Jacob Cats

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Jacob Cats

Jacob Cats (1577-1660), seventeenth-century poet, moralist, and statesman, was one of the leading poets in the golden age of Dutch literature. His emblem books, which reflected a stolid Calvinist philosophy, exhorted readers to virtuous and industrial lives. Enormously popular, the books became the source of many well-known maxims and proverbs, giving him the title of "Father Cats," a fond soubriquet still used by modern Dutch to describe him.

Jacob Cats was born on November 10, 1577, the youngest of four brothers in Brouwershaven, Zeeland, the southernmost province of what is now the Netherlands. After his mother's death and his father's remarriage, Cats and his three brothers were sent to live with an uncle in the same province. After attending school in Zierikzee, Cats began his legal studies at the University of Leiden, then traveled to France to earn a doctor of laws degree in Orléans. After a further period of study and work in Paris, he returned to the Netherlands. Settling in the Hague, he began to work as a lawyer, where, the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia notes, "his pleading in defence of [a] wretched creature accused of witchcraft brought him many clients and some reputation."

His success in the courtroom gave him the means to consider marriage, but an engagement was broken off when he contracted a mysterious, debilitating fever that lasted for two years. Desperate for treatment, he went to England, but was unable to find any relief. He went back to Holland, resigned to death, but received a new lease on life when he was unexpectedly "cured" by a charlatan.

Restored to health, Cats went to Middelburg, Zeeland, in 1603, where he opened a law practice. Two years later he married a wealthy heiress, Elisabeth van Valkenburg, and settled down to a prosperous existence. The Twelve Years' Truce (1609-1621), an interruption of the Eighty Years' War that eventually gave the Dutch their independence from Spain, was a period of comparative tranquility. In this favorable climate Cats and his brothers became wealthy draining and reclaiming land that had been flooded during the war— a profitable undertaking in a country where most of the land lies below sea level.

A successful businessman, Cats became a prominent political figure in the cities of Middleburg, and later, Dordrecht. He was appointed an advocate, or pensionary, a public servant that conducted much official municipal business. From 1636 to 1651 he served as Grand Pensionary of Holland, the most powerful of the Netherlands provinces. This prominent position had national importance, giving him a role in foreign policy. He was sent on at least two diplomatic missions, both to England: one in 1627 to Charles I and a second, unsuccessful venture 25 years later to Oliver Cromwell.

Like Dante and Chaucer before him, however, Cats was more than a mere civil servant. He is best known as a poet and author of emblem books—illustrated collections of didactic and moralistic (although clever and often humorous) poetry. These books, which had become popular in Europe, had begun with Liber emblemata published in 1531 by Andrea Alciato, an Italian lawyer.

Emblem books were immensely popular, especially among the pious and hard-working Calvinists of the Netherlands. In recent years they have also become valued as treasure troves of sociological and historical detail, illustrating not only many facets of daily life in the seventeenth century, but the moral and philosophical ideals that imbued the era as well. The books were perfect fodder for the relatively new printing industry, and the savvy Dutch soon cornered the market in printing them for both foreign and domestic audiences.

Most emblem book pages consisted of an illustration that was intended to drive home and amplify the moralistic verse printed along with it. At first examination, the two did not always appear to go together. For example, Cats combined a picture of a top and the whip that drove it—a common child's toy—with a warning against sloth and indolence. The Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, quoted Cats's explanation: "The top spins merrily on the floor, whipped by a biting cord, and the harder one hits the better it spins. But let up a bit with the whip and it falls in the dust. From then on it won't do a single turn, but lie forever like a block. One never watches it better than in times of sorrow and unhappiness. For if anyone lives without pain, he rusts at once from idleness. When man has too much leisure, you see, that's when the heart yearns for lust."

Cats's first book Sinne-en minnebeelden (Portraits of morality and love) was published in 1618, when he was forty years old. The book, divided into three sections, contains prose, poetry, Bible verses, quotations from the classics, and common proverbs in Dutch, French, and Latin. Each illustration was accompanied by three different texts, each of which was designed to give three different—but always instructive—interpretations: the first romantic, the second social, and last religious. This combination of texts, styles, and languages in various degrees of complexity made the book accessible to a broad public. Illustrations were expensive, however, and at least two editions were published. One version had reproduced each of the 51 illustrations in all three sections; a second, cheaper printing contained only one set of images.

The images for many of Cats's books were supplied by Adriaan van de Venne, a well-known artist of the time. He drew literally hundreds of illustrations for the books, and they were, in turn, reproduced by master engravers. Other artwork for Cats's books were imitations of van de Venne, including a famous image depicting matrimony as a fisherman's trap.

In 1620 Cats published Self-strydt, a retelling in verse of Joseph and Potiphar's wife that became popular enough to warrant an English translation 60 years later. Entitled Self-Conflict: Or, The powerful Motions between the Flesh & Spirit, it was, as the subtitled explained further, a meditation "Represented in the person and upon the occasion of Joseph, when by Potiphar's Wife he was enticed to Adultery." In the foreword, the translator, John Quarles, praised both Cats's "incomparable mind" and the "profitablest [sic] variety of delight, both Moral and Divine," that could be found in his works. Like Cats, Quarles hoped that this story of Joseph, which he later reprinted under the title Triumphant Chastity, would give readers "Sovereign Antidotes to kill or enervate such (else irresistible) Charms, either in the birth or riper growth," within themselves.

Houwelyck (Marriage) was published in 1625, the first of Cats's two great works on love and marriage. The title page shows the six stages of a woman's life: maid, lover, bride, wife, mother, and widow, each illuminated with an accompanying illustration. Like most of Cats's work, it was written in verse and filled with religious and moral instruction. Its popularity can be gauged by its sales: more than 50,000 were printed in the 30 years following its debut.

Cats was widowed in 1630, a terrible blow that saddened him greatly. Searching for a way to distract himself from his grief and loneliness, he began construction of his estate Sorgvliet (Fly from care), situated near the Hague, to fill his days. He also continued to write, publishing his most famous book, Spiegel van den ouden en nieuwen tijdt (Mirror of old and new times), in 1632. Written in colloquial rather than classical Dutch, this oft-quoted, homespun volume has become the source of many Dutch sayings. Leiden University has an original edition that contains handwritten notes and comments from the author.

In 1639, at what was probably the height of his fame, Cats's portrait was painted by famed court artist Michiel Janszoon van Miereveld. Now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the poet and statesman gazes out of a frame adorned by Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and the Cats family crest, captioned by a line of his own poetry (in archaic Dutch): Als ick dit beelt aensie en van mijn eerste jaren, / Soo leer ick dat de tijt verloopt gelyck de haren (When I see this image of my former years / I see how time recedes, just like my hair).

Cats continued to publish in the decades that followed. Trou-ringh (Wedding Ring), his second poetic exposition on conjugal bliss, appeared in 1637. He published his most heartfelt autobiographical musings in his later years: Gedachten op slapelooze nachten (Thoughts on sleepless nights) in 1661; Ouderdom, buyten-leven en hof-gedachten op Sorgvliet (Old age, country life, and garden thoughts at Sorgvliet) in 1656; and his autobiography, Twee en tachtigh-jarigh leven (Eight-two years of my life). This last volume, which occupied him until his death, was not published until 1734.

In his time Cats was tremendously popular and extremely influential, shaping not only contemporary thought but image as well—artists often based their paintings on his well-known poems and stories. Even after his death his works were reprinted and translated, and it was said that every Dutch home had both a Bible and a book by Cats. His pithy aphorisms remain in modern use, although his dense and difficult texts are now prized more for their historical value than their literary content. The people of his native town of Brouwershaven erected a statue honoring him in 1829; his estate, Sorgvliet, now called Catshuis (Cats house), has become the official residence of the Dutch prime minister.

Jacob Cats died on September 12, 1660, and was buried in the Kloosterkerk in the Hague.


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Heywood, Thomas, Pleasant Dialogues and Dramma's, 1637.


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