copyright, Kellscraft Studio, 1999                                             
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                                                             

Click Here to return to
Marice Maeterlinck
Content Page

Click Here to return to
the previous section




     WITH 1896 ends the work of Maeterlinck's youth. It begins with one volume of poems, "Serres Chaudes," in 1889, and ends with another, "Douze Chansons," in 1896. Between these the eight plays appeared. These are by far the more interesting part of his early work, and, unlike the poems, they surrender the best of themselves to readers who are not perfect masters of French, and all but the best to those who know them only in translations, the style of the original being unaffected to the point of affectation. They have the one-sidedness and consequent exaggeration of youth, but also an intensity which may prolong their life beyond that of later work. In his poems he dwelt confessedly upon curiously isolated images of fever and the select life of a hot-house or a bell-glass or a dream of the day or night. His plays do the same without acknowledgment of any similar source. But in some of them the dream character is strong. The play of the seven princesses asleep on the marble stairs, if not taken or adapted from a picture, might have come from an inexplicable and inconsequent dream; while the frenzy, without power or hope, of the old king and queen at the end, when they strive to enter the death-chamber and beat upon walls and windows, is perfectly dream-like, and has a parallel in the scene where Ygraine tries to break through the impassable iron door behind which her brother is being murdered. "L'Intruse" and "Intérieur," are studies of a motionless interior, commonplace in itself but made intense by the hidden form of death, by isolation, and by a nervous monotony of manner. In "L'Intruse" the words hardly break the silence which they accent and mysteriously fall into and expound like stones dropped into deep waters. Had Maeterlinck read James Thomson's "In the Room"? It is a poem made entirely out of the silent voices of motionless things in the room of a suicide -- the mirror, the curtain, the empty cupboard, the glass, the table, the fire-grate, the little phial which had been emptied of its "cold wine of death," and the bed which thrilled the gloom with tales --

Of human sorrows and delights,
Of fever moans and infant wails,
Of births and deaths and bridal nights.

     "L'Intruse" is equally still and quiet, the room is equally "silent and aware," while the dramatic form persuades us that the mystery is that of life itself, and not of an indomitably sad poet's heart like B.V.'s.

     The other six plays are full of the external sublime. They take place on islands, in the neighbourhood of the sea or of immense forests, in high towers or in castles or palaces honeycombed with innumerable chambers and corridors, and built upon rocks that are hollowed into great caves and lakes reached by many stairs. The water, the gloom, the labyrinthine complication may well be a dream elaboration of the canals, the bridges past counting, and the vast buildings of the ancient city in which he was born. The castles are in perpetual shadow, are damp, and without any ordinary coming and going of life. They are inhabited by a brutal king's son, an old man who loves an unwilling young girl, a dotard who is the slave of a poisonous mistress, a hideous and cruel queen unseen but irresistible. To these castles and such masters and mistresses come the frailest of creatures: a beautiful, homeless princess whose rival's mother is omnipotent, a lost princess in rags who sickens at once in the dark places, a slave from the heart of Arcadia and her pet lamb, a single child sent from far over the sea for an unknown purpose. All miserably perish, not by sudden violence, but by long days of anticipation and fear and dungeons, ending in poison, a strangling cord, a knife, a sword, and a separation worse than death. All of them love, and have little joy of their love because they have a stronger rival or unrelenting tyrant. This they know full well, but cannot escape; nor, as a rule, can they even try to escape. Thus the vastness and complication of the world, the power of fate and of cruel men, the littleness and feebleness of women and children and many men, are expressed in clearly visible symbols. Though marionettes in size, they are also humanity. The people are not individuals, but types or personifications of mankind, or a class, or age, or sex. They are an old man, a young man, a sister, a solitary maiden from a far foreign land, a child, an old servant with a rusty sword. Sometimes they take part in a tale of unfortunate or forbidden love, but the romance or the problem is no part of the interest of the play. For these are not men and women, but tragical and small simplifications of them. The plays are bloodless, but not lifeless epitomes; little miracle plays, each with a new variation upon the one great tale of the suffering of man and the majesty of fate. The characters speak either in simple, short phrases, often repeated, which suggest that they are half awake or thinking of something else, or in far-reaching, symbolic phrases like "We have never seen the house in which we live, .... One would say we were always alone," "It is too late, .... We shall never come back," "We shall never see one another again; the doors are shut." Separation, fear, helplessness, or consciousness of what must happen, love that is always crying and never abandoned, prevail. The men and women have many of the refinements of the most modern tea-drinking, scented, cloistered members of the middle class, yet we are as little drawn to sympathy with them as we should be if they took after their Arthurian names, Palomides, Aglovale, Pelléas, and so on. "They belong," Mr. William Archer thinks," to the far future rather than the past." What they do touches us because we are mortal and they have a mortal frailty and sadness, but here is nothing of the tears of things. Life in this drama is a dream of a dream of a dream, refined, reduced, grey and remote, and very quiet. This is how we have come to see ourselves. Like gods we look down from an altitude of dream or trance, and behold ourselves crawling uncomfortably about eternity and infinity.

     Long ago men said that mankind was like an ant's nest, but they did not believe it. Only a theologian said it, and, for joy of an ingenious invention, they repeated it as if it were a reality. But now we can see mankind so. It is not the spaces of the stars that terrify us, but the spaces between one lover and the other, between a child and the dead that bore him. Maeterlinck's people are pismires, Arthurian pismires. Their tragedy does not disturb or purge, but dignifies us through Creating us at Once Brobdignagians, in relation to these Lilliputians on the stage. De Quincey has already been mentioned in comparison or illustration; and, looking back upon the early plays as a whole, a passage of the "Opium Eater" has more than once returned to my mind as giving a picture like that left by the plays. I refer to De Quincey's recollection of Coleridge's description of Piranesi's "Dreams." He says:

     "Some of these (I describe only from the memory of Coleridge's account) represented vast Gothic halls; on the floor of which stood mighty engines and machinery, wheels, cables, catapults, etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, or resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon this, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself. Follow the stairs a little farther, and you perceive them reaching an abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who would reach the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi? At last you suppose that his labours must now in some way terminate. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Once again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is descried; and there, again, is the delirious Piranesi, busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and the hopeless Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall."

     And De Quincey adds that in the early stage of his malady the splendours of his dreams were "chiefly architectural," and that the architecture was succeeded by "lakes and silvery expanses of water." In drama it is a new sensation. We have had shadow-shows and puppet-shows before; but they were deliberately ironical or even farcical. These are serious, and share only the unconscious irony of nature. Probably they were "all made out of the carver's brain," and the author retired into the wilderness, far from men, to dream of them. Their foundations in experience are not obvious nor perhaps very deep. It needs no experience to discover the meaning of "Farewell" or "It is too late." Along with this discovery, to make the plays . possible, went the power, and the will to exercise it, of seeing things with the detached, sunless remoteness of dreams. It is said that the sun never appears in dreams; if it did the scale of life would return, and the dream either disappear or come true. There is no sun in Maeterlinck's plays; the forest or the castle walls or the dungeon roofs exclude it.

It is a new sensation for the intellect, for it is to the intellect that works of such length and design must appeal. But it is not wholly new. Lyrics and lyrical narratives have done the same before in a more instant way. To give only one example, Poe's "Annabel Lee" does it, and does indeed twice as much; for it has also human passion, something different from the solicitude of Ygraine or the faith of Maleine and Mélisande. The "kingdom by the sea," "many and many a year ago," the love of the two children, the envy of the seraphs of heaven, the chilly wind blowing out of a cloud upon the girl, and the "highborn kinsman" bearing her away to "shut her up in a sepulchre," are all elements that might have made a play by Maeterlinck, and to these are added strength of love --

Stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we,
Of many far wiser than we;
And neither the angels in heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

       This rebelliousness, equal to that of Ygraine, and also essential, changes the poem, but the resemblance to Maeterlinck remains in the definitely vague time and place, the intense love, frail but everlasting, assailed by a death out of heaven, and even perhaps in the sepulchre by the sea where Annabel was 'shut up.' But far stranger is the general resemblance in Maeterlinck sad castles of death to the same poet's "City in the Sea." There may be no connection between the two, in spite of Poe's prominence in France, yet it is worth noticing that the feeling most like that of Maeterlinck's scenery as of his people, is to be found in a lyric:

Lo! death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone,
Far down within the dim west,
Where the good and the bad, and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There, shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turret silently ....

     This is pictorial lyric. Maeterlinck's plays are not lyrical drama, but lyric dramatized. He could dramatize-

Golden boys and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

     He could dramatize --

O world, O life, O time,
On whose last steps I climb …

or --

If I were lord of Tartary ....

     It is true they do not become dramatic in any strict sense, but they are more than mere translations out of one form into another. Thus the lyric motive gains in volume as if magnified and multiplied by the voices of many instruments. "Pelléas et Mélisande," for example, might have grown out of that fragment of song about her long hair unbound which Mélisande sings; all that long tale of loving her lord's brother is little more than the blare and pomp of instruments. Such parts are easy to overact. A woman with a Burne-Jones face and a bird-like voice needs to do little more than speak her words clearly to play Mélisande, for example. A full-sized living actress breaking her fingers against a door in the part of Ygraine must be terrible to witness. The scenery also of these plays cannot but lose by material representation on the stage. A not too clear mental image is more appropriate. The terror of caves or castles imagined by one who has never known it, is what is necessary, not the real terror of dark, dripping limestone and lamp darkened, still waters in the labyrinths of the earth's bowels. And so with the stairs, the walls, the corridors, the windows, the doors -- these are mind-stuff, and it is arrogant to translate them with anything but a brush dipped in fog and melancholy. Nevertheless, they have been much admired when put on the stage, even when they have not been played behind a curtain of black gauze. "Pelléas et Mélisande" in particular makes a charming melancholy spectacle, except at the moments when Golaud, spying on the lovers or chasing them with uplifted sword, or torturing Mélisande's last minutes for a confession of adultery, interrupts it with an air of physical customary life. The lost Mélisande (an actress with a cooing voice) crying outstretched by the pool in the forest, the unhappy wife singing, and, like William Morris's Rapunzel, letting her marvellous long hair down from a window of the tower to her lover below -- these things have the beauty of scenes from "Aucassin and Nicolete," with, and even without, the aid of music. Mr. J. W. Mackail says that there was "only one opinion as to the scenic effectiveness" of "Pelléas et Mélisande," when it was played in London in I894 by M. Lugné-Poe and his company. Mr. Archer goes so far as to say: "If one were to rewrite this play (it could quite well be done), as a drama of common life, excluding symbolism altogether, one could probably retain at least half of the existing dialogue; and, where it could be retained at all, it could not possibly be bettered." It has twice been given a musical form, in which it gains almost as much as it loses. "La Mort de Tintagiles" also has been set to music.

     Maeterlinck's own words on these plays -- to be found in an Introduction to the three volumes of his "Thêatre" -- are to be admired for their kindliness and clear sight. He republished the plays with little alteration, not because they were perfect but 'because a poem is not to be bettered by a succession of corrections. He could, he says, have suppressed several things in "Princesse Maleine," including most of" those surprising repetitions which give the characters the appearance of rather deaf somnambulists constantly torn out of a painful dream"; he would thus have been spared some smiles, but this lack of promptitude in hearing and replying belongs to their psychology and their rather haggard idea of the universe, and it cannot be altered without destroying its one quality: a certain harmony of affright and gloom. The other plays, he says, mix the Christian god with the classic idea of fatality, in an impenetrable night of nature. There is to be found in them an unknown which most often takes the place of death -- death indifferent, inexorable, blind, working almost by chance, taking by preference the youngest and least wretched. And this, he says, is not without reason. For long yet-unless a decisive discovery of science or a revelation such as a communication with a planet older and wiser than ours teaches us at last the origin and aim of life -- for long, or for ever, we shall be precarious and fortuitous beings abandoned without appreciable designs to all the breaths of an indifferent night. To paint this immense and useless feebleness with some gesture of grace and tenderness, some words of sweetness, frail hope, pity and love, is all that can humanly be done when life is transported to the verge of this great indifferent truth which freezes energy and the love of life. But this is not enough. We must rather seek to cross these boundaries, to destroy our ignorance, to use truths as admissible and more encouraging. The last three-quarters of a century have made impracticable certain majestic or terrible incertitudes for which poets used to be thought great and profound. The lyric poet, he continues, will perhaps not be troubled by this evolution of thought. The dramatist must be sincere; and even so Tolstoy and Ibsen have remained true to life without missing that sense of "the mystery which dominates and judges things " -- a sense essential to fine poetry. He himself thought it honourable and wise to cast down death from the throne to which it certainly has no right: in "Aglavaine and Selysette" he wished to give part of the ancient power of death to love, wisdom, and happiness; but, he says, he was unable. Death would not obey, and he had to wait for a conqueror to be revealed. There is something naive and touching in this avowal of the strife between the philosopher and the artist in one breast.

Click the image of Maeterlinck
to continue to the next chapter.