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The Theology of Poems on the Lord's Supper by the Dutch Calvinist, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 March 2012

Christopher Joby*
Leeds Metropolitan University, Headingley Campus, Leeds LS6 3QS,


In this article, I provide a detailed analysis of the poems on the Lord's Supper by the Dutch statesman and man of letters, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687). Between 1642 and 1684, he wrote eighteen poems on this subject, sixteen in Dutch and two in Latin. The type of poem varies from pithy epigrams to sonnets, through to longer poems over fifty lines in length, replete with well-conceived poetic tropes. To date, these poems have received little scholarly attention. Huygens was a lifelong member of the Reformed church and his poetry considers themes which are central to Reformed theology, such as human sin, divine grace and human gratitude. In his poetry, he recognises that he is a sinner and that it is not sufficient merely to ask for divine forgiveness, and then sin again. He acknowledges the need to intend to change his ways, but also recognises that he can only do this with divine assistance. Huygens published most of these poems and although such a public acknowledgement of sin may seem strange to us, there is a sense in which he was performing a public act of confession, to make common cause with his fellow believers, and also perhaps to encourage them to do the same. Much of the poetry considers the ontology and efficacy of the Lord's Supper. As well as exploring familiar tropes such as the sacrament as a feast and a pledge for God's promises, Huygens also asks about the very nature of the bread and wine of the sacrament. We might expect him to ascribe little or no value to the elements themselves, beyond, to use Brian Gerrish's phrase, ‘presenting what they represent’. poetry. However, at some points, the language Huygens uses to refer to the elements, such as ‘holy bread’ and ‘healing dew’, suggests something more is at stake. Some may dismiss such phrases as mere lyrical flourish, but I argue that they point to a central tension inherent within Reformed eucharistic theology between sign and signified and, furthermore, that this poetry offers us the opportunity to explore that tension. Huygens’ poems bear comparison with the best English-language religious poetry of the seventeenth century, and remind us that poetry as well as prose can offer us valuable theological insight.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012

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1 Although the Calvinist, or Reformed (gereformeerd), Church was the ‘public church’ in the United Provinces, other denominations including Remonstrants, Mennonites and Catholics had a limited amount of freedom to practise their faith. For a more detailed discussion of this, see van Eijnatten, Joris and van Lieburg, Fred, Nederlandse Religiegeschiedenis (Hilversum: Verloren, 2005), pp. 169 ff.Google Scholar, and Israel, Jonathan, The Dutch Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 361 ffGoogle Scholar.

2 The original Dutch text and translations of most of the poems referred to in this article can be found in Poems on The Lord's Supper by Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687): A Facing Dutch–English Translation with Annotations and an Introduction by Christopher Joby (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008): henceforth, Joby (2008). All translations of Huygens’ poems in this article are mine.

3 Schwartz, Gary, Rembrandt: His Life, his Paintings (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1985), p. 149Google Scholar.

4 Strengholt, L., Een werkelijk groot Nederlander: Het leven van Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) (Hilversum: Evangelische Omroep, 1977), p. 14Google Scholar.

5 Hofman, Hendrik, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) (proefschrift) (Utrecht: HES Uitgevers, 1983), p. 106Google Scholar.

6 Ibid., pp. 102–3, and Huygens, Constantijn, Hofwijck, eds. van Strien, Ton and van der Leer, Kees et al. (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2002), ll. 1504–7Google Scholar.

7 Israel, Dutch Republic, pp. 583 ff.

8 Meijer, Reinder P., Literature of the Low Countries (Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes, 1978), p. 146CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See F. L. Zwaan's edn (Amsterdam: B. V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers, 1974).

10 Ibid., p. 12.

11 For further information on Huygens’ life and work in English, and select bibliographies, see Joby (2008), and Davidson, Peter and van der Weel, Adriaan, A Selection of the Poems of Sir Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) (Amsterdam: AUP, 1996),Google Scholar.

12 Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Sunday 3, Question 7.

13 Joby (2008): poem 12, l. 11.

14 Ibid.: poem 2, l. 4.

15 Ibid.: poem 6, ll. 47–50. The Gentile woman tells Jesus, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs’ (NRSV).

16 Joby (2008): poem 5, ll. 5–6.

17 Ibid.: poem 5, ll. 1–4.

18 Ibid.: poem 5, ll. 9–10.

19 Ibid.: poem 4, ll. 10–12.

20 Ibid.: poem 15, ll. 25–8 and l. 30. There is a possibility that Huygens means the reader to concatenate Christ and his garment here, though this is not clear. In any case, he seems to ascribe to the blood-stained garment the ability of Christ to mask/do away with his own, i.e. Huygens’, sins.

21 van Strien, Ton and Stronks, Els (eds), Het Hart naar Boven (Amsterdam: AUP, 1998), pp. 309 ffGoogle Scholar.

22 Joby (2008): poem 13, esp. ll. 6–8.

23 Ibid.: poem 2, ll. 1–3.

24 Cavadini, John, ‘Pride’, in Fitzgerald, Allan (ed.), Augustine through the Ages (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 679–84Google Scholar.

25 Joby (2008): poem 1, ll. 11–12.

26 Ibid.: poem 4, l. 6.

27 Ibid.: poem 4, l. 14. A similar sentiment is expressed in the Latin coda to the poem: ‘it (salvation) does not depend on a willing or running person, but on a merciful God’.

28 Ibid.: poem 7, l. 44.

29 Van Strien and Stronks (eds), Het Hart naar Boven, pp. 185 ff.

30 Joby (2008): poem 13, ll. 19–20.

31 Huygens, C., Avondmaalsgedichten en Heilige Dagen, ed. Zwaan, F. L. (Zwolle: W. E. J. Tjeenk Willink, 1968), p. 71Google Scholar, note to l. 4. Henceforth, Zwaan (1968).

32 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, John T., tr. Battles, Ford Lewis (London: SCM Press, 1961), IV.xvii, pp. 33–4Google Scholar. Henceforth, Institutes.

33 In his Petit Traicté de la Saincte Cene de Nostre Seigneur Jesus Christ, (1552), Calvin writes ‘only let us not come without Faith and repentance’. Calvin, John, Three French Treatises, ed. Higman, Francis M. (London: Athlone Press, 1970), pp. 113–14Google Scholar.

34 Calvin, John, ‘Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper’, in Treatises on the Sacraments, tr. Beveridge, H. (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Heritage, 2002), pp. 163–98, at p. 177Google Scholar.

35 Joby (2008): poem 14.

36 Ibid.: poem 18.

37 Joby (2008): poem 9, l. 45: ‘But you who have stirred my heart, complete your work . . .’

38 Ibid.: poem 7, ll. 1–3.

39 Zwaan (1968), p. 109.

40 Joby (2008): poem 6, ll. 1–2.

41 The titles of two sermons in a collection of sermons tr. from English into Dutch and publ. in 1671 point to this. The title of one sermon is ‘The covenant sign of the Lord's Supper is a spiritual banquet’, and of another is ‘The Holy Supper is a feast for the souls of the faithful’. See Koning aen syn Tafel ofte XXXIII Avondmaels Predicatien Deur Verscheydene God-geleerde in de Engelse Taele beschreven (Bolsward: Samuel van Haringhouk, 1671): henceforth Reen (1671).

42 Practice varied, but in poem 13 (Joby 2008), he begins ‘Three months have passed, since I last sat here . . . ’

43 Ibid.: poem 8, ll. 1–2.

44 Ibid.: poem 3.

45 Ibid.: poem 7, ll. 34–5.

46 Ibid.: poem 2, l. 40.

47 Ibid.: poem 16.

48 Huygens, Constantijn, Koren-bloemen (The Hague: Adriaen Vlack, 1658), book 1, p. 31Google Scholar.

49 In a poem which he sent to his fellow poet, P. C. Hooft, from England in 1622, he wrote ‘[England], where at the Holy Table, untransubstantiated bread is the food of the soul’.

50 Joby (2008): poem 17, l. 1.

51 Ibid.: poem 12, l. 4.

52 Proef-Praedicatien Voorbereydinge tot het H. Avontmael des Heeren . . . door Focco Johannes . . . (3rd imprint; Leeuwaarden: Tomas Willems Zuiertsma, 1653), p. 4.

53 Streso, Casparus, A Compendium (6th imprint; The Hague: Christoffel Doll, 1661), p. 2Google Scholar.

54 Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, John Calvin says in his Institutes (IV.xvii, p. 42), ‘let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine for the sick’.

55 Joby (2008): poem 7, ll. 36–7, where Huygens addresses Christ saying ‘Then, do not look at what I did, but at what you did and do/To lighten my burden and remove my stains’.

56 Ibid.: poem 18, ll. 1–2.

57 Calvin, taking his lead from Augustine, typically uses the word signum to refer to the sacrament, though e.g. in later editions of his Institutes he used symbolum in IV. xvii, p. 2. In Huygens’ own time, Streso refers to the sacrament itself as a sign saying ‘the Lord's Supper is an external corporeal sign and seal of [the New Testament in Christ's Blood]’. Streso, A Compendium, p. 2.

58 Gerrish, Brian, ‘John Calvin’, in: Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 90–3, at p. 92Google Scholar.

59 Joby (2008): poem 17, ll. 14–16.

60 Compare Zwaan (1968), p. 81, note to ll. 15–16.

61 Joby (2008): poem 2, l. 11.

62 Huygens, Constantijn, Koren-bloemen (Amsterdam: Johannes van Ravesteyn, 1672), book XVI, poem 129Google Scholar.

63 This sense in which the Lord's Supper is like a door taking us from one world to another is something we find in the poetry of George Herbert. In his poem, ‘Holy Communion’, he writes ‘For sure when Adam did not know/To sinne, or sinne to smother;/He might to heav'n from Paradise go,/As from one room t'another./Thou hast restor'd us to this ease/By this thy heav'nly bloud’. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), p. 183, ll. 33–8.

64 Joby (2008): poem 13, l. 2.

65 Cf. Colwell, John E., Promise and Presence (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), p. 60Google Scholar.

66 Part of the title for sermon XXXVI in Reen (1671).

67 Joby (2008): poem 10.

68 Ibid.: poem 15, ll. 3–4.

69 Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Sunday 29, Question 79.

70 See Zachman, Randall C., Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 340–2Google Scholar.

71 Institutes, IV.xvii, p. 16. Calvin has Lutherans above all in mind with references to ‘they’.

72 Joby (2008): poem 2.

73 This is much as John Calvin did before him in his Institutes (IV.vxii, p. 21).

74 Discussions of the meaning of ‘is’ are to my mind somewhat fruitless, as e.g. in the Aramaic Christ spoke a separate copula is not usually expressed.

75 See Question 76 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

76 Reen (1671), 4, sermons XXIII and XXIV.

77 Joby (2008): poem 14, l. 1.

78 Ibid.: poem 7, ll. 20–1. This raises another important aspect of Huygens’ poems on the Lord's Supper, that of ‘public piety’. He published many poems, including these, in which he acknowledged his own sin, and there is a sense in which he was performing a public act of confession, to make common cause with his fellow believers, and also perhaps to encourage them to perform similar acts of confession.

79 Ibid.: poem 6, l. 3.

80 In one poem (Joby (2008): poem 1), he refers to ‘eternal strife’ in the church. The poem was inspired by the conversion to Catholicism of a close friend, Tesselschade Visscher, and it seems that for him this ‘eternal strife’ was caused by the doctrine of transubstantiation. See also n. 49 above.