Between 1800 and 1830, poetry was the dominant literary genre in the Southern Netherlands. It is also where we find the first written traces of a Belgian national identity, at a time when poetic expression was still closely associated with the strictly regulated practices of the region’s traditional Chambers of Rhetoric (versifying and literary associations). Poetry competitions provided amateur verse-writers with a platform to celebrate national heroes of the past or to express their attachment to their mother tongue. Pieter J. de Borchgrave was one widely acclaimed poet of this period. Landmark events like the 1815 one, when paintings by Flemish masters that twenty years before had been taken to Paris by the French occupying forces, were triumphantly returned to Antwerp, offered an opportunity for patriotic effusions. The object of this patriotic attachment was, however, vague. It could be a particular region (Flanders or Brabant) or include all the Belgian provinces. The latter was what the Catharinist Chamber of Rhetoric of Aalst had in mind when it organized a poetry competition in 1807 (De Belgen/Les Belges) which attracted entries in French as well as Flemish. Sometimes, “the nation” even included Holland – especially during the period of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30) under the sovereignty of the erstwhile Orange stadtholders, now restored as kings. The principal exponent of this Orangist standpoint was Jan Frans Willems, although he also profiled himself specifically as a Brabanter. His polemical poem Aen de Belgen/Aux Belges (“To the Belgians”, 1818), a riposte to the Francophone opponents of King William I’s linguistic policy, is a fervent plea for Netherlandic as the national language and the mother tongue of all Belgians. Throughout this period, the government in The Hague generously supported literary endeavours in the Southern Netherlands, in particular by sponsoring publishing houses and the royal linguistic and literary societies and their poetic contests. Such backing materially assisted the careers of a number of individual poets, such as Prudens Van Duyse.
After independence in 1830, a Belgian national literature – in both languages – began to emerge and play its part in building a broad cultural movement that brought cohesion to the new state. Although Flemish-language poets like Maria Doolaeghe joined this patriotic movement, that did not mean that they cut all ties with the past, even when, as the new national “bards”, they entered the state-organized bilingual poetic competitions celebrating the “triumph of the nation’s independence and the future destiny of the fatherland” (1834). The poetic development of Karel Ledeganck (winner of the first prize for submissions in Flemish) is exemplary in this regard. In his first published works, he presented himself as an inspired, artistically-minded Romantic; but Flemish critics, foremost amongst them Jan Baptist David, guided him into the national fold, and shortly before his early death he penned the patriotic trilogy De drie zustersteden (“The three sister cities”, 1846), a paean to the faded glory of Gent, Brugge and Antwerp and a powerful call for renewed Flemish national self-confidence: “Geen rijker kroon / dan eigen schoon” (“No richer crown / than beauty of our own”). This lyrical trilogy earned Ledeganck widespread acclaim and became known as “the poetic Gospel of the Flemish Movement”. Countless other poets followed the same path, looking back on the glorious Flemish past. Well-known examples include the narrative poem Jacob van Artevelde (1859) by Prudens Van Duyse and the epic Ambiorix (1841) by J. Nolet de Brauwere van Steeland, a piece of hero worship that helped shape the national myth surrounding the creation of the “ancient Belgic tribes”. Such poems, in tandem with the historical novel and Romantic history-writing, fixed a Flemish canon of national lieux de mémoire. (Statue of the civic leader Artevelde and of the tribal leader Ambiorix were erected in Gent and Tongeren in 1863 and 1866.)
Nationalist and social commitment helped many Flemish poets to fame and popularity. Theodoor van Ryswyck’s occasional and satirical verse commentaries (“political refrains”) on Antwerp and national politics earned him a reputation as a “people’s poet”. Antigonus of de volksklachten (“Antigonus, or the people’s laments”, 1841), for example, is a satire on the eternal gulf between the establishment and the poor, complaining masses. There was an unwritten code to use easily-accessible language and forms; this in turn resulted in an interest in traditional popular songs. These had already been collected by local philologists (J.F. Willems and F. Snellaert, Oude Vlaemsche liederen, “Old Flemish songs”, 1848), but the most influential publication was Loverkens (“Foliage”, 1852), an anthology of faux-medieval songs and romances by the German philologist August H. Hoffmann. This breathed new life into the Dutch poetry of the period, not only inspiring a wave of verses in pseudo-Middle-Netherlandic but also prompting the emergence of a new generation of national poets. With the “true people’s poet” Jan van Beers as their exemplar, they finally turned their backs forever on highbrow French Classicism, in favour of a Flemish naturalism and originality that also, for the first time, reflected the world as it was perceived by the modern bourgeoisie of Flanders.
Guido Gezelle, whose debut fell in 1858 with Vlaemsche dichtoefeningen (“Exercises in Flemish poetry”), made his own special contribution to the story of patriotic poetry in Flanders. As a teacher and standard bearer of the so-called West Flemish School, he introduced the idea that religion was the most important element of the Belgian Flemish identity – the core of which, he claimed, was enshrined in the Old Flemish or Dietsch language spoken before the 16th-century separation of the Northern and Southern Netherlands. On that basis, he attempted to fundamentally reform the Dutch-language poetry of Flanders by means of a nativist-revivalist Catholic literary school that drew on everyday language as vital source of poetic truth. The resulting work canonized a traditionally Catholic image of Flanders and produced numerous effective nationalistic texts exhorting the reader to defend that Flanders, and its language, in the face of increasing modernity and secularization: “Wees Vlaming, dien God Vlaming schiep” (“Be Fleming, you whom God created a Fleming”). Gezelle’s writings hugely influenced the Flemish Movement and, through Gezelle’s pupil Hugo Verriest, also the young, short-lived poet Albrecht Rodenbach (Eerste gedichten, “First poems”, 1878). Rodenbach would place his image of Flanders in the service of a national struggle, political action, heroic deeds, ideological openness and modern scepticism.
1841 – Nolet de Brauwere van Steeland, Jan: Ambiorix
1846 – Ledeganck, Karel Lodewijk: The three sister cities (De drie zustersteden)
1856 – Van Duyse, Prudens: Jacob van Artevelde
Willems, Jan Frans, Snellaert, Ferdinand Augustijn 1848 Oude Vlaemsche liederen ten deele met de melodieën
Willems, Jan Frans 1818 Aen de Belgen / Aux Belges
Ledeganck, Karel Lodewijk 1846 De drie zustersteden, vaderlandsche trilogie
Van Duyse, Prudens 1859 Jakob van Artevelde, episch verhael in acht zangen
Nolet de Brauwere van Steeland, Jan 1841 Ambiorix
Ryswyck, Jan Theodoor van 1841 Antigonus of de volksklachten
1852 Loverkens: Altniederländische Lieder
Gezelle, Guido 1858 Vlaemsche dichtoefeningen
Rodenbach, Albrecht 1878 Eerste gedichten
Netherlandic refers to the language spoken in both the Netherlands (“Holland”) and the northern half of Belgium (“Flanders”). “Dutch” and “Flemish” refers, colloquially, to the inhabitants of those respective areas and to their usage of Netherlandic.