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MAETERLINCK is now nearly fifty, and it is twenty years since his poems, "Serres Chaudes," and his first play, "La Princesse Maleine," appeared. The poems, as their title declared, were of a hot-house type obscurely struggling towards the free air. They were the vapours and bad blood of youth, more unconventional than sincere, expressed in the manner of the symbolists, but with a personal music which at its best seemed about to turn them into poems without words. They were interesting then only to symbolists, and to-day only to those interested in the symbolists and in Maeterlinck. Two or three scenes of "La Princesse Maleine" had qualities which proved to be enduring, and they dominated his work for six or seven years. These characteristic scenes, and still more those of the succeeding plays, represent with a numbed and melancholy intensity the littleness of men, lost, ignorant, and powerless amidst the forces of Nature and their own kind. Mary Magdalene, in his last play, found her choice difficult for "a poor creature born on this earth," and throughout these plays men and women -- children, very old or blind persons, doomed lovers -- are poor creatures born on this earth and living out a great torture upon it which Maeterlinck turns into a delicate music of grey and purple. They are curious, exceptional, beautiful works, having all the intensity which youth is apt to give to the one or two qualities which in its own opinion distinguish it, to the exclusion of others often more profound and lasting. But as Maeterlinck had written these plays for six or seven years in spite of the applause given to him for the superficial Shakespearean element in "La Princesse Maleine," so, though he had afterwards won applause for their proper qualities as they were seen in books and on the stage, he advanced to the different perfections of "Alladine et Palomides," "Intérieur," "Pelléas et Mélisande," and "Aglavaine et Sélysette," and then wrote no more of the kind.
The longer speeches of the plays, especially those spoken
by the old men, and the introductions which he wrote to volumes of Emerson
and Ruysbroeck, had gradually been revealing a philosopher who was not content
to let his tragic marionettes embody his conceptions. "Aglavaine et
Sélysette" was even a little overburdened by the reflections of the
characters. But in the same year as this play came his first volume of essays,
"Le Trésor des Humbles," which made it clear that he had found another
way of expressing himself, and that he was willing to address the public
directly as a philosopher. He appeared as a follower of Emerson and the mystics
whose chief business was to proclaim the mystery of life, the greatness of
little things, the beauty of all common things except common standards, as
the advocate of new standards or none at all, in the conduct and criticism
of life. This he did in the gentlest and most refined prose. It was a philosophy
of the infinitely little, of la nuance, the passionate evangelical extension
to life of Verlaine's doctrine for poetry:
|Car nous voulons la nuance encor.
Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance.
Oh! la nuance seule fiance
Le rêve au rêve et la flute au cor!
It encouraged charity and toleration, more anxious sympathy and more hesitating decisions in life. The feeling of the plays for the "poor creature born on this earth" was not insistent, but it was strong, and it helped to explain the melancholy and consumptive fragility of the work with all its hopefulness. The next book, "La Sagesse et la Destinée" marked a great increase of confidence and some strength in the essayist, though he still regarded man as the destined victim, if not of Jupiter and Jehovah, yet of unknown and more inexorable gods, nameless, or known as Destiny and Nature. Gradually the thought has grown that man can achieve the most difficult things by realizing that he is alone, and can depend only on himself, by refusing to settle down under crude codes in civil and private life, by more widely acknowledging mystery, yet more ardently striving to conquer it instead of denying it, by seeking to understand and enlarge the powers which affect our lives more deeply and more obscurely than reason can do. As this thought has developed the thought of Nature's hostility has declined, and once at least it has been renounced: it has been revived ill "L'Oiseau Bleu," chiefly for its picturesqueness. The cardinal, indefinite mysteries of life which gave gloom to the early plays have obsessed him less and less, and he has tended to touch only upon those which are definite, and will listen to a declaration of war from the human intelligence -- such as luck, instinct, accident.
The plays, and even the early essays, had something of a mute, resigned, religious gloom. This gave way before a freer acceptance of modern life, its science, its political interest, its progress by means of legislation, machinery, invention, and the enlightenment of the many. Between "Le Trésor" and "La Sagesse" he met, says André Gide, "life and Nietzsche." He came, and he has since come still farther, out from the North's impressive twilight into the certain light and warmth of the South. He came to see man, not as a poor little emmet under the eyes of gods, but as a majestic and subtle being, with "a long, noble road before him under the stars." He has thrown off all the religious trappings, but has respected what mysteries they covered, and though he accepts no mystery, new or old, as such, he is aware that there is still, and must always be, mystery on the right hand or on the left. He explains nothing, but he is afraid of nothing, and unashamed of being baffled. He is a materialist in his attitude only towards what is known. Nature, that once seemed a hostile or indifferent mystery, has become chiefly the provider of pleasure to the senses of a buoyant and curious observer, and his descriptions are among the best of his work in their eloquence and precision.
His descriptions, reflections, character-studies, narratives, rhapsodies, criticisms, all now fall easily into the kindly and popular form of essays. But during his fourteen years as an essayist he has written six plays. He has become a dramatist with a strong sense of the pictorial, and a master of theatrical effect. His plays have been for the most part in harmony with his essays, and he might have written them to illustrate the essays, except that he has not -- unless in "Aglavaine et Sélysette" -- touched modern life, but has always brushed aside his belief in a new, quiet drama, which is to replace the ostentatious and sounding old drama, and has chosen legendary or ancient characters, or such as are no more than personifications. But with his stage skill and inexhaustible fancy he can seldom succeed in being dull, while in "L'Oiseau Bleu" he has produced a Christmas masterpiece which some yet hold to be a philosophy. He has only failed to create a human character.
He has extraordinary facility, adroitness, exuberance,
and versatility. He is an experimental botanist, an apiarist of long standing,
an automobilist capable of driving himself, a mystic moralist, a playwright,
a critic of letters, a topical writer. Above all, he is an artist who handles
with equal skill incorporeal and corporeal things. No one can be harder and
more clear in depicting a scene or a flower. No one can be more light and
vaporous in treating an abstract subject, and he thus softens his impression
by seeming to speak of things unrelated to experience but also contrives
an entrance for his perfectly free speculations into minds which could not
receive them in a more vital form. This same easiness, perhaps, has proved
incompatible with the creation of a human character in his plays. His detached,
even, and quite uncontroversial manner make him a valuable auxiliary of liberal
thought. He is insidious and insinuating, but, except for those who can honestly
follow his flights from beginning to end, he is not bracing, and probably
fosters a combination of tolerance and enlightened inactivity. So free is
he in this mild boldness that he might seem, at times, to be careless and
aimless if he were not so obviously an optimist content with the lines of
modern civilization and the future towards which they lead. It is the freedom,
perhaps, of a high-spirited metaphysical subtlety rather than of mystic
intuition. And undoubtedly he has a verbal fertility and skill which might
take a few phrases like De Musset's "Le mélodrame est bon où
Margot a pleura," and "Cette rêverie qui ne pense à rien," and
William Morris's --
| (Lips) that work
As though her soul had learned
Deep things she has never heard of,
and make out of them his philosophy of women and children -- " the silent child is wiser than Marcus Aurelius speaking." Yet, if it were not for this sometimes defective, heady exuberance we should never have had essays like that on sundials, or perhaps much of" Le Trésor des Humbles," where there is a kind of courage of timidity which is beyond braver men. He has less of this than he began with, and he is now an idealist whose ideal is the development of the human spirit as it is definitely promised by to-day, chiefly by science. He is confident in the future, and not troubled as to the methods of reaching it. Things are too mysterious to be judged here, and he is content to acknowledge that what is had to be and is right -- to show how it is right is part of his task. His thought may be said to be based on the future, as Tolstoy's is based on a definite epoch in the past and Ibsen's on the present; but he is nearer to Ibsen in that he sees truth rising, if at all, out of the crucible of things as they are; he is for evolution, and not revolution. He is one who advocates more than he originates, whose chief gifts are subtlety in amplifying and eloquence in expressing ideas, who is thus more a rhetorician than a mystic, though he deals in mystical ideas. He is an apostle of the mystical rights of men, who extends into the moral and spiritual world the doctrine of the freedom and equality of all men.
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