The secret of things which is just beyond the most subtle words, the secret of the expressive silences, has always been clearer to Maeterlinck than to most people; and, in his plays, he has elaborated an art of sensitive, taciturn, and at the same time highly ornamental simplicity, which has come nearer than any other art to being the voice of silence. To Maeterlinck the theatre has been, for the most part, no more than one of the disguises by which he can express himself, and with his book of meditations on the inner life, Le Trésor des Humbles, he may seem to have dropped his disguise.

All art hates the vague; not the mysterious, but the vague; two opposites very commonly confused, as the secret with the obscure, the infinite with the indefinite. And the artist who is also a mystic hates the vague with a more profound hatred than any other artist. Thus Maeterlinck, endeavouring to clothe mystical conceptions in concrete form, has invented a drama so precise, so curt, so arbitrary in its limits, that it can safely be confided to the masks and feigned voices of marionettes. His theatre of artificial beings, who are at once more ghostly and more mechanical than the living actors whom we are accustomed to see, in so curious a parody of life, moving with a certain freedom of action across the stage, may be taken as itself a symbol of the aspect under which what we fantastically term ‘real life’ presents itself to the mystic. Are we not all puppets, in a theatre of marionettes, in which the parts we play, the dresses we wear, the very emotion whose dominance gives its express form to our faces, have all been chosen for us; in which I, it may be, with curled hair and a Spanish cloak, play the romantic lover, sorely against my will, while you, a ‘fair penitent’ for no repented sin, pass whitely under a nun’s habit? And as our parts have been chosen for us, our motions controlled from behind the curtain, so the words we seem to speak are but spoken through us, and we do but utter fragments of some elaborate invention, planned for larger ends than our personal display or convenience, but to which, all the same, we are in a humble degree necessary. This symbolical theatre, its very existence being a symbol, has perplexed many minds, to some of whom it has seemed puerile, a child’s mystification of small words and repetitions, a thing of attitudes and omissions; while others, yet more unwisely, have compared it with the violent, rhetorical, most human drama of the Elizabethans, with Shakespeare himself, to whom all the world was a stage, and the stage all this world, certainly.1 A sentence, already famous, of the Trésor des Humbles, will tell you what it signifies to Maeterlinck himself.

‘I have come to believe,’ he writes, in Le Tragique Quotidien, ‘that an old man seated in his armchair, waiting quietly under the lamplight, listening without knowing it to all the eternal laws which reign about his house, interpreting without understanding it all that there is in the silence of doors and windows, and in the little voice of light, enduring the presence of his soul and of his destiny, bowing his head a little, without suspecting that all the powers of the earth intervene and stand on guard in the room like attentive servants, not knowing that the sun itself suspends above the abyss the little table on which he rests his elbow, and that there is not a star in the sky nor a force in the soul which is indifferent to the motion of a falling eyelid or a rising thought – I have come to believe that this motionless old man lived really a more profound, human, and universal life than the lover who strangles his mistress, the captain who gains a victory, or the husband who “avenges his honour.”’

That, it seems to me, says all there is to be said of the intention of this drama which Maeterlinck has evoked; and, of its style, this other sentence, which I take from the same essay: ‘It is only the words that at first sight seem useless which really count in a work.’

This drama, then, is a drama founded on philosophical ideas, apprehended emotionally; on the sense of the mystery of the universe, of the weakness of humanity, that sense which Pascal expressed when he said: Ce qui m’étonne le plus est de voir que tout le monde n’est pas étonné de sa faiblesse;* with an acute feeling of the pathetic ignorance in which the souls nearest to one another look out upon their neighbours. It is a drama in which the interest is concentrated on vague people, who are little parts of the universal consciousness, their strange names being but the pseudonyms of obscure passions, intimate emotions. They have the fascination which we find in the eyes of certain pictures, so much more real and disquieting, so much more permanent with us, than living people. And they have the touching simplicity of children; they are always children in their ignorance of themselves, of one another, and of fate. And, because they are so disembodied of the more trivial accidents of life, they give themselves without limitation to whatever passionate instinct possesses them. I do not know a more passionate love-scene than that scene in the wood beside the fountain, where Pelléas and Mélisande confess the strange burden which has come upon them.2 When the soul gives itself absolutely to love, all the barriers of the world are burnt away, and all its wisdom and subtlety are as incense poured on a flame. Morality, too, is burnt away, no longer exists, any more than it does for children or for God.

Maeterlinck has realised, better than any one else, the significance, in life and art, of mystery. He has realised how unsearchable is the darkness out of which we have but just stepped, and the darkness into which we are about to pass. And he has realised how the thought and sense of that twofold darkness invade the little space of light in which, for a moment, we move; the depth to which they shadow our steps, even in that moment’s partial escape. But in some of his plays he would seem to have apprehended this mystery as a thing merely or mainly terrifying; the actual physical darkness surrounding blind men, the actual physical approach of death as the intruder; he has shown to us people huddled at a window, out of which they are almost afraid to look, or beating at a door, the opening of which they dread. Fear shivers through these plays, creeping across our nerves like a damp mist coiling up out of a valley. And there is beauty, certainly, in this ‘vague spiritual fear’;3 but a less obvious kind of beauty than that which gives its profound pathos to Aglavaine et Sélysette, the one play written since the writing of the essays. Here is mystery, which is also pure beauty, in these delicate approaches of intellectual pathos, in which suffering and death and error become transformed into something almost happy, so full is it of strange light.

And the aim of Maeterlinck, in his plays, is not only to render the soul and the soul’s atmosphere, but to reveal this strangeness, pity, and beauty through beautiful pictures. No dramatist has ever been so careful that his scenes should be in themselves beautiful, or has made the actual space of forest, tower, or seashore so emotionally significant. He has realised, after Wagner, that the art of the stage is the art of pictorial beauty, of the correspondence in rhythm between the speakers, their words, and their surroundings. He has seen how, in this way, and in this way alone, the emotion, which it is but a part of the poetic drama to express, can be at once intensified and purified.

It is only after hinting at many of the things which he had to say in these plays, which have, after all, been a kind of subterfuge, that Maeterlinck has cared, or been able, to speak with the direct utterance of the essays. And what may seem curious is that this prose of the essays, which is the prose of a doctrine, is incomparably more beautiful than the prose of the plays, which was the prose of an art. Holding on this point a different opinion from one who was, in many senses, his master, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, he did not admit that beauty of words, or even any expressed beauty of thoughts, had its place in spoken dialogue, even though it was not two living actors speaking to one another on the stage, but a soul speaking to a soul, and imagined speaking through the mouths of marionettes. But that beauty of phrase which makes the profound and sometimes obscure pages of Axël shine as with the crossing fire of jewels, rejoices us, though with a softer, a more equable, radiance, in the pages of these essays, in which every sentence has the indwelling beauty of an intellectual emotion, preserved at the same height of tranquil ecstasy from first page to last. There is a sort of religious calm in these deliberate sentences, into which the writer has known how to introduce that divine monotony which is one of the accomplishments of great style. Never has simplicity been more ornate or a fine beauty more visible through its self-concealment.

But, after all, the claim upon us of this book is not the claim of a work of art, but of a doctrine, and more than that, of a system. Belonging, as he does, to the eternal hierarchy, the unbroken succession, of the mystics, Maeterlinck has apprehended what is essential in the mystical doctrine with a more profound comprehension, and thus more systematically, than any mystic of recent times. He has many points of resemblance with Emerson, on whom he has written an essay which is properly an exposition of his own personal ideas; but Emerson, who proclaimed the supreme guidance of the inner light, the supreme necessity of trusting instinct, of honouring emotion, did but proclaim all this, not without a certain anti-mystical vagueness: Maeterlinck has systematised it. A more profound mystic than Emerson, he has greater command of that which comes to him unawares, is less at the mercy of visiting angels.

Also, it may be said that he surrenders himself to them more absolutely, with less reserve and discretion; and, as he has infinite leisure, his contemplation being subject to no limits of time, he is ready to follow them on unknown rounds, to any distance, in any direction, ready also to rest in any wayside inn, without fearing that he will have lost the road on the morrow.

This old gospel, of which Maeterlinck is the new voice, has been quietly waiting until certain bankruptcies, the bankruptcy of Science, of the Positive Philosophies, should allow it full credit. Considering the length even of time, it has not had an unreasonable space of waiting; and remember that it takes time but little into account. We have seen many little gospels demanding of every emotion, of every instinct, ‘its certificate at the hand of some respectable authority.’ Without confidence in themselves or in things, and led by Science, which is as if one were led by one’s notebook, they demand a reasonable explanation of every mystery. Not finding that explanation, they reject the mystery; which is as if the fly on the wheel rejected the wheel because it was hidden from his eyes by the dust of its own raising.

The mystic is at once the proudest and the humblest of men. He is as a child who resigns himself to the guidance of an unseen hand, the hand of one walking by his side; he resigns himself with the child’s humility. And he has the pride of the humble, a pride manifesting itself in the calm rejection of every accepted map of the roads, of every offer of assistance, of every painted signpost pointing out the smoothest ways on which to travel. He demands no authority for the unseen hand whose fingers he feels upon his wrist. He conceives of life, not, indeed, so much as a road on which one walks, very much at one’s own discretion, but as a blown and wandering ship, surrounded by a sea from which there is no glimpse of land; and he conceives that to the currents of that sea he may safely trust himself. Let his hand, indeed, be on the rudder, there will be no miracle worked for him; it is enough miracle that the sea should be there, and the ship, and he himself. He will never know why his hand should turn the rudder this way rather than that.

Jacob Boehme has said, very subtly, ‘that man does not perceive the truth but God perceives the truth in man’; that is, that whatever we perceive or do is not perceived or done consciously by us, but unconsciously through us.4 Our business, then, is to tend that ‘inner light’ by which most mystics have symbolised that which at once guides us in time and attaches us to eternity. This inner light is no miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit, but the perfectly natural, though it may finally be overcoming, ascent of the spirit within us. The spirit, in all men, being but a ray of the universal light, it can, by careful tending, by the removal of all obstruction, the cleansing of the vessel, the trimming of the wick, as it were, be increased, made to burn with a steadier, a brighter flame. In the last rapture it may become dazzling, may blind the watcher with excess of light, shutting him in within the circle of transfiguration, whose extreme radiance will leave all the rest of the world henceforth one darkness.

All mystics being concerned with what is divine in life, with the laws which apply equally to time and eternity, it may happen to one to concern himself chiefly with time seen under the aspect of eternity, to another to concern himself rather with eternity seen under the aspect of time. Thus many mystics have occupied themselves, very profitably, with showing how natural, how explicable on their own terms, are the mysteries of life; the whole aim of Maeterlinck is to show how mysterious all life is, ‘what an astounding thing it is, merely to live.’5 What he had pointed out to us, with certain solemn gestures, in his plays, he sets himself now to affirm, slowly, fully, with that ‘confidence in mystery’ of which he speaks. Because ‘there is not an hour without its familiar miracles and its ineffable suggestions,’ he sets himself to show us these miracles and these meanings where others have not always sought or found them, in women, in children, in the theatre. He seems to touch, at one moment or another, whether he is discussing La Beauté Intérieure or Le Tragique Quotidien, on all of these hours, and there is no hour so dark that his touch does not illuminate it. And it is characteristic of him, of his ‘confidence in mystery,’ that he speaks always without raising his voice, without surprise or triumph, or the air of having said anything more than the simplest observation. He speaks, not as if he knew more than others, or had sought out more elaborate secrets, but as if he had listened more attentively.

Loving most those writers ‘whose works are nearest to silence,’ he begins his book, significantly, with an essay on Silence, an essay which, like all these essays, has the reserve, the expressive reticence, of those ‘active silences’ of which he succeeds in revealing a few of the secrets.

‘Souls,’ he tells us, ‘are weighed in silence, as gold and silver are weighed in pure water, and the words which we pronounce have no meaning except through the silence in which they are bathed. We seek to know that we may learn not to know’; knowledge, that which can be known by the pure reason, metaphysics, ‘indispensable’ on this side of the ‘frontiers,’ being after all precisely what is least essential to us, since least essentially ourselves. ‘We possess a self more profound and more boundless than the self of the passions or of pure reason. … There comes a moment when the phenomena of our customary consciousness, what we may call the consciousness of the passions or of our normal relationships, no longer mean anything to us, no longer touch our real life. I admit that this consciousness is often interesting in its way, and that it is often necessary to know it thoroughly. But it is a surface plant, and its roots fear the great central fire of our being. I may commit a crime without the least breath stirring the tiniest flame of this fire; and, on the other hand, the crossing of a single glance, a thought which never comes into being, a minute which passes without the utterance of a word, may rouse it into terrible agitations in the depths of its retreat, and cause it to overflow upon my life. Our soul does not judge as we judge; it is a capricious and hidden thing. It can be reached by a breath and unconscious of a tempest. Let us find out what reaches it; everything is there, for it is there that we ourselves are.’

And it is towards this point that all the words of this book tend. Maeterlinck, unlike most men (‘What is man but a God who is afraid?’), is not ‘miserly of immortal things.’ He utters the most divine secrets without fear, betraying certain hiding-places of the soul in those most nearly inaccessible retreats which lie nearest to us. All that he says we know already; we may deny it, but we know it. It is what we are not often at leisure enough with ourselves, sincere enough with ourselves, to realise; what we often dare not realise; but, when he says it, we know that it is true, and our knowledge of it is his warrant for saying it. He is what he is precisely because he tells us nothing which we do not already know, or, it may be, what we have known and forgotten.

The mystic, let it be remembered, has nothing in common with the moralist. He speaks only to those who are already prepared to listen to him, and he is indifferent to the ‘practical’ effect which these or others may draw from his words. A young and profound mystic of our day has figured the influence of wise words upon the foolish and headstrong as ‘torches thrown into a burning city.’6 The mystic knows well that it is not always the soul of the drunkard or the blasphemer which is farthest from the eternal beauty. He is concerned only with that soul of the soul, that life of life, with which the day’s doings have so little to do; itself a mystery, and at home only among those supreme mysteries which surround it like an atmosphere. It is not always that he cares that his message, or his vision, may be as clear to others as it is to himself. But, because he is an artist, and not only a philosopher, Maeterlinck has taken especial pains that not a word of his may go astray, and there is not a word of this book which needs to be read twice, in order that it may be understood, by the least trained of attentive readers. It is, indeed, as he calls it, ‘The Treasure of the Lowly.’

Notes

First published as ‘Maeterlinck as a Mystic’ in Contemporary Review (September 1897), pp. 349–54.

Symons’ note

Serres Chaudes, 1889; La Princesse Maleine, 1890; Les Aveugles (L’Intruse, Les Aveugles), 1890; L’Ornement des Noces Spirituelles, de Ruysbroeck l’Admirable, 1891; Les Sept Princesses, 1891; Pelléas et Mélisande, 1892; Alladine et Palomides, Intérieur, La Mort de Tintagiles, 1894; Annabella de John Ford, 1895; Les Disciples à Saïs et les Fragments de Novalis, 1895; Le Trésor des Humbles, 1896; Douze Chansons, 1896; Aglavaine et Sélysette, 1896; La Sagesse et la Destinée, 1898; Théâtre, 1901 (3 vols.); La Vie des Abeilles, 1901; Monna Vanna, 1902; Le Temple Enseveli, 1902; Joyzelle, 1903; Le Double Jardin, 1904; L’Intelligence des Fleurs, 1907.

Maeterlinck has had the good or bad fortune to be more promptly, and more violently, praised at the beginning of his career than at all events any other writer of whom I have spoken in this volume. His fame in France was made by a flaming article of M. Octave Mirbeau in the Figaro of August 24, 1890. M. Mirbeau greated him as the ‘Belgian Shakespeare,’ and expressed his opinion of La Princesse Maleine by saying ‘M. Maeterlinck has given us the greatest work of genius that has been produced in our time, and the most extraordinary and the most naïve too, comparable (dare I say?) superior in beauty to what is most beautiful in Shakespeare … more tragic than Macbeth, more extraordinary in thought than Hamlet.’ Mr. William Archer introduced Maeterlinck to England in an article called ‘A Pessimist Playwright’ in the Fortnightly Review, September 1891. Less enthusiastic than M. Mirbeau, he defined the author of La Princesse Maleine as ‘a Webster who had read Alfred de Musset.’ A freely adapted version of L’Intruse was given by Mr. Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, January 27, 1892, and since that time many of Maeterlinck’s plays have been acted, without cuts, or with but few cuts, at various London theatres. The earliest of his books to be translated into English were: The Princess Maleine (by Gerard Harry) and The Intruder (by William Wilson), 1892; Pelleas and Melisanda and The Sightless (by Laurence Alma-Tadema), 1892; Ruysbroeck and the Mystics (by J.T. Stoddart), 1894; The Treasure of the Humble (by A. Sutro), 1897; Aglavaine and Selysette (by A. Sutro), 1897; Wisdom and Destiny (by A. Sutro), 1898; Alladine and Palomides (by A. Sutro), Interior (by William Archer), and The Death of Tintagiles (by A. Sutro), 1899. The later plays and essays have all been translated into English, for the most part simultaneously with their appearance in French.

I have spoken, in this volume, chiefly of Maeterinck’s essays, and but little of his plays, and I have said all that I had to say without special reference to the second volume of essays, La Sagesse et la Destinée. Like Le Trésor des Humbles, that book is a message, a doctrine, even more than it is a piece of literature. It is a treatise on wisdom and happiness, on the search for happiness because it is wisdom, not for wisdom because it is happiness. It is a book of patient and resigned philosophy, a very Flemish philosophy, more resigned than even Le Trésor des Humbles. In a sense it seems to aim less high. An ecstatic mysticism has given way to a kind of prudence. Is this coming nearer to the earth really an intellectual ascent or descent? At least it is a divergence, and it probably indicates a divergence in art as well as in meditation. Yet, while it is quite possible to at least indicate Maeterlinck’s position as a philosopher, it seems to me premature to attempt to define his position as a dramatist. Interesting as his dramatic work has always been, there is, in the later dramas, so singular an advance in all the qualities that go to make great art, that I find it impossible, at this stage of his development, to treat his dramatic work as in any sense the final expression of a personality. What the next stage of his development may be it is impossible to say. He will not write more beautiful dramas than he has written in Aglavaine et Sélysette and in Pélleas et Mélisande. But he may, and he probably will, write something which will move the general world more profoundly, touching it more closely, in the manner of the great writers, in whom beauty has not been more beautiful than in writers less great, but has come to men with a more splendid energy.

Was I when I wrote that, anticipating Monna Vanna?

Annotations

1. An allusion to the famous begi nning of Jaques’ speech in As You Like It (1599): ‘All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players’ (II.vii.139–40).

2. Inspired by Celtic myth and Wagner’s Arthurian opera of infidelity, Tristan und Isolde, Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama tells of the adulterous passion between Pelléas and his adoptive step-sister, Mélisande, the wife of King Golaud. They discover their love for each other while meeting by a fountain into which Mélisande accidentally drops her wedding ring.

3. An allusion to line 70 of ‘Guinevere’, from The Idylls of the Kings by Alfred Tennyson. This part of Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle concerns courtly infidelity and the phrase describes Guinevere’s apprehension that her relationship with Sir Lancelot will be uncovered by the evil Modred and revealed to her husband, King Arthur.

4. I have been unable to trace the exact source of this quotation. In Franz Hartmann’s The Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme (Boston: Occult Publishing, 1891), Boehme’s answer to the question ‘But what is it that prevents man from recognising God within his own self?’ is quoted as ‘if you keep quiet, and desist from thinking and feeling with your own personal selfhood, then will the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking become revealed to you, and God will see and hear and perceive through you’ (p. 41). Symons probably discussed Boehme with Yeats, who consulted this book for his edition of William Blake in 1893, while they were sharing accommodation at Fountain Court. Yeats quotes the same remark from Boehme in A Vision.

5. Maeterlinck remarks how ‘étonnant’ (astonishing) the simple fact of living is at the start of ‘Le Tragique Quotidien’ (The Tragedy of the Everyday), an essay in Le Trésor des humbles.

6. This phrase is used by the mystic figure of ‘Aherne’ in ‘The Tables of the Law’ by W.B. Yeats as a simile to describe the creative and destructive effects of ‘the beautiful arts’. Yeats’ short story was first published in the Savoy by Symons in 1896.

* [‘What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his own weakness.’ – Blaise Pascal, Pensées (fragment 374).]