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30 January 2015

Mind your Head! Constantijn Huygens’ response to Charles I’s execution.

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30 January is a red-letter day in British history. On this day in 1649 King Charles I was beheaded. This of course led to a period of ten years without a monarch. In 1660 Charles’ son returned to England from exile and was crowned Charles II. But the consequences of Charles I’s death were felt far beyond British shores. In Holland they looked on in amazement. How could the British execute their own king? One Hollander who was moved to verse in response to the execution was Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687),  who served as secretary to two stadholders. He spoke eight languages, and wrote around 75,000 lines of verse in Latin, French and Dutch. He also was an accomplished lute player and father to the famous scientist Christiaan Huygens.

Portrait of Constantijn Huygens’ by Jan Lievens, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

He knew London well, visiting it seven times during his life, as well as having relatives there. He penned a Dutch couplet to commemorate this ‘inhumane’ act:

Was ’t heden dats’ een Bijl drij Croonen in een’ slagh
Met een geheilight Hoofd onmenschlick vellen sagh?
[Was it today that she (i.e. the Sun) saw an Axe, with one blow,
Inhumanely fell three Crowns and a holy Head?]

The execution of Charles I, from  The Famous Tragedie of King Charles I. (London, 1709). British Library 643.c.7

In a Latin quatrain, Huygens seeks to find a connection between the weather and Charles’ execution:  

Miramur sine sole diem quo Regia et insons
Carnifici populo victima caesa fuit?
Qui facit hoc, Coeli pudor est, quod criminis ille,
Ille fuit testis non sine sole dies.
 [Do we see a day without sun, on which the Royal and innocent
Victim was executed by murderous people?
Whoever does this is a disgrace to Heaven, because that day of crime,
That day was a witness not without sun.]

Huygens also had harsh words for Oliver Cromwell  whom he held responsible for Charles’ death. After the Restoration, Cromwell was disinterred and his head stuck on the Tower of Westminster Hall.  Huygens clearly saw Cromwell’s head looking down at him and responded with some Dutch couplets, one of which runs:

Dit hoofd wouw ‘topperhoofd van alle hoofden leven.
Hier is het half geluckt, daer schort niet aen als ‘tLeven.
 [This head wanted as the head above all heads to live.
Here, it has half succeeded, it lacks nothing but Life.]

Oliver Cromwell, illustration by J. H. W. Unger from Pieter Lodewijk Muller, Onze Gouden Eeuw. De Republiek der Vereenigde Nederlanden in haar bloeitijd ... (Leiden, 1896-98) 9415.d.2.

There is a certain irony here of course for some 30 years earlier, the Grand Pensionary, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt,  met a similar end. In that case, the ‘Cromwell’ was Maurits, Prince of Orange.  Huygens was a life-long supporter of the House of Orange, and so perhaps did not find fault with Maurits in this regard. For the British the execution demonstrated the strength of Parliament in the face of Charles’ attempts to gain absolute power. Both Britain and Holland (the Netherlands) have monarchs today, although thankfully neither monarch, Elizabeth II or Willem-Alexander, has attempted to gain absolute power!

Dr. Christopher Joby, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul

References and further reading

Constantijn Huygens, De gedichten van Constantijn Huygens, naar zijn handschrift uitgegeven door Dr. J. A. Worp. (Groningen, 1892-1899). Vol. 8  11557.i.4. 

Constantijn Huygens, Nederlandsche gedichten. (Schiedam,  1884). YF.2011.a.26562

Christopher Joby,  ‘A Dutchman Abroad: Poetry written by Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) in England’. In: The Seventeenth Century, Vol. 28 (2013) nr 2, p. 187-206. ZC.9.a.3070

Christopher Joby, The Multilingualism of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). (Amsterdam,  2015). Awaiting shelfmark

Christopher Joby, Poems on the Lord's Supper by the Dutch Calvinist Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). (Lewiston, N.Y, 2008). YC.2009.a.3241

Christopher Joby, The Dutch language in Britain (1550-1702) (Leiden, 2014). Awaiting shelfmark


28 January 2015

Beauty in word and image

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Rumours of the demise of page 3 and news of the Royal Academy’s Rubens exhibition have inspired considerations on the concept of beauty in art and text.

Rubens in the popular mind is associated with a particular female type, though he seems only to have had an adjective of his own since 1834:

Characteristic or suggestive of the paintings of Rubens; esp. (of a woman’s figure) full and rounded.  1834 J. Landseer Catal. Pictures in National Gallery 243: If not picturesque, however, according to the modern construction and present use of that term, the subject is Rubensesque.  (OED)

The curious thing to me is that there seems to be no parallel between word and image in Rubens’s time.

For the earlier period it’s simple enough to illustrate from art the verbal descriptio puellae laid down in the medieval arts of poetry:

let her arms be pleasing, as slender in their form as delightful in their length.  Let substance soft and lean join together in her slender fingers, and appearance smooth and milk white, lines long and straight [...] Let her breast, a picture of snow, bring forth either bosom [sic] as if they were, in effect, uncut jewels side by side.  Let the circumference of her waist be narrowly confined, circumscribable by the small reach of a hand.  I am silent about the parts just below [...] But let her leg for its part realize its length in slenderness [...] (tr. Murphy p. 54)

Thus this description by Geoffrey of Vinsauf (Chaucer calls him Gaufred) c. 1210 can be illustrated by this picture of Bathsheba c. 1485.

David & Bathsheba          David and Bathsheba, from  French Book of Hours, ca. 1485. British Library MS Harley 2863

But when Góngora writes of female beauty and the urgent need to enjoy it, he’s closer to Geoffrey than to Rubens:

Mientras por competir con tu cabello,
oro bruñido al sol relumbra en vano;
mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano
mira tu blanca frente el lilio bello;
Mientras a cada labio, por cogello,
siguen más ojos que al clavel temprano;
y mientras triunfa con desdén lozano
del luciente cristal tu gentil cuello:
Goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,
antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,
No sólo en plata o viola troncada
se vuelva, mas tu y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.

While burnished gold gleams in vain in the sun to compete with your hair;/ while in the middle of the plain your white brow gazes on the fair lily with disdain;/ while more eyes follow each lip to kiss them [each lip] than [follow] the early carnation;/ and while your slender neck triumphs over gleaming crystal with self-assured scorn: enjoy your neck, hair, lips and brow, before what was in your golden youth, gold, lily, carnation, gleaming crystal not only turns to silver or to drooping violet but you and all of it together [turn] into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing. (tr. at Spain Then and Now).

The arts of painting and poetry were commonly said to be sisters.  But only to a point.  When he said ‘Ut pictura poesis’, Horace didn’t actually mean that the arts were analogous in a general way.  In context – and context is all –  he says ‘A poem is like a painting; the closer you stand to this one the more it will impress you, whereas you have to stand a good distance from that one; this one demands rather a dark corner, but that one needs to be seen in full light, and will stand up to the scrutiny of the art critic; this one only pleased you the first time you saw it, but that one will go on giving pleasure however often it is looked at.’ (Dorsch, 91-2).

And the pleasure of the eye is not the pleasure of the ear.

 Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies


Three medieval rhetorical arts, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley 1971) X.981/2867

Wesley Trimpi, ‘Horace’s Ut pictura poesis’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 36 (1973), 1-34. Ac.4569/7.

Classical literary criticism, tr. T. S. Dorsch (Harmondsworth, 1965)  W.P.513/155.


26 January 2015

Haggis and houšky: Robert Burns in many guises

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All over the world this morning, loyal Scots will be waking up after a night of feasting on neeps and tatties accompanying the haggis which was piped in and greeted with a ceremonial address, songs and recitation, and a glass raised in honour to ‘The Immortal Memory’ of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96). The Burns Night supper is traditionally an occasion to pay homage to `the Bard’, as Robert Crawford’s biography terms him, and his birthday, 25 January, is celebrated far beyond the boundaries of his native Ayrshire.

Burns frontispiece German 11642.a.6The pensive Burns from Robert Burns' Gedichte. Uebertragen von H. Julius Heintze (Leipzig, 1859) 11642.a.6

Yet despite the enthusiasm with which his fellow Scots pay tribute to their greatest poet, devotion is not confined to those who share his native language. A conference held in 2009 at the Charles University in Prague, examining his place in European literature and his influence on it offered ample proof of that, concluding with a rousing rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – alternate verses sung in Scots and Czech, with the chorus in the singers’ language of choice. Many of the papers presented examined translations of Burns’s poetry into other languages, and the challenges which the task of rendering his verse into their own tongues presents to those unfamiliar with Scots vocabulary.

The British Library was represented by a paper entitled ‘Haggis and houšky [Czech rolls]: two Czech translations of Burns’,  discussing the classic version by Josef Václav Sládek (Prague, 1892; British Library 1607/3720) and comparing it with a modern selection of verses by Burns translated for a ‘Burns evening’ held in 1999 at a school for visually impaired young people in Prague in partnership with a similar institution in Scotland. The British Library holds one of 75 copies published in a limited edition (YA.2003.b.1622. No. 59). Lively and inventive, the new versions provide a welcome insight into the problems facing Burns translators, as in ‘Tam o’Shanter’, where the dubious lady Kirkton Jean with whom Tam’s wife Kate accuses him of carousing into the small hours of Monday morning undergoes a strange metamorphosis (under French influence?) into Kirkton Jan.

Burns montage
                A sample of the BL’s holdings of Burns poetry translated into different languages

Not surprisingly, in view of the strong social message of many of his poems, Burns soon attracted attention and translators in Russia and Ukraine. The first Russian translations of his work appeared in 1800. The great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko had a considerable affection for Burns’s poetry. Among notable interpreters who spread their popularity in the Soviet Union we may mention Samuil Marshak, whose 1947 translation into Russian may be found in the British Library’s collections (Robert Berns v perevodakh S. Marshaka, Izbrannoe; Moscow, 1947;  X.989/30066) as well as the 1957 edition.  You can find on YouTube, among many others,  a modern performance by the popular Soviet singer Lev Leshchenko.

German, too, has its fair share of Burns translations, among which Julius Heintze’s 1859 edition appears in the British Library catalogue, adorned with a frontispiece showing the poet in pensive mood. He gives a vivid and spirited rendition of a wide range of poems, including ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ (‘Des Landmanns Samstagabend’) and the newly-ennobled ‘Tom von Shanter’, but here too Kirkton Jean fares no better, and emerges as ‘Kirkton Johnny’.

`The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ also appealed to the Dutch translator Pol de Mont, whose Zaterdagavond op het land (Amsterdam, 1888; 1578/8069) is described on the title-page as a free version (`vrij bewerkt naar Robert Burns), but deserves attention for its charming illustrations (picture below).

Burns Dutch2

Those wishing to stick to Burns in the original may call up the third edition of Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, and admire the likeness of the Bard by Alexander Nasmyth which is perhaps the most famous of his portraits. It is also possible to see the manuscript of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website.

Burns frontispiece 1164.g.7 Nasmyth’s portrait as reproduced in Burns’s Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, 3rd edition (London, 1787; 1164.g.7)

Whether you are a long-standing devotee of Burns or have yet to explore the riches of his vocabulary (English cannot match the expressive power of ‘skellum’, ‘drouthy’ or the ‘ghaists and houlets’ which haunt Tam’s homeward ride), we wish you a happy journey of discovery through the ‘lang Scots miles’ of his poetry, in whatever language you experience it.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak