Herman Gorter: an introduction



If Herman Gorter (1864–1927) is still well known to anyone outside of the Low Countries, it is more likely to be as a revolutionary propagandist and an opponent of Lenin’s strategy at the Third International in 1920 [1], than as the most gifted Dutch poet of his age. At home he tends to be pigeonholed as the author of the long poem Mei (May; 1889), the anthem of the Movement of 1880, while his other work, and particularly his socialist verse, is largely neglected.

Gorter’s father Simon, a minister in the non-conformist Mennonite church, which advocated adult baptism, social involvement and pacifism, was himself a talented journalist and writer. His death from tuberculosis in 1881 left Herman and his brother and sister in the care of their devoted and dominant mother, who moved her family from the rural surroundings of Zaandam to Amsterdam. A Mennonite upbringing left its mark on Gorter’s social commitment and his independence of mind, while in his teenage years he was greatly influenced by the rebellious genius Multatuli Eduard Douwes Dekker, 1820–1887), author of the great colonial novel Max Havelaar (1860). Both Gorter’s emotional dependence on his mother, and his attachment to and subsequent detachment from a succession of mentor/father figures, from the composer Diepenbrock to the German Marxist Karl Kautsky, can perhaps be attributed in part to this early bereavement.

The country in which he grew up, having been a European backwater for more than two centuries, was at last beginning to stir economically and socially. Its transport network of roads and canals was improved, its cities, particularly Amsterdam, expanded rapidly, and there was new investment in heavy industries such as steel and shipbuilding. Buoyed up by its profitable colonies in the East, the Netherlands slowly became a more dynamic, outward-looking and forward-thinking place – an attitude that extended to culture.

The young Herman was the beneficiary of a major reform in Dutch secondary education introduced in 1864, attending a new-style high school, the Higher Civic School (HBS). Ironically, although the syllabus at these schools was largely science- and modern-language-based, Gorter’s great love was Classical studies, which he continued at Amsterdam University, where he was prominent in his student debating society. In 1889 he received his doctorate for a thesis on Aeschylus’ use of metaphor (after having a more daring project on poetic inspiration rejected). Shortly afterwards, he was appointed to his first post as a Classics teacher in Amersfoort, and the following year married his fiancée Wies Cnoop Koopmans, after expressing some-last minute doubts in letters to his mother. Those doubts were not unfounded. The couple remained together until his wife’s death in 1916, but it was an ‘open’ marriage, at least on Gorter’s side, and a childless one. The poet’s powerful erotic drive sought an outlet in two intense long-term relationships, with Ada Prins and later with Jenne Clinge Doorenbos, of which he made no secret. Both inspired memorable love poetry, and Jenne, herself a writer, became his editor and collaborator as well as muse (‘the Spirit of Music’ as the poet dubbed her in Nietzschean style).

Poetic début
In the same year he published his first Dutch poetry in the influential magazine De nieuwe gids (The New Guide). The journal, founded in 1885, was dominated at this period by the poet Willem Kloos (1859–1938), who used its pages to proclaim a radical aestheticism and advocate literature that was both non-sectarian and non-utilitarian. Poetry, Kloos famously asserted, was “the supremely individual expression of the supremely individual emotion”. Kloos was deeply impressed by Gorter’s début, Mei, an epic poem of some 4,000 lines, mostly in rhyming five-foot iambs (not coincidentally the metre of Keats’ ‘Endymion’), which soon became an iconic work of the so-called Movement of 1880. (Puzzlingly, only fragments of this seminal poem have so far been translated into English.) Generations of Dutch secondary schoolchildren have been able to quote its opening lines:

A newborn springtime and a newborn sound:
I want this song like piping to resound
that oft I heard at summer eventide
in an old township, by the waterside –
the house was dark, but down the silent road
dusk gathered and above the sky still glowed,
and a late golden, incandescent flame
shone over gables through my window-frame.
A boy blew music like an organ pipe,
the sounds all trembled in the air as ripe
as new-grown cherries, when a springtime breeze
rises and then journeys through the trees.

A number of features are immediately apparent even from this short extract: vivid sensory images, a celebration of the Dutch landscape, Homeric-style extended similes, and the onward impulse of the lines with their frequent enjambments. In all senses, the poem came as a breath of fresh air in a literary culture dominated by plodding moralistic verse, often churned out by clergymen-poets. Mei, however, is not all joyful celebration: an underlying melancholy increasingly asserts itself. The poem’s heroine embodies the month of May, and her burgeoning prime is destined to be short-lived. Her encounter with the blind Norse god Balder (for whom “music is the soul’s life”) is a poignant dramatisation of the unbridgeable dichotomy between mind and body. It is scarcely surprising, in a country steeped in Biblical criticism and exegesis, that whole libraries should have been written on the interpretation of the poem’s symbolism, endlessly debating whether the poem should be read as a variation on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, whether it conceals Gorter’s incipient disaffection from the values of 1880, whether it portrays the incompatibility of the material and the spiritual, or on the contrary presents a synthesis between them. In a letter, the poet himself made light of the ambiguities, declaring that:

I wanted to make something full of light and beautiful sound, that’s all. There’s a story running through it, and a bit of philosophy, but that’s by accident, so to speak. [2]

Perhaps Gorter is being rather disingenuous here. It is hard not to see the poem at least in part as an exercise in ‘lyrical autobiography’, while others have pointed to the presence of two opposing impulses throughout his work: lyrical compression and epic expansion. One of his earliest efforts was the ambitious ‘Lucifer’, partly inspired by his reading of Milton. Resistance to Gorter’s expansive mode, which is particularly apparent in his later even larger-scale Socialist poems, A Little Epic (1906) and Pan (1916), is expressed most succinctly in the exasperated cry of the younger poet Hendrik de Vries: “Gorter, Gorter! . . . Shorter! Shorter! Shorter!” At the other extreme is the almost haiku-like compression of the late love poems, Liedjes (Songs), most of them published posthumously, which form a private lyrical counterpoint to his public political statements:

All things disappear
When you, dancing, draw near.

Maybe, though, the distinction should not be seen as an absolute one: ‘lyrical expansiveness’ in fact characterises some of the poet’s best work, in this collection and elsewhere. As one of his sternest critics, Anton van Duinkerken, conceded, Gorter was “great in jubilation”.

Icon of a generation
Given the warm reception of Mei by most of his peers and by younger, progressive readers, Gorter might have been expected to continue in this epic vein. Instead, under the influence of the critic and novelist Lodewijk van Deyssel (1864–1952), his next chosen guru, whose response to the poem was less than rapturous, the Poems of 1890 mark a radical new departure, not only in a Dutch but in a European context. Van Deyssel had called for an uncompromising form of individualism, for which he coined the term ‘sensitivism’, the recording of fleeting, fragmentary moments of experience with an almost mystical intensity. Gorter’s collection is, in part, an attempt to realise Van Deyssel’s vision. The only obvious point of comparison for this new-found artistic and verbal extremism is the Rimbaud of ‘Le bateau ivre’, ‘Voyelles’ and ‘Un saison en enfer’, though there is no question of any direct influence.

The result was a series of a hundred or so poems, some of only two lines (for example, ‘You’re a dusky white lily girl, /You’re a wide velvet butterfly swirl.’) and none longer than a few pages, still retaining a thread of rhyme, mostly in full rhyming couplets. It needs to be stressed that unlike elsewhere, and specifically in the Anglo-Saxon world, modernism in the Low Countries is not synonymous with blank or free verse (like that of Eliot or Yeats). Attachment to rhyme persists in such interwar poets as Nijhoff and, after the Second World War, in the remarkable work of Achterberg. Set against this are irregular line-lengths and syntax, a radical use of neologism, synaesthesia, surging eroticism, a haunting fragmentary musicality and occasional astonishingly simple and direct love poems. Gorter’s explosive and sometimes tortured expressionism recalls that of his contemporary Van Gogh. His linguistic extremism is one of the main challenges for the translator [3]. Gone is the vaguely Classical and Norse framework of Mei, which may have been the legacy of Gorter’s close relationship with his fellow-student, the composer Alphons Diepenbrock (1862–1921), a keen Wagnerian. This is a celebration of life in a different key, but, as in Mei, beneath the energy and assertiveness there lurks a sense of alienation and even despair.

The contrast with the work of his first mentor Kloos could not be more striking. While Kloos’ solipsism (“Deep in my inmost thoughts a god I tower”) is contained in conventional forms like the sonnet, and the mood is autumnal and elegiac, Gorter’s energy is life-affirming – he was a keen sportsman and outdoor enthusiast – and 'his' season is unquestionably spring. The following poem evokes the parallel approach of spring and of the beloved:

The spring comes from afar, I hear it come hither
and the trees hear too, the tall trees that shiver,
and the tall skies, the heavenly skies,
the tingle-light skies, the blue-and-white skies,
shiver skies.

Oh I hear her come,
oh I feel her come
and I’m full of fright
of the trembling desire, all bright,
that’s about to break . . .

But exaltation alternates with a perplexed alienation that can assume almost surreal form:

. . . Across the world’s face
things were probably alike,
the world and the human race
are scarcely alive.

I walked and watched the scene
scared and content,
below, ever loyal and keen,
my footsteps went.

Changing course
The sense of a disintegrating world and an increasingly isolated self became so strong in Gorter that after publishing these poems he began, like a number of his contemporaries, to look inwards and seek a unifying philosophical framework. He found this briefly in Spinozan thought, which stressed the oneness of all being, possibly under influence of his fellow-poet Albert Verwey (1865–1937), but still felt disconnected from the huge social and political struggles convulsing Europe at the time that were to culminate in the First World War and the Russian Revolution. A collection of 1895 (School of Poetry II, 2) ends with a cry of anguish:

Oh God! The side I’m standing on is wrong.
I’m going under.
My love has come to nought.

In 1897 he resolved to act and joined the fledgling Social Democratic Workers’ party (SDAP) led by Pieter Jelles Troelstra (1860–1930), and his poetry now evoked the triumph of the revolution, sometimes in a naïve mode that drew mockery from his former literary allies:

The working class dances a great round
along the shore of the world’s Ocean . . .

His inspiration will henceforth be the glorious future rather than the elusive, vanishing present; where the bourgeois individual was isolated, the Socialist individual will be one with his fellow men. This optimism is typified by his dutiful celebration of the national railway strike of 30 January 1903:

Something great has happened in this little land,
Have you heard? The railwaymen have
of their own free will supported
the dockers, not selfishly but just for their mates.
The fire of solidarity has spread
– its flames stretch wider – all for one
and one for all in the working class!
That’s the fire in which the old world is
consumed, all that’s left is that fire alone,
and that fire, that is, that is the new world.

Gorter’s verse becomes noticeably more regular, often reverting to the sonnet form, and his imagery more conventional.

In 1909, tiring of the SDAP’s constitutional gradualism, he left to form the splinter SDP party (the nucleus of the later Dutch Communist Party), encouraged and assisted by such allies as Karl Kautsky and Anton Pannekoek. In 1920, having travelled clandestinely to Moscow for the Third International, after an epic six-week journey, partly hidden in the hold of a ship repatriating Russian prisoners-of-war, he addressed a critical Open Letter to Lenin – in response to Lenin’s own earlier scathing attack on ‘Leftists’ in his Teething Troubles of Communism (1920) – which argued for a different revolutionary approach in Western Europe from that taken in Russia (given, for example, the very different status of the peasantry), abandonment of the opportunistic use of existing parliamentary and union structures, a less dominant role for the peasants and an intelligentsia-led campaign of direct action. All this was perfectly consistent with his conviction that revolution must start “from the bottom up”. Gorter’s proposals were laughed out of court, especially by Trotsky.

Gorter’s merits as a propagandist had been acknowledged by Lenin before their clash [4] and a steady stream of articles, pamphlets and books continued to flow from his pen, appearing at home and abroad in such publications as Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Workers’ Dreadnought, where he argued for the necessity of a Fourth Workers’ International to oppose the centralism of Moscow (1921). His most influential work was undoubtedly his widely translated Historical Materialism Explained for Workers (1908). While conceding that truths are historically determined, this work reveals Gorter’s belief in a core of dynamic individualism that was anathema to the Bolshevik leadership and an inspiration to free spirits in the Marxist movement. “We do not make history of our own free will. But . . . we do make it . . . not through blind fate, but through living society.”

Interestingly, the book’s greatest and most lasting impact may have been in China, where his committed translator, Li Da, used the German and Japanese translations to produce his version and wrote extensively to promote Gorter’s reservations about economic determinism. One possible convert, direct or indirect, to the cause may have been the young Mao Zedong [5]. It is tempting to contemplate what Gorter would have made of post-Mao economic reforms and human rights abuses in China.

Distancing from the Movement of 1880
As a man of letters, Gorter disowned the individualism of his former allies in the New Guide group in his ‘Critique of 1880’ (1897–1900), and in a series of critical essays in The Great Poets (collected posthumously in 1935), he extolled figures such as Aeschylus, Shakespeare and especially Shelley, who combined sensibility with revolutionary fervour. It is in this work that he gives his striking, if simplified, definition of the unconscious – he had dismissed Freud’s explorations as a bourgeois distraction:

The unconscious is not, as bourgeois writers believe, an unknowable, mysterious power. It is perfectly knowable, and consists of three forces: the urge to self-preservation or love of self, the sexual urge or love for woman, and the social urge or love for the community.

Are poetry and politics compatible?

His principal poetic work after his conversion to Marxism is the epic Pan (1912, rev. ed. 1916). In it Gorter unfolds a Utopian vision of a post-revolutionary world, generally playing down the necessary intervening violence and bloodshed, though the second expanded edition of 1916 does allude to the pointless slaughter of the international working class on the battlefields of the First World War:

. . . Choked in the gases, slaughtered by
Bullets, torn asunder by mines
The Workers lay strewn on the earth.
Sacrificed by their rulers and omnipotent
Capital, to bring them Possession
Of the Earth the Workers lay
Dead and dismembered all across the Earth
The earth was full in the glorious light of May
And the glittering sea was full of their floating
Corpses, millions and millions,
Such as the world had never seen . . .

The sincerity of Gorter’s compassion, anger and sense of waste is patent, but compared to, say, the raw immediacy of a Wilfred Owen, these lines seem distant and generalised (the Netherlands was neutral in the conflict, and as a Socialist Gorter saw the war as a capitalist-orchestrated distraction from the rising tide of revolution.)

Rimbaud has already been evoked as a fellow radical innovator, but the differences between the two poets are perhaps as revealing as the similarities. Rimbaud’s relationship to his own culture is an iconoclastic, subversive, even terroristic one, and when literature proves unequal to the task of demolition, he abandons it. Gorter was accused in some quarters of having quit literature for the simplifications of dialectical materialism, but he himself saw his work as a continuum. In his socialist poems we hear the voice of a benign revolutionary anxious to share his joy in the world with all classes. His epic Pan ends with a moving renewed commitment to the art of poetry:

With my heart’s blood I’ve lived for you,
Dear poetry, and, now death comes closer by,
Now I want to tell you one last time.
From childhood on I felt you, poetry,
I can remember nothing of which you weren’t
Part. The reflection of my thoughts,
That I sensed in all things, was you.
The sweet murmur of the sea, my Mother’s voice,
The gait of my comrades, the light
Of the world. People walking. The night.
They all mattered only for your sake. –
It was for your sake too that I loved. –
Love itself meant nothing but for your sake.
The body’s deepest joy meant nothing to me.
Women’s dark womb meant nothing to me.
The oblivious self-giving meant nothing,
Except that I found deep in their womb,
Deep in the infinite obscurity
Nothing but you – you, you, dear poetry.

Gorter was a formative influence on his contemporary Jan Hendrik Leopold (1865–1925), and on the post-Second World War generation of 1950s poets, especially Lucebert (Lubertus Jacobus Swaanswijk, 1924–1994), who defiantly borrows the name of one of Gorter’s collections, ‘School of Poetry’, for his own didactic ‘little revolution’ in literature. Gorter remains one of the greatest love poets in Dutch; it is no accident that in both his very first preserved poem and in the one he finished just before he died, love is central. Indeed, ‘liefde’ (love) is the very last word he wrote as a poet, recalling the final line of the masterpiece of his beloved Dante.

In the last collection to be published in his lifetime, Het ontbrokene (Default; 1990), one of the Low Countries’ pre-eminent late-twentieth-century poets, Hans Faverey (1933–1990) included ‘Gorter on the Shore’, an enigmatic picture of Gorter as tennis-player, Classicist and poet that evokes the solitude and the interweaving of nature and myth in the work of his great predecessor. Two extracts seem to me to provide a fitting epitaph:

As if he’s standing there, there
where the beach is narrowest,
at the foot of his dune –
a perhaps already somewhat
tanned, obstinate man: like
someone looking out to sea,
but alone with himself . . .

                           . . .  It’s Arrianus
who describes Epictetus’

doctrine of the little
that one honourably possesses. Nonetheless,
whenever there’s someone who hasn’t forgotten
Scheria, and who continues to re-read some lines
of this unbending man, precisely this
vain amount, conquered from the bright sea
beach, cannot be erased by any more poetry.

This article is based on the Introductions for Poems of 1890 (Crossway Series / Waxmann, London 2010).


[1] H. Gorter, ‘Offener Brief an den Genossen Lenin’, Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung (Berlin, August-September 1920).

[2] To his uncle K. Gorter, 23 March 1889.

[3] The critic Edmund Gosse, whose background essay ‘The Dutch Senstivists’ prefaced both the English translation of Louis Couperus’ novel Noodlot (Footsteps of Fate, 1891) and the US edition of Couperus’ Eline Vere (1892), derived most of his information from the young writer Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932), very much a literary insider. However, Gosse made one spectacularly erroneous claim: ‘. . . the Dutch seem  . . . to leave their mother-tongue unassailed, and to be as intelligible as their inspiration allows them to be.’ Even the most cursory reading of Poems of 1890 would have corrected that misapprehension.

[4] Letter of 5 May, 1915, Lenin, Collected Works 43, Moscow, 1977, pp. 453-454a.

[5] N. Knight, ‘Herman Gorter and the Origins of Marxism in China’, China Information 2005, 19, 381-412.

© Paul Vincent  
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