Sunday, July 10, 2011


Earlier today I had a discussion with a friend about surnames.
I mentioned that some of the Dutch cognomina were more than a little strange, due to the tendency to see how far one could push French bureaucrats during the Napoleonic interregnum. Many people, assuming that once Bonaparte and his bandy-legged frogs were defeated things would go back to the way they were, gave totally outrageous names for the tax records and the census.

Once the legitimate government was reconstituted, however, it was decided that the French had done such a splendid job cataloguing the fractious natives that not a jot, not a tittle, would be changed. At least not without good reason.
Which meant that if you had told the government that you were 'born naked in the meadow’ (“naackt geboren in den weyde”), well splendid – you could formally appell yourself mister 'Born Naked In The Meadow’ (Mynheer Naacktgeborenindenweyde).
Now please fill out that tax form in full, and in triplicate.

Not all Dutch names have so accidental a history, though.
Some date back several centuries further.

Consider Willem Godschalck van Focquenbroch.

In Dutch the name sounds a little unusual, but perfectly all right.
In English, for some strange reason entirely unknown to this writer, it seems to have much the same effect as the nomen of that vewwy gweat fwiend in Wome of Pontius Pilate.
Wisible, to say the vewwy least.

If you, dear reader, find the name Willem Godschalck van Focquenbroch 'problematic', please feel free to circumlocute it as 'the poet of effing-brook'.
I shall not mind. I'm used to people having trouble with my tongue.
The important thing is that you know of him.

To that end, two poems.


Wyl ick, dus sit en smoock een Pijpjen aen de haert,
Met een bedruckt gelaet, de oogen na de aerd,
d' Een elboogh onder 't Hooft, soeckt mijn gedacht de reden,
Waerom 't geval my plaeght met so veel straffigheden?

De hoop daer op, (die my vast uytstelt dach, aen dach,
Schoon dat ick nooyt yet goets van al mijn hoopen sach),
Belooft my wederom haest tot mijn wensch te koomen,
En maeckt my grooter als een Keyser van Out Romen.

Maer nauw ist smoockend kruydt verbrant tot stof, en asch,
Of 'k vind my in die standt daer ick voor dees' in was.

En nauw sie ick de roock in yd'le lucht verswinden,
Of 'k segh, dat ick in 't minst geen onderscheyt kan vinden;

In, of ick leef of hoop, of dat 'k een pypje smoock;
Want 't een is niet als windt, en 't ander niet als rook.


My Hopes Are Smoke

While seated, smoking a pipe at the hearth,
With gloomy countenance, eyes downcast,
Chin in my hands; my thoughts seek the reason
Why fate plagues me with so many punishments?

The hope of it (which postpones me day upon day,
To that measure that I never yet seen any good come of my hopes),
Once again promises me that I will come close to what I desire,
And makes me more puffed up than an Emperor of ancient Rome.

Too soon the smoking herb is burnt to dust and ash,
Or I would find myself in that state to which I aspired.

And I see such swirls adrift in the unmoving air,
That perhaps I cannot see a distinction,

In whether I live or hope, or smoke a pipe;
The one is not wind (=profitable), the other not smoke.


O Goude Son! wiens licht noch noyt is uyt gegaen,
Maer die gedurig brant by ons, of d'Antipoden,
Ghy, die geen swavel-stock, noch vuurslach hebt van noden,
Om, (of ghy wierd gedooft) u weer in brandt te slaen:

Ghy van wiens vuur, al de Planeeten, en de Maen,
Haer leven trecken, als de menschen van de brooden,
Ja sonder wien ons vuur geen pot sou kunnen zooden,
En niemandt schier een bout half gaer sou kunnen braên:

Ghy, welckers vrolijck licht de Weereldt doet herleven,
Met recht word u de naem van God'lijck toegeschreven,
Nadien g'al meerder deugt op aerdt doet als de Wijn;

Ick sal tot uwer eer een Hoog Altaer doen bouwen,
Soo ghy maeckt dat dees Pijp die schier geen vuur wil houwen,
Meê even eens als ghy, altijdt ontfonckt mag sijn.

From: African Thalia]


Sonnet on a pipe that he could not keep lit

Oh golden sun, whose light has never dimmed,
But constantly burns either here or at the antipodes,
You, who need neither sulfur stick nor flint,
To (if you were extinguished) again set you alight:

You, from whose fire all the planets, and the moon
Draw their life like humans do from bread,
Verily, without whose fire no pots could be seethed,
And perhaps none could even roast their meat;

You, whose cheerful light permits the world to live again,
Are rightly called godly,
For being more beneficial to our earth than wine;

To honour you I shall have a great altar built,
If you make this pipe, which refuses to hold any flame whatsoever,
Be like yourself: eternally lit.


Willem Godschalck van Focquenbroch was born in Amsterdam in 1640. His parents were refugees from the Spanish-occupied city of Antwerpen, who had resettled in the free North. After studying at Leiden University, young Focquenbroch qualified as a doctor of medicine at the University of Utrecht.
His thesis was entitled ' De lue venerea' ("concerning venereal diseases").
Six years later, his expertise in this fascinating field no doubt played a primary role in the West Indies Company commissioning him as a 'Fiscaal' and posting to him to Fort Elmina in Ghana.

[Fort Elmina: Built by the Portuguese on the Slave-Coast in 1482, one of the primary centres of human misery for three centuries. The Dutch made several attempts to capture it, the first time in 1596. Finally, in 1637, the 'impregnable citadel' surrendered after a siege of only a few days by the forces of Johan Maurits (Count John Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, 1604 - 1679) to everyone's considerable surprise.]

Willem Godschalck van Focquenbroch died during the epidemic at Elmina in 1670.
He is famous as a poet, playwright, satirist, and humourist.
The dullards of the nineteenth century did not much appreciate him, but his oeuvre was seldom out of print during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and in our age his dry wit and ribald eloquence are once more highly prized.

A good place to go for more Dutch poetry is here:
Please note that the varieties of Dutch represented span several centuries and several dominant koines and literary writing styles, so the unwarned reader may be slightly unmoored at first.


NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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