Gerrit Achterberg (1905-1962) Dutch poet


Van dood in dood gegaan, totdat hij stierf.
De namen afgelegd, die hij verwierf.
Behoudens deze steen, waarop geschreven:
de dichter van het vers, dat niet bedierf.


Gone from death to death, until he died.
Laid aside the names that he acquired.
Except for this stone, on which is written:
The poet of the verse that did not decay

Gerrit Achterberg is one of the main Dutch poets of the 20th century. He was born on May 20, 1905 in Nederlangbroek in the province of Utrecht. He scored high grades in school, except for behaviour and motivation, which used to be of utmost importance on Christian primary schools in the Netherlands at the time.

He became a school teacher, but his pupils thought of him a solitary and unusual man. He published his first prose together with Arie Jacobus Dekker in 1924: De zangen van twee twintigers. Achterberg met a girl named Cathrien but got into a fight with her father – he pulled a gun and set it against his own head, screaming he would shoot himself. He didn’t, but it was the end of their relationship. His poetry subjects soon changed from passion and sexuality to lost and dead love. Achterberg was found unsuitable for the army because of a slight psychosis.

His teachings worsened as he paid more attention to his writing career. His official poetry debut Afvaart was received by critics as “vague and peculiar” but also “promising”. His mental illness increased ‘though. He attacked his new girlfriend Bep physically when she told him she was pregnant of their child. When it turned out she was mistaken, she left him immediately.

After bringing out a new poetry compilation (Eiland der ziel, quite appropriately: Island of the Soul) he went out of his mind again: he shot his new girlfriend’s mother and wounded the girl. In 1938 he was sentenced to a mental institution. After a few sanatoriums, Achterberg moved to Neede. His former house used to be near my father’s house in that same village in the east of the Netherlands. Although Achterberg died before I saw the light of birth, I therefore got in touch with the poet quite early in my life.

Achterberg then started seeing Cathrien again; they even married in 1946, which caused a huge poetry production. Achterberg published five poetry anthologies, Stof, Radar, Sphinx, Energie and Existentie. When Cathrien got pregnant, Achterberg’s emotional problems caused him to visit the infamous Rekken sanatorium (again). Their child would live for a few hours (described by Achterberg in his poem Kindergraf (Child grave).

He was awarded some very important literary prizes (PC Hooft in 1949 and Constantijn Huygens in 1959 for instance). At the age of 56, Gerrit Achterberg died of a heart attack whilst driving his car on January 17, 1962.

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