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LATER POEMS: "QUINZE CHANSONS"
MAETERLINCK published three books in 1896. "Le Trésor des Humbles" marks a beginning, and is largely prophetic, and "Aglavaine et Selysette" points both to the future and to the past of his work. "Douze Chansons" belongs entirely to the past; but it has now been enlarged as "Quinze Chansons", and includes the virgin's song from "Sur Béatrice," the song about Orlamonde's five daughters from "Ardiane et Barbe Bleue," and a song for Mélisande in place of "Mes longs cheveux descendent." The poems in this second volume are clearly connected in style with the early plays, and especially with "Les Sept Princesses." Most of them look like rudimentary allegories, and depend for their power upon a mysterious use of numbers and an appearance of condensed significance, equally mysterious. Some one chains a maiden in a grotto, where she forgets the light; a sign is made on the door, and the key fails into the sea. She waits for the days of the summer; she waits more than seven years, like the "seven long years by land and sea" of the ballads; and each year some one passes by. She waits for the winter days, and her hairs remember the light -- they find it, and glide between the stones and light up the rocks. One evening, some one passing by notices the light, but does not understand and does not approach. He thinks it a strange sign -- a spring of gold -- angel's work; at any rate, he turns aside and goes away.
Another poem of four verses tells how three little girls were killed to see what was in their hearts:
|They have slain three little girls
To see what's in their hearts.
The first was full of happiness;
The second was full of gentleness;
The third was full of misery;
If this were an old poem it would keep the learned busy
many years to no purpose; but, as it was made up by Maeterlinck, its meaning
need not trouble learned or unlearned, while, apart from a meaning, the images
can only satisfy those who have a love of mystery for its own sake as well
as a natural feeling for numbers. It is not likely that Maeterlinck wished
to teach that misery here begets happiness hereafter. In another poem some
girls with bandaged eyes are seeking their destinies. At midday they open
the palace in the meadows, and salute life, but do not go out. In another
there are three blind sisters with golden lamps, who ascend the tower and
wait seven days, when the first says, "I am waiting for our lights"; the
second, "The king is coming up "; the third and most holy, "No, they are
out." Another has the refrain: "My child, I am afraid." Some one is going
away; a lamp is lit; at the first door the flame trembled; at the second
spoke; at the third went out. Here again only our curiosity is aroused, and
that very imperfectly. "The seven daughters of Orlamonde" is better:
|The seven daughters of Orlamonde,
When the fairy was dead,
The seven daughters of Orlamonde
Sought the doors ....
They lit their seven lamps,
Arrive at the sonorous grottos,
See the ocean through the chinks,
The number "seven" and the name "Orlamonde," followed by the word "fairy," unless they evoke the word "bunkum," lull us in a way which the killing of the three little girls cannot do. The "seven lamps," the towers, the four hundred rooms, the sonorous grottos, the closed door, the golden key, the ocean seen through the chinks, the not daring to open it, are all significant in themselves; but they have little more value in this particular poem than in an inventory, and especially as there are so many of them. In one poem there are three sisters who want to die, and go out in search of death, and, seeking it from the forest in exchange for their three crowns, they receive twelve kisses, which reveal the future; from the sea they have three hundred kisses and a revelation of the past; from the city an indefinite number and a revelation of the present. Here the numbers twelve and three hundred are useless without a key. There are other poems with lighted lamps, lost keys, sunshine seen through chinks.
Maeterlinck could have made charades or plays of any or all of them, but in their present form they are like the rhymed outlines of plays. Many begin as if they belonged to something else, which the reader is supposed to know, but does not. One of the most musical and admired is the second in "Quinze Chansons":
|What shall I tell him
Should he return?
Tell him my life was spent
Waiting for him ....
Should he still question
And if he should ask me
And if he asks why
And if he then asks
This is the haunted, whispering resignation of the early plays, though nothing survives in the translation except an obtrusively modest sentimental tale.
But for the most part these poems have too hard a finish.
They are superficially precise, internally obscure or naught. The song in
"Pelléas et Mélisande," which was originally a fragment of
naive beauty, was changed into another of these. It used to say: "My long
locks fall down to the foot of the tower; my locks hang ready for you all
down the tower, all day long and all day long. . . . Saint Daniel and Saint
Michael, Saint Michael and Saint Raphael. I was born on Sunday, a Sunday
at noon." Perhaps this seemed to Maeterlinck too Elizabethan. He substituted
for it the poem which Miss Alma Tadema thus renders:
|Thirty years I've sought, my sisters,
For his hiding-place;
Thirty years I've walked, my sisters,
But have found no trace ....
Thirty years I've walked, my sisters,
Sad the hour grows, my sisters,
You are now sixteen, my sisters,
The eighth poem is of one who had three golden crowns, and gave one to her parents, one to her lover, and one to her children. This is not the only one recalling a folk-song or ballad, such as "The Cruel Brother," with its --
|"Oh what would ye leave to your father deal?"
With a heigh-ho! and a lily gay.
"The milk-white steed that brought me here,"
As the primrose spread so sweetly.
But in these traditional things both the mysterious and
the unintelligible gain by their age and the knowledge that something has
been worn away by it. You cannot by a stroke of the pen emulate --
|This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Everie night and alle,
Fire and sleet, and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.
One or two of these "Chansons" bring into the mind the ballad of "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray," and they perish in the comparison. But there are, besides the song which was left unsung by Shakespeare, "Mariana in the Moated Grange," other poems of known authorship with which they may or even must be compared. There are, e.g., Tennyson's two poems on Mariana and his "Lady of Shalott"; and Coleridge's magic song in "Remorse" ·
|Hear, sweet spirit, hear the spell,
Lest a blacker charm compel!
So shall the midnight breezes swell
With thy deep, long-lingering knell.
And at evening evermore,
Hark! the cadence dies away
This is beyond anything in "Douze Chansons." But in Poe may be found a poem which is perhaps exactly equal to one of Maeterlinck's in subject, method, and failure in effect. I refer to the "Bridal Ballad," beginning "The ring is on my hand." The abruptness, the subdued elliptical style, the refrain, of these five verses, are so like that they might be offered to a reader who knew no French as an equivalent to one of the "Douze Chansons." For that reason only I will quote it:
|The ring is on my hand,
And the wreath is on my brow;
Satin and jewels grand
Are all at my command,
And I am happy now.
And my lord he loves me well;
But he spoke to reassure me,
And thus the words were spoken,
Would God I could awaken!
If Maeterlinck has a manner even more full of mystery, it must be conceded that he is guiltless of the particular fatuity of "D'Elormie."
But the poet who has achieved effects most like those
attempted by Maeterlinck is William Morris. His "Blue Closet" has the effect
of an early play of Maeterlinck's, and more than that of any poem in "Douze
|Alice the Queen, and Louise the Queen,
Two damozels wearing purple and green,
Four lone ladies dwelling here
From day to day and year to year;
And there is none to let us go,
To break the locks of the doors below,
Or shovel away the heaped-up snow;
And when we die no man will know
That we are dead.
"Two Red Roses across the Moon" is another; and even this has a sense of life and locality which is not anywhere in "Douze Chansons." "The Sailing of the Sword," again, has a similar use of the refrain and of conspicuous but indefinitely significant distinctions, as in --
|Alicia wore a scarlet gown
When the Sword went out to sea,
But Ursula's was russet brown:
For the mist we could not see
The scarlet roofs of the good town,
When the Sword went out to sea.
This may be nothing more than jugglery, but at least the length of the poem accumulates sufficient colour and gesture to compose a picture. The same is true of "Shameful Death," which is like some of Maeterlinck's poems in its abrupt and unexplained opening:
There were four of us about that bed, . . .
and still more of "Near Avalon":
|A ship with shields before the sun,
Six maidens round the mast,
A red-gold crown on every one,
A green gown on the last.
Nevertheless, there is an essential difference
between the methods and aims of Morris and Maeterlinck which partly invalidates
the comparison. Morris depends upon life, though it may be dreamed; upon
a mediaeval background, however artificial. His castle is not merely an ideal
black castle stifled among poplars in a nameless island and a nameless age,
but a particular one:
|Midways by a walled garden,
In the happy poplar land,
Did an ancient castle stand,
With an old knight for a warden.
Many scarlet bricks there were
In its walls.
Maeterlinck writes in colourless water and depends upon nothing in time or space save words. His one success is the ninth poem:
|She came towards the palace
-- The sun was hardly rising --
She came towards the palace,
The knights looked at one another,
All the ladies were silent.
She stopped before the door
Where are you going, where are you going
She went down towards the unknown
Her lord was weeping on the threshold
This, at least, could not have been pilloried like "Quand l'amant sortit" and "On est venu dire" in Tolstoy's "What is Art?" where they are unfairly printed as one poem and condemned as unintelligible, with the fair comment: "Who went out? Who came in? Who is speaking? Who died?"
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