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Genius, Mystic and Outsider: The Life of Johan Andreas dèr Mouw

by Martin Maassen in History & Politics , 01 December 2018

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 11 minuten

In his famous anthology from Dutch nineteenth and twentieth century poetry in thousand and some poems (1979), the compiler, Gerrit Komrij, used the maximum number of ten poems by Johan Andreas Dèr Mouw (1863-1919). A tribute that few poets were lucky enough to get. Author F. Borderwijk has stated he was “probably the greatest poet our country ever produced.” Various scholars have written a thesis on him. And now, nearly a hundred years after his death, there are (again) a new biography and an anthology.

als studentThis is remarkable for someone who now only has a small number of enthusiasts, united in the Dèr Mouw Society, but not less desirable. It is still debated whether Dèr Mouw was “forthright homosexual.”


The cradle of Johan Andreas Dèr Mouw stood in Westervoort, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Six months after his birth, the Der Mouw (the accent grave was added by Johan Andreas himself) family departed to Zwolle, only to move to Deventer some years later. Dèr Mouw’s father is mostly active in the book trade. At a young age, his mother Anna Elisabetha Zillinger pursued a career in teaching. From the poems and prose of Dèr Mouw, it seems he is looking back on a happy childhood:

“Zo vind je soms, als je oud wordt, plotseling
Diep in je ziel een kleine herinnering
Van toen je een kind was, alles warmte en zon;”

[Sometimes you find, when you’re getting older, suddenly / Deep in your soul a small recollection / From when you were a child, everthing warmth and sun;]

Christianity played an important role in the family:as a boy at school

“En voor den eten, ’s middags, werd de zegen
Gevraagd van ‘Vader, die al ’t leven voedt,’
en die zo trouw ‘ons spijzigt met het goed,’
dat wíj wel ‘van Zijn milde hand verkregen.’”

[And before the meal, in the afternoon, was the blessing / asked from ‘Father, who feeds all of life,’ / en who so dedicated ‘feeds us with the goods,’ / that we did ‘receive from His generous hand.’]

In this poem, religion and domestic warmth coincide. In “Het absoluut idealisme” (The Absolute Idealism), a philosophical work from 1905, Dèr Mouw concluded that the loss of religion and family leads to a feeling of alienation and loneliness: “And you went to bed that evening, full of God and little pancakes. And you turned older, and saw God’s throne pulverized by criticism, and the little angels evaporated like morning haze. And then those you loved died or became estraned, and you were all alone in a whirling world.”

with his sister BettyJohan Andreas’ relationship with his mother was “very close.” Father and son did not get along well. At a later age, Dèr Mouw described how he as a young boy perceived his budding homosexuality creating a fire on the moors and playing cowboys and Indians.

It led to his wonderful and most explicit homoerotic poem in the Dutch language: “’k Hoor ruisen ons moeras – zo noemden wij het, / Mijn vriend en ik – vol angstig rits’lend riet, / (...) Ik heb hem vaak beledigd en gegriefd; / want ’k hield van hem. Nee, ’k was op hem verliefd. / Neen, meer – mijn ideaal van goed en waar.” [I hear the rustling of our swamp - that’s how we called it, / My friend and I - full of anxiously rustling reed, / (...) I have often affronted and offended him; / Because I loved him. No, I was in love with him. / No, more - my ideal of good and true.]

For Hans Hafkamp, the eighteenth poem of the series “Later Verse” was reason enough to include Dèr Mouw in his homoerotic anthology “Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen.”

Study and Marriage

After grammar school, where Johan was a “silent, solitary boy” with a “fear of girls that bordered disgust,” Johan continues to study literature at Leiden University. Not many facts about the time Dèr Mouw spent in Leiden are known. (A fact that biographer Lucien Custers has to mention several times. Source material is scarce, to say the least.) In his university days, Johan is an “outsider” as well. He continues his studies at a high pace. In 1887, he obtains his master’s degree and three years later, there is even a promotion in addition to a full-time job as a teacher of classical languages at the Doetinchem grammar school.
Doetinchem grammar school
Mother Anna as a teacher was “overly involved,” but son Johan would follow in her footsteps in that respect. Right from the start, he is also closely involved with a number of pupils. Former student Hendrik Jan de Groot described it as follows: “He assessed us: on competence and on character. And if it seemed familiar to him, he would forge a friendship with the sixteen, seventeen-year-old.”

In 1892, Anna Elisabetha died, and in 1893 Johan weds a Miss Nans van Enst. “Whether there was more than just friendship on the part of Dèr Mouw, and whether he actually fell in love with Nans, is uncertain. (...) According to tradition, the young couple would have agreed in advance not to let the marriage be more than a friendship and to refrain from any sexual contact.” Biographer Lucien Custers is not certain whether it is a “marriage of convenience” à la Dèr Mouw’s contemporary and collegue Louis Couperus. It can be said that it “possibly also served to camouflage the husband’s homosexuality.”

Of the period 1893-1904, little is known about the life of Johan Andreas dèr Mouw. About the year 1904 all the more. That year would be disastrous, both for him and the grammar school he worked at.

The Doetinchem Scandal

The Schwartz FamilyBetween Dèr Mouw and Max Schwartz, the son of the headmaster of the grammar school, a close friendship developed into a romantic crush on Johan’s side. This crush gets an extra dimension when Johan accuses Max’s father of being susceptible to bribes during final exams. Dèr Mouw wants the same preferential treatment for one of his pupils. Custers describes the affair in detail. In the end, the whole affair gets an extremely political and especially for Dèr Mouw a very personal overtone.

“An extraordinary, sickening preference for certain youngsters” is used against him. Dèr Mouw is in a deep crisis and attempts suicide. Eventually he is “honourable discharged.” The school is associated with the disturbing image of corruption. The affair damages the school’s reputation, and the number of pupils decreases significantly. Eventually, the headmaster resigns due to illness. The contact between Max and Johan has already been severed. Dèr Mouw starts working as a substitute teacher in The Hague and will never return to Doetinchem.

Dèr Mouw as a Philosopher

After the Doetinchem scandal he moves to The Hague
Initially, Dèr Mouw aspired to an academic career in philosophy. His work “Het absoluut idealisme” (1905) becomes the highlight of his philosophical prose. In newspapers and magazines, the book went unnoticed because of its nature and difficulty, as well as the choice of philosopher (Bolland) to which he reflects. Bolland ultimately turned out to be “no more than a curiosity in the history of Dutch philosophy.” Dèr Mouw is then passed over for a professorship because of “too much asocialness and his bad reputation in religious circles.”

After his second work, “Kritische studies” (Critical Studies, 1906) Dèr Mouw’s fame in philosophy circles is declining. Dèr Mouw is part of the editorial staff of a scholarly Dutch philosophy magazine for a while, and is also involved in the establishment of the Internationale School voor Wijsbegeerte (ISVW). Custers finds his works of interest because they give “a clear picture of the way in which he tries to find a rational solution for the personal life issues he is struggling with. As the account of this quest, both books are of interest for a better knowledge of the man Dèr Mouw - and therefore also for his biography.”

In Love with Victor van Vriesland

Victor VrieslandOf the years 1905 to 1912, not much is known about the personal life of Dèr Mouw. He was tutoring and regularly went on a holiday. However, it is certain that around 1911 his student (and later man of letters) Victor van Vriesland stayed with Dèr Mouw with some regularity. Initially the contact was difficult. But very slowly Dèr Mouw’s feelings of antipathy changed into an “unconscious falling in love,” which deliberately increases in severity.

On vacation in Norway in 1912, Dèr Mouw receives two telegrams from Victor, of which the content is lost. They probably were about Victor’s seriously ill mother. Johan decides to return to The Netherlands and is collected by Van Vriesland by car. What happened in the car remains a mystery, also because Victor carefully made parts of later letters from Dèr Mouw unreadable. Dèr Mouw must have had the impression that his feelings were reciprocated. At that moment, it becomes clear to him that Victor does not reciprocate his feelings. Dèr Mouw again falls into despair.

The Poetry and Brahmanism

Gradually he comes to the realisation that philosohis studyphy will never give him enough answers to his questions of life. He found these answers in Brahmanism, a monotheistic early form of Hinduism. Brahman is “the designation of the divine, which at the same time is transcendent and immanent, and in which God, myself and the world coincide.” From now on he would sing the praise of the unity of everyone and everything in Brahman. This results in beautiful poems in the last years of Dèr Mouw’s life, and in our present days, a thorough, easily-to-read biography. Dèr Mouw himself did not live to see the appearance of his first collection. With the publication of his poetry, Victor van Vriesland takes centre stage. After he discovers that Dèr Mouw is producing “a diarrhoea of verses” in rapid succession, it is Victor who, after the death of his friend, compiles the Collected Works of Johan Andreas dèr Mouw.

Homosexual or Not?

The question of whether Johan Andreas Dèr Mouw was a homosexual surfaced with some regularity in various publications. In his introduction of “Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen,” Hans Hafkamp stated that Dèr Mouw’s homosexuality “certainly is not” as generally acknowledged as that of poet Willem Kloos, a contemporary of Dèr Mouw. Since the publication of this anthology of Dutch homoerotic poetry in 1979, more has surfaced about the life of Dèr Mouw. In “Volledig dichtwerk” (Complete Poetry, 1986) some French poems appear, what makes the compilers of the work come to a special conclusion: “The use of French can be dictated by the desire to somewhat hide the passionate (gay) erotic nature of the content.” The first line of one of these poems: “Ja, de wereld verbiedt dat jij je lippen, je haren en de bekoring van je lichaam aan mijn lippen geeft (...)” [Yes, the world interdicts that you give your lips, your hairs, and the appeal of your body to lips.] That may very well refer to a homoerotic relationship...

with his foster daughter HettyDèr Mouw was an “extremely complicated personality.” As far as we know, during his life-time he falls in love with a young man - entrusted to him as a pupil - twice. These crushes are incontrovertible. In 1969, Van Vriesland revealed that Dèr Mouw had the urge to suddenly go to Amsterdam and “stay under the radar” for some time. These trips were rather “wild” in nature.

According to Van Vriesland, Dèr Mouw was a “complicated personality,” both interested in men and women. Van Vriesland refers to him as bisexual. In his Doetinchem period, his reputation as a homosexual was strengthened by the conflict with the headmaster, the father of Max, who accused him of that “extraordinary and sick love for some young men.”

Biographer Custers calls it “striking that Dèr Mouw’s social contacts in The Hague often are with significantly younger men.” Everyone may draw his or her own conclusions from that. This labelling is perhaps more important in the “GLBTQI period” than it was in the beginning of the twentieth century. Now more than ever, labelling is a condition for belonging to a group. And that was the last thing Johan Andreas dèr Mouw wanted...

  Both Lucien Custers’ biography of Dèr Mouw and a new anthology from his poetry by Jan Kuijper were published (in Dutch) by Uitgeverij Vantilt, Nijmegen. This review contains several quotes from Custers’ biography. In 2015 “Full of God and tiny pancakes,” a collection of sixteen poems by Dèr Mouw in an English translation by John Irons, was published by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. A PDF of this booklet is online available.



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