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torpenti multa relinquitur miseria. – De Imitatione.
ONCE in a generation an author surpasses the bounds of nationality. Of such cosmopolitan artists Maurice Maeterlinck is perhaps the most shining example. Twenty years ago I was vainly endeavouring to interest English publishers in his plays. Today I am asked to produce a version of one of his earlier and less familiar works, because the time is approaching for that monument to his fame which so few writers enjoy in their lifetime – the complete edition. Maeterlinck is not a Belgian writer merely or chiefly; above all he is an English, an American author. His readers in England and the United States far outnumber those who read the original French. His books are published in England and America almost as soon as they appear in France and Belgium, and in at least one case the English publication was the earlier. More and more do his lovers demand every word that his pen has formed. Sooner or later, therefore, it was inevitable that these Poems should appear in translation.II
The poems contained in this volume form part of a movement long defunct – the Belgian Symbolist movement, an offshoot of that Belgian renascence which produced so remarkable a body of great and noble poetry. I cannot say, however, that the perusal of the other poets of the period will assist the reader to appreciate the volume in hand. Eekhoud, Elskamp, Gilkin, Rodenbach, Verhaeren – none of these wrote verse which could possibly be confounded with that of Maeterlinck; twenty years ago the latter was no less original than he is to-day.
Many poets of the late nineteenth century were, without being symbolists, affected by the Symbolist movement – a movement very loosely named, since the actual symbolists connected with it could be counted on the fingers of one hand. More particularly were they influenced by the tendency to put music before matter, beauty before sense, which is expressed by the so familiar lines of Verlaine:
De la musique avant toute chose, Et pour cela prefere l'Impair, Plus vague et plus soluble dens l'air, Sans rien en lui qui pese on pose . . . De la musique encor et toujours!
But musical as Maeterlinck's verses are, and rich in sheer beauty, we are very seldom in doubt as to what the poet says, however little we may in some cases understand what he means. His statements are concrete and lucid; it is the inner meaning, the soul of his verse, that sometimes threatens to elude us. Had this volume been cast upon the late Victorian world, this preface would perhaps have been longer. But I cannot believe that these poems will present any difficulties to a generation which has degustated such phenomena as Cubism and its kindred manifestations.III
It is safe to assert that the writer of these poems had read his Verlaine, his Rimbaud, his Mallarme and his Baudelaire, and, of English-speaking poets, Blake, Poe, Emerson, perhaps Rossetti, and above all, Whitman. But he is no disciple: and his essential originality, and the keynote of his aesthetics, is a system of symbolism.
Now here at once we are on dangerous ground. When a poet makes use of a symbol it is because that symbol enables him to say something that he cannot say so well, or so beautifully, or perhaps at all, in plain language. He is a rash man, therefore, who will attempt to elucidate another's symbolism. However, I have already been rash, in venturing to translate, not a few selected lyrics, but an entire volume of verse from cover to cover, than which there is no more appalling task in literature. But I am not therefore going to court disaster by attempting any detailed or positive explanation. I could, indeed, have asked M. Maeterlinck for such, but at the moment of writing his country is being crucified by the powers of darkness, and he has other and sterner matters to think of.
This machinery of hot-houses, bell-glasses, hospitals, and what not – what are we to make of it? I do not think we shall go far wrong in supposing the hot-house, the bell-glass, the diving-bell, the hospital, to typify that isolation and insulation which is caused by a false civilisation and an unreal religion, so productive of hypocrisy, fear and confusion that each man is a prisoner within himself, unable to reach his fellow. And the inmates of the hot-house – the strange growths, the fantastic visions, the violent antitheses and incongruities – these, we may take it, are the morbidities fostered by a life which protects us and them from the agencies by which Nature makes her own children perfect in strength and beauty and service. That is my reading of it; the reader is perfectly free to differ from me, and will lose little by so doing if I have succeeded in preserving a tithe of the original beauty of the verse.
If here and there – more particularly in the unrhymed pieces – the violent and intentional incongruities and antitheses seem startling and incomprehensible, and a little apt to tickle the risibility of the frivolous Anglo-Saxon, let us remember that to read a symbolic poem literally is as foolish as to seek for a cipher in Shakespeare, or to set about interpreting a melody in terms of its notation, in the hope of spelling out a message.
One peculiarity of Maeterlinck's which may at first confuse the English reader is only a simple convention. All poetry is full of similes; the simile confuses no one. If a poet tells us that his heart is like a singing-bird, we do not seriously suppose him to mean that his heart has feathers and two legs; but merely that it possesses some other essential quality of a singing-bird. Now, Maeterlinck constantly, in his verse, uses what is merely a modification of the simile, and which has precisely the same significance, but which takes the form of a positive assertion of identity. He would say: My heart is a singing-bird, or a plant in a green-house, or anything else that seemed to be illuminating; and this apparent literalness of statement, which is carried very far, is, and must always be understood as, a mere variant of the familiar simile.IV
A word as to the work of translation. Most of the lyrics in Serres Chaudes are written in the metre familiar to English readers as that of "In Memoriam." It is, in English, rather a dull metre, the stanza being in reality no stanza at all, but merely a line of thirty-two syllables with interior rhymes. It is greatly improved and enlivened by the omission of four syllables, or, rather, by their replacement by pauses of one syllable's value. This change I have sometimes made; and in one case I have, in order to avoid a verbal obscurity, extended the line to ten syllables. Apart from these exceptions, all the poems in this volume are translated into their original metres, and it has always been my first object to produce a literal, almost a word for word translation. Whatever the faults of my version, it is strictly faithful. If I am deemed to have also preserved something of the beauty of the original, I shall feel more than rewarded for a task that has presented many difficulties.
Ilfracombe, N. Devon,