The poetry of J. Slauerhoff
A romantic poet in modern times
J. Slauerhoff is one of the greatest Dutch poets of the twentieth century. He owes the unique position he occupies in Dutch literature to completely personal themes he carved out in equally personal poetry. Longing for the passionate love for a woman, struck by the tragedy of loneliness, the yearning to be elsewhere or somewhere in the past, the desire for the sea, the disenchantment with present-day life, the awareness of degeneration, all these themes mark him as a late Romantic poet.
On the other hand, the rawness and acrimony of his tone, as well as his split personality, make him a true exponent of his era. In the guise of consistently different characters, either historical or fictive, Slauerhoff aligns with the modernist tradition of Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Pessoa.
Born and raised in Leeuwarden, capital of the province of Friesland, Slauerhoff studied medicine in Amsterdam. He made his debut in 1923 with the collection Archipel *(Archipelago*), in which almost all the elements present in his later work can already be found. After completing his study, he became a ship’s doctor on Dutch vessels sailing to East Asia. His poor health was repeatedly the cause of broken employment contracts. Accordingly, he led an itinerant life. ‘Nowhere but in my poems can I dwell,/ Nowhere else could I a shelter find’ are the first lines of one of his most renowned poems (‘Homeless’), which can be regarded as characteristic of his life and work.
His work also displays a certain restlessness, which he not only depicts in the content of the work but also substantiates in the form of his poetry. His verses are often ‘unfinished’. Unlike most of his contemporaries Slauerhoff adhered to classical verse forms, but his verse structure is often irregular. A deliberate cynicism or grotesque imagery contributes to the coarse nature of his poetry, in which a vulnerable sensitivity shines through the thin membrane of the verse.
Slauerhoff, who is referred to as the only poète maudit in Dutch literature, was influenced by French poets (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Corbière), the Czech/German Rilke, and several Chinese poets (Bai Juyi, Li Po), whose work he translated.
Besides poems, J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936) also wrote stories, novels, and a play. In addition, he published travelogues and reviews. Ten collections of his work were published during his comparatively short life. The last, Een eerlijk zeemansgraf (An Honourable Seaman’s Grave) appeared shortly before his death after a long illness, in a private clinic in The Netherlands. Despite his ‘violations’ of verse technique, Slauerhoff was regarded by his contemporaries as a genuine poet with a completely distinctive voice. Nowadays he is one of the few poets from the previous century whose work is still widely sold.