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Reunited with Poems from the Past

March 27, 2015

It’s not often that, when publishing new books, you meet very old friends. Actually I’m talking about poems not people.

We’re preparing 100 Dutch-Language Poems ‘ from the Medieval Period to the Present Day for publication. Among these 100 poems are many ‘classic’ poems you learn at school. I thought I had quite forgotten some of the old medieval ones. Maybe because teenagers, well, that’s what I was at the time, are not in the correct frame of mind to appreciate these poems. Or maybe the elderly (well, so he seemed to me at the time) kindly Jesuit who taught Dutch Literature didn’t show them to their best advantage.

Father Nieuwhof insisted reciting poems with his pipe clenched between his teeth. Yes, in those times, teachers were still allowed to smoke in the classroom. But, in other ways, Father Nieuwhof was ahead of his time, he consistently gave girls higher marks than boys, because ‘they are girls’ he explained. This well before the term “positive discrimination” was invented. The good father was simply delighted that, right at the end of his career, the boys’ school at which he had taught for all these years had become coeducational.

But back to the poems. The one I want to share with you today is Lord Halewijn or Heer Halewijn in its original Dutch. Written in the 13th century by an anonymous poet it starts like this:

Lord Halewijn sang oh so fine,
All who heard for him did pine.

That was heard by a royal child
So beautiful, beloved, mild.

She spoke unto her father so:
“May I not to Halewijn go”?

“No, my daughter, I must be stern!
Those who go there do not return.”

Now after some toing and froing, the girl of course goes after this forbidden wooing gentleman, dressed in her finery. Nothing has changed over the centuries. But the great thing is something unexpected, although the man is a villain who murders girls, he is in for a surprise. This is how the poem puts it:

They came upon a gallows field,
Where many women swung and wheeled.

Thereupon to the maid he said:
Since you have quite the fairest head,
Choose your death! For you’re not yet dead.”

“Well then, if I’m given the choice,
The sword it is would have my voice.

But first take off your tunic, do,
For blood of virgins splashes too,
I’d hate for it to splash on you.

Before this action was complete
His head was quickly at his feet.
His tongue, though, managed to entreat:

Well, these medieval poets don’t beat about the bush, but it’s a wonderful piece of “girl power”. I haven’t read this poems since I left school and had quite forgotten it. However the moment I saw it again in this wonderful anthology of poetry from the Low Countries, I knew I had missed an old favourite.

It even ends in a somewhat feminist way:

Reaching her father’s gate she blew
On the horn the way that men do.

And when her father heard the sound,
He was glad that she had been found.

Then a great banquet was prepared,
The head with it the table shared

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for 100 Dutch-Language Poems which will be published in September 2015.