To say hard things of the Dutch was once a recognised literary pastime. At the time of our war with Holland no poet of any pretensions refrained from writing at least one anti-Batavian satire, the classical example of which is Andrew Marvell’s “Character of Holland” (following Samuel Butler’s), a pasquinade that contains enough wit and fancy and contempt to stock a score of the nation’s ordinary assailants. It begins perfectly:—
Holland, that scarce
deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand,
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead,
Or what by the ocean’s slow alluvion fell
Of shipwrackt cockle and the muscle-shell:
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety.
Glad then, as miners who have found the ore
They, with mad labour, fish’d the land to shoar
And div’d as desperately for each piece
Of earth, as if’t had been of ambergreece;
Collecting anxiously small loads of clay,
Less than what building swallows bear away;
Or than those pills which sordid beetles roul,
Transfusing into them their dunghil soul.
How did they rivet, with gigantick piles,
Thorough the center their new-catched miles;
And to the stake a struggling country bound,
Where barking waves still bait the forced ground;
Building their wat’ry Babel far more high
To reach the sea, than those to scale the sky!
Yet still his claim the injur’d ocean laid,
And oft at leap-frog ore their steeples plaid:
As if on purpose it on land had come
To show them what’s their mare liberum.
A daily deluge over them does boyl;
The earth and water play at level-coyl.
The fish oft times the burger dispossest,
And sat, not as a meat, but as a guest,
And oft the Tritons and the sea-nymphs saw
Whole sholes of Dutch serv’d up for Cabillau;
Or, as they over the new level rang’d
For pickled herring, pickled heeren chang’d.
Nature, it seem’d, asham’d of her mistake,
Would throw their land away at duck and drake.
The poor Dutch were never forgiven for living below the sea-level and gaining their security by magnificent feats of engineering and persistence. Why the notion of a reclaimed land should have seemed so comic I cannot understand, but Marvell certainly justified the joke.
Later, Napoleon, who liked to sum up a nation in a phrase, accused Holland of being nothing but a deposit of German mud, thrown there by the Rhine: while the Duke of Alva remarked genially that the Dutch were of all peoples those that lived nighest to hell; but Marvell’s sarcasms are the best. Indeed I doubt if the literature of droll exaggeration has anything to compare with “The Character of Holland”.