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INTRODUCTION AND BIOGRAPHICAL OUTLINE
MAURICE MAETERLINCK, Tolstoy, and Ibsen are read in England by men and women who care little or nothing as a rule for the literature of the Continent, because all three make appeals which are not solely artistic. Maeterlinck is the youngest, and his appeals are the most numerous and diverse. He is a moralist, and we like moralists; and there is a special reason why he should reach English ears as a moralist. He knows our literature; he can read Chaucer; he has admired Shakespeare and been his disciple; he has translated a play of John Ford's; above all, his circle of influences as moralist includes Coleridge, Carlyle, Emerson, and Ruskin. His "Life of the Bee," again, attracts us because it appears to reconcile Science and Poetry, which is a reconciliation we have long discussed, foreseen, doubted, and desired. His essay on riding in a motor-car pleases for a similar reason; we like to see that mechanical inventions do not destroy adventure and romance, and we applaud this essay as we do Mr. Kipling's "McAndrew's Hymn" and "Traffics and Discoveries," etc. "The Sources of Spring," "Old-fashioned Flowers," and the like flatter our fondness for writing about the country. He gets home upon us also with his praise of boxing. Then his "Blue Bird" allows itself to be so presented on our stage that it rivals the celebrated "Peter Pan," and even resembles it; it is also sentimental, indefinitely mysterious and significant. Even his early plays have a melancholy, a romance of unreality, a morbidity, combined with innocence, which piques our indulgence. He has no irony to put us on the defensive. Translated into English, he never astonishes us, and we have an admirable and almost complete series of translations by Messrs. Sutro, Archer, Teixeira de Mattos, Bernard Miall, and Gerard Harry.
Maurice Maeterlinck, or Mooris Maeterlinck, as he spelt it in 1886, was born at Ghent on August 29, 1862. He came of a Flemish family which had been settled in the neighbourhood for six centuries, and the name of Maeterlinck is said to have been first earned and taken by a bailiff who in a year of famine gave corn to the poor. As a child he lived at Oostacker, on the bank of a canal connecting Ghent with Terneuzen; so near was the water that the ships seemed to be sliding through the garden itself. His formal education he had at Ghent from the Jesuits of the College of St. Barbe, whose seven years' tyranny, says Madame Maeterlinck, marred the sweet hours of his youth. There he met his friends, Charles van Lerberghe and Grégoire Le Roy, who became poets, and with them he subscribed and even contributed to La Jeune Belgique, a new and nationalistic literary review. According to the wish of his family he read for the Bar, and at the University came into contact with Émile Verhaeren, a man seven years older, now a notable poet and "the most eminent, along with Maurice Maeterlinck, of those modern authors who feel in Flemish, and write in French." But like Rodenbach, says M. Edouar Schuré, Maeterlinck had dreamed alongside the sleeping waters of Belgium and in the dead cities, and, though his dream did not become a paralysing reverie, thanks to his vigorous and healthy body, he was already troubled in such a way that he was unlikely to accept the conditions of the Bar and the bourgeois life. He had already written triolets and prose when he went to Paris for the first time, at the age of twenty-four. This visit, made professedly in the interest of his legal studies, but in the company of Grégoire Le Roy, confirmed his literary avocation and ambition. The two men entered the artistic and literary life
Paris, and met Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and others of the very modern writers. It was Le Roy, now turning from art to poetry, who read to some of these men "The Massacre of the Innocents," a prose tale, and afterwards introduced Maeterlinck, the. author. From such meetings grew La Pléiade, a short-lived review, which printed "The Massacre of the Innocents" and some of the poems collected in "Serres Chaudes," and is otherwise unforgotten for its part in the history of symbolism. The law-student returned to Ghent after little more than six months and began to practise at the Bar. But Rodenbach had introduced him to La Jeune Belgique, and he had contributed more poems to it. The year 1889 saw inseparable events -- the publication of Maeterlinck's poems, ,"Serres Chaudes," and his farewell to the Bar. Madame Maeterlinck mentions "a very accurate mind and a special gift of practical good sense" among his qualifications for the legal profession. The enthusiastic Gerard Harry says that he lost with "triumphant ease" the first and last cases in which he pleaded, and gives as one reason the fact that his voice was impracticably harsh and thin, and as another his excessive shyness and solitary, taciturn habits of meditation.
He had now apparently nothing before him but authorship. He was far less a journalist then than he is to-day. He continued to live at Oostacker, and turned from his writing only to tend his bees, to work at a lathe, to walk, row, skate, or cycle, Madame Maeterlinck says that he lived at home because he was indifferent to his material surroundings, Gerard Harry that he was there surrounded by reproductions of pictures by Burne-Jones, Odilon Redon, and Georges Minnè. At intervals he was even compelled to attend to material surroundings, as a member of the Civic Guard of Ghent; but he allowed his musket to rust until the night before an inspection. From his window, at least, he could see a country which could easily suggest the scene of his early play, "Les Sept Princesses": "A dark land of marshes, Of pools, and of oak and pine forests .... Between enormous willows a straight and gloomy canal, on which a great ship of war advances."
In the same year as "Serres Chaudes," 1889, appeared "La Princesse Maleine," after having been privately printed, to the number of thirty copies, by the author himself on a hand-press. A Belgian critic announced that the play made an epoch in the history of the stage. A French critic in Le Figaro, Octave Mirbeau, said that no one could be more unknown than the author, but that his book was a masterpiece, "comparable shall I dare say it? -- superior in beauty to the most beautiful in Shakespeare." In opposition to this heavy-handed compliment a sting was easily added to the phrase, "Belgian Shakespeare," and some one explained that the play was Shakespeare because it was made with scraps of Shakespeare. Gerard Harry retorted that the characters of Shakespeare are marionettes in comparison with Hjalmar and Maleine. Maeterlinck was disturbed by interviewers, became tired and sick of them, and comforted his outraged modesty by himself calling the play" Shakespearterie." Maeterlinck's modesty or shyness is made impressive by many witnesses. Gerard Harry quotes a letter accepting an invitation to dinner on condition that he is received Without ceremony, adding: "I am a peasant."
Later on, Georges Leneveu says that Maeterlinck barricades himself against all indiscretion and curiosity, detests notoriety, is indifferent to the representation of his work, avoids the cackling, the flattery, all the small change of celebrity. At the end of a first night he was modest, simple, altogether without display in dress or manner. His gestures were gentle with reflection, his voice low and rarely heard. He had no pride of success, but an air at once uneasy and detached, as if tired of being there. His deep blue eye was cold and mournful, like a mirror that retains the images of indefinite and impalpable things, as Barbey d'Aurevilly says the eyes always are of those who look more within than without. His brow was deep and square and shone pale. He made the observer think Of his own untranslatable words:
Sous l'eau du songe qui s'élève
Mon âme a peur, mon âme a peur.
The same writer says, by way of contrast, that the playwright keeps bees and teaches a dog to sing; he calls him a sportsman, a man always getting about, a great drinker of ale -- a great boy, a good fellow, a Bohemian. Here may perhaps be discerned the writer in praise of the sword, the fist, and the automobile, the friend of the bull-dog, and the creator of Tylo.
After "La Princesse Maleine" came "L'Intruse" and "Les Aveugles," acted in 1891, and "Les Sept Princesses." His translation from the Flemish of "L'Ornement des Noces Spirituelles" of the mediaeval mystic, Ruysbroeck l'Admirable, also appeared in 1891; and his Introduction to this book first made public his interest in Plato, Plotinus, S. Dionysus the Areopagite, Jacob Behmen, Novalis, and Coleridge, Herein also he proclaims Villiers de l'Isle Adam and Stephane Mallarmé as the greatest French mystics of the day. Four years later he published a translation of Novalis's "Disciples at Sais" and the fragments, with an Introduction where he says that here we find ourselves, not upon Ruysbroeck's dim blue peaks of the soul, but in an atmosphere of crystal on the sharp and often perilous ridges of the intellect, but sometimes in the sweet shade of recesses beneath. He applies a similar figure to Emerson, speaking of the irregularly rounded and more humble claims of the heart in his essays. Seven of these had been translated into French by I. Will, and were published in 1894 with a Preface, full of a feeling of discipleship, by Maeterlinck. He was himself the maker of the French version of John Ford's "'Tis Pity she's a Whore," acted in the same year and published in the next. Meantime he had written more plays. "Pelléas et Mélisande" was put on the stage by Lugné Poe and Camille Mauclair in 1893. It was loudly praised. The play was "absolutely clever," even to a critic who could say of "Sept Princesses" only that it was a thin volume published at Brussels by Lacomblez. The next year was the year of the "three little plays for marionettes" -- "Alladine et Palomides," "Intérieur," and "La Mort de Tintagiles." M. Camille Mauclair now coupled him, as did the opinion of a multitude, with Ibsen. He had then written the book of poems and the eight plays which are, whether his best or not, of all his writings most purely and decidedly his own, works of a singular trembling intensity, apparently conceived and executed in a solitude without a sound. Five or six years afterwards, referring to these early plays as revealing "the disquiet of a mind that has given itself wholly to mystery," he seemed to apologize for them as representing the "instinctive feelings" of his art rather than the thoughts of "real life." Mauclair even at this date points out the duality of Maeterlinck's mind, which is equally fit for creations at once concrete and arresting, and for abstract speculation. He goes on to say that the great man seems to prefer discursive metaphysics to the creative literature which has given him his fame, and that he will end by giving up plays and works of imagination, taking to the work of a moralist exclusively. What he has already done promises an artistic metaphysician, whose philosophy will be like Carlyle's in its images. He has no intellectual affinity to Shakespeare, but he does make us think of Marcus Aurelius.
Maeterlinck now, in 1896, left his native country for good, and settled in Paris. Gerard Harry tells us that he had hoped in vain for a place in the public service which would waste little of his time, and would make him independent. In spite of his promised immortality, and his dangerous proximity to Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius, he lived a secret, intellectual life in Paris, inaccessible to all but a few.
MAURICE MAETERLINCK AS A YOUNG MAN
The year 1896 was in other ways a memorable one in his life, for then were published "Le Trésor des Humbles," his first volume of Essays, and "Aglavaine et Sélysette." Madame Maeterlinck quotes a letter, in which he says that Aglavaine brought him "a new atmosphere, a will to happiness, a power of hope." Henceforth, he continues, Aglavaine's light will direct him in a "serene, happy, and consoling course," away, it may be supposed, from the dim, blue-lit marshlands of the early plays, and from that conception of life which he himself, in an essay in "Le Temple Enseveli," calls "not healthy." Edouar Schuré, seeing a resemblance in him to the sick Rodenbach, author of "Bruges la Morte," sees also "a stronger spirit in a vigorous, healthy body," a fundamentally simple and strong affirmative man Under the mask of an exquisite and a decadent. Gerard Harry describes his "sturdy, full-fleshed Flemish body, such as Jordaens loved to paint," and the portraits show us a thick-lipped, thick-necked man, who appears to lack nothing of a virile equipment, unless it be humor. This is the man, the painter obviously of the entirely Flemish scenes in "Le Massacre des Innocents," almost inconceivable as the poet of "Serres Chaudes" and the dramatist of "Les Sept Princesses" and "Alladine et Palomides"; this is the man whom Aglavaine, the first of his heroines with a will, leads out into the twilight -- whether morning or evening twilight is not dear.
"Le Trésor des Humbles," it should be noticed, is dedicated to the actress Madame Georgette Leblanc, now Madame Maeterlinck. It marks by no means an escape from the world of "Les Sept Princesses," and no great step from the Introduction to Ruysbroeck's book; but some of its chapters had already been printed in the magazines, and its tone is that of a man who wishes to be heard, and does not appear in public by accident. Here, writes Mr. Arthur Symons, Maeterlinck "dropped his disguise." But, as if to show that he could in safety turn back and look at the enchanted forest behind him, he published in this same year, 1896, another little book of poems, "Douze Chansons," now altered to "Quinze Chansons " -- poems in which we see and suspect nothing whatever of the full-fleshed and powerful Flemish body.
"Le Trésor des Humbles" was acclaimed like "Pelléas et Mélisande"; it had not to wait for admiration. It showed Edouar Schuré, for example, one of the most grave and spiritual of critics, that the playwright had a will and an ideal, that he had faith in a transcendent and absolute truth. Towards this truth he saw Maeterlinck travelling undismayed by the horrors of reality or the phantoms of dreams. He points with satisfaction to the essayist's " initiators " -- Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry, Marcus Aurelius, Dionysius the Areopagite, among the ancients; Behmen, Ruysbroeck, mystics of the Middle Age (a term very much extended to include Behmen); Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer, modern philosophers; Novalis, Emerson, Carlyle, Coleridge, Eliphas Levi, and Amiel, those intuitive thinkers of the nineteenth century, apostles of the soul and knights of the spirit, against triumphing positivism and materialism. Schuré saw in this book and in "La Sagesse et la Destinée" not only reflections of these mystics and philosophers, but something more than doctrine -- an experience of the inner life, proof of a subconsciousness in touch with an invisible world, proof that each man is a little world surrounded by a magnetic atmosphere emanating from his passions, his feelings, and his habitual ideas. . . "La Sagesse" followed "Le Trésor" in 1898. It was dedicated to Georgette Leblanc as the result of her collaboration in thought and example: he had only to listen to her words and follow her life with his eyes when he wrote the book; for to do so was to follow "the words, the movements, the habits, of wisdom itself." Even "La Sagesse" caused some distress among those who had hailed a mystic prophet in the author of "Le Trésor." He had forsaken the heights, they lamented, for the sad plains of the earth; he who saw visions now attended to earthly things.
"La Vie des Abeilles" came in 1901. It was and it was precise; it was science and not only together but allied. This was the of day, of every day. There was no need to be a mystic, or to know that word, in order to admire this joyous eloquence, this sunny and real world. "Truly," says Gerard Harry, after pointing to the happiness of Maeterlinck's union with Georgette Leblanc, "henceforward he looks upon life less desperately and less fearfully." "I am a peasant," said he, explaining his dislike of ceremony years before. Among his bees he might seem, to an enthusiastic reader, a solid, meditative peasant to whose serenity has been added curiosity without disturbance. Such a reader would be delighted to see that Maeterlinck is indifferent to opera and lyrical drama. "Pelléas et Mélisande" as a lyrical drama, with music by Debussy, was first played in 1902; but he took no interest in it-not only, it would appear, from an objection to the mishandling of his work, but because he knows and cares nothing for music.
The year of "La Vie des Abeilles" was also that of "Ardiane et Barbe Bleue" and "Sur Béatrice" the first a gorgeous and allegorical rendering of the story of Blue Beard, the second a legendary play which might have been written to illustrate the philosophy of "Le Trésor des Humbles." They are the clear and firm work of the mature Maeterlinck, and they point forward to "Joyzelle"; but at the same time, they point back to the period of the early plays, where, with some difference of treatment, a more languid and misty development, they would have been quite in place.
"Le Temple Enseveli" was published in the year after "La Vie des Abeilles," in 1902. It has been seen that it contains a quiet adult criticism of the early plays. Its subjects are "The Mystery of Justice," "The Evolution of Mystery," "The Kingdom of Matter," "The Past," and "Luck." Obviously they are the work of a man of intellect and much reading. If "Le Trésor" is a book which was at least written deliberately in order that it might be read," Le Temple Enseveli" might have been delivered in the form of lectures. It is the work of a man who, recluse or not, is in contact with the World. It alarmed the more religious of his mystical admirers. Schuré bids him beware! lie is tending to a purely materialistic view and a denial of the divine law, which is to destroy eternal justice, the invisible world, and God, the soul's sun, towards which he was steering his uncertain vessel .... It might have seemed that Maeterlinck was advancing towards a social and not a solitary position as a writer, willing to consider whatever might concern his contemporaries, a possible contributor of a weekly or monthly causerie; not only able to write beautifully on a broomstick, but perhaps willing to do so, should he be asked.
"Monna Vanna," also belongs to 1902. It is a clear and solid play, relating in the main to history and to this world. Here was no need of marionettes to act the still, drugged parts of afflicted men and women. The play is as intense as it is real; the single interest exacts from each of the live principal characters the deepest truth and nothing else. Not more than half, perhaps, is unmistakably the work of Maeterlinck, so free is it from mannerism; all save the conclusion is unmistakably the work of a master. The most striking proof of his individuality is our feeling that the story could not have been chosen or invented by another man, and that, had it been, the development from the entry of Vanna into Prinzivalle's tent must have been entirely different.
"Joyzelle," a play of 1903, is a picturesque romantic allegory. It belongs to the same class as "Sur Béatrice" and "Barbe Bleue,'' and, like them, seems a by-product of Maeterlinck's energy. It has not the enchanted atmosphere of the early plays, or the reality of "Monna Vanna." It is fanciful, and has even a kind of finished hardness, as of a tour-de-force which has not been able to concentrate all of the author's powers.
In the next year came "Le Double Jardin," and, after a similar interval, "Life of Flowers," two collections of descriptions, essays, and criticisms which had nearly all been translated in England or America before they were gathered into books. Their subjects include a favourite dog, duelling and boxing, the bank at Monte Carlo, a motorcar, chrysanthemums, immortality, Rome, the psychology of accident, "King Lear," and the manufacture of scents. They are brilliant, eloquent, and ingenious. They are always perfectly his own, but show the writer in a public character, always in touch with an audience, and more and more purely intellectual.
"L'Oiseau Bleu" was published in England in 1909 and in France in 1910. Gerard Harry tells us that Maeterlinck, in unmeasured terms, refused to allow Coquelin Ainé to adapt this play "to the taste of a boulevard public." It had already appeared on the stage in Moscow, had made the fortune of the Theatre des Arts, and has since been played by fifty-nine companies in the provinces of Russia. Except that it is for children, it belongs to the class of" Ardiane et Barbe Bleue," etc. "In none of his works," says Mr. Herbert Trench, "has Maeterlinck blended so happily scientific observation with the dream-work of the poet .... Maeterlinck has thus put a whole philosophy into a gay fairy-tale, that may be understood and laughed over by a child." It is the work of a master of fancy, of the theatre and of the public.
"Mary Magdalene" appeared in an English translation in 1910. It is the long-expected successor to "Monna Vanna," and, like that, has been refused a licence for the English stage. It has been executed with the whole of Maeterlinck's mature power and its best is his best work; but it is incomplete. He is now nearing fifty, and his popularity has never been greater. Nearly all his books are multiplied and repeated, by new editions and translations, into many languages. Always independent, money could only add ease and Opportunities for gratifying minor tastes. He spends the winter at Quatre Chemins, near Grasse, in the south of France; the summer at the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Saint Wandrille, in the Seine-Inférieure, where there is an inscription upon one of the walls which Gerard Harry thinks might be the writer's device:
O beata solitudo!
O sola beatitudo!
There Madame Maeterlinck plays "Macbeth," in her husband's translation, while he, it is said, smokes a pipe in peace as well as in solitude. The pipe, according to Gerard Harry, contains a denicotinised herb; for thus, by a piece of heroism discovered by his hero-worshipper, Maeterlinck circumvents his unconquerable craving for tobacco in his hours of work. "By wise disposition," says Madame Maeterlinck, "he has reduced his weakness, economised his strength, balanced his faculties, multiplied his energies, disciplined his instincts." Yet he continues to write. He is early to rise and go out to his garden and his bees, for which his liking is now near thirty years old. Two hours, always exactly two hours, of work follow. Then he goes out again, canoeing, motoring, cycling, or walking. He reads in the evening and "goes to bed in good time." The work of those two hours is prepared easily and quietly during the pleasures and other duties of the day. Madame Maeterlinck compares him taking up his work to a child leaving its games and going on with them as soon as allowed -- an innocent and ambiguous comparison. She implies that his work is subconsciously matured and methodically put on paper, and that his natural tranquillity and the surroundings and conditions of his life have long been felicitously combined; and she says it might seem that the mysterious powers have woven between him and the world a veil which allows him a clear vision whilst yet himself invisible, as they have favoured him by the gift of a home not less wonderful than the castles which he imagined for Alladine and Selysette and Maleine.
LES QUATRES CHEMINS
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