For a research course in Dutch language and culture, student Evi Dijcks wanted to learn more about civic engagement in eighteenth century poetry: how was the political and societal situation represented?
She decided to use the poetry of Anna van der Aar de Sterke (1755-1831) as a case study, a poet who had been a member of multiple poetry societies: groups of poets coming together to share and promote their art. ‘The collection containing her life’s work was acquired by the University Library a century ago’, the student explains. ‘But the material had not been studied yet.'
Sat in the Special Collections reading room, Dijcks submerged herself in the eighteenth-century poetry. ‘I found the name of a society I did not recognize – Die Erg Denkt Vaart Erg In ‘T Hart – even though I had read up on poetry societies a lot’, says Dijcks. ‘First I didn’t think a lot of it. If you’re a student and you find something you don’t recognize, it’s more likely due to your own limited knowledge than due to the fact no one’s done any research on the subject.’
What struck her about the society, was that all the members were women. ‘I knew that wasn’t usual’, says Dijcks, ‘but it took a while before I realised what I had stumbled upon.’
An internet search revealed little. ‘Although that doesn’t have to mean much in philology.’ The next step: approaching University Lecturer literature and cultury of the Dutch golden age Olga van Marion. ‘But even she had never heard of this society. She thought it was fascinating and asked me to do more research. Then I knew: this is really special.’
What to do next? ‘I thought that was rather difficult, I’d never done something like that before.’ To get a clearer picture of the period, Dijcks started with a literature study of women in eighteenth-century poetry societies. Next, she scoured the poems of Anna van der Aar de Sterke for poems that referenced the society or where the poet writes about other members. ‘I made a transcript of those 26 poems.’
Next, she mapped the network of women in the society by listing all the names mentioned in poems. ‘Often women were mentioned by their married or widowed name, but that provided a lot of information. With those names, I was able to use online family trees and genealogical archives to find out who they were. I found out a lot of the society members were related.’
In total, Dijcks discovered fourteen names, all women. ‘It is the only all-female poetry society we know.’ There are some scientific societies with women members only, but men were still involved. ‘The women were educated by male scholars.’
Dijcks also discovered all members lived within travel distance of each other, in Delft and the surrounding area. ‘They usually met in the city, travelling there by coach.; That wasn’t always easy, as Dijcks read in a poem. ‘When four of the ladies were on the road, the coach drove into a canal. The passenger nearly drowned.’
Don’t distract men
Luckily, they escaped with their lives. But if they hadn’t, the news probably would not have upset the poetry world. Almost none of the poets were well known. How come?
‘Women were excluded from the public sphere’, Dijcks explains. ‘They could join mixed gender poetry societies and send in own work, but they weren’t allowed to participate in meetings or perform in public. The argument went that the presence of women would distract the men from their intellectual endeavours.’
So how did female society Die Erg Denkt Vaart Erg In ’T Hart operate? ‘The results of my research is that they tried very hard to imitate male societies. Their meetings, based on those of men, are aimed at combining pleasure and usefulness, after Horace’s principle of Utile Dulci.’
Another typical, traditional, male activity the women copied: the weekly meetings on Saturdays to recite poetry and critique each other’s work.
Claiming their place
Even though the members did not appear in public, according to Dijcks, the mere existence of the society shows that women were not as dependent on men to participate in literary life as was previously thought.
‘Instead of throwing in the towel when they weren’t admitted to male societies, these women founded their own society. Even though it only operated in the private sphere, they still took part in literary life.’
Currently Dijcks is working on a publication on her discovery. While she does not exclude the possibility of similar societies, she rather sees herself working on different subject for the coming period. ‘I’ve been working on the eighteenth century for a while now, so I’d rather delve into a different period.’