Amsterdam, 18 Aug. 1877.
My dear Theo,
I feel the need to write to you again, it might be rather a long time before we see each other again, although I hope that in any case we’ll be together in Etten for Christmas. Aunt Mina’s birthday was last Sunday1 and, as I was there that evening, Uncle Stricker asked me a thing or two and didn’t seem dissatisfied. In everything I often think of the words in Acts, ‘we came’,2 we too must simply go on walking, try to get ahead, looking forward step by step to the goal and keeping it in sight, and when we have made an effort for a while in that way, ‘striving on’, as Uncle Jan says, then we notice through one thing or another that we’ve come a long way.
Nowadays one sees here in all the book and print shops very good portraits of Uhland,3 Andersen,4 Dickens5 and many others, also of clergymen such as Ten Kate,6 it’s good to look at them often, to see whether one might find it or something of it. Did I write to you that I heard the Rev. Ten Kate in the little church on Bickerseiland last Sunday week?7 His voice and many curious expressions reminded me of Pa. The church was full to overflowing, and the square around the little church was full of carriages. It was a good and beautiful passage he talked about, namely, Rom. I:15-17, So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
It was a pleasant evening at Uncle Stricker’s on Aunt’s birthday, that morning Uncle had worked into his sermon8 the fable of La mort et le bucheron9 (the text was Proverbs XV:24, The way of life is above to the wise):
A poor woodcutter, faggots piled upon his back
And burdened by his load and sum of years,
Groaning and bent low, made way with heavy tread
And tried to reach his smoky cot.
At last, by effort and by pain o’ercome
He lays his burden down and dwells upon his sorry state.
What pleasure has he known in all his days?
Is there a poorer man in all this turning world?
Hungry sometimes, and never knowing rest;
His wife, his children, soldiery, taxation’s cut, Creditors and forced servitude Make of him misfortune’s very mould.
He calls on Death. Death promptly comes, Asks what’s to be done.
He says, to help me load this wood upon my back again
You will not tarry long.
Our passing comes, the cure for every ill,
But let’s not shift from where we stand.
Suffer sooner than die,
That’s man’s maxim.10
I had quite a time on Thursday morning; Uncle had left town to go to Utrecht, and at 7 o’clock I had to be at the Strickers’, because Jan was leaving for Paris and I’d promised to accompany him to the station of the Hollandsche Spoor. So had got up early and seen the workers arriving at the dockyard with the sun shining wonderfully. ‘It is a good thing to praise the Lord God in the morning’,11 that’s what one thinks at such times. You would like the curious sight of that stream of black figures, large and small, first in the narrow street into which the sun shines only briefly and later at the yard. Had breakfast afterwards, a piece of dry bread and a glass of beer – that is a remedy Dickens recommends to those on the verge of committing suicide as being very efficacious in ridding them of that intention, for a while at least.12 And even if one isn’t exactly in such a mood, it’s nevertheless good to do it now and then, and to think at the same time of, for example, Rembrandt’s painting of the supper at Emmaus.13
Before going to the Strickers’ I walked through the Jewish quarter14 and on Buitenkant, Oude Teertuinen, Zeedijk, Warmoesstraat and past the Oudezijdskapel and the Oude and Zuiderkerk,15 through all kinds of old streets with smithies and cooperages and so on, and through narrow alleys such as Niezel,16 and canals with old narrow bridges such as the one we stood on that evening in Dordrecht.17 It was nice to see activity beginning at that early hour.
Wrote a text in which all the parables are listed in order and the miracles and so on,18 and am also doing the same in English and French, expecting Latin and Greek to be added later on, may it come to pass! During the day I’m busy studying for Mendes, and so work on it late in the evening or, for example, today until late at night and in the morning. Having been in England and France for so long, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t gradually master the languages more thoroughly and at least keep them up, it is written: polish it ceaselessly and polish it again,19 and also, Work, take pains, dig, delve, turn up the earth, leave not a spot where the hand pass not and pass again,20 and it is also written ‘so that it be fully leavened’.21
The farmer and his children22
Work, take pains,
That’s the resource that fails the least.
A wealthy farmer, feeling death was nigh,
Summoned his children, spoke to them privily.
Take care, he told them, and do not sell
The inheritance our forebears handed down.
A treasure is concealed therein.
I know not the place, but some courage will suffice
To bring you to it, and you’ll find it out.
Plough your field as soon as the harvest is in.
Dig, delve, turn up the earth, leave not a spot Where the hand pass not and pass again.
Their father dead, the sons ploughed well the field,
This way and that, in such a way that one year thence
It brought back more In coin that was in no way hid. But the man was wise,
In showing them, before his death,
That work is wealth.
The oak and the reed23
The oak one day said unto the reed,
You have good cause ’gainst nature to complain:
To you a goldcrest is a heavy weight,
The slightest wind that may perchance
Make ripples on the water’s face
Forces you to bow your head.
Whereas my brow, just as the mighty Caucasus,
Not only stops the sun’s hot rays
But bids the storm do what it may.
To you, each wind’s a northern blast, to me a gentle breeze.
Had you but grown within the shelter of the leaves
With which I cover all this place about
Your suffering would be less;
I would defend you ’gainst the tempest’s rage.
But you most frequently are found
On the damp edges of the windy realms,
And nature seems to treat you ill indeed.
Your pity, answered him the pliant shrub,
Springs from your kindly heart, but have no care for me.
To me, winds are less fearsome than they are to you,
I bend, I do not break; till now
Against their dreadful buffetings
You have held out; your back’s not bent,
But let’s see how it ends; and as he spoke,
From the far horizon furiously there came
The fearfullest of all the brood
The north had yet unleashed upon his flanks.
The oak stood firm, the reed bent low.
The wind blew harder and then harder still
Until it pulled up by the very roots
The one whose head reached heavenward,
Whose feet stood near the kingdom of the dead.
He stoops to conquer.24
How are you doing, old chap? Write a few words again when you can, you didn’t mind my sending the money back to you, did you,25 and you do know that I’d like SO VERY MUCH to come, first of all to shake your hand again, and also for the exhibition?26 But for the time being I’m not leaving town on Sundays, I simply may not.
Had another talk this morning with Mendes about M. Maris, and showed him that lithograph of those 3 children,27 and also A baptism,28 and he understood it very well. Mendes sometimes reminds me of The imitation of Jesus Christ by Ruipérez.29
Do you know anything more about Caroline? Went to Utrecht and back on the day of Hendrik’s reception, I also congratulated them for you. It was very elegant, a lot of beautiful greenery in the room, the bride looked sweet enough.30 Uncle Jan seemed happy. In Utrecht I saw the cathedral, another old church31 and the Academy building, it’s very like the Cloisters by Westminster Abbey.32 Goodbye, Theo, I wish you the very best, give my regards to your housemates, I wish you well, if that is possible. Uncle Jan and Anna Tak33 send their regards, adieu, a handshake in thought from
Your most loving brother,
Tomorrow at 10 o’clock the Rev. Laurillard will preach a sermon in the Oudezijdskapel.
It was such a good sermon, old boy, that Uncle Stricker gave on The way of life is above to the wise, That he may depart from hell beneath,34 and he worked that La mort et le bucheron into it with such feeling.
Something else, Paul Stricker’s engagement to Miss Margreet Meyboom has been broken off, I think it’s a pity.35