Since a special treatment is dedicated to Flemish literature and, on the other hand, French literature of Belgium is spoken of when dealing with French literature, it is only important here to indicate what link exists between them, and to what extent it can be said that they constitute a literature. Belgian. This term should not be taken too literally. In fact, there is no Belgian literature in the sense in which there is an Italian literature. First, because it lacks the unity of language; secondly because, as a whole, the two peoples that make up Belgium have not so far been entirely fused and amalgamated, but still each retain the fundamental characteristics of their individuality. However, the life in common through centuries, the centralizing influence of the capital, the although rare, continuous relationships have evidently recounted them; the social currents that have shaped them have created real affinities between them, and certain common traits attenuate their differences: so that one can speak, if not of a Belgian soul, of a Belgian conscience.
On the other hand, it must be considered that the capital is bilingual, and that even in the Flemish country a part of the population speaks only or preferably French. Numerically, this fraction involves only a small minority, about 3%; but since it belongs above all to the educated classes, it exerts a great influence. On the contrary, the Flemish elements of Wallonia, which are much less numerous, are mainly made up of immigrant workers or peasants, and have no influence at all on the general aspect of civilization in that region.
The Flemish writers make use of the same language as the Dutch writers, and it is undeniable that they are united with strong ties to their Dutch brethren. Likewise, the French writers of Belgium constitute a province of literary France. Therefore, if only the language is taken into account, a clear division cannot be established either in the north or in the south. But if the spirit is taken into account, it is observed that most Flemish-speaking writers differ from Dutch writers, and that a good number of Belgian French-speaking writers are distinguished, by notable differences, from French writers. Many of them are, moreover, Flemish. Furthermore, it is easy to recognize more than one characteristic common to the two Belgian literatures, and also, at least for the last few periods,
It will be useful to outline this evolution in outline, in order to insist later on the points of contact.
At the beginning of the century XIX there was no longer any literature worthy of the name in Belgium. The annexation of Flanders to the northern Low Countries (1815-1830), aroused a revival of Flemish poetry, an awakening that was still very weak, which testified more good will than genius; however these germs could develop after Flanders was separated from Holland by the revolution of 1830, and the kingdom of Belgium was established. The opposite might have been expected, given that the centralizing government had declared French the only official language; but this reaction against the Flemish was opposed by another current, which grew rapidly and did not cease to gain ground. After 1830 a whole new Flemish literature was born with the fruitful novelist Henry (Hendrik) Conscience (1812-1883), of which it could be said that he “taught his people to read”, and the poets Ledeganck (1805-1847), Van Duyse (1804-1859), T. Van Ryswyck (1811-1849) who formed the romantic era. The period that goes from 1850 to about 1880 appears to be oriented towards greater realism, and a greater vigor of style. In fact, the less indulgent one of Sleeckx (1818-1901) arose alongside the shy and sentimental realism of Conscience, while the poetic form was refined, also always approaching reality, with Dautzenberg (1808-1869) and Jan van Beers (1821) -1888), to mention only the principal names. Of this generation, only one work has remained more alive today than ever: that of Guido Gezelle (1830-1899), which, finally, is pure poetry, a pure musical expression of the soul. Gezelle was a West Flemish priest. He had the language undergo a complete rehash: concerned with naturalness, including elements of his dialect, he made it pliable and rich in nuances, as no one had done before him. His verses sing of his faith and all the aspects of his native land with a fervor, a freshness, a personal accent, a wealth of new images, a delicacy of rhythms that today have made him unanimously recognized as the greatest poet, more delicate and more original than Flanders. His first collections of verses range from 1858 to 1862; unfortunately an intimate crisis silenced him for more than twenty years, and his influence only began in the last years of his life. What strikes the attention in this development of Flemish literature during these fifty ‘ years is its growth with the force of natural, necessary things; its sprouting from a whole people, of which it reflects with ever greater richness the most diverse aspects.
Instead, during this whole period the French production remained sporadic. The only poets who rose above mediocrity are Th. Weustenraad (1805-1849) and André van Hasselt (1805-1874), both born in Maestricht, a Dutch-speaking country. Little appreciated by contemporaries, their work today has little more than historical value. Noble is the intellectual and moral physiognomy of the prose writer Octave Pirmez (1832-1883), a loner, whose reflections on life are full of resigned melancholy. But the real precursor was Charles De Coster (1827-1879). His Vlenspiegel (1867), a vast prose poem, written in savory French, here and there tinged with archaism, a fiery and picturesque epic, embodies the spirit of freedom and revolt so well that it has become a kind of national Bible, although the its author in life remained isolated and unknown: he had come too soon to an intellectual environment that was still too poor.
However, around 1880, the precursor signs of a renaissance multiply, and the center of gravity begins to shift. On the one hand, in Flemish literature, the pulsation of life slows down: it generally remains in the line of tradition, surprises are rare: the poet Alberto Rodenbach (1856-1881), who brought great promise, died at the age of twenty-four; after him Pol de Mont (born in 1857) boldly expanded the field of poetry, but it must be recognized that his work is more brilliant than profound; Virginie Loveling (1836-1923) and Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) directed the short story and the novel towards a more sincere realism, but without however being able to free themselves from the conventionalism of use. On the other hand, however, in French literature that had previously remained so sleepy, we see the sudden blossoming of a whole group of noteworthy talents. Their main organ was the magazine Jeune Belgique founded in 1881 by Max Waller. It will suffice here to mention some of the most important and significant names among prose writers, first the deans Edmond Picard (1836-1924) and Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913), then Georges Eekhoud (1854-1927), Eugène Demolder (1862-1919) ; among the poets Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916), Iwan Gilkin (1858-1926), Albert Giraud (born in 1860), Chaerles van Lerberghe (1862-1907), Max Elskamp (born in 1862), Albert Mockel (born 1866), Fernand Severin (born 1867).
This change, which gave absolute supremacy to French literature for a couple of generations, is closely linked to the pre-eminence of the French language in teaching.