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"LA VIE DES ABEILLES"
"LA VIE DES ABEILLES," published in 1901, was destined to great popularity in the country of "The Complete Angler," "Selborne," "Rural Rides," "Climbing Plants," "The Amateur Poacher," and "A Shepherd's Life." It is founded on learning, experience, and love; it is a monument of eloquence and of rural felicity. We have books which are ail these things; but we have nothing to be compared with "La vie des Abeilles." It would be difficult, indeed, to point to books in any literature where practice and speculation are wrought up with such elaborate and unpausing art into a whole of equal size and delicacy. If it were possible to have "Red Deer" composed by Sir Thomas Browne in the mood of "Urn Burial "we should have a companion to "La Vie des Abeilles."
It is not a monograph, the author tells us, and he has even reserved his more technical notes for another book -- which has yet to appear. He does not offer to instruct a man in bee-keeping, but to repeat most of what is known of bees in a livelier manner than the text-books, and to add his own comments and conjectures. He will not, he says, adorn the truth by false invention. Nevertheless, the .book is essentially an adornment of the known truth about hive-bees. It is a piece of sustained eloquence, which has for its subject-matter what the writer has seen and read of the swarm, the foundation of the bee city, the young queens, the nuptial flight, the massacre of the males, the progress of the race of bees. It depends not upon discovery, but upon a presentation of facts and opinions. Like the "Georgics," it will be read and loved most by those who know little of natural history. Its accuracy is but a small part at most of its merit, though without it the book could not have entered into favour with pedants and a pedant-led multitude. It is addressed, not to men of science, but to amateurs and readers of picturesque books; and in "La Fondation de la Cité" he apologizes for too many details to those who "may never have followed a flight of bees, or who may have regarded them only with passing interest"; though this may be the irony of politeness.
Though he desires not to be too didactic, it can hardly be denied that the book is aimed deliberately and consciously throughout at a public. It is not, that is to say, a masterpiece that has grown up naively in darkness and solitude; and the author is never lost in his subject, but remains, with all his eloquence, steadfastly outside. Take, for example, a charming passage in the first part, "Au Seuil de la Ruche," wherein he recalls the first apiary where he learned to love bees:
"C'était, voilà des années, dans un gros village de cette Flandre Zélandaise, si nette et si gracieuse, qui, plus que la Zélande même, miroir concave de la Hollande, a concentré le goût des couleurs vives, et caresse des yeux, comme de jolis et graves jouets, ses pignons, ses tours et ses chariots enluminés, ses armoires et ses horloges qui reluisent au fond des corridors, ses petits arbres alignés le tong des quais et des canaux, dans l'attente, semble-t-il, d'une cérémonie bienfaisante et naïve, ses barques et ses coches d'eau aux poupes ouvragées; ses portes et ses fenêtres pareilles à des fleurs, ses écluses irréprochables, ses pont-levis minutieux et versicolores, ses maisonnettes vernissées comme des poteries harmonieuses et éclatantes d'où sortent des femmes en forme de sonnettes et parées d'or et d'argent pour aller traire les vaches en des près entourés de barrières blanches, ou étendre le linge sur le tapis découpé en ovales et en losanges et méticuleusement vert, de pelouses fleuries.
"Une sorte de vieux sage, assez semblable au vieillard de Virgile:
"'Homme égalant les rois, homme approchant des
Et comme ces derniers satisfait et tranquille,'
aurait dit La Fontaine, s'était retiré là, où la vie semblerait plus étroite qu'ailleurs, s'il était possible de rétrécir réellement la vie. Il y avait élevé son refuge, non dégoûté -- car le sage ne connaït point les grands dégoûtés -- mais un peu las d'interroger les hommes qui répondent moins simplement que les animaux et les plantes aux seules questions intéressantes que l'on puisse poser à la nature et aux lois véritables. Tout son bonheur, de même que celui du philosophe scythe, consistait aux beautés d'un jardin, et parmi ces beautés la mieux aimée et la plus visitée était un rucher, composé de douze cloches de paille qu'il avait peintes, les unes de rose vif, les autres de jaune clair, la plupart d'un bleu tendre, car il avait observé, bien avant les expériences de Sir John Lubbock, que le bleu est la couleur préférée des abeilles. Il avait installé ce rucher contre le tour blanchi de la maison, dans l'angle que formait une de ces savoureuses et fraîches cuisines hollandaises aux dressoirs de faïence où étincelaient les étains et les cuivres, qui, par la porte ouverte, se reflétaient dans un canal paisible. Et l'eau, chargée d'images familiéres, sous un rideau de peuplier, guidait les regards jusqu'au repos d'un horizon de moulins et de près.
"En ce lieu, comme partout où on les pose, les ruches avaient donné aux fleurs, au silence, à la douceur de l'air, aux rayons du soleil, une signification nouvelle."
It reminds us of Virgil, of Statius, of Cowley, of George Borrow, but perhaps of Cowley above all, and of Borrow least. The old man who gave Borrow an excess of mead in his gratitude is alive, in a manner beyond and outside of Maeterlinck's art. The sentiment is rather that of Cowley's essay on gardens, though Maeterlinck's is the Flemish landscape, as precise as an interior, and the sage who "ne connaït point les grands dégoûts." Only, as in Cowley's prose, we feel the presence of literature in the passage rather than of life: it might be pure invention. But this is an exceptional passage. In many places the description is as faithful as it is minute and elaborate, and his method is probably the only one that could combine calm exactness with picturesqueness. For he has set himself the task of depicting, for the first time, things which few have seen or will ever see. He has no tradition behind him, except that which says that the bee is wonderful for industry and intelligence, and that the comb is a miracle. Moreover, his own feeling, enthusiastic though it be, is scientific rather than human, and could not be otherwise. The mere scale of the hive adds yet again to his handicap. Yet it is certain that he often shows himself successful as well as faithful, minute and elaborate. As an example, I will give the page where the swarm issues from the hive:
"On dirait que toutes les portes de la ville s'ouvrent en même temps d'une poussée subite et insensée, et la foule noire s'en évade ou plutôt en jaillit, selon le nombre des ouvertures, en un double, triple, ou quadruple jet direct, tendu, vibrant, et ininterrompu qui fuse et s'évase aussitôt dans l'espace en un réseau sonore tissu de cent mille ailes exaspérées et transparentes. Pendant quelques minutes, le réseau flotte ainsi au-dessus du ruche dans un prodigieux murmure de soieries diaphanes que mille et mille doigts électrisés déchireraient et recoudraient sans cesse. Il ondule, il hésite, il palpite comme un voile d'allégresse que des mains invisibles soutiendraient dans le ciel oh l'on dirait qu'elles le ploient et le déploient depuis les fleurs jusqu'à l'azur, en attendant une arrivée ou un départ auguste. Enfin, l'un des pans se rabat, un autre se relève, les quatre coins pleins de soleil du radieux manteau qui chante, se rejoignent, et, pareil à l'une de ces nappes intelligentes qui pour accomplir un souhait traversent l'horizon dans les contes de fées, il se dirige tout entier et déjà replié, afin de recouvrir la présence sacrée de l'avenir, vers le tilleul, le pokier, ou le saule, oh la reine vient de se fixer comme un clou d'or auquel it accroche une à une ses ondes musicales, et autour duquel il enroule son étoffe de perles tout illuminée d'ailes."
Here he possesses the advantage of relating a matter not quite unfamiliar and not without a prestige of its own. Where he is describing what is usually hidden, what is also silent and still, he has need of humanizing comparisons and of his own eloquence. These are successful in such places as the following, where the hive is described after a swarm has departed:
"Mais si le présent paraît morne, tout ce que l'il rencontre est peuplé d'espirances. Nous sommes dans un de ces chateaux des 1égendes allemandes oh les murs sont formés de milliers de fioles qui contiennent les âmes des hommes qui vont naitre. Nous sommes dans le séjour de la vie qui précède la vie. Il y a 1à, de toutes parts en suspens dans les berceaux bien clos, dans la superposition infinie des merveilleux alvéoles à six pans, des myriades de nymphes, plus blanches que le lait, qui, les bras repliés et la tare inclinée sur la poitrine, attendent l'heure du réveil. A les voir dans leurs sépultures uniformes, innombrables et presque transparentes, on dirait des gnomes chenus qui méditent, ou des légions de vierges déformées par les plis du suaire, et ensevelies en des prismes hexagones multipliés jusqu'au délire par un géomètre inflexible."
In the whole, and especially in "jusqu'au délire," we are reminded of the castles of the early plays; and there is a promise of the scene of the unborn in "L'Oiseau Bleu." Human comparisons abound of necessity. The queen-bee gnawing the lid of her cell to escape is a "princess" reducing "the walls of her tower" but thwarted from without by an "enchanted obstacle." The accepted queen and the unborn others are "the wandering queen and the virgins in prison." To make the cry of the queens more impressive, it is contrasted with night and the hushing of noises and even "the silence of the stars." The hairy humble-bee forcing its way into a flower is compared with "a cave-bear that might have forced its way into the silken, pearl-bestrewn tent of a Byzantine princess." Such comparisons are characteristic. When the dawn is being swallowed up in full day it is "like a maiden caught in the arms of a heavy warrior"-"a naked maiden," says the original. This is from the book devoted to the nuptial flight of the queen bee. It is a celebrated piece, but it is necessary to quote part of it -- where the queen emerges from the hive not long after dawn:
"Elle part comme un trait au zénith de l'azur. Elle gagne ainsi des hauteurs et une zone lumineuse que les autres abeilles n'affrontent à aucune époque de leur vie. Au loin, autour des fleurs où flotte leur paresse, les males ont aperçu l'apparition et respiré le parfum magnétique qui se répand de procheen proche jusqu'aux ruchers voisins. Aussitôt les hordes se rassemblent et plongent à sa suite dans la mer d'allégresse dont les bornes limpides se déplacent. Elle, ivre de ses ailes, et obéissant à la magnifique loi de l'espèce qui choisit pour elle son amant et veut que le plus fort l'atteigne seul dans la solitude de l'éther, elle monte toujours, et l'air bleu du matin s'engouffre pour la premiere fois dans ses stigmates abdominaux et chante comme le sang du ciel dans les mille radicelles reliées aux deux sacs trachéens qui occupent la moitié de son corps et se nourrissent de l'espace. Elle monte toujours. I1 faut qu'elle atteigne une région déserte que ne hantent plus les oiseaux qui pourraient troubler le mysterè. Elle s'élève encore, et déjà la troupe inégale diminue et s'égrène sous elle. Les faibles, les infirmes, les vieillards, les mal nourris, les mal nourris des cités inactives ou misérables, renoncent h la poursuite et disparaissent dans le vide. I1 ne reste plus en suspens, dans l'opale infinie, qu'un petit groupe infatigable. Elle demande un dernier effort à ses ailes, et voici que l'élu des forces incompréhensibles la rejoint, la saisit, la pénère et, qu 'emportée d'un double élan, la spirale ascendante de leur vol enlacé tourbillonne une seconde dans le délire hostile de l'amour."
ABBEY OF SAINT WANDRILLE, The Refectory.
Here the endeavour to recommend a small matter by exaggeration is fatal. I do not mean that the nuptial flight of a bee is insignificant, but that it is small in scale when compared with the acts of men or with the depths of the air in which it takes place. I believe that it would be possible to convey something of the grandeur of the miniature event without altogether destroying the scale: a naturalist like Mr. W. H. Hudson -- if there were one like him -- would not fail were he to attempt it, and he would leave us no thoughts but of the immortal little insect and the wild air Does Maeterlinck give us a thought or a vision of the bee and the summer air? If he does, its effect is faint in the mind when compared with that of the eloquence simply as eloquence. It brings before me, not so much the bee, as the poet admiring the bee. But this, if true, is not to condemn the passage or the book. "Comus" does not give one direct fragrance of the earth, yet is it the loveliest pastoral verse. "La Vie des Abeilles" has not the same excuse as "Comus." It begins and ends upon an every-day plane, and its backbone is instruction or description of natural facts, and the perfect book of this kind would be one without obvious art. Maeterlinck's is not such a book: let us remember here, again, that it is an adornment, a gorgeous apparelling, of the truth; and, having done so, it is not permissible to object to the eloquent description of the nuptial flight except on the ground that it exceeds the limits of its own kind. This, I think, it does. The epithets "tragic" and "prodigious," applied to these nuptials, are more applicable to the description itself. When he speaks of the queen descending from the" azure heights" trailing, "like an oriflamme, the unfolded entrails of her lover," I see a magnifying glass and an exuberant vocabulary which is exposed still more by the quiet tone of the succeeding sentences relating how he has often watched the return of the queen and never noticed any unusual emotion. Nor can Maeterlinck's eloquence cease, but must revive again and again, to exclaim, for example:
"Voilà de prodigieuses noces, les plus féeriques que nous puissions rêver, azurées et tragiques, emportées par l'élan du dasir au-dessus de la vie, foudroyantes et impérissables, uniques et éblouissantes, solitaires et infinies. Voilà d'admirables ivresses oh la mort, survenue dans ce qu'il y a de plus limpide et de plus beau autour de cette sphère: l'espace virginal et sans bornes, fixe dans la transparence auguste du grand ciel la seconde du bonheur, purifie dans la lumière immaculée ce que l'amour a toujours d'un peu misérable, rend le baiser, et se contentant cette fois d'une dime indulgente, de ses mains devenues maternelles, prend elle-même le soin d'introduire et d'unir pour un long avenir inséparable, dans un seul et même corps, deux petites vies fragiles."
In a passage which follows this Maeterlinck shows that he is well aware of what he has done. "Profound truth," he says, has not the poetry of the above passage, but it has another which in the end we may equally understand and love. His excuse for rejoicing in regions "loftier than the truth " -- which he admits to be impossible -- is that the truths we perceive are but small and fragmentary: therefore "should any motive whatever cause an object to reveal itself to us in a more beautiful light than to others, let that motive be first of all dear to us." To admit and dwell upon the physical fact of these nuptials, and upon this alone, would, he thinks, be to content ourselves with less truth than if we saw only what is vulgarly called the "poetry" of this "lyrical" act. This passage is excellent criticism, and it would excuse "poetry" far more extravagant than anything in "La Vie des Abeilles." What it does not excuse is writing which gives an impression of words instead of things, of methods instead of results, and such writing is common in the lyrical descriptions of "Le Vol Nuptial."
This fault may spring from an inability to keep the eyes loyally upon a physical object, and a willingness to turn aside too soon, to think and feel "about it and about." Maeterlinck can describe still or inanimate things, forests, great waters, caves, castles, precious stones, but of living things he sees chiefly the soul, and his bodies are misty things, like the Arielle in "Joyzelle." And what pleases him chiefly in the bee is its intelligence -- its possessing somewhat of that power which, as he says, transfigures necessity and organizes life. He compares it often with man, excusing it when some deliberate human experiment deceives it by asking if man would be more successful if a corresponding higher power set out to deceive him; again, when zeal in collecting for the hive leads the bee into disaster, he pronounces that such disinterested "follies" in men are called by another name; and in his conclusion he estimates the achievement of the bee as above that of man, and says that if a visitor from another world were to ask for the "most perfect creation of the logic of life" on earth we should be bound to show a honeycomb. This is a vain extravagance of comparison, but certainly the bee has led Maeterlinck to some admirable and some characteristic thought. For example, he shows how rash it is to condemn the bees from our exterior observation by supposing an onlooker from another world watching us. Such a one, he-points out, with irony like that of the author of "Erewhon", would conclude, from the fact that those who performed the heaviest toil dwelt in the worst hovels, that labour was a punishable offence upon the earth, and that, in spite of their offence and its punishment, they remained inoffensive and content to have the leavings of the rest of mankind who are evidently "the guardians, if not the saviours of the race." This thought was evidently strong in Maeterlinck's mind when he wrote the book, for he repeats it with very little variation at the end: he imagines an outside observer -- a bee -- watching us and seeing the earth "insufficiently and painfully" cultivated by two or three tenths of the human race; seven-tenths labouring to make the life of the idle remaining tenth "more complex and more inexplicable." Such an observer might conclude that our reason and moral sense were different from his and obeyed incomprehensible principles. Himself looking upon man as he has done upon the bee, Maeterlinck sees in us creatures made to produce thought, reason, spirit, or the power we know by these and many other names: he sees it is our first duty to do everything necessary to develop this power, and concludes the book with praise of this power as containing within itself the solution of all:
"Nourrissons-la de nos sentiments, de nos passions, de tout ce qui se voit, se sent, s'entend, se touche, et de sa propre essence qui est l'idée qu'elle tire des découvertes, des experiences, des observations qu'elle rapporte de tout ce qu'elle visite. Il arrive alors un moment oh tout se tourne si naturellement à bien pour un esprit qui s'est soumis à la bonne volonté du devoir réellement humain, que le soupçon même que les efforts oh il s'évertue sont peut-étre sans but, rend encore plus claire, plus pure, plus désintéressée, plus indépendante et plus noble l'ardeur de sa recherche."
Curious is this power of seeing mankind on so small a scale as if it were no more than a foetus; it is the writing of a god and not of a man. And yet he is no more than a man gifted with an extremity of consciousness, who sees "the extraordinary fluid we call life" animating us and the rest of the world, producing "the very thoughts that judge it, and the feeble voice that attempts to tell its story." He sees men as part of Nature, yet with that in them which seems to make their best achievements something apart from Nature and in spite of it, though he admits the possibility that our development may have no other purpose than to "amuse the darkness." This does not alarm him. The destiny of man, to develop the power known as reason or spirit, gives him such pride that nothing terrible can turn him aside -- not the malice or stupidity of Nature. All that we have achieved we have done for ourselves, he says almost in the words of Richard Jefferies; we are alone and we advance. Everywhere he sees a morality utterly different from our own, yet Nature seems to him less terrible than it was, and the names "Nature," "life," "death," "spirit of the race," etc., are less menacing than were "God," "Providence," "reward," etc. Nature is less terrible, and, though still foreign, she is not to be thought of as merely hostile or indifferent. Out of her chaos a greater wisdom may come. With his ear towards her great voices, some human things sound weak and untrue. All knowledge, everything that is a gain to this distinguishing power of man, is good, and he pictures a sage at once probing deep in the immorality of life yet himself living by "the most humanly beautiful truth," and this also is "as profoundly natural" as everything else; and herein he returns by the way he came and falls spent, like many another, upon the infinite.
But if "La Vie des Abeilles" is even more remarkable as a chapter in the spiritual autobiography of a characteristic man of the age than as a history of the bee, its vivacity and accuracy as history must not be forgotten. This age has complained again and again that science is a dead and death-dealing thing: books that are mortuaries and assures have wearied us. "La Vie des Abeilles" is one of the replies to this complaint. Only time can pronounce whether it has triumphed by life or by the galvanism of consummate and even unconscious artifice, but at least it is a temporary classic. Dealing with what used to be called "the wonders of creation," it is written to glorify not so much the creator as the creature. Its prejudices are slight or transparent, yet it is dominated by the note of an intensely personal artist. It can inform and delight at once, or it can inform without delighting or delight without informing, according to the reader's taste: that is to say, it is not obviously a work of instruction or of diversion. In spite of the author, it is, however, a treatise in disguise -- in the harmless disguise of the author's personality. It aims, probably in all unconsciousness, at showing that a modern naturalist can be as marvellous and readable as an ancient one, and with a fidelity equalling his infidelity. It is never dull or obscure; it is, in fact, always lively and brilliant, and it is hard to believe that Maeterlinck will consent to be less so, if he ever writes the "more technical work" of which he speaks. It is without contemporary rival in its own kind whether among books on the bee or among natural histories in general, for no other writer of comparable power has concentrated himself upon one subject in the same imaginative spirit. It would be hard to overpraise it except by saying, as Maeterlinck refuses to say of Buchnër's essay, that it "smells of the bee." It smells of belles lettres, and while it is one of the most delicate in this class, it is also honourable among books of science and deserving of as much imitation as honour.
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