Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "The Modern Athenium"

(July 17, 1897)*


 

There has just been issued a volume of essays by M. Maurice Maeterlinck, entitled "The Treasure of the Humble." This volume is a translation by Mr. Alfred Sutro from the original French, published a little over a year ago. It is the book, if I mistake not, that will give its author his deserved place in our regard, his rightful position and rank among writers of the day.

Heretofore M. Maeterlinck has enjoyed, in this country at least, a certain notoriety rather than a legitimate reputation. He first came to our notice through his strange plays which Mr. Richard Hovey translated so admirably for us. But in those works of fine and delicate art, the methods were so new, the subjects so common and homely, the atmosphere so hazy and dim, that the unaccustomed reader was puzzled. Now, the English reader, when he is puzzled is merely bored; he drops the book and says no more about it; but the American reader, when he stumbles on anything novel is amused. He does not throw the book away; he makes sport of it. For years Whitman and Emerson and Browning were fair game for the American Philistine, the average reader and his servant the reviewer. And for this little amusement we must always have a supply of fresh material. Naturally England and France, where intellectual life has most freedom and where art and letters are treated as things really worthy of the attention of grown-up men, have furnished us with the greater part of this necessary grist for our irreverent joke-mills. M. Maeterlinck, so original, so serious, with such an unheard-of style, was a godsend to the professional "funny man" of this country. He lent himself beautifully to parody; he became the synonym for everything French (M. Maeterlinck is a Belgian, but, of course, the average reviewer could not be expected to know that) for everything decadent and symbolistic, and, therefore, puerile and worthless.

(These two words "decadent" and "symbolistic" have no legitimate meaning in America; they are cant terms of reproach and contempt, used when the speaker wishes to be at once convincing, damnatory, and final. Their only equivalent is "degenerate," which is less vague but more insulting. And, of course, M. Maeterlinck was a degenerate also.) This was stupid, but natural. One cannot expect the average critic, "in the hurry of a great newspaper office," to use words in their proper significance.

So, while ten persons read M. Maeterlinck's shadowy dramas and felt vaguely that a new power had come to work in literature, a hundred heard of him only as "one of the modern French school."

In some ways it is unfortunate the M. Maeterlinck's essays were not given to the world before his plays. It can make no difference in the long run, but they would have served to introduce him to us in his true person more quickly. The essay in itself is so familiar a form of art that the most novel ideas and doctrines may be advanced in it without arousing ridicule. It makes a sober and rational appeal to the reader through channels he is accustomed to use; whereas any presentation of the same ideas or doctrines in a novel, artistic form is much less comprehensible at first sight. We are apt to be so absorbed in the novelty of the artistic method that the novelty of the inner philosophy of the work becomes more confusing than ever; and the new writer labors under a double disadvantage in attempting to win his audience. This was M. Maeterlinck's difficulty in making himself heard in his dramas. He was there giving a concrete shape to his mystic philosophy. He was, as it were, giving us examples of a theory of life with which we were unacquainted; leaving his audience the painful task of deducing that theory for themselves. The dramas presented us with the very novel combination of an extremely realistic and simple manner coupled with an extremely delicate and spiritualized sentiment. The artistic form was so original and strange to us that we became engrossed with that alone and the underlying psychology on which the plays were based-a psychology itself original and strange-escaped us altogether.

But now comes a book of essays and unfolds the dramatist's theory of life explicitly to us, making use of a familiar method in doing so.

"The Treasure of the Humble" is in truth an extended commentary on its author's remarkable dramatic achievements. It is much more than that, of course, but its first interest to the public will be the light it throws on those wonderful creations-not directly, but incidentally-by giving us the point of view from which they were composed.

"The Treasure of the Humble" is made up of ten essays. Their very titles are indicative of their trend: Silence, The Awakening of the Soul, The Predestined, Mystic Mortality, On Women, The Tragical in Daily Life, The Star, The Invisible Goodness, The Deeper Life, The Inner Beauty. One sees at once the spiritual character of these papers from their names, but one does not see their singleness of purpose. For in reality they are so many chapters of a single work. Their central thought is developed in The Awakening of the Soul. M. Maeterlinck opens that essay in these significant words: "A time will come, perhaps-and many things there are that herald its approach-a time will come, perhaps, when our souls will know of each other without the intermediary of the senses. Certain it is that there passes not a day but the soul adds to its ever-widening domain. It is very much nearer to our visible self, and takes a far greater part in all our actions, than was the case two or three centuries ago..It would seem as though humanity were on the point of struggling from beneath the crushing burden of matter than weighs it down. A spiritual influence is abroad that soothes and comforts..Men are nearer to themselves, nearer to their brothers; in the look of their eyes, in the love of their hearts, there is deeper earnestness and tenderer fellowship. Their understanding of women, children, animals, plants-nay, of all things-becomes more pitiful and profound..Truly there are centuries in which the soul lies dormant and slumbers undisturbed. But today it is clearly making a mighty effort. Its manifestations are everywhere, and they are strangely urgent, pressing, imperious even, as though the order had been given and no time must be lost.. For the soul is like a dreamer, enthralled by sleep, who struggles with all his might to move an arm or raise an eyelid."

These you perceive at once are the sayings of a mystic philosopher, dealing with that mysterious part of our nature which men have called the soul and which we fain would believe is immortal. His entire interest is in this higher life of human beings, in its slight and obscure manifestations, its laws and nurture, its beauty, inviolability and power, so little understood and so seldom observed. In the essay on Silence he reveals to us in a startling way the domain and province of the soul, and in the essay on The Inner Beauty the sources of its nourishment.

"There is nothing in the whole world," he says in this latter paper, "that can vie with the soul in its eagerness for beauty, or in the ready power wherewith it adopts beauty into itself. There is nothing in the world capable of such spontaneous uplifting, of such speedy ennoblement; nothing that offers more scrupulous obedience to the pure and noble commands it receives. There is nothing in the world that yields deeper submission to the empire of a thought that is loftier than other thoughts. And on this earth of ours there are but few souls that can withstand the dominion of the soul that has suffered itself to become beautiful.. If at this moment you think or say something that is too beautiful to be true in you, if you have but endeavored to think or say it today, on the morrow it will be true. We must try to be more beautiful than ourselves; we shall never distance our soul."

These few sentences serve to show M. Maeterlinck's philosophic standpoint. He is in his transcendentalism a follower of our own Emerson, of whom he speaks lovingly more than once. In one respect, however, he differs from that serene thinker; he is a fatalist. And in this particular direction, it seems to me, he pushes his theory too far-is somewhat too precise and definite. And the two essays on The Star, and The Predestined, are less convincing than the rest of the work, not because they are less suggestive, but because they are more explicit and, I think, less true.

But it is in the essay on The Tragical in Daily Life that we get the clearest notion of M. Maeterlinck's purpose and aim in writing his own somnambulistic dramas-to use an adjective which he himself has applied to Ibsen's plays.

"There is a tragic element in the life of everyday that is far more real, far more penetrating, far more akin to the true self that is in us than the tragedy that lies in great adventure.. It goes beyond the determined struggle of man against man, and desire against desire; it goes beyond the eternal conflict of duty and passion. Its province is rather to reveal to us how truly wonderful is the mere act of living, and to throw light upon the existence of the soul, self-contained in the midst of ever-restless immensities; to hush the discourse of reason and sentiment, so that above the tumult may be heard the solemn uninterrupted whisperings of man and his destiny. It is its province to point out to us the uncertain dolorous footsteps of the being, as he approaches, or wanders from, his truth, his beauty, or his God."

And as we read these profound words, a flood of light is thrown on the movements and actions of those shadowy puppets whom M. Maurice Maeterlinck himself has created and set upon his misty stage. Think of "The Intruder" or "The Blind." How strange these miniature tragedies at first seemed to us! How vague, how unusual! how purposeless! What could this writer mean, with his bleak simplicity, and his terrible unrelieved note of tragedy imparted into the commonest incidents of life! But now we see more clearly what he had in mind to accomplish; and how supremely well he accomplished it. Surely in the serious dialogue of those elemental characters of his, as they move softly through the velvet twilight of their stageland, Mr. Maeterlinck has recorded something of the "solemn uninterrupted whisperings of man and his destiny." We are aware from their speech, even before we know the situation, that they are beings, no more remarkable than ourselves, but confronting some portentous and impending doom. And although they are only caught in a coil of circumstance common to all mankind, and talk together in the homeliest phrases of our daily intercourse, we gather in the pause of their speech, as it were, an intimation of dread, a cold apprehension of disaster, an intense realization of the swift, irremeable march of fate. They do not give a ruddy and vital presentation of life,-these unearthly, ventriloqual tragedies of the soul,-their purpose is nothing of the sort. They do aim to impress upon us the constant and undominated mastery of the human soul under all conditions, and the importance of recognizing its needs and its power. Now the needs and the power of the soul are exercised in a region where definite language and absolute conclusion are inoperative and insufficient, the region of Hamlet's doubts and Lady Macbeth's terrors. And it is all the experiences of the soul, so great, so continual, so unobserved-through a territory on the outskirts of the mind-that Mr. Maeterlinck has set himself to study and portray. For this purpose he has employed a new method, the method of suggestion and implication; or rather, I ought to say, he has employed an old method so exclusively as to make it a new mode of treatment in art. For there is in all great literature a recognition of the presence of the soul; but it is uncommon for a thinker to devote himself so exclusively to the interpretation of its still, small voice. The result of his study we have in the "Treasure of the Humble," the definite illustrations of his philosophy he has given us in his plays.

These two achievements, supplementing each other as they do, mark M. Maurice Maeterlinck, even for us in America, who follow fresh thought so tardily, and give to art such a secondary place in our esteem, as a profound student, the devotee of a lofty philosophy, and a writer of scrupulous delicacy and power.


Untitled "The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, July 17, 1897 [back]