PÈRE BOUHOURS seriously asks if a German can be a BEL ESPRIT? This concise query is answered by Kramer, in a ponderous volume, which bears for title, Vindicæ nominis Germanici. This mode of refutation does not prove that the question was then so ridiculous as it was considered. The Germans of the present day, although greatly superior to their ancestors, are still distant from that acmé of TASTE, which characterises the finished compositions of the French and the English authors. Nations display genius before they form taste; and in some of the productions of the modern Germans, it will be allowed that their imaginations are fertile and fervid; but perhaps the simple question of Bouhours still exists in its full force.
It was once the mode with English and French writers to dishonour them with the epithets of heavy, dull, and phlegmatic compilers, without taste, spirit, or genius; genuine descendents of the ancient Bœotians.
Crassoque sub aëre nati.
Many ingenious performances have lately shown that this censure has now become unjust; and much more forcibly answer the sarcastic question of Bouhours than the thick quarto of Kramer.
Churchill finely says of genius that it is independent of situation,
‘And may hereafter even in HOLLAND rise.’
Vondel, whom, as Marchand observes, the Dutch regard as their Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, has a strange defective taste; the poet himself knew none of these originals, but he wrote on some patriotic subject, the sure way to obtain popularity: the greater part of his tragedies is drawn from the Scriptures; all badly chosen and unhappily executed. In his Deliverance of the Children of Israel, one of his principal characters is the Divinity! In his Jerusalem Destroyed we are disgusted with a tedious oration by the Angel Gabriel, who proves theologically, and his proofs extend through nine closely-printed pages in quarto, that this destruction had been predicted by the prophets. And in the Lucifer of the same author, the subject is grossly scandalised by this haughty spirit becoming stupidly in love with Eve, and it is for her he causes the rebellion of the evil angels, and the fall of our first parents. Poor Vondel kept a hosier’s shop, which he left to the care of his wife, while he indulged his poetical genius. His stocking shop failed, and his poems produced him more chagrin than glory; for in Holland even a patriotic poet, if a bankrupt, would, no doubt, be accounted by his fellow-citizens as a madman. Vondel had no other master but his genius, which, with his uncongenial situation, occasioned all his errors.
Another Dutch poet is even less tolerable. Having written a long rhapsody conccrning Pyramus and Thisbe, he concludes it by a ridiculous parallel between the death of these unfortunate victims of love, and the passion of Jesus Christ. He says,
Om t’concluderem van onsen begrypt,
Dees Historie moraliserende,
Is in den verstande wel accorderende,
By der Passie van Christus gebenedyt.
And upon this, after having turned Pyramus into the Son of God, and Thisbe into the Christian soul, he proceeds with a number of comparisons; the latter always more impertinent than the former.
I believe it is well known that the actors on the Dutch theatre are generally tradesmen, who quit their aprons at the hour of public representation. This was the fact when I was in Holland forty years ago. Their comedies are offensive by the grossness of their buffooneries. One of their comic incidents was a miller appealing in distress for want of wind to turn his mill; he had recourse to the novel scheme of placing his back against it, and by certain imitative sounds behind the scenes, the mill is soon set a-going. It is hard to rival such a depravity of taste.
I saw two of their most celebrated tragedies. The one was Gysbert Van Amstel, by Vondel; that is Gysbrecht of Amsterdam, a warrior, who in the civil wars preserved this city by his heroism. It is a patriotic historical play, and never fails to crowd the theatre towards Christmas, when it is usually performed successively. One of the acts concludes with a scene of a convent; the sound of warlike instruments is heard; the abbey is stormed; the nuns and fathers are slaughtered; with the aid of “blunderbuss and thunder,” every Dutchman appears sensible of the pathos of the poet. But it does not here conclude. After this terrible slaughter, the conquerors and the vanquished remain for ten minutes on the stage, silent and motionless, in the attitudes in which they happened to fall! and this pantomimic pathos is received with loud bursts of applause from the audience.
The other was the Ahasuerus of Schubart, or the Fall of Haman. In the triumphal entry the Batavian Mordecai was mounted on a genuine Flanders mare, that, fortunately, quietly received her applause with a lumpish majesty resembling her rider. I have seen an English ass once introduced on our stage which did not act with this decorum. Our late actors have frequently been beasts;—a Dutch taste!
Some few specimens of the best Dutch poetry which we have had yield no evidence in favour of the national poetical taste. The Dutch poet Katz has a poem on the “Games of Children,” where all the games are moralised; I suspect the taste of the poet as well as his subject is puerile. When a nation has produced no works above mediocrity, with them a certain mediocrity is excellence, and their masterpieces, with a people who have made a greater progress in refinement, are but the works of a pupil.
§ A pair of footnotes were appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, further to the paragraph concluding ‘this pantomimic pathos commands loud bursts of applause:’
The Dutch are not, however, to be entirely blamed for repulsive scenes on the stage. Shakspeare’s Titus Andronicus, and many of the dramas of our Elizabethan writers, exhibit cruelties very repulsive to modern ideas. The French stage has occasionally exhibited in modern times scenes that have been afterwards condemned by the censors; and in Italy the “people’s theatre” occasionally panders to popular tastes by execution scenes, where the criminal is merely taken off the stage; the blow struck on a wooden block, to give reality to the action; and the executioner re-enters flourishing a bloody axe.
And, second, further to the penultimate paragraph:
Ned Shuter was the comedian who first introduced a donkey on the stage. Seated on the beast he delivered a prologue written on the occasion of his benefit. Sometimes the donkey wore a great tie-wig. Animals educated to play certain parts are a later invention. Horses, dogs, and elephants have been thus trained in the present century, and plays written expressly to show their proficiency.
¶ This article is lightly revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities, in which it is entitled ‘Literary German and Dutch.’ In earlier versions of the piece, D’Israeli continued the opening paragraph thus:
If we, who are such near neighbours to the French, can never equal the light elegance, the grace and vivacity of their writers, we must attribute it to our language and to our climate. Now, if I do not err, the language and the climate of the Germans, is far less congenial to the nature of such compositions.