you won’t get much of a nod and a wink these days to anything before the revolutionary neo-Impressionist movement of the 1880s with its L’art pour l ’art, and ‘orgies / full of music and unspeakable joy’. Here, the spirit of Shelley looms large. The movement was a reaction against the so-called ‘preacherpoets’ of the mid-nineteenth century, when the diplomat and critic John Bowring commented: ‘never has a country been so inundated with poetasters and doggerellers’. Since the 1880s, the progress of Dutch poetry has more often been a reaction against the previous generation than an homage to it.
But to return to our Flemish poet and his delayed influence. If Hebban olla were an arrow fired in the eleventh century and Dutch literature a train chugging towards the present, then this couplet from the late middle ages is an arrow of desire that landed in the Bodleian just as Anna Blaman was about to embark on her first lesbian novels, and twenty years before the artistic and social revolutions of the 1950s and ’60s. So how much may Hebban olla have contributed to a culture that is as instantly recognisable, uber-individualist, and permissive as the Dutch? We can speculate on the degree because the question is beyond the strictly quantifiable. However, Hebban olla’s timeless quality contains a quintessential Dutch yearning for hearth and home, as well as a frank sexual invitation, and reads like the building specs for the modern age, unfazed by war, holocaust and secularism.
But to return to Eros: the gay cruising spot in our city is the Rose Garden in the Vondel Park, named after the seventeenthcentury playwright, Joost van den Vondel. There, the spent tissues lie among the shrubs like decapitated carnations. One can reasonably expect that there will have been a similar grove close to the abbey in Rochester, which may have been the catalyst for the composition of Hebban olla – as a declaration of love, or the arrangement of an assignation. But what relevance does the proximity of these two co-existent worlds