The Dutch poet and dramatist Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) ranks as the greatest of all Dutch writers. He achieved his status of national poet during the period when the Netherlands was emerging as a national state.
Joost van den Vondel was born in Cologne, Germany, on Nov. 17, 1587. His father, a hatter, had been forced to flee from Antwerp because of his Anabaptist convictions. Between 1582 and 1596 his parents, as persecuted members of the Anabaptist sect, were intermittently compelled to flee from the inquisitorial reign of terror instituted in the Lowlands by its Spanish regent and governor general, the Duke of Alba. In 1597, a year after his arrival in Amsterdam, Vondel's father acquired Amsterdam citizenship, enabling the family to settle in the "Venice of the North."
During this period Amsterdam was the commercial and cultural capital of northern Europe. The senior Vondel established a hosiery business and expected his oldest son to follow him in his trade. However, the younger Vondel was introduced early to one of the popular Chambers of Rhetoric, societies of poets; he soon became a member of Het wit Lavendel (White Lavender). The friendships made in this circle with leading artistic and intellectual figures of the day encouraged Vondel's interest in poetry and in study and led to the beginning of his long career as poet and dramatist.
After Vondel's father died, the poet married Maria (Maaiken) de Wolff, with whom he lived happily for 25 years and in whose hands he left the management of his affairs. Vondel passed on from his early rederijker influences to a close study of French contemporary poets, being much influenced by Guillaume du Bartas's epic poem, La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde (1578). Vondel then made several translations from the German, soon becoming a member of the literary circle that clustered around Roemer Visscher. With these friends Vondel made a close study of Greek and Roman writers. His first play, Het Pascha (The Passover), performed in 1610 and published in 1612, dramatized the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and served as an allegorical representation of the plight of the Calvinists who had fled Spanish tyranny in the Lowlands.
Meanwhile, Vondel's hatred of all kinds of tyranny gradually weaned him from Calvinism's theocratic doctrines, and by 1625 he had joined the Remonstrants, whose Arminian opposition to Calvinist dogma appealed to him. After the production in 1625 of Palamedes, of Vermoorde onnooselheyd (Palamedes, or Murdered Innocence), he suffered political persecution and was forced to go into hiding. This drama, which transposed the judicial murder of Holland's lord advocate Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in 1619—a cause that had inflamed Holland and all of Europe—into a classical setting, struck sharply against Oldenbarnevelt's jury, Calvinism's doctrine of predestination, and Calvinist divines in Amsterdam. The city's magistrates eventually forgave Vondel and exacted only a small fine.
In the following years Vondel entered into a close friendship with Hugo Grotius, translating his Latin Sofompaneas in 1635. That same year Vondel's wife died, and earlier two of his children had died, leaving only his eldest son Joost (died 1660) surviving. These deaths, and his imminent conversion to Roman Catholicism, inspired many of Vondel's best poems. Long attracted by Roman Catholicism's esthetic side, and after national independence seemed virtually assured, he converted to Catholicism about 1640. This revolt against Calvinist tyranny was not well received by many of his friends, but it probably strengthened his ties with Marie Tesselschade Visscher, the Catholic and liberal widow of his friend Roemer Visscher.
Vondel's last years were clouded by the disgraceful behavior of his son Joost. Entrusted with the family hosiery business, his son mismanaged affairs, fleeing in 1657 to the Netherlands Indies and leaving his father to deal with the creditors. After sacrificing his small fortune, Vondel became a government clerk. Pensioned after 10 years' service, he died on Feb. 5, 1679, in Amsterdam.
Vondel wrote 32 plays, as well as a famous series of prefaces to Ahem. He also made numerous translations from German, French, Latin, Italian, and Greek; produced a large body of poetry, including emblems, lyrics, occasional poems, long theological poems, didactic verses, pastorals, and an epic; and wrote essays.
Of his plays, the most important—in addition to the two already mentioned—are Hierusalem Verwoest (1620; Jerusalem Laid Desolate); Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (1637), whose hero was modeled on the Aeneas of book 2 of Virgil's Aeneid; De Gebroeders (1640; The Brothers), the story of the ruin of Saul's sons, Vondel's first drama on the Greek model; Joseph in Egypten (1640), another biblical drama in the Greek style; Maria Stuart, of gemartelde majesteit (1646), one of his most famous plays; De Leeuwendalers (1648), a pastoral that anticipated the Treaty of Westphalia; Salomon (1648), a biblical play in the Greek style; Lucifer (1654), generally considered his masterpiece; Jephtha (1659), which Vondel believed to be his finest play; Konig David in Ballingschap (King David in Exile), Konig David hersteld (King David Restored), and Samson, three dramas on biblical themes (all 1660); Batavische Gebroeders (1663), a play on the history of Claudius Civilis; and Adam in Ballingschap (Adam in Exile), an adaptation of a Latin tragedy by Hugo Grotius.
Many of Vondel's plays illuminate a recurring theme: the conflict between man's will to rebel and his desire to find peace in God. Modeled on medieval mystery plays and on classical dramas, they are deeply Christian and tragic, or semi-tragic, in treatment. His style has been termed high baroque, and it is preeminent in dramatic force and in loftiness of language.
Vondel's poetry is notable for its melodiousness, sonorousness, and seemingly effortless and spontaneous production. Vowel elision, which he regularized in Dutch poetry, and rhythmic patterns, brought over from contemporary French poetry, characterize his verse. His epic, Johannes de Boetgezant, was published in 1662, as was his long theological poem, Bespiegelingen van Godt en Godtsdienst.
Biographical and critical studies of Vondel in English are George Edmundson, Milton and Vondel: A Curiosity of Literature (1885), and Adriaan J. Barnouw, Vondel (1925). Theodore Weevers, Poetry of the Netherlands in its European Context, 1170-1930 (1960), contains a useful chapter on Vondel. Recommended for general background is Johan Huizinga, Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other essays, selected by Pieter Geyl and F. W. N. Hugenholtz (1968).