835-1874), who, under the pseudonym of Tony, wrote Ernest Staas, Advocaat, which gained the quennial prize of literature in 1874. In the same year appeared the Novellen of the sisters Rosalie (1834-1875) and Virginie Loveling (1836-1923). These simple and touching stories were followed by a second collection in 1876. The sisters had published a volume of poems in 1870. Virginie Lovelings gifts of fine and exact observation soon placed her in the front rank of Flemish novelists. Her political sketches, In onze Vlaamsche gewesten (1877), were published under the name of W. G. E. Walter. Sophie (1885), Een dure Eed (1892), and Het Land der Verbeelding (1896) are among the more famous of her later works. Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) and Isidoor Teirlinck (1851-1934) produced in collaboration one very popular novel, Arm Vlaanderen (1884), and some others, and have since written separately. Cyriel Buysse, a nephew of Virginie Loveling, is a disciple of Émile Zola. Het Recht van den Sterkste ( The Right of the Strongest, 1893) is a picture of vagabond life in Flanders; Schoppenboer (The Knave of Spades, 1898) deals with brutalized peasant life; and Sursum corda (1895) describes the narrowness and religiosity of village life.

In poetry Julius de Geyter (1830-1905), author of a rhymed translation of Reinaert (1874), an epic poem on Charles V. (1888), etc. produced a social epic in three parts, Drie menschen van in de wieg tot in het graf (Three Men from the Cradle to the Grave, 1861), in which he propounded radical and humanitarian views. The songs of Julius Vuylsteke (1836-1903) are full of liberal and patriotic ardour; but his later life was devoted to politics rather than literature. He had been the leading spirit of a students association at Ghent for the propagation of Flemish views, and the Willemsfonds owed much of its success to his energetic co-operation. His Uit het studentenleven appeared in 1868, and his poems were collected in 1881. The poems of Mme van Ackere (1803-1884), née Maria Doolaeghe, were modelled on Dutch originals. Joanna Courtmans (1811-1890), née Berchmans, owed her fame rather to her tales than her poems; she was above all a moralist and her fifty tales are sermons on economy and the practical virtues. Other poets were Emmanuel Hiel, author of comedies, opera libretti and some admirable songs; the abbé Guido Gezelle, who wrote religious and patriotic poems in the dialect of West Flanders; Lodewijk de Koninck (1838-1924), who attempted a great epic subject in Menschdom Verlost (1872); Johan Michiel Dautzenberg (1808-1869) from Heerlen, author of a volume of charming Volksliederen. The best of Dautzenberg's work is contained in the posthumous volume of 1869, published by his son-in-law, Frans de Cort (1834-1878), who was himself a song-writer, and translated songs from Robert Burns, from Jacques Jasmin and from German. The Makamen en Ghazelen (1866), adapted from Rückert's version of Hariri, and other volumes by Jan Ferguut (J. A. van Droogenbroeck, 1835-1902) show a growing preoccupation with form, and with the work of Gentil Theodoor Antheunis (1840-1907), they prepare the way for the ingenious and careful workmanship of the younger school of poets, of whom Charles Polydore de Mont was the leader. He was born at Wambeke in Brabant in 1857, and became professor in the academy of the fine arts at Antwerp. He introduced something of the ideas and methods of contemporary French writers into Flemish verse; and explained his theories in 1898 in an Inleiding tot de Poezie. Among Pol de Mont's numerous volumes of verse dating from 1877 onwards are Claribella (1893), and Iris (1894), which contains amongst other things a curious Uit de Legende van Jeschoea-ben-Josief, a version of the gospel story from a Jewish peasant.

Mention should also be made of the history of Ghent (Gent van den vroegsten Tijd tot heden, 1882-1889) by Frans de Potter (1834-1904), and of the art criticisms of Max Rooses (1839-1914), curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, and of Julius Sabbe (1846-1910).

20th Century

twentieth century Flemish literature

In the twentieth Century Flemish literature evolved further and was influenced by the international literary evolution. Cyriel Buysse was a naturalist, while Stijn Streuvels and Felix Timmermans were neo-romanticists.

After World War I the poet Paul van Ostaijen was an important representative of expressionism in his poems. In between World War I and World War II, Gerard Walschap, Willem Elsschot and Marnix Gijsen were prominent Flemish writers. After World War II the first avant-garde magazine Tijd en Mens (E: Time and People) was published from 1949 up to 1955. In 1955 it was succeeded by Gard Sivik (E: Civil Guard) (up to 1964), with Hugues C. Pernath and Paul Snoek. The most prominent Flemish Vijftiger (E: Generation fifties) was Hugo Claus, who plays an important role in Flemish literature since then. Other postwar poets were Anton van Wilderode and Christine D'Haen. Some of the writers who made their debut after 1960 are Eddy Van Vliet, Herman de Coninck, Roland Jooris and Luuk Gruwez.

The renewal of the Flemish prose immediately after World War II was the work of Hugo Claus and Louis Paul Boon. Johan Daisne and Hubert Lampo introduced magic realism in Flemish literature. Ivo Michiels and Paul De Wispelaere represented the new novel. In the eighties Walter van den Broeck and Monika van Paemel continued to write in the style of Louis Paul Boon.

Other contemporary authors are Ward Ruyslinck and Jef Geeraerts, Kristien Hemmerechts, Eric de Kuyper, Stefan Hertmans, Pol Hoste, Paul Claes, and Jos Vandeloo. In the nineties the Generation X, with Herman Brusselmans and Tom Lanoye made their debut on the Flemish literary scene.


See also

nineteenth century Flemish literature, twentieth century Flemish literature, Freddy de Vree, Gaston Burssens, Johan Anthierens

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