copyright, Kellscraft Studio,
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
FIRST ESSAYS: "LE TRÉSOR DES HUMBLES"; "LA SAGESSE ET LA
MONSIEUR AND MADAME MAETERLINCK.
"LE TRÉSOR DES HUMBLES," the first in a long series
of books of essays, marks no obvious departure from the period of the early
plays which it closes. Arkël, the old man in "Intérieur," and
Aglavaine had already talked in the language of "Le Trésor des Humbles."
The essays on Ruysbroeck, Emerson, and Novalis disclosed the nature of
Maeterlinck's reading and thinking.' That on Emerson showed us, like the
plays, how he loved the idea of silence so much that the words of the people
in his plays often seem no more than swallows flying about a deep and still
lake, whose surface they ruffle seldom and but for a moment. "Le Trésor
des Humbles" opens with a quotation from Carlyle upon silence and secrecy,
saying that "silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves
together," and that "speech is too often . . . the act of quite stifling
and suspending thought, so that there is none to conceal .... Speech is of
Time, silence is of Eternity." As in the Introduction to the translations
from Emerson these words by another suffice to set him travelling up and
on in his airy path, beginning with the words: "It is idle to think that,
by means of words, any real communication can ever pass from one man to another."
In this book, again, he introduces a variation upon "The silence of a child
is wiser than the speech of Marcus Aurelius"; for he asks now what difference
there is between words of his and words of a child who complains of cold.
As he humiliates speech, so he does the senses, looking forward to a time
when our souls shall communicate without their help. Even now, he argues,
we know very much without them, and instead of saying, as in the essay on
Emerson, that a man's soul is something different from his words or from
his own presentation of himself, he imagines the soul stripped of her veils,
so that the most secret thoughts only remain, and he sees the soul of a
prostitute "with the transparent smile of the child in her eyes," or a murderer
surrounded by an air of purity, a philosopher by "unendurable gloom." It
may be, he thinks, the supreme aim of life to set free these yet inexplicable
powers, such is that invisible goodness which is denied to no man. Life has
deepened in recent times, and has gained in depth and spiritual gravity what
it has lost in external attractiveness; the pomp and the picturesqueness
of life survive chiefly in books and on the stage, but are as nothing compared
with the reality of silent trees or an old man in an arm-chair beside a lamp
in solitude. Now that the big and the violent have no authority the child
emerges into significance, and with the child the woman; and women, he says,
are more naturally in harmony with the mysteries of life;" they are nearer
to God"; and he speaks of" those profound moments" when a man's head lies
on the breast of a woman -- profound moments when, perhaps, the hero learns
"to know the strength and steadfastness of his star." In intellect they may
be inferior, but in the higher regions all are equal. Of such a world as
this which is seen or foreseen by Maeterlinck, women like Aglavaine and Maleine
are fit inhabitants, and in it Maleine would have no need to die by the cord
nor Aglavaine to cause the death of Selysette. Women he calls the "veiled
sisters" of the great unseen things, and the phrase is only one of many which
belong to the world of the plays. These silent, divining women, looking so
insignificant, are like the characters of those plays. Still more like them
are those silent and mysterious beings who are destined to an early death
and are dimly aware of it, timid yet grave and steadfast. Their resignation
seems beautiful to him, and in "The Star" he speaks of "the meek, resigned
smile" of the soul as being its deepest expression. In "The Invisible Goodness"
he compares men with sleep-walkers or the blind, and recalls "Les Aveugles
') when he says that we never see or touch each other in this life. The
predestined are those on whom death has set a visible doom, such as Arkël
saw on Mélisande. But they are not essentially exceptional in
Maeterlinck's opinion, for death he calls the guide and the goal of life.
Everywhere is to be seen his belief, and a tender fervour in advocating it,
that the mere fact of living is wonderful, so wonderful that our distinctions
between the important and the unimportant fade away. Only external things
make these distinctions, and of external things he takes no account. What
lies beneath is what is valuable and significant, and at present we know
little or nothing of this, except that it is unfathomable in all men. Hence
at present an equality of mystery and greatness in all. What is known is
uninteresting, and he says, with Whitman:
|What is known I strip away,
I launch all men and women forward with me into the
Maeterlinck also says "All." Arkël called Mélisande a poor little
mysterious being, "like everybody else," and Maeterlinck allows no differences
of good and bad, great and small, young and old. The prostitute and the murderer
may have white, lovely souls, while the philosopher and the martyr may spread
gloom wherever they go. In Ford's play of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," which
Maeterlinck translated, Giovanni says to his incestuous sister Annabella
before he stabs her:
| Since we must part,
Go thou, white in thy soul, to fill a throne
Of innocence and sanctity in heaven.
This is the note of Maeterlinck, but Giovanni confidently expects, not an inner and heavenly sanction only, but that of intelligent posterity:
| If ever after times should hear
Of our fast-knit affections, though perhaps
The laws of conscience and of civil use
May justly blame us, yet when they but know
Our loves, that love will wipe away that rigour
Which would in other incests be abhorred.
What lover says to lover in the ecstasy of tragedy Maeterlinck says quietly
to all the world. But for his soft and shadowy voice, his words are those
of Walt Whitman in the "Salut au Monde":
|Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless -- each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allow'd the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.
Only Maeterlinck has scarcely an equivalent for Whitman's praise of the body, when he says that the skin, the hair, the bones, the marrow . . . "are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul." To Whitman all that is, all visible things, are so glorious and strange that though he would have life better, yet he cannot think of making it so except through love of what it already is. Whitman sees that men are divine, and Maeterlinck has intimations that they are: at the bottom of all our acts, he says in his Introduction to Camille Mauclair's "Jules Laforgue" (1896), there is "a kind of childish and divine smile . . . which might be named the soul's smile." He is shy and gentle with all his asseveration, having neither bulk nor weight, but speaking like a disembodied spirit. Just as his plays show "the reaction of the imagination against" what Mr. Symons unjustly calls "the wholly prose theatre of Ibsen, into which life comes nakedly, cruelly, subtly, but without distinction, without poetry," so in these essays we meet "children and spirits" rather than the men and women of life or of Ibsen's plays. There are places where he speaks so airily -- like the legendary bird of Paradise that had no feet, and could never alight on earth or tree -- that he might seem to be only building up in fancy from some such words as those of Novalis: "Blame nothing human, for all is good, though all may not be good in every place, or at all times, or for all men." Did he ever, in writing this book, remember some other words which he had translated a few years before, those of Ruysbroeck's seventy-sixth chapter? The mystic is writing of those egoists who attain a natural idle calm which they mistake for the heavenly calm of saints. They think themselves contemplative, and, thanks to their natural calm, believe themselves free and in direct union with God, and therefore raised above the practice of the Church and the commandments of God, the law, and virtuous works. Therefore, too, they can do all that their bodily natures desire, for they have reached innocence, and there is no law for them; and if nature is tempted to some pleasure and a refusal might darken or disturb the calm of the spirit, they satisfy nature according to the desire, lest the calm of the spirit should be disturbed.
Probably Maeterlinck did not remember these words, or his book might have been hesitating as well as shy. But hesitating it never is. For his foundations are built upon truths within the experience of all, and he builds all the more audaciously because most men ignore these foundations altogether. Every one has come to the edge of a mystery, as of a deep sea for which no experience or thinking has prepared him; every one has used powers of intuition and unconscious hidden activity for which he has no name. We have assurances and consolations inexplicable, the very reason for living is hidden from many. Very widely distributed is the kindliness felt for a scoundrel who is generous, the contempt for the man who is perfect according to some obvious rule or law. Tolerance and a sense of mystery are the foundations of "Le Trésor des Humbles." It brings those who are open to slender and vague voices out of the darkness some of the new assurances and consolations that are needed, or confirms the old. It plays the same part as Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra" in laying stress upon --
| All the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account;
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:
Though hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped,
All I could never be,
All men ignored in me,
This I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.
It makes for a reconsideration of old standards, for charity, for subtle distinctions, modifications, reservations, for an extending or a breaking down of boundaries, for a broadening of the horizon of common life. It can reveal the value of judgments which have escaped explanation and even notice because they were not purely or even mainly rational, and were yet right. It can increase reverence where it does not touch understanding. It undermines our more massive and pompous follies. It teaches not by information or by law, but by making men more profoundly aware of themselves and of the world. To read it is like an experience of the uncomfortable silence that descends by chance upon a circle of talkers. Most are glad when the silence breaks up and talk returns; but the silence is not to be forgotten. The book points to mysteries under the surface of life which are as impressive as the corridors, vaults, and dark waters which are their symbols in the plays.
But "La Sagesse et la Destinée" must be considered along with "Le Trésor des Humbles" if a fair view is to be had of Maeterlinck's early writing upon life and conduct. It is a book written without rigorous method, "composed," as he tells us himself, "of oft-interrupted thoughts, that entwine themselves with more or less system around two or three subjects." It is not meant to convince or prove, and Maeterlinck takes the opportunity to say that books are less important than it has been claimed, telling us of a friend who said that it was well to love and admire the word "Equanimity," which Antoninus Plus, when on his death-bed, gave as watchword to the captain of the guard, but better to spend the time given us by fortune to admire it "in favour of the first little useful, living deed" offered by the same fortune. And later in the book he says that truest morality bids us to cling to daily duties and acts of brotherly kindness.
The book was published in 1898, two years after "Le Trésor," and already Maeterlinck is farther away from the world of his early plays. He sees around him not only men who are oppressed by men and events, but others with "some kind of inner force, which has its will not only with men, but even with the events that surround them." That is to say, Jesus Christ and Marcus Aurelius are not open to misfortunes of the same complexion as Hamlet and dipus. There is, he says now," no inner fatality, and much that now seems fatal is avoidable and is even human and natural." As to resignation, he now sees that it may come to the pettiest; what is good is "the thoughts and the feelings in whose name we embrace resignation." Wisdom, he says, is deeper than our consciousness, and it contains love which is not in reason; and again, that wisdom lies above all in "those ideas that are not yet clear." The sage suffers, but his wisdom helps him to convert the suffering and make the manner of his accepting it harmless. He compares the "magnificent sorrow" of a great man with the puny joy of another; this also is part of the wisdom which is armed against destiny. And now he asks when men will give the place of importance to life instead of to death, and count the joy as well as the sorrow in computing a man's destiny. Happiness, he says, can be taught and learnt. He calls renunciation a virtue that is often a parasite, and it does not produce wisdom; in fact, wisdom grows faster in happiness than in misfortune, while the horizon of sorrow differs little from that of happiness when surveyed from the height of a lofty thought. Sacrifice, he says, should not be the means, but the sign of ennoblement; for self-sacrifice is easier than the fulfilment of our spiritual destiny. Not only sacrifices, but other acts, are higher when done consciously than when instinctive. Like Richard Jefferies and many others he says that the knowledge that he is alone is a source of strength to man, and he asks, "Where shall the virtue of man find more everlasting foundation than in the seeming injustice of God?" The vastness of nature is still something of an obsession to him. We should act as if for eternity, and yet know that whatever we do is insignificant. Something in us makes us prefer tears in an infinite world to perpetual happiness in a petty one. Justice is man's idea, and our instinct tells us that "he who is morally right must be happier than he who is wrong." There is no waste of goodness. Even an unwise act may help a wise man; and again he insists that a man's reaches and attempts are more important than his achievements. He has no doubt of the essential happiness of Emily Brontë, because her life was intense. Yet he does not applaud mere loftiness of desire or dream which is characteristic of the weak and absorbs them entirely. A healthy vice is better than a morbid virtue. Whereas he seemed in "Le Trésor" to encourage an indolent and amiable confusion of mind he now asks scornfully whether we think that anything will come in answer to mere vague desires, and his opening words allow us to see that he is conscious of the intangibility of the happiness, justice, and love of which he speaks, compared with the reality of the sorrow and injustice of life. The most dangerous thought is that which mistrusts reality, he writes -- perhaps in correction of conclusions drawn from "Le Trésor des Humbles." To the same cause perhaps may be attributed the statement that a man's thought will not change his place in the world, but his actions will, thought being "solitary, wandering, fugitive," while each deed is effected by ideas and desires with a "foothold in reality." And again he contrasts thought which may be deceptive with the sincerity of human feeling.
Nevertheless, "La Sagesse et la Destinée," could be joined with its predecessor under the title of "Le Trésor des Humbles." Both together offer a store of encouragement and consolation for humble hearts. In the new book the same tolerance prevails. The deeper down we go into life, the more inevitable is it that the eye must watch and approve and love "every soul in existence," if for no other reason than that it has "the mysterious gift of existence," and that it must be clear that falsehood and weakness and vice are superficial, and wickedness is only "goodness bereft of its guide," and treachery is loyalty astray, and hatred is love digging its own grave. Balzac, he points out, can make the emotion of a simple heart stir us as much as the passion of a king. And when, almost in the spirit of his early plays, he puts man beside "the vastness of nature" and sees his littleness, he comes to think that the extraordinary things in the life of saints, famous lovers, or generals, are illusions in comparison with the wisdom of an unambitious, healthy, honest man who does not desire to be anything but a man. He adds that everything beautiful, noble, or profound which is possible to human life may be found in "the simplest, most ordinary life."
Theoretical toleration and a large but indefinite sense
of mystery are in the air. The tyranny of the too rigid and pretentious standards
of conventional Christianity is being broken down. It has not been replaced,
and, in the meantime, there is toleration -- and myriads of intolerances.
The predominance of the middle class has helped also to produce a widespread
craving' for anything that will vividly contrast with the life of this class.
Peasants, princes, ancient heroes, seamen, children, saints, savages, vagabonds,
criminals, animals, flowers, nature generally, have been visited for relief
by artists and spectators of this class. Even the maniac has found his praiser
-- not merely his pitiful chronicler, like Herrick, or Cowper, or Wordsworth.
Ernest Dowson has a poem "To One in Bedlam," and sees in his melancholy something
"germane to the stars" and enviable. "O lamentable brother!" he exclaims:
|O lamentable brother! if those pity thee,
Am I not fain of all thy fine eyes promise me;
Half a fool's kingdom, far from men who sow and reap
All their days, vanity? Better than mortal flowers
Thy moon-kissed roses seem: better than love or sleep,
The star-crowned solitude of thine oblivious hours!
Here is the contrast between the freedom of madness and the entrammelled
life of those who sow and reap vanity. "Anywhere out of the world," as Baudelaire
cries, and, following modestly behind, a multitude is willing to see in dreaming,
in childhood, in what is untouched by routine, law, and custom an escape
from what is clear, limited, and fixed. Another modern poet, Francis Thompson,
writes of a maid in love, almost in the words of Maeterlinck, as:
|Feeling the infinite must be
Best said by triviality ....
With daintiest babble shows her sense
That full speech were full impotence;
And while she feels the heavens lie bare --
She only talks about her hair.
It is this common truth of experience that Maeterlinck wishes to draw from its retreat in our unconsciousness and make it serve not only as a memorial but as a prophecy, not only as an isolated fact but as a rule. Mostly town-dwellers, living sheltered lives and pursuing occupations that do not satisfy them, the people whom he addresses have much leisure and much solitude, and the characteristic occupation of the less active is reading. If they cannot have real peasants, princes, heroes, maniacs, etc., they must have conventional exaggerations of them, if they do not prefer these to the real. And along with these tastes have gone many attempts to preserve or to ameliorate the condition of the peasants, children, etc. To this middle class, and to the humble or more hesitating members of it, Maeterlinck makes a sweet and insinuating appeal. No writer is more tolerant, more mysterious than he, and none is more easy, if as easy, to read. The writing is graceful, and as decorative as is compatible with extreme fluency. It can be read for the pure unintellectual pleasure of reading. Nothing in the thought or style can shock, amuse, or astonish -- not because the books contain nothing shocking, amusing, or astonishing, but because the grave air of the whole enchants or hypnotizes. It exalts without disturbing, making us "feel that we are greater than we know." We do not envy Maleine and Mélisande and Alladine and Ygraine the majesty of woe which was given to them by the corridors and impassable doors of their castles, and the dungeons and caverns below them, and the surrounding forests, and the sea and the seabirds. The meanest of us has a yet more majestic stage for his joys and sorrows in the breadth of eternity and the complication of unintelligible laws. Take, for example, the following passage from the essay called "L'Etoile":
"Les paysans écossais ont un mot qui pourrait s'appliquer à toutes les existences. Dans leurs légendes ils appellent Fey l'état d'un homme qu'une sorte d'irrésistible impulsion intérieure entraîne, malgré tous ses efforts, malgré tous les conseils et les secours, vers une inévitable catastrophe. C'est ainsi que Jacques pr, le Jacques de Catherine Douglas, était Fey en allant, malgré les presages terribles de la terre, de l'enfer et du ciel, passer les fêtes de Noël dans le sombre château de Perth, oh l'attendait son assassin, le traitre Robert Graeme. Qui de nous, s'il se rappelle les circonstances du malheur le plus décisif de sa vie, ne s'est senti possédé de la sorte? Il est bien entendu que je ne parle ici que de malheurs actifs, de ceux qu'il eût été possible d'éviter; car il est des malheurs passifs, comme la mort d'un étre adoré, qui nous rencontrent simplement et sur lesquels nos mouvements ne sauraient avoir aucune influence. Souvenez-vous du jour fatal de votre vie. Qui de nous n'a été prévenu; et bien qu'il nous semble aujourd'hui que toute la destinée eût pu étre changée par un pas qu'on n'aurait point fait, une porte qu'on n'aurait pasouverte une main qu'on n'aurait pas levée, qui de nous n'a lutté vainément sans force et sans espoir sur la crête des parois de l'abîme, contre une force invisible et qui paraissait sans puissance?
"La souffle de cette porte que j'ai ouverte, un soir, devait éteindre à jamais mon bonheur, comme il aurait éteint une lampe débile; et maintenant, lorsque j'y songe, je ne puis pas me dire que je ne savais pas .... Et cependent, rien d'important ne m'avait amené sur le seuil. Je pouvais m'en aller en haussant les épaules, aucune raison humaine ne pouvait me forcer à frapper au vantail. ..Aucune raison humaine; rien que la destinde."
Such a passage at once belittles and aggrandizes the common mortality of us all by colouring with the temperament of one man experiences that, as a rule, go for little and are forgotten.
When we read these things we can say of him what he said
of Emerson, that he vindicated the grandeur of life, and has made a pathway
of light for the workman leaving his workshop; that he has given a meaning
which is almost sufficient to this life, which had lost its traditional horizon,
and perhaps has shown us that it is so strange, profound, and mighty that
there is no need of any aim but itself. He does not know more of it than
the others; but he makes affirmations with more courage and has confidence
in the mystery. He does not stand alone. If a man has understood and accepted
|Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
One impulse from a vernal wood
-- if a man has understood this Maeterlinck offers no difficulties and few novelties. Maeterlinck's early essays are entirely without the modern feeling for Nature; but what has Wordsworth left him to say about the wisdom of a child -- that "best philosopher"? --
| Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find.
More than a century earlier Thomas Traherne was praising
and lamenting "the learned and the happy ignorance" of childhood, wishing
to return again to infancy to improve his manhood. "How wise was I in infancy!"
he cries. He desires simplicity, and is weary not only of adult worldliness,
but of "all that since the Fall mine eyes on earth can find"; and "a quiet,
silent person" seems to him one who may "possess all that is great or good
in blessedness," for --
|The Inward Work is the Supreme; for all
The other were occasion'd by the Fall.
Except where his thought is confused by superficial religious forms he is much like the author of "Le Trésor des Humbles." Like him, and like Rousseau, he "sees in man's eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge the cause of his fall from Nature, much as the theologian sees in the same event the cause of his fall from God " -- in the words of Mr. Irving Babbitt's "New Laokoon." To the passages quoted from Wordsworth should be added a phrase or two from Blake's "Everlasting Gospel," such as --
|Thou art a man. God is no more.
Thy own humanity learn to adore.
Or these words on the life of Jesus:
|He left his father's trade to roam,
A wandering vagrant without home,
And thus he others' labours stole,
That he might live above control.
The publicans and harlots he
Selected for his company,
And from the adulteress turned away
God's righteous law that lost its play
Or these, from "Auguries of Innocence ":
|A skylark wounded on the wing
Doth make a cherub cease to sing ....
A truth that's told with bad intent
He who mocks the infant's faith
If these things had been understood there would have been no need for Maeterlinck to write or us to read. Seventeen hundred years ago an old Epicurean of Cappadocia inscribed upon a wall these words of a faith which doubtless included all that has been learnt -- apart from books -- ever since:
"There is nothing to fear in God. There is nothing to feel in death. That which man desires can be attained. That which man dreads can be endured." (Professor Gilbert Murray, Hibbert Journal, October 1910.)
Wherever we turn we can see the thoughts of
Maeterlinck. At the beginning of De Quincey's essay, "On the Knocking at
the Gate in 'Macbeth,'" for example, is a remark upon the feebleness of the
understanding, which is as forcible as anything in Maeterlinck. "Here," says
De Quincey, "I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any
attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other
faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable,
is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted ....
" Nor could a reader have been surprised to find in the essay "On Women"
the very words of the man in Browning's "Cristina":
|Doubt you if, in some such moment,
As she fixed me, she felt clearly,
Ages past the soul existed,
Here an age 'tis resting merely,
And hence fleets again for ages,
While the true end, sole and single,
It stops here for is, this love-way,
With some other soul to mingle.
Browning, in particular, gives many instances of seeming magical intuition. In "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon," for example, one who has just rashly killed another in a duel is told that, if he had but listened to his enemy's explanation, all would have been well; but he exclaims:
| Why, as
he lay there,
The moon on his flushed cheek, I gathered all
The story ere he told it: I saw through
The troubled surface of his crime and yours
A depth of purity immovable;
Had I but glanced, where all seemed turbidest,
Had gleamed some inlet to the calm beneath;
I would not glance: my punishment's at hand.
But even if a hundred men should wear out their eyesight and find sources or precedents for every thought in Maeterlinck, they would not thus lower his position. The combination of them is his own, and he can reach ears that are closed to Blake. The new, the unique thing in his books is in fact Maeterlinck. He is the advocate, and the preacher. He does not originate, but expands with subtle eloquence what he has learnt from Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry, Marcus Aurelius, Behmen, Ruysbroeck, Novalis, Amiel, Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin, and the rest. He addresses, not philosophers or scholars, but the humble, the magazine readers, the general public, and he is neither technical nor obscure. As a rule the mystics have not been easy to understand, because they speak with tongues which the rest have to learn with much labour; not being artists their language owes its depth, not to tradition, but apparently to immediate inspiration, and it is turbid from transit out of the heavens. Maeterlinck is perfectly clear. Though warm, he is not disturbed. He can draw upon all the resources of eloquence. It is worth while noticing how often he uses words of a certain colour to produce his own effect. Look, for example, at the essay on "The Predestined," how well weighted with pathos it is by the "few mothers" of the opening sentence, by the words "sad," "gentle," "piteous," "strange," "grave," "mysterious," "timid," "beseeching," etc. The following sentences from "Les Avertis" are a good example of the means taken to make the "predestined" children effective; and they are not unfairly chosen as a specimen of Maeterlinck's early style:
"Au collége nous les discernions obscurément. Ils semblaient se chercher et se fuir à la fois comme ceux qui ont la même infirmité. On les voyait à l'écart sous les arbres du jardin. Ils avaient la même gravité sous un sourire plus interrompu et plus immatériel que le nôtre, et je ne sais quel air d'avoir peur de trahir un secret. Presque toujours ils se taisaient lorsque ceux qui devaient vivre s'approchaient de leur groupe .... Parlaient-ils déjà de l'événement, ou bien savaien-tils que l'événement parlait à travers eux et malgré eux, et l'entouraient-ils ainsi afin de le cacher aux yeux indifférents?"
It is not easy to say whether this indicates a peculiar experience of the writer's, or rather a peculiar method of remembering events, or of transfiguring memory, or adorning it; but I incline to think that the difference from the ordinary is one of style and not of experience, The "presque toujours" is an exceedingly impressive modification, and yet not convincing. It is the artist of "Alladine et Palomides" who draws the picture of some of those predestined beings "lingering" a little longer than the rest, looking at men with an "eager" smile, and then "towards their twentieth year" slipping away with "muffled" footsteps from among men; who makes it "evening," "a sudden evening", when we dare not look at these persons, because it is as if they were "on life's further shore," and now we feel that it is time for saying something deeper than common, saying something that is "piteously struggling" and "craving" to be spoken. The sentimentality of the chapter is perfectly unrestrained. Then observe the "veiled queens," as he calls our intuitions, in "Mystic Morality," thus recalling the queens who steered the death-barge of Arthur. Superlatives abound; words of terror, mystery, and darkness are continually used; words, above all, of tenderness, sorrow, resignation -- as when he speaks of lovers recognizing one another, and speaking "tearfully" like a girl who has found a lost sister; or women in their "little" homes, one bending forward, another "sobbing"; or the soul smiling a "meek, resigned smile"; or turning the past into nothing but a few "saddened smiles," and thus mastering the future; or learning how to "weep in the silence of humblest kindliness." When he wishes to describe the "timidity of the divine" in man, he says that upon it rests "the tender meekness of the little ailing girl for whom her mother will not send when strangers come to the house." In "La Sagesse et la Destinde" this eloquence is less obvious, but essentially the same, and we smile when he pleads that we diminish things if they are expressed in words, for in the same chapter he asks whether, if we become pure, we shall conceal our petty motives from the angels before us, and then, ill the next sentence, whether there is not much in us that will need the pity of the gods on the mountain. The eloquence which gave modern Selysette her tower gives each of Maeterlinck's ideas at least a rag of royal purple. Once, in "La Sagesse et la Destinde," he is so carried away by his description of a stream as an image of the man who is oppressed by fate that he beholds it staggering -- struggling -- and climbing as well as falling. And no better proof of the power of this eloquence could be given than its effect upon the admirable translator, Mr. Alfred Sutro. In the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh sections of his translation of "La Sagesse et la Destinée," for example, may be felt the rhythm of numerous dimly veiled hexameters and pentameters, often several in succession. What makes hexameters and pentameters in Mr. Sutro's prose probably produces a corresponding effect in those readers who are not also writers.
But Maeterlinck's store of eloquence is richer yet. He has his clear and sweet style, his sentimentally coloured words, his infectious rhythms, and he has the vague, often in alliance with exaggeration, as in "Le Réveil de l'Âme," where he speaks of spiritual phenomena manifesting themselves in the workaday lives of the humblest -- " mysterious, direct workings, that bring soul nearer to soul," and where he asserts that "all" that men in other generations have learned of the heart, soul, and spirit has been handed down to us. Phrases abound like that where he speaks of words in poetry revealing, "I know not what intangible and unceasing striving of the soul towards its own beauty and truth," of "the thousands of mysteries" surrounding us, of "the inexplicable within ourselves." He tells us that if we look at the sky instead of at the wall before the embrace of love, the embrace will "not be the same." In one place he tells us that we must not despise ourselves if we are saddened by another's happiness, because farther on the road we shall find what will not sadden us, and, if we do not, "it matters little: something there was that was not sad." When in "Wisdom and Destiny" he bids us live ready to welcome a great revelation, he tells us that we must crave for it, desire it as "lofty," "perfect," "vast," "ennobling,'' "beautiful," "glorious," "ample"; and that, whether it accords with our hopes or not, it will add to us what is "nobler" and "loftier." He alludes often to "beauty," "justice," "love," and feelings that are "noblest" and "loftiest." His defence is in one place that he can only be understood by those having "the same point of sensibility as himself," and in another that the best in us lies in "those ideas that are not yet clear."
Maeterlinck has another advantage, perhaps the greatest of all, in his extraordinary experience. Mr. Sutro has told us, in the Introduction to his translation of "La Sagesse et la Destinée," that Maeterlinck used often to watch the quiet and monotonous life of the Flemish peasants near his home, and that he often peeped into one cottage where lived seven brothers and a sister, "all old, toothless, worn," who worked together and in the evening sat together silent or talking with repetitions like those of "Les Aveugles." In "The Predestined" he speaks of the mystery that almost finds expression in the presence of one of these strange beings, but not quite. He tells us that he has often seen such things happen, and once before his brother died, though he characteristically tells us nothing definite. In the same chapter he tells us how he has noticed presentiments and strange signs in the faces of men who were to die even by accident. A page later he reveals that he has known many destined to die by the same death, and that at school he and others were "vaguely conscious" of them; yet further they were observed to frequent certain places together and he knew their looks perfectly. Still more remarkable is the experience, mentioned in "Mystic Morality," of standing before the corpse of his bitterest enemy, or several of his bitterest enemies perhaps. He would perhaps wish us to be impressed by the breath of air from an opening door which was to destroy his happiness for ever; but he can only say that, when thinking of it now, he cannot persuade himself that he was not at the moment aware of what was to happen.
There is a touch of the incredibly romantic -- or is it only immaturity? -- about these personal references, and it is to those which are simpler that we turn when we feel the lack of roots in Maeterlinck. They are not to be found in the essay on women, nor easily perhaps in any part of "Le Trésor." In "La Sagesse et la Destinde" they are commoner. It is Maeterlinck we see in the writer who insists on the humbleness of man's place on earth, who can give no reasons for a rule except out of his feelings, and who says that a sage might well answer the question, whether it would be good or not for the Jews to vanish or to preponderate, with the words: "In what comes to pass will be happiness." Significant is his comment upon the death of Emily Brontë, unmarried in her twenty-ninth year, that it is "sad to die a virgin," because it is every one's duty to "offer to his destiny all that can be offered to the destiny of man." Another curious passage is one that begins "If God there be".... As a pendant to this should be taken the sentences where he says that the tranquillity and calmness of any man's soul are due to human virtues, and that Fénélon's, for example, were due rather to his loyalty to Madame Guyon and his love for the Dauphin than to the promise of his religion -- which reminds us of the Christian Wordsworth calling this earth the place where we have our happiness "or not at all." Other readers may find other passages of this boldly revealing kind, but most would perhaps agree that they are few for such a book. They are not enough to add to the weight of the ideas and the eloquence that also of a human personality. The tenderness and pity, the placidity compounded of gentle resignation and hope, the sense of terror and vastness, and also of the beauty), of life, are not of them he is aware of infinity and eternity. These intense enough to define a personality as well as a type. But I am not sure; the wistful optimism is perhaps peculiar to Maeterlinck, and his frequently vague intangibility as well. These qualities, at least, have done most to recommend him to men, these and the ideas, common in themselves, which in him attain a noticeable combination. Above all, he preaches the mystery and greatness of life on earth, of everything in this life and of every one. He would make the depth of this mystery and the height of this greatness so universal that the old crude judgments of men should appal us. Though he sometimes lets slip a phrase about a common or petty soul, his writing suggests that there is no such thing, and that all men are equal except in appearances, and that all men are different. "Divine," which used to be the most honouring of compliments, he would either apply to all men or substitute for it, with implied increase of honour, the epithet "human." Not that he wishes or thinks it possible to destroy all distinctions, but that for the time being this fundamental equality in spirit seems to him to be the one thing needful to mention after its obscurity and ignominy of ages. He condemns no man; he would have us condemn no man. Nor is it only every man and every woman and every child that he exalts, but every action. The subtlety of our actions and the lost profundity of their sources weigh upon him like "the silence of those infinite spaces" upon Pascal, and behind each one of them he is aware of infinity and eternity. These spaces terrify him still; the enormity of Nature and the might of chance terrify him without overwhelming, and though they make men pigmies in aspect yet they dignify them still more. For the creator and ruler of such beings, the various benevolent, insolent, or indifferent powers that have been called God seem to him inadequate, and he uses the word sparingly and either without conviction or simply in connection with persons who used it when they were alive.
Like the poets and like the religious writers of old, he makes men familiar with the idea that life is not what it seems and is never so little, and his quiet tones are all the more startling after the bullying roars of Carlyle and Ruskin. He is kindly, and never dogmatic; he proposes nothing difficult; he will inflict no painful searching of heart, and to such as expect physic to be nasty he is disappointing. It must be hard to be a true and full mystic after having read Plato, Plotinus, Ruysbroeck, Behmen, Novalis, and the rest; but only a mystic could rightly judge the reality of Maeterlinck's mysticism, and he would not judge at all. He must be left to mystic Life itself to be judged. In the meantime I can only say that I find in these two books a certain appearance of facility and unreality, as of one whose power of expression exceeded his thought and experience but not his reading; and the voice might be that of one coming out of a library, not a wilderness.
Click the image of Maeterlinck
to continue to the next chapter.