In these hopeful days of spring you can hear the Dutch sing their national anthem ‘Het Wilhelmus’ on many occasions. ‘Singing’ does not really describe the act of murmuring and miming while they shamefacedly try to hide their ignorance.
And yet… After having cheered the monarchy on King’s Day the Dutch mourn the victims of the second Wold War on the fourth of May and on fifth May they praise hard-won liberation, independence, and freedom. The anthem is sung and the word TROUW (loyalty) and its many derivatives can be heard in many speeches.
In my previous posting I explored TROUW’s history and pointed out that TROUW, German ‘treu’ and English ‘true’ are closely related because they go back to the same source of fair and square stability.
There is so much more to be said about TROUW and loyalty. It can be found in many ancient uplifting words like VERTROUWEN (confidence, faith), BETROUWBAAR (reliable), VERTROUWD (familiar) and in the idiomatic phrase ‘te goeder trouw handelen’ (act in good faith), just to mention a few words. In a negative sense there is nothing good about ONTROUW (infidelity) and WANTROUWEN (distrust, suspicion).
TROUW and ONTROUW are at the heart of the Dutch national anthem ‘Het Wilhelmus’. Even though the word ‘trouw’ only occurs four times in the lyrics.
Every Dutch person is supposed to know some of the words of this immensely long poem, but I doubt whether this is really the case. The poem consists of 15 stanzas whose first letters make up the name of the first leader of the new nation:
‘Wilhelmus van Nassouwe
Ben ick van Duytschen Bloedt,
Den Vaderland ghetrouwe
Blijf ick tot inden doet.’
(William of Nassau
am I of Dutch and German blood.
Loyal to the fatherland
I will remain until in death).
The word ‘Duits’ in the Dutch anthem is slightly confusing. ‘Duits’ here can refer to William’s German place of birth but in those early days it could also mean the countries where Dutch and German were spoken. See here.
Actually, the Dutch anthem is a weird piece of poetry. Extremely weird. As you can see from the opening lines, the person who is supposed to be speaking is William of Nassau. This William is also known as the father of the fatherland (de vader des vaderlands) and his full name is Willem van Oranje Nassau ((1533-1584). I very much doubt if there is another anthem which has the shape of a long monologue or soliloquy.
The Wilhelmus was written in the sixteenth century at the start of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) by a poet whose name we don’t really know. In this period the Dutch provinces fought the Spanish to achieve independence. In the poem Willem van Oranje Nassau tells us about his life and the reasons why he is fighting the King of Spain. He continues the first stanza, saying or singing:
Een Prince van Orangien
Ben ick vry onverveert.
Den Coninck van Hispangien
Heb ick altijt gheeert.
(A prince of Orange
am I, free and fearless.
The king of Spain
I have always honoured).
The ruler of the new Dutch nation wants it known that he has always honoured the King of Spain? Always? But now no more! The last line is a terrific cliff hanger. You can feel in your bones that something went wrong in the relation between the Spanish King and the Dutch William who used to be his friend and private councillor from 1555 until 1559.
The plot sounds like a Shakespearean historical play. What pity that Shakespeare was not interested in the Dutch situation. The Bard would have made an exciting drama of the fight between the Catholic King Philip and the Protestant Prince William.
So every time we cherish our national feelings and feel united, we sing this song of the great liberator who was born in Germany, spoke a lot of French and started the new nation. A long song of a hard struggle against tyranny.
It is a strange sight indeed to see people from all walks of life present at all kinds of ceremonies standing up and trying to mime the words. In concert halls, football stadiums, at the Olympic Games, on King’s Day, on Commemoration Day (fourth May), on Liberation Day (fifth May) etcetera. They usually sing the sixth stanza as well, which goes as follows:
Mijn schilt ende betrouwen
Zijt ghy, O Godt, mijn Heer.
Op U soo wil ick bouwen,
Verlaet my nimmermeer
Dat ick doch vroom mag blijven
U dienaer t’aller stond
Die tyranny verdrijven,
Die my mijn hert doorwondt.
(My shield and trust
are you, o God my Lord.
On you I want to build my trust, do not leave me nevermore.
Allow me to remain devout,
your servant in all hours,
And allow me to defeat the tyranny,
which pierces and injures my heart.)