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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905)
 
ONE of the most remarkable, one of the most widely known of the younger writers of the day, Maurice Maeterlinck, is still little more than a name to the majority of people, even among those who nominally follow closely every new expression of the contemporary spirit. Some, following the example of his ultra-enthusiastic French pioneer, M. Octave Mirbeau, have made for him the high claim of genius; others have gone to the opposite extreme, and denied his possession of any qualities save a morbid fantasy in drama, or of a mystical intensity in spiritual philosophy.  1
  That Maurice Maeterlinck is in every sense of the word a most notable personality in contemporary literature is not to be denied; whether we like or dislike his peculiar methods in the dramatic presentation of his vision of life, or understand or sympathize with his uncompromising position as a mystic of the kindred of Swedenborg, Jakob Boehme, or that Ruysbroeck of whom he has been the modern interpreter. It is undeniable, now, that the great vogue prophesied for the Maeterlinckian drama has not been fulfilled. Possibly the day may come when the Drame Intime may have a public following to justify the hopes of those who believe in it; but that time has not come yet. Meanwhile, we have to be content with dramas of the mind enacted against mental tapestries, so to say, or with shifting backgrounds among the dream vistas and perspectives of the mind. For although several of M. Maeterlinck’s poetic plays have been set upon the stage,—rather as puppet plays than in the sense commonly meant,—their success has been one of curiosity rather than of conviction. Even the most impressive has seemed much less so when subjected to the conditions of stage representation; and it is almost impossible to understand how certain of them could avoid exciting that sense of incongruity which is fatal to a keen impression of verisimilitude. Even compositions so decorative as ‘The Seven Princesses,’ or that strange drama ‘The Blind,’ are infinitely more impressive when read than when seen; and this because they are, like all else of Maeterlinck’s, merely the embodiment in words, and in a pseudo-dramatic formula, of spiritual allegories or dreams. There were many who thought that his short drama ‘The Intruder’ more than stood the test of stage representation. I have seen ‘L’Intruse’ twice, and given with all the skill and interpretative sympathy possible, both in Paris and London; and yet I have not for a moment found in its stage representation anything to approach the convincing and intimate appeal, so simple and yet so subtle and weird, afforded in the perusal of the original.  2
  We have, however, no longer to consider Maurice Maeterlinck merely as a dramatist, or perhaps I should say as a writer in dramatic form. He began as a poet, and as a writer of a very strange piece of fiction; and now, and for some time past, his work has been that of a spiritual interpreter, of an essayist, and of a mystic.  3
  Mooris Mäterlinck—for it was not till he was of age that he adopted the Gallicized “Maurice Maeterlinck”—was born in Flanders, and is himself racially as well as mentally and spiritually a Fleming of the Flemings. He has all the physical endurance, the rough bodily type, of his countrymen; but he has also their quiet intensity of feeling, their sense of dream and mystery. His earliest influences in literature were French and English: the French of writers such as Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, the English of writers such as Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists. When, as little more than a youth, he went to Paris, it was mainly in the hope of discipleship to the great Villiers. It was while in Paris that he wrote one of his earliest and to this day one of his most remarkable productions, the short story entitled ‘The Massacre of the Innocents,’—a study so remarkable that it at once attracted the attention of the few who closely follow every new manifestation of literary talent. In this strange tale, Maeterlinck has attempted to depict the Biblical story after the manner of those Dutch and Flemish painters who represented with unflinching contemporary realism all their scenes based upon Scriptural episodes—that is to say, who represented every scene, however Oriental or remote, in accordance with Dutch or Flemish customs, habits, dress, etc. This short story, however, appeared in an obscure and long since defunct French periodical; and little notice was taken of it till some years later, when the present writer drew attention to it as the first production of its by that time distinguished author. Since then it has been admirably translated, and has appeared in an American edition.  4
  But the first actual book which Maurice Maeterlinck published was a volume of poems entitled ‘Serres Chaudes,’—a title which we might idiomatically render as ‘Hot-house Blooms.’ These poems are interesting, and we can clearly discern in them the same mental outlook and habit of mind the author exhibits in his maturer prose writings; but they have not in any marked degree the lyric quality, as a poet’s work must have; and for all that there are poetical and imaginative lines and verses, they suggest rather the work of a rare and imaginative mind controlling itself to expression in this manner, than of one who yields to it out of imperious and impulsive need. In some respects we find a curious return to this first book in Maurice Maeterlinck’s later work, ‘Le Trésor des Humbles’ for although it is a volume of mystical essays, and deals with other themes than those chiefly broached in ‘Serres Chaudes,’ there is a remarkable spiritual affinity between them. It is impossible to understand this strange and powerful writer if one does not approach him on his mystical side. It is not necessary for the reader to follow him in his brooding hours with Ruysbroeck, or even to listen to what he has to say on the subject of Novalis and other German mystics; but his subtle analytical study of Emerson, and above all, those spiritual essays of his (entitled in English ‘The Treasure of the Humble’), should be carefully studied. This last-named book has shared the fate of all works of the kind; that is to say, it has been ignored by the great majority of the reading public, it has been sneered at by an ever fretful and supercilious band of critics, and has been received with deep gladness and gratitude by the few who welcome with joy any true glad tidings of the spiritual life. Among these essays, two should in particular be read: those entitled ‘The Deeper Life’ and ‘The Inner Beauty.’ The last-named, indeed, is really a quintessential essay. Just as a certain monotony of detail characterizes Maeterlinck’s dramas, so a repetitive diffuseness mars these prose essays of his. Beautiful thoughts and phrases are to be found throughout the whole of ‘The Treasure of the Humble’; but after all, the essay entitled ‘The Inner Beauty’ comprises his whole spiritual philosophy. When we turn to Maurice Maeterlinck the dramatist, we find him the supreme voice in modern Belgian literature. As a poet he is far surpassed by Émile Verhaeren—who is indeed one of the finest poets now living in any country; and as a writer of prose he has many rivals, and some who have a distinction, grace, and power altogether beyond what he has himself displayed. But as a dramatist—that is, an imaginative artist working in dramatic form—he holds a unique and altogether remarkable place.  5
  In one of his early poems he exclaims: “Mon âme!—Oh, mon âme vraiment trop à l’abri!”—(My soul!—Oh, truly my soul dwells too much in the shadow!) And it is this dwelling in the shadow which is the dominant characteristic of Maurice Maeterlinck. In ‘The Princess Maleine,’ in ‘The Seven Princesses,’ in ‘Pélléas and Mélisande,’ in ‘The Intruder,’ and ‘The Blind,’—in one and all of these, to his latest production, he hardly ever moves out of the shadow of a strange and affecting imaginative gloom. He too might with the Spanish writer, Emilia Pardo Bazán, exclaim: “Enter with me into the dark zone of the human soul!” It is rather, with him, the twilight zone. He loves to haunt the shadowy ways where night and day concur,—those shadowy ways wherein human actions and thoughts are still real, but are invested with a light or a shadow either strange or fantastic. His method is a simple one; but it is that kind of simplicity which involves a subtle and artistic mind. Often he relies upon words as abstractions, in order to convey the impression that is in his own mind; and this accounts for the bewilderment which some of his characteristic mannerisms cause to many readers. Where they see simple repetition, a vain and perhaps childish monotony, Maeterlinck is really endeavoring to emphasize the impression he seeks to convey, by dwelling upon certain images, accentuating certain words, evoking certain mental melodies or rhythms full of a certain subtle suggestion of their own.  6
  Much has been said and written about this new form in contemporary dramatic literature. It is a form strangely seductive, if obviously perilous. It has possibly a remarkable future—coming, as it has done, at a time when our most eager spirits are solicitous of a wider scope in expression, for a further opening-up of alluring vistas through the ever blossoming wilderness of art. It may well be that Maeterlinck’s chief service here will prove rather to be that of a pioneer—of a pioneer who has directed into new channels the stream which threatened to stagnate in the shallows of insincere convention.  7
  Maeterlinck was guided to the formula with which his name has become so identified, primarily through the influence of his friend Charles van Lerberghe, the author of ‘Les Flaireurs.’ The short dramatic episode entitled ‘Les Flaireurs’ occupies itself with a single incident: the death of an old peasant woman, by night, in a lonely cottage in a remote district, with no companion save her girlish grandchild. Almost from the outset the reader guesses what the nocturnal voices indicate. The ruse of the dramatist is almost childishly simple, if its process of development be regarded in detail. The impressiveness lies greatly in the cumulative effect. A night of storm, the rain lashing at the windows, the appalling darkness without, the wan candle-glow within, a terrified and bewildered child, a dying and delirious old woman, an ominous oft-repeated knocking at the door, a hoarse voice without, changeful but always menacing, mocking or muttering an obscure and horrible message: this interwrought, again and again represented, austerely tragic by-play—from one point of view, merely the material for tragedy—is a profoundly impressive work of art. It is perhaps all the more so from the fact that it relies to some extent upon certain venerable and even outworn conventionalities. The midnight hour, storm, mysterious sounds, the howl of a dog—we are familiar with all these “properties.” They do not now move us. Sheridan Le Fanu, or Fitzjames O’Brien, or R. L. Stevenson, can create for us an inward terror far beyond the half-simulated creep with which we read the conventional bogy-story. That Charles van Lerberghe should so impress us by the simplest and most familiar stage tricks points to his genuine artistry, to his essential masterhood. The literary conjurer would fain deceive us by sleight of hand; the literary artist persuades us by sleight of mind.  8
  Van Lerberghe is neither romanticist nor realist, as these vague and often identical terms are understood abroad. He works realistically in the sphere of the imaginary. If it were not that his aim, as that of Maeterlinck, is to bring into literature a new form of the drame intime, with meanwhile the adventitious aid of nominal stage accessories, one might almost think that ‘Les Flaireurs’ was meant for stage representation. It would be impossible, however, thus. Imagine the incongruity of the opening of this drama with its subject:—
          “Orchestral music.  Funeral march.  Roll of muffled drums.  A blast of a horn in the distance.  Roll of drums.  A short psalmodic motive for the organ.  REPEATED KNOCKS, HEAVY AND DULL.  Curtain.”
What have orchestral music and rolling of drums, and a psalmodic motive for the organ, to do with an old peasant woman dying in a cottage? For that stage of the imagination from which many of us derive a keener pleasure than from that of any theatre, there is perhaps nothing incongruous here. The effect sought to be produced is a psychic one; and if produced, the end is gained, and the means of no moment. It is only from this standpoint that we can view aright the work of Van Lerberghe, Maeterlinck, and Auguste Jenart. ‘Les Flaireurs’ is wholly unsuitable for the actual stage,—as unsuitable as ‘L’Intruse,’ or ‘Les Aveugles,’ or ‘Les Sept Princesses,’ or ‘Le Barbare.’ Each needs to be enacted in the shadow-haunted glade of the imagination, in order to be understood aright. Under the lime-light their terror becomes folly, their poetry rhetoric, their tragic significance impotent commonplace; their atmosphere of mystery, the common air of the squalidly apparent; their impressiveness a cause of mocking.
  9
  While in Maurice Maeterlinck we certainly encounter one of the most interesting figures in contemporary letters, it is not so easy to arrive at a definite opinion as to whether he is really a dominant force.  10
  There are many who believe that the author of ‘La Princesse Maleine’—and of many striking productions which have succeeded it—will attain to that high mastery which makes a writer a voice for all men, and not merely an arresting echo for his own hour, his own time, among his own people. Certainly his début was significant, remarkable. Yet in France, where his reputation was made, he is already looked upon as a waning force. Any new work by him is regarded with interest, with appreciation and sympathy perhaps, but not with that excited anticipation with which formerly it was greeted. For ourselves, we cannot estimate him otherwise than by his actual achievement. Has the author of ‘La Princesse Maleine,’ ‘L’Intruse,’ and ‘Les Aveugles’—his earliest and most discussed works—fulfilled himself in ‘Pélléas et Mélisande’ and the successors of that moving drama? His admirers declared that in this last-named play we should find him at his best and most mature. But ‘Pélléas and Mélisande’ has not stood the test.  11
  Yet I do not think ‘Pélléas et Mélisande’ is—what so many claim for it—Maeterlinck’s Sedan. All the same it is, at best, “a faithful failure.” I believe he will give us still better work; work as distinctive as his two masterpieces, ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les Aveugles,’ but with a wider range of sympathy, more genial an insight, an apprehension and technical achievement more masterly still. Indeed, in ‘Tintagiles’ and his latest productions, he has to a large extent fulfilled the wonderful imaginative beauty with which he charmed us in ‘Les Sept Princesses.’ Still, even here it is rather the dream-record of a dreamer than the actual outlook on life of a creative mind.  12
  Finally, what we have to bear in mind meanwhile is that Maurice Maeterlinck is possibly the pioneer of a new method coming into literature. We must not look too closely, whether in praise or blame, to those treasured formulas of his, of which so much has been said. What is inessential in these he will doubtless unlearn; what is essential he will probably develop. For it is not in the accidents of his dramatic expression that so fine an artist as Maeterlinck is an original writer, but in that quality of insight which is his own, that phrasing, that atmosphere.  13
 
  EDITORIAL NOTE.—As William Sharp’s death excluded the possibility of the revision of the foregoing article by his own hand, it seemed best to the Editors to leave it untouched, for it is an admirable presentation of Maeterlinck’s work up to the time that it was written. Sharp’s distrust of the permanent success of the mystical dramas, expressed with so much sympathy and insight, was later confirmed by the dramatist himself. Indeed Maeterlinck confounded some of his more enthusiastic disciples by speaking in tones of decided depreciation of these earlier plays, and his dramatic work took an entirely new turn. The change has been ascribed to his desire to write a play suited to the talent of the charming and gifted actress, Georgette Leblanc, whom he married in 1901, but it should doubtless be attributed to more profound developments in his artistic and intellectual life. However this may be, it is certain that ‘Monna Vanna’ (1902) offered a complete contrast to his earlier dramatic work; instead of the vague background of legendary northern forests, we have a definite scene—Pisa at the end of the fifteenth century,—and instead of the drame intime of humble souls or mystic princesses, we have the stirring incidents of a siege and the clash of contending politicians. All this, it is true, is interwoven with the spiritual struggles that take place in the hearts of Monna Vanna, her husband, and her lover, but the drama in its tone and atmosphere is much closer to Browning’s ‘Luria,’ to which it was obviously indebted, than to anything its author had done before. As a historical melodrama it was made effective enough on the American stage by a talented emotional actress of the day, but it was necessary for the critics to point out its spiritual significance, which was presumably the dramatist’s chief aim, but which somehow disappeared in the representation.  14
  Maeterlinck was hardly more successful in dealing with a subject from Christian tradition in ‘Sister Beatrice’ (1901) or from Arthurian legend in ‘Joyzelle’ (1903), but in ‘The Blue Bird’ (1908) he at last found material exactly suited for dramatic treatment by him from the point of view at which he had now arrived—that of the agnostic mystic—who accepts the facts of science, but sees beyond them a vast field for poetic imagination. First acted in Moscow, ‘The Blue Bird’ made its triumphant way all over Europe and across the Atlantic; it is still perhaps the most popular of fairy plays, both with children, who are delighted by its romantic treatment of matters of everyday experience, and by adult critics, who find in it suggestions of deep spiritual significance.  15
  Before ‘The Blue Bird’ achieved its worldwide dramatic success Maeterlinck had firmly established his reputation as a writer of prose in ‘La Vie des Abeilles’ (The Life of the Bee, 1901). It was not that like Fabre he discovered new facts, but he gave to what was already known a romantic charm due to an imaginative insight and a peculiarly attractive style, of which the following description of the queen bee’s nuptial flight may serve as an example:
          “She starts her flight backwards; returns twice or thrice to the alighting-board; and then, having definitely fixed in her mind the exact situation and aspect of the kingdom she has never yet seen from without, she departs like an arrow to the zenith of the blue. She soars to a height, a luminous zone, that other bees attain at no period of their life. Far away, caressing their idleness in the midst of the flowers, the males have beheld the apparition, have breathed the magnetic perfume that spreads from group to group till every apiary near is instinct with it. Immediately crowds collect, and follow her into the sea of gladness, whose limpid boundaries ever recede. She, drunk with her wings, obeying the magnificent law of the race that chooses her lover, and enacts that the strongest alone shall attain her in the solitude of the ether, she rises still; and, for the first time in her life, the blue morning air rushes into her stigmata, singing its song, like the blood of heaven, in the myriad tubes of the tracheal sacs, nourished on space, that fill the centre of her body. She rises still. A region must be found unhaunted by birds, that else might profane the mystery. She rises still; and already the ill-assorted troop below are dwindling and falling asunder. The feeble, infirm, the aged, unwelcome, ill-fed, who have flown from inactive or impoverished cities, these renounce the pursuit and disappear in the void. Only a small, indefatigable cluster remain, suspended in infinite opal. She summons her wings for one final effort; and now the chosen of incomprehensible forces has reached her, has seized her, and bounding aloft with united impetus, the ascending spiral of their intertwined flight whirls for one second in the hostile madness of love.”
  16
  Maeterlinck’s genius next sought an outlet in discussions of psychical phenomena, more especially in connection with the problem of the immortality of the soul. His essays on the subject have his unfailing charm of style, but are less readable on account of the uncongenial material he has undertaken to handle. His philosophic discussions of the general problem of immortality are marked by scientific reserve, curiously combined with the native cheerfulness which goes with his Flemish temperament and robust physique. He cannot be said to have added anything to our knowledge of life beyond the grave, but he writes about it sympathetically and courageously.  17
  The outbreak of the war interrupted Maeterlinck’s literary and philosophic interest. Although he had long resided at the beautiful Abbey of Ste. Wandrille in France he remained thoroughly Belgian at heart, and he plunged with all the ardor of his passionate temperament and the eloquence of his moving style into protests and pleas on behalf of his unhappy compatriots. These belong perhaps rather to history than to literature, but the unsparing devotion with which Maeterlinck gave himself to the cause of his unfortunate country cannot but command our admiration.  18
 
 
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