To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Saturday, 24 and Sunday, 25 November 1877.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your excellent letter, thanks also for that passage from Michelet, which I’ve written on the back of the map of Normandy and Brittany, how really good and beautiful it is with its own peculiar beauty, the most beautiful expression of which is perhaps to be found in that story of Elijah by the brook Cherith and at the widow’s — it is written with singleness of heart and poverty of spirit, by one who was sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing. Good that you’ll be going to see those maps by Stieler and S pruner-Menke at the library; they too are beautiful, with the same beauty, it is good to think often of Scotland. Yesterday evening I was at Uncle Cor’s and saw them again there – thus Elijah’s soul, I imagine, was more than any other that of Christ, ‘the man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief’, full of such things, also those of our Father and Mother. Dickens had it too, I once saw a portrait of him that I won’t forget, strange and, one would say, savage, in which he was sitting on a chair by a fire, I believe, as though watching someone. In Stieler’s atlas there’s a map of the British Isles, and one of England, Scotland (superb) and Ireland separately. If you look through the atlas, also pay attention to those of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and especially that of Greece. England is a country after God’s heart, if one looks at those maps one cannot help thinking: God is wise and great, He who has made that in such a way that it be what it is.
Pa wrote from Brussels and later telegraphed to both Uncles to come. When the letter arrived, Uncle Jan had just gone to Leidsestraat, and I went there too to bring the letter, being not a little afraid, however, that Uncle Jan would have just gone home and thus we would miss each other. I saw Uncle in Dam Square, waiting by a street-lamp for the omnibus. We then went into the Van Gend & Loos delivery service, or the Hollandsche Spoor, there in Dam Square, and read the letter. They both left the next morning, now Uncle Cor has come back. It’s so very, very sad there in Brussels, when one hears such things — so terrible, and they could actually afflict us too, for who are we and what makes us different? Then one indeed understands a little why He uttered these words ‘He who hate not, even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple’, because there is reason to hate that life and what is called ‘the body of this death’. And it has indeed been rightly said: If you desire to learn or know anything to your advantage, then take delight in being unknown and unregarded. A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, and always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom. Happy the man who is instructed by Truth itself, not by signs and passing words, but as it is in itself. It is fortunate that it is also part of that truth that there is a life after this life that God will give to those that love Him with all their heart. And happy is he who also lives by that bread of life which is the word of Eternal Life that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Had to draw a map of ancient Italy for Mendes, or rather two, because I also made one of Central Italy, more or less from Rome to Naples, on a larger scale, containing in one corner a separate map of Latium (in which Rome lay).
When I saw Uncle Jan standing in Dam Square that evening, his figure reminded me of that of Landseer’s Highlander (or is the engraving called ‘The mountain top’?). Paid a visit this week to the Rev. Jeremie Meijjes, went there when it was raining in the hope of finding him at home, yet he was out, who knows whether he hadn’t gone at that very moment to visit someone else for the same reason. But his wife was at home, sitting at work in a small room like the back room at Etten (only this one was on the street). She reminds me of Mrs Jones, and she could pass for an Englishwoman as far as her appearance is concerned, especially if she were wearing a dress of English fabric, Scottish plaid, for example. They’re such nice people, met them recently at a lecture and they stood out from the others in the audience just like an old, moss-covered apple tree or a rosebush from the cemetery or an elm tree with crows’ nests would stand out among all kinds of unnatural, exotic plants.
Uncle Cor told me about a walk he took with Uncle Jan in the Bois de Cambre. You know that gnarled undergrowth and the trees there with their strange shapes, and there was a stormy sky with big clouds reflecting in the puddles on the ground. It was a profoundly melancholy journey for both of them, and for Pa too. There’s often a change in such a condition on the ninth day; Uncle Jan wanted to wait that out and will probably stay till Monday. (The news from Princenhage isn’t good either.)
I hope to send you the little book about the crusades (Histoire des croisades, Gruson) at the beginning of next month. Read it sometime, and then the two of us will give it to Pa. Was reading it this evening at the station, waiting for the train on which Uncle Cor was due to arrive.
And Brion has also died, it really is beautiful work that he did in his lifetime. Do you know an old painting of his, A burial on the banks of the Rhine? I also find that one in the Luxembourg, ‘Noah’, so beautiful, and what a great variety of things he has made, he had a great talent and he made the most of it and gained from it. The illustrated edition of Erckmann-Chatrian also contains many illustrations by him. The invasion37 is also one of his most beautiful paintings.
Tomorrow Pa will marry Marijn van Aertsen, he’s a stalwart man, and Brion would probably have painted him well.
If you still have an old lithograph in the gallery, a divine service, in Lapland or thereabouts, and also that one by Meyer von Bremen and pendant that are also hanging at home, mothers with children, put them aside and write and tell me what they cost. And something else, if there are still any of that Christus Consolator and pendant. That portrait of De Ruyter, an old aquatint hanging here in Uncle’s room, that’s also really beautiful, I look at it so often, it has a stormy or thundery expression, something like the way I imagine Cromwell.
Saw at Uncle Cor’s a new engraving after Erskine Nicol, ‘Sabbath’, an old woman going home in the rain, it’s very good and engraved with skill.
Tomorrow morning I’ll go to the little English church you know, it lies there so peacefully in the evening in that quiet Begijnhof between the thorn-hedges, and seems to be saying ‘In loco este dabo pacem’, that is ‘in this place will I give peace’, saith the Lord. Amen, be it so.
The yard is a pleasant sight in the mornings, now that it only gets light so late in the dark days before Christmas and the workers don’t come until 7 o’clock. It’s blowing a storm outside, we have wind and rain aplenty these days.
While translating ancient Roman history I read how a raven or eagle would sometimes settle on the heads of certain people as a sign and proof of approval and blessing from Above, it seems to me those men must have looked like Pa or like Uncle Jan or Uncle Cor. God, the only One that is True, is not of yesterday or today only, but from the beginning always the same, and likewise the man after God’s heart of whom we see such a wonderful and apt example in Ulysses of Ithaca and his son Telemachus. It’s good to know that story, and I consider it a reason for great joy and consider myself fortunate that it is given to me to hear a little about these things.
Now, from Uncle Cor I’ve received A child’s history of England by Dickens, don’t know if I’ve written this to you before, that book is fine gold, among the things I read in it was the description of the battle of Hastings. I believe that if one carefully reads a few books such as Motley, such as that one by Dickens, such as Gruson, Croisades, one cannot help acquiring a good and single eye for history in general. Old boy, if I should pass my exam, if God grant me that, what an outcome it would be. That first exam with all those subjects that do seem so simple yet are difficult enough, when that is truly behind me then I’ll have good heart for what must follow. Have just come from the English church, the sermon was on Matthew IV:1, the temptation in the wilderness, and the last words of the sermon were ‘Blessed is the man who endureth temptation for when he is tried he shall obtain the Crown of life which the Lord hath promised’. It was raining and blowing terribly and the weather was so strange, and the sky, that I took a long detour through those Zwanenburg streets57 with all those drawbridges, and over Groenburgwal and around the Zuiderkerk. There weren’t a lot of people in church, but many a face with a singularly appealing expression betraying good character, I like being in that little church so much. On many a face there one could read, as it were, what one can find in those English books by Eliot and others.
Must go to Stricker’s this afternoon, they’re very concerned there about Paul, there’s a telegram at the Ministry for the Colonies that he must return to Holland owing to bad health, and a replacement is being requested for him — and so far they haven’t had any news from him or from Mr Scheffer. Uncle wasn’t well this week, a kind of fever and headache from worry, I think, isn’t preaching today. Went to eat there twice this week when Uncle Jan was away.
I still have to work, Latin themes for tomorrow morning, and whatever else I can manage. Write again soon if you can, and I wish you the very best in every respect. I hope to have a few more of those maps by Stieler before Christmas. I’m studying now, and even if it costs a bit more it must be good, and I want to endeavour to do it as I see others who take it seriously doing it — it is a course and fight for my life— neither more nor less. Anyone who gets through this course of study and perseveres until the end won’t ever forget it, and to have done it is a fine possession.
That Wierda is indeed a faithful servant and, I believe, very clever, one really finds a lot of nice people in the bookselling business, C.M., Mr Braat, Schröder here (Mendes gets his books from him, and I go there too sometimes), Wierda, one could also count Mr Tersteeg among them, and that young man you met on your trip, among others, and you are one of them too, hang on to what you have, for you too are in the fight. Happy is he who can look back on his life without too much self-reproach and venture to say ‘I never despair’. Give my regards to your housemates, adieu old boy, we must do our best to travel together at Christmas, accept in thought a hearty handshake from
Your most loving brother