Willem Bilderdijk


July 5, 2022

Willem Bilderdijk (Amsterdam, September 7, 1756 – Haarlem, December 18, 1831) was a Dutch historian, linguist, poet and lawyer.

Youth and study

Bilderdijk was born on September 7, 1756 as the son of the physician Dr. Izaäk Bilderdijk and Sibilla Duyzenddaalders. The day after his birth, the windows of his father's house on Westermarkt were smashed. Bilderdijk would regard this as the first attack in his life. His father was appointed tax auditor the year after his birth, his medical practice having expired due to his Orangist sympathies. Thanks to Anna van Hannover, his father was assigned this job. Early on, Bilderdijk was tormented by "buzzing in the head from fatigue of thought" that made life unbearable for him. Melancholy and longing for death would haunt him for the rest of his life. In his sixth year of life, he was struck by an accident in a foot, which caused inflammation of the periosteum. Medical errors forced him to stay indoors, cut off from the outside world and his peers. He spent over ten years mostly indoors, devoting himself to study, drawing and writing. Here he laid the foundation for his fabulous knowledge. He owed his skills as a draftsman and etcher to the education of Johannes van Dreght, who was his teacher for ten years.


In 1776 the Leiden poetry society 'Art is obtained by Labor' awarded its verse on the 'Influence of poetry on the government' with the gold medal. His ambition to devote himself entirely to poetry was not supported by his strict father, a doctor and later tax inspector. In the same year, he reluctantly began to work as a bookkeeper in his father's office. In 1780, now known as a poet and in contact with Rhijnvis Feith, he was able to start his law studies at Leiden University. Two years later he completed his studies and established himself as a lawyer in The Hague. In 1781 his collection of slightly erotic verses, My Delight, with the vignettes etched by himself, saw the light.


In 1785 he married Catharina Rebecca Woesthoven (1763-1828). As a lawyer, he mainly defended the prince-minded, including the legendary folk woman Catharina Mulder, alias Kaat Mossel. But without denying his own beliefs, he also defended persecuted patriots. In the summer of 1787, when the civil war between the prosperous and the patriots was at its height, Bilderdijk was sent to Wezel, where the Prussian army prepared an invasion. His assignment was "to translate Brunswijk's manifestos into Dutch and to show the duke as he advanced through the medieval patchwork that was the Republic and each country individually."

French army raid

In 1795, with the invasion of the French armies and the flight of stadtholder William V to England, he was forced as a lawyer to recognize the achievements of the French Revolution. He refused and was forced to leave the country. His married life, which had cooled down considerably, the deep suffering of three children who died young and the many creditors who pursued him, made him decide to travel to the city of Groningen.


In 1795, in London, he met the nineteen-year-old daughter of the painter Hendrik Willem Schweickhardt, Katharina Wilhelmina Schweickhardt, with whom he fell in love. After her father denied him access to his home, a fiery correspondence ensued between the two lovers. Although the divorce between Bilderdijk and his wife only became a fact many years later, in 1797 he regarded Katharina Wilhelmina as his new wife. In the summer he left for Brunswijk, where he kept himself busy by giving lessons in a large number of subjects