Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Emile Verhaeren (1855–1916)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Amy Lowell (1874–1925)
“BELGIUM which might well be thought to have plumbed the lowest depths of misfortune; Belgium, which is dying of want and misery in a darkness which we dare not penetrate lest we be overwhelmed with despair; Belgium has lost the one voice that was worthy and able to proclaim her distress and make it known to the world….  1
  “He stood for Belgium in every part of her being. The world has never seen, the world may seek in vain for, another poet who so truly embodied within himself the soul of a country. Flemish by birth and ancestry, Walloon, that is French, in mind and speech, he was indeed the twin-faced poet of this twin-headed people; yet his heart was single; and its singleness has been well proved.”  2
  These are Maurice Maeterlinck’s words, in an article written since the tragic death of his friend and confrère, Emile Verhaeren. Verhaeren and Maeterlinck stand as the two pinnacles of Belgian literature during the latter half of the nineteenth, and the first decade of the twentieth century. We think of Maeterlinck primarily as a dramatist, although he also writes poems; we think of Verhaeren primarily as a poet, although he also wrote plays. Together they are Belgium, the Belgium of vigorous, energetic materialism, no less than the Belgium of poetic mysticism. Maeterlinck represents the latter, but Verhaeren represents both. He does more, he is the very soul of the modern world.  3
  Belgians may point to him proudly as the embodiment of their nation, but we, who are not Belgians, recognize in him a greater universality. There is scarcely a side of the life of to-day upon which he does not touch. He is of the country and of the city; of imagination and of reality; of ideals and of gross fact. His is the temperament of the believer, and the mind of the agnostic. Profoundly touched by the thoughts and aims of modern times, he never loses sympathy with the charm of things old and half-forgotten. To quote another Belgian writer, Émile Cammaerts, he is “energy and dream.”  4
  Other poets have pursued one or another of the ideals for which he strove, but in no other modern is so embracing an endeavor. His poems are rich in thought, but the thought is not permitted to usurp the place of poetry, for Verhaeren is always an artist.  5
  At the time when ‘Symbolisme’ was flourishing in France, Verhaeren was already preoccupied with the modern sympathy of man for his fellows. He could not shut himself away from life. Men, welded into the corporate entity: Man, was to him all important. One of the younger French poets, Jules Romains, has written a book called ‘La Vie Unanime’; Verhaeren’s whole work might bear the same title. What he felt and acted upon, the next generation has tabulated.  6
  The facts of Verhaeren’s life, as we know them, are not of great importance; what is important is the reaction of his mind upon these facts, and that we have in his poems.  7
  Emile Verhaeren was born at Saint-Amand in East Flanders on May 21st, 1855. His father, Gustave Verhaeren, was the son of a cloth merchant of Brussels. His mother, a Mlle. Debock, was a native of Saint-Amand. Both families can be traced to different parts of Belgium in the eighteenth century, but there is reason to believe that the Verhaerens were originally Dutch, while the Debocks were certainly French. French was the language in which Verhaeren was brought up.  8
  After two years in a school in Brussels, the poet was sent to the Jesuit College of Sainte-Barbe in Ghent, from which institution he graduated at twenty, and returned to Saint-Amand for a year, taking a position in a large oil works owned by his uncle in that town. This business proving distasteful, the young man decided to study law, and matriculated at the University of Louvain, obtaining his degree in 1881.  9
  After a short time in the office of Edmond Picard in Brussels, Verhaeren abandoned the law in order to devote himself entirely to literature. He had already been a contributor to an ill-starred little paper, La Semaine, published by the undergraduates at Louvain, which was suppressed fifteen months after its foundation by the University authorities on account of its freedom of thought and expression.  10
  In 1883, Verhaeren published his first book, ‘Les Flamandes,’ brilliant, vivid poems of Flemish life, done with the realistic touch which Zola was just making the fashion among the younger generation of Belgian writers. The book met with much opposition from the conservatives, but was warmly defended by Lemonnier in ‘L’Europe.’ It was certainly an extraordinarily brilliant first book, but it represented only one side of Verhaeren’s nature. It was the other side, the gentle, mystical side, which was given prominence in the poet’s next book, ‘Les Moines,’ published in 1886. Before writing it, Verhaeren passed some time in the monastery of Forges near Chimay, in order to surround himself with the quiet atmosphere which the book demanded, and which it is possible he realized that he also needed.  11
  A period of wandering succeeded the publication of these books, during which Verhaeren went to France, Germany, Spain, and England. His mind was constantly at work upon the problems of existence, and so strenuous was the internal conflict that his health gave way for a time, and he suffered a severe nervous breakdown.  12
  During this illness, he lived in London, and some of his most interesting poems have London for their theme. The somber state of his mind at that period found expression in ‘Les Soirs,’ ‘Les Débâcles,’ and ‘Les Flambeaux Noirs’ published respectively in 1887, 1888, and 1890.  13
  In 1891, Verhaeren issued two volumes of poems: ‘Les Bords de la Route,’ which dates from the time of ‘Les Flamandes’ and ‘Les Moines,’ and ‘Apparus dans mes Chemins,’ which marks the beginning of a new epoch in his literary career, and leads the way to the books of his great period: ‘Les Campagnes Hallucinées,’ 1893; ‘Les Villages Illusoires,’ 1895; and ‘Les Villes Tentaculaires,’ 1895.  14
  On his return to Belgium, he threw himself enthusiastically into active life, and became a convert to the Socialistic doctrines then stirring the country. He seconded M. Vandevelde and others in starting a democratic movement, and was for some time a member of the Comité de la Maison du Peuple.  15
  Some time before 1896, Verhaeren married, and a volume of love-poems, ‘Les Heures Claires,’ was published in that year. This book is a series of three, which have appeared at long intervals, the second, ‘Les Heures d’Après-Midi,’ being issued in 1905, and the third, ‘Les Heures du Soir,’ in 1911.  16
  His life from this moment is almost without incident, except for many journeys and the constant writing and publishing of books. Emile Verhaeren was a most prolific writer. His fecundity and energy were enormous. He wrote twenty-six volumes of poems, seven volumes of prose, and four plays. There is not space here to enumerate all these volumes in detail. I can only touch upon those which are the most important. Of the poems, the books already mentioned contain his most characteristic work, but four volumes of poems under the general title, ‘Toute la Flandre,’ should be included in that estimate. They give not only charming and intimate pictures of his own boyhood, but are an epitome of Flemish life and custom. Unfortunately, as they were published by a Belgian firm, they are, at the time of writing, unprocurable. The other four volumes of poems issued before the war, ‘La Multiple Splendeur,’ ‘Les Visages de la Vie,’ ‘Les Rhythmes Souverains,’ and ‘Les Blés Mouvants,’ are more subjective and reflective in tone than his earlier books, although in ‘Les Blés Mouvants’ there is a return to the pictorial quality so marked in ‘Les Villages Illusoires’ and the other volumes of his middle period.  17
  His last collection of poems, ‘Les Ailes Rouges de la Guerre,’ is the outcry of a strong and terribly wounded man. The finest poem in the volume is the magnificent tribute to England, ‘L’Angleterre,’ one stanza of which will serve to show the brilliant symbolizing of a whole nation by means of visual images, and the undercurrent of emotion which surges through the poem:
      Sur tes places, au coin des rues
A ton appel urgent se massaient les recrues;
Mille affiches brillaient et s’exaltaient dans l’air;
Des voix graves parlaient d’honneur et de patrie
    Et tes femmes au geste clair
Redonnaient de l’orgueil aux âmes amoindries.
Des phares de Penzance aux beffrois d’Edimbourg,
Tes cités embrasaient de leur cœur tes campagnes;
Des ouragans d’ardeur sautaient de bourg en bourg
A travers bois, vallons, fleuves, coteaux, montagnes;
En tous lieux se muait pour les rudes combats
Ta race de marins en peuple de soldats;
Londre oublia Carthage et se souvint Rome,
Si bien qu’un jour, son île héroïque trembla
Du long pas cadencé de quatre millions d’hommes.
  The beautiful poem to Rupert Brooke also printed in this book must stand, with his own last sonnets, as the young poet’s most fitting epitaph.  19
  Verhaeren’s best-known play is ‘Le Cloître,’ in which he returns to the theme of ‘Les Moines.’ It is written for male characters only and is partly in prose and partly in verse. ‘Hélène de Sparte’ takes up the Greek story where Homer left it. Here we see Helen, weary, and ageing, longing for love not lust, and still pursued by the desire of men. In the end, she seeks refuge in the forest only to be again followed by fauns, naiads, and bacchantes, until she flees in despair to Zeus and death. This play was first published in translation in Leipzig under the title of ‘Helena’s Heimkehr.’  20
  It is curious and interesting to note that Verhaeren’s prose books are largely critical essays upon painting—monographs of the work of Joseph Heymans, Rembrandt, and Rubens. It has been justly said that every Fleming is at heart a painter. Even though Verhaeren’s medium is words, he paints with them as truly as though he used pigments. What is a little poem like ‘La Cuisine’ but a Flemish genre picture?  21
  Two other volumes of prose, ‘Fernand Khnopff,’ and ‘Les Lettres Françaises en Belgique,’ preceded the war, while one volume, ‘La Belgique Sanglante,’ was written afterwards. This is a terrible book. The Dedication begins with these words:
          “Celui qui composa ce livre où la haine ne se dissimule point, était jadis un vivant pacifique. Il admirait bien des peuples; il en aimait quelques-uns.”
  Truly, ‘La Belgique Sanglante’ is a book of hate, of hate and painful disillusion. The man who believed so ardently in humanity has been cruelly deceived. What future ages will think of the book as a criticism of events and motives cannot now be determined, but, as the expression of the tortured soul of one of the most remarkable men of his epoch, it can never lose its interest for other men in other times.  23
  At the outbreak of the war, Verhaeren moved to England, but by the spring of 1915 he was again in Saint-Cloud, where for some years he had been in the habit of passing his winters, returning to Belgium for the summers. It is a bitter thing to remember that after the war he never saw Belgium again.  24
  On the evening of November 28th, 1916, he went to Rouen to deliver a lecture. Arriving at the station after the lecture, he found that the last train for Paris was just starting; he attempted to board it, but fell, and was crushed under the wheels. It is said that death was mercifully instantaneous.  25
  Verhaeren’s work is extremely individual. He had made his chief expression a series of irregular rhymed stanzas, no two of which were constructed in the same way. In fact, rhymed vers libre in stanzaic form or divided into parts so long as not properly to be considered stanzas at all, was his most characteristic medium, although he not infrequently wrote in the regular alexandrine. ‘Les Flamandes,’ ‘Les Moines,’ and ‘Les Soirs’ series are all in alexandrines.  26
  Verhaeren united in a remarkable manner the two qualities of visual and audible sensation. No translation can do him justice because of his virtuosity in the latter effect. In ‘La Pluie’ there is a constant repetition of
  La pluie
La longue pluie,
La pluie
where the liquid, sweeping l’s give the continuous sound of falling rain, and the mere repetition is handled so deftly by the addition of changing images:

  La longue pluie
Fine et dense, comme la suie.
*        *        *        *        *
La longue pluie,
La pluie—et ses fils identiques
*        *        *        *        *
La pluie,
La longue pluie, avec ses longs fils gris

that the vision of interminable, gray lines of rain is indelibly printed upon the consciousness.
  His knowledge of the psychology of the Belgian peasant is keen and accurate. The growing fright of the gravedigger in ‘The Miller’ is most dramatically worked up to the climax.  28
  Although Verhaeren’s plays are not among his greatest work, his poems are often intensely dramatic. ‘The Burning Hayricks’ is a remarkable example of this, but again the poem loses much of its sound in translation. We can get the picture of the great hayricks burning up like torches in the black night, and striking the whole countryside red with their glare, but we lose the sound of
  La flamme ronfle et casse et broie,
S’arrache des haillons qu’elle déploie,
On sinueuse et virgulante
S’enroule en chevelure ardente ou lente
Puis s’apaise soudain et se détache
Et ruse et se dérobe—ou rebondit encore:
Et voici, clairs, de la boue et de l’or,
Dans le ciel noir qui s’empanache.
  Verhaeren’s genius is so versatile, it seems to embrace every side of modern man’s thought and activity. We have great paintings of the modern city like ‘The Stock Exchange’; we have Monet-like color studies such as ‘London.’ There is an almost numberless collection of weather-pieces of which ‘The Rain,’ already quoted, is one. No one understands better the peculiar qualities of rain, snow, wind, and fog. But, besides, there are the symbolistic poems, the pictures of the town sucking in the country in ‘Les Villes Tentaculaires,’ or the neurasthenic vision of the flowing Thames, watched so long that reason seems flowing away with its waters, in ‘The Dead.’ If we oppose these with the love poems of ‘Les Soirs’ series, and the clarion trumpet-calls of the Socialistic poems of which ‘Get You Gone’ is an example, we shall gain some idea of his remarkable range of subject and manner. He was the first poet to see the beauty of the life of to-day—the grandeur of mechanical invention, the social necessity which binds country to country, the superb epic which is modern industrialism.  30
  Before the war, it might very well be said that Verhaeren was better appreciated in the non-French speaking countries than any other poet writing in the French language. The reason is not far to seek, for Verhaeren, in spite of the tongue in which he wrote, is very far from French. He has a nebulous grandeur which is as remote as possible from French clarity and logical synthesis. Verhaeren’s philosophy is idealistic and vague, not precise and logical. He luxuriates where a Frenchman would have carefully pruned. His success lies in the virtues of what might so easily have been faults. His excesses become an organ-point of deep sonority. Poem by poem, and volume by volume, he has built up a huge symphony of the life of man. Never didactic, yet his poems all point to a belief in an ultimate good, which makes the sorrowful reality of ‘La Belgique Sanglante’ and ‘Les Ailes Rouges de la Guerre’ even more poignant. Verhaeren, in his work, in himself, is the ideal which swayed the world before the war, and which he was largely responsible for making universal. His philosophy might be paraphrased by calling it “the beauty and ideality of the material world.” His is the authentic voice of a period that is gone.  31

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