Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) was a 17th century Dutch poet and playwright who is widely considered the greatest Dutch writer ever.
Vondel was born on November 17, 1587 in the Große Witschgasse in Cologne. Vondel's parents where Mennonites who had previously fled from Antwerp to escape religious persecution and would later flee to Utrecht and finally Amsterdam in the newly founded Dutch Republic, where they finally found an permanent home and Vondel's father opened a successful silk shop. These early experiences likely contributed to Vondel's lifelong commitment to religious toleration and his quest for a universal form of Christianity.
When Vondel was 20 his father died, and he took over running the silk shop. At the age of 23 he married Mayken de Wolff, with whom he would have five children, although three died young. Vondel was largely self-educated, and it was in his spare time that he taught himself Latin, Greek, French, and Italian and began translating the works classical authors such as Virgil, Seneca, and Euripedes, as well as more contemporary writers such as Torquato Tasso and Hugo Grotius. He also began writing poetry, plays, and pamphlets, and became acquainted with several famous poets of the day, most notably Roemer Visscher.
From very early in his literary career, Vondel showed a preference for combining Christian mythology with literary techniques, allusions, and conventions borrowed from the Greek and Roman classics. By using classical themes to examine Christian truths, he was able to reconcile his classical Renaissance training with his deep Christian faith. Vondel's most important early work was his play Het Pascha ("The Passover," 1612), about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt but also an allegory about the flight of Dutch Calvinists from Spanish tyranny.
Advocate of Religious Toleration
The execution of Holland's lord advocate Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by the Calvinists and their subsequent persecution of Catholics and Arminians turned Vondel against Calvinism and embarked him on a new phase in life as a persecuted advocate for religious freedom. Vondel began writing a torrent of pamphlets, plays, and satires ridiculing the Calvinist leadership of Holland, extolling Oldenbarnevelt, and calling for greater religious toleration. His 1625 drama Palamedes, placing a contemporary political-religious trial in a classical setting, drew particular ire and led to repeated prosecutions of Vondel by Calvinist leaders.
It was in these years that Vondel became a Remonstrant, embracing their Arminian opposition to Calvinist dogmatism, and finally in 1641, Vondel surprised everyone by openly converting to Roman Catholicism in the virulently anti-catholic Netherlands. It seems that Vondel concluded that Catholicism was the most universal Christian faith.
These tumultuous years also saw Vondel battle with at least one serious bout of melancholia, which along with his pattern of alternating between furious pamphleteering and slower periods in which he would write melancholy poems about the passing of his wife and three of his children, strongly suggests that he was a manic-depressive.
Although Vondel's vibrant and original writing style is evident even in his earliest works, his greatest literary achievements were conceived after the age of 60, when he seems to have found a bit of peace with himself. Foremost among these is his trilogy of tragic dramas comprising Lucifer (1654), Adam in Ballingschap ("Adam in Exile," 1664), and Noah (1667). His masterpiece Lucifer is similar in many ways to Milton's Paradise Lost, such that some have suggested that Milton used it as a source, but in fact Milton did not know enough Dutch for this to have been the case.
Vondel was a legend in his own lifetime. When he died in Amsterdam at the age of 92 in 1679, he was toasted by poets and writers throughout Europe. Part of his fame accrued because he was in many ways a national poet in the crucial dawning years of the Dutch nation. But above all else, he was a dazzlingly lyrical writer of startling spontaneity, whose prose and poetry were sonorous and seemed almost effortless, and his works have truly stood the tests of time.