Historical story

Rise of the poet's image during the Romantic era

“I am fashionable these days and wanted as a pair of orange gloves”, wrote the young poet Nicolaas Beets in 1835. The image of famous Dutch poets from the nineteenth century is in the spotlight during the fifth edition of Poetry Week. A comparison with the popular contemporary writer Herman Brusselmans yields surprising similarities.

The nineteenth century in the Netherlands was not at all dull and bourgeois. At least not as far as poets and poetry are concerned, argues Dutch scholar Rick Honings (Leiden University). He sketches a time of raving girls and poets who handed out portraits and locks of hair, and compares this with the image of the humorous Flemish author Herman Brusselmans. This in the context of this year's Poetry Week (January 26 to February 1), in which humor is central.

Cult of Genius

Fame is not a modern phenomenon. We still know the names of famous poets from classical antiquity or the Renaissance, such as Homer or Erasmus. But in the early 1800s, the way people looked at poets changed and the debate erupted. Who or what was a real poet? This was the period of Romanticism, a cultural movement in which feeling, creativity and fantasy became important, and stands in stark contrast to the rational period of the Enlightenment before that. Then the thought was that anyone could write poetry, as long as you practiced well and did your best.

During the Romantic era, however, the idea that a poet was a special person, who was born only once in a while, prevailed. A genius, and that includes admirers:“The cult of genius was born”, says Honings. He has researched seven famous Dutch poets and fan culture in the nineteenth century.

Originality became important in this period and imitating classic works – until then the pinnacle of poetry – was no longer valued. The new artist was a creative figure and the public respected him. He also behaved and dressed differently from the common people, so that he could be seen rising above the crowd.

It was mainly men who were labeled as geniuses. “There were women who were widely read and thereby gained fame, but that was it. They had to behave normally and were much less visible as public figures,” said Honings.

Hand out whiskers

So no Kardashians in the nineteenth century. “You didn't have a modern celebrity culture at that time anyway. Before that, the right media, such as the Internet and television, did not yet exist. But the roots were laid in that century.”

The writer Eduard Dekkers (1820-1887), alias Multatuli of the book Max Havelaar, was one of the first to use the new medium of photography for his fans. He had pictures taken of himself to be signed and sold. What Honings noticed during his research was the fanaticism of the fans. “Collectors wanted every scrap of a writer, that really surprised me. Locks of hair were also very popular. Multatuli handed out pieces of whisker to rave girls and the poet Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831) was shaved bald on his deathbed, because the demand for his locks of hair was so great.”

Around 1800, the fascination with celebrities increased. Although art remained something for the elite, the position of the artist changed. He was now also recognized as a celebrity in lower circles, by people who had nothing to do with art. However, the number of real fans was smaller. They usually had a literary background themselves and came from the elite. Bilderdijk's melancholic, death-drenched poetry was only read by a limited group of people, but everyone recognized the poet on the street because of his eccentric appearance. He dressed in eighteenth-century fashion, including an old-fashioned powdered wig, so it was noticeable.”

Young noble

Honings is the first to study Dutch fan culture from the nineteenth century. Research into famous foreign poets and their fans already existed and Honings compared it with his own results. “It turns out that the same mechanisms from abroad also occurred in the Netherlands at the same time. We weren't much behind on that. The way in which Nicolaas Beets (1814-1903) was honored on his seventieth birthday in 1884, for example, resembles how it happened with the famous French poet Victor Hugo.”

Not only the Dutch celebrity culture was inspired by foreign countries, the poets themselves also had their examples abroad. When Beets was still young, he copied the melancholic style of the English poet Lord Byron, which earned him fame in the Netherlands. But the poet did not receive mere praise. “Beets has been widely criticized for his fondling of Lord Byron. Literature had to be uplifting, it had to make you a better person. But the poetry of Lord Byron and Beets was too gloomy, too little idealistic for that.”

You rarely saw humor in the literate poets. Serious poetry simply scored better with the elite. Poets who were known in a wider circle and who wrote poems about more mundane matters did use humor. Francois HaverSchmidt (1835-1894), alias Piet Paaltjens, humorously mocked his own grief. Humor can also be seen in the criticism that poets have received. Haters van Bilderdijk staged plays in which they mock the poet. “He hated potatoes and they made fun of it.”

Clown Brusselmans

The research into the poets of the nineteenth century and their fans has been completed and Honings is now working on a book about the life, work and image of the Flemish writer Herman Brusselmans. This move is less far-fetched than it seems. The research for this book is comparable to Honing's earlier method:now Brusselmans is the case he writes about.

“Just like those poets from the nineteenth century, Brusselmans has a striking image. He is the ultimate example of a celebrity writer in the present day. He is recognized by everyone, even those who have never read any of his books. He has long hair, smokes, made rude comments. Brusselmans has many fans who collect everything from and about him. He even signs breasts and buttocks.” This did not happen in the nineteenth century, as far as we know.

The clown that Brusselmans plays when he is on television disappears as soon as the cameras go off, according to Honings. The author is a lot more serious than he expected. Humor, on the other hand, plays a major role in the work of the Flemish, which is why Honings devotes a separate chapter to this. “Brusselmans uses a lot of humor, but if you see through the jokes, you see his pessimistic outlook on life. Writing is therapeutic for him:he is a writer who writes off his misery to save himself. This is also often seen in the nineteenth century. Bilderdijk was a writer of the same kind. He was always miserable and wrote extremely much. Just like Brusselmans.”

  • Rick Honings, The poet as idol. Literary fame in the nineteenth century (Amsterdam:Bert Bakker, 2016) ISBN 9789035144316. 512 pp. This book was the public version of the research results from the NWO VEN Research Project The Poet as Pop Star. Literary Celebrity in the Netherlands, 1780-1900
  • On the development of the book The major of human suffering. The life, work and image of Herman Brusselmans Honings, himself a fan since puberty, writes columns in the Leiden University newspaper Mare.
  • Website of the Poetry Week in the Netherlands and Flanders (26/1-1/2 2017), including an agenda with activities. This year's theme is humour .