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Wisdom and Destiny
THIS essay on Wisdom and Destiny was to have been a thing of some twenty pages, the work of a fortnight; but the idea took root, others flocked to it, and the volume has occupied M. Maeterlinck continuously for more than two years. It has much essential kinship with the “Treasure of the Humble,” though it differs therefrom in treatment; for whereas the earlier work might perhaps be described as the eager speculation of a poet athirst for beauty, we have here rather the endeavour of an earnest thinker to discover the abode of truth. And if the result of his thought be that truth and happiness are one, this was by no means the object wherewith he set forth. Here he is no longer content with exquisite visions, alluring or haunting images; he probes into the soul of man and lays bare all his joys and his sorrows. It is as though he had forsaken the canals he loves so well — the green, calm, motionless canals that faithfully mirror the silent trees and moss-covered roofs — and had adventured boldly, unhesitatingly, on the broad river of life.
He describes this book himself, in a kind of introduction that is almost an apology, as “a few interrupted thoughts that entwine themselves, with more or less system, around two or three subjects.” He declares that there is nothing it undertakes to prove; that there are none whose mission it is to convince. And so true is this, so absolutely honest and sincere is the writer, that he does not shrink from attacking, qualifying, modifying, his own propositions; from advancing, and insisting on, every objection that flits across his brain; and if such proposition survive the onslaught of its adversaries, it is only because, in the deepest of him, he holds it for absolute truth. For this book is indeed a confession, a naive, outspoken, unflinching description of all that passes in his mind; and even those who like not his theories still must admit that this mind is strangely beautiful.
There have been many columns filled — and doubtless will be again — with ingenious and scholarly attempts to place a definitive label on M. Maeterlinck, and his talent; to trace his thoughts to their origin, clearly denoting the authors by whom he has been influenced; in a measure to predict his future, and accurately to establish the place that he fills in the hierarchy of genius. With all this I feel that I have no concern. Such speculations doubtless have their use and serve their ‘purpose. I shall be content if I can impress upon those who may read these lines, that in this book the man is himself, of untrammelled thought; a man possessed of the rare faculty of seeing beauty in all things, and, above all, in truth; of the still rarer faculty of loving all things, and, above all, life.
Nor is this merely a vague and, at bottom, a more or less meaningless statement. For, indeed, considering this essay only, that deals with wisdom and destiny, at the root of it — its fundamental principle, its guiding, inspiring thought — is love. “Nothing is contemptible in this world save only scorn,” he says; and for the humble, the foolish, nay, even the wicked, he has the same love, almost the same admiration, as for the sage, the saint, or the hero. Everything that exists fills him with wonder, because of its existence, and of the mysterious force that is in it; and to him love and wisdom are one, “joining hands in a circle of light.” For the wisdom that holds aloof from mankind, that deems itself a thing apart, select, superior, he has scant sympathy — it has “wandered too far from the watch-fires of the tribe.” But the wisdom that is human, that feeds constantly on the desires, the feelings, the hopes and the fears of man, must needs have love ever by its side; and these two, marching together, must inevitably find themselves, sooner or later, on the ways that lead to goodness. “There comes a moment in life,” he says, “when moral beauty seems more urgent, more penetrating, than intellectual beauty; when all that the mind has treasured must be bathed in the greatness of soul, lest it perish in the sandy desert, forlorn as the river that seeks in vain for the sea.” But for unnecessary self-sacrifice, renouncement, abandonment of earthly joys, and all such “parasitic virtues,” he has no commendation or approval; feeling that man was created to be happy, and that he is not wise who voluntarily discards a happiness to-day for fear lest it be taken from him on the morrow. “Let us wait till the hour of sacrifice sounds — till then, each man to his work. The hour will sound at last — let us not waste our time in seeking it on the dial of life.”
In this book, morality, conduct, life are surveyed from every point of the compass, but from an eminence always. Austerity holds no place in his philosophy; he finds room even “for the hours that babble aloud in their wantonness.” But all those who follow him are led by smiling wisdom to the heights where happiness sits enthroned between goodness and love, where virtue rewards itself in the “silence that is the walled garden of its happiness.”
It is strange to turn from this essay to Serres Chaudes and La Princesse Maleine, M. Maeterlinck’s earliest efforts — the one a collection of vague images woven into poetical form, charming, dreamy, and almost meaningless; the other a youthful and very remarkable effort at imitation. In the plays that followed the Princesse Maleine there was the same curious, wandering sense of, and search for, a vague and mystic beauty:
fair beauty which no eye can see,
Of that sweet music which no ear can measure.”
In a little poem of his, Et s’il revenait, the last words of a dying girl, forsaken by her lover, who is asked by her sister what shall be told to the faithless one, should he ever seek to know of her last hours:
Et s’il m’interroge encore
Sur la dernière heure? —
Dites lui que j’ai souri
De peur qu’il ne pleure . . .”
touch, perhaps, the very high-water mark of exquisite simplicity and tenderness blent with matchless beauty of expression. Pelléas et Mélisande was the culminating point of this, his first, period — a simple, pathetic love-story of boy and girl — love that was pure and almost passionless. It was followed by three little plays — “for marionettes,” he describes them on the title-page; among them being La Mort de Tintagiles, the play he himself prefers of all that he has written. And then came a curious change: he wrote Aglavaine et Selysette. The setting is familiar to us: the sea-shore, the ruined tower, the seat by the well; no less than the old grandmother and little Yssaline. But Aglavaine herself is strange: this woman who has lived and suffered; this queenly, majestic creature, calmly conscious of her beauty and her power; she whose overpowering, overwhelming love is yet deliberate and thoughtful. The complexities of real life are vaguely hinted at here: instead of Golaud, the mediæval, tyrannous husband, we have Selysette, the meek, self-sacrificing wife; instead of the instinctive, unconscious love of Pelléas and Mélisande, we have great burning passion. But this play, too, was only a steppingstone — a link between the old method and the new that is to follow. For there will probably be no more plays like Pelléas et Mélisande, or even like Aglavaine et Selysette. Real men and women, real problems and disturbance of life — it is these that absorb him now. His next play will doubtless deal with a psychology more actual, in an atmosphere less romantic; and the old familiar scene of wood, and garden, and palace corridor will be exchanged for the habitual abode of men.
I have said it was real life that absorbed him now, and yet am I aware that what seems real to him must still appear vague and visionary to many. It is, however, only a question of shifting one’s point of view, or, better still, of enlarging it. Material success in life, fame, wealth — these things M. Maeterlinck passes indifferently by. There are certain ideals that are dear to many on which he looks with the vague wonder of a child. The happiness of which he dreams is an inward happiness, and within reach of successful and unsuccessful alike. And so it may well be that those content to buffet with their fellows for what are looked on as the prizes of this world, will still write him down a mere visionary, and fail to comprehend him. The materialist who complacently defines the soul as the “intellect plus the emotions “will doubtless turn away in disgust from M. Maeterlinck’s constant references to it as the seat of something mighty, mysterious, inexhaustible in life. So, too, may the rigid follower of positive religion, to whom the Deity is a power concerned only with the judgment, reward, and punishment of men, protest at his saying that “God, who must be at least as high as the highest thoughts He has implanted in the best of men, will withhold His smile from those whose sole desire has been to please Him; and they only who have done good for sake of good, and as though He existed not; they only who have loved virtue more than they loved God Himself, shall be allowed to stand by His side.” But, after all, the genuine seeker after truth knows that what seemed true yesterday is to-day discovered to be only a milestone on the road; and all who value truth will be glad to listen to a man who, differing from them perhaps, yet tells them what seems true to him. And whereas in the “Treasure of the Humble” he looked on life through a veil of poetry and dream, here he stands among his fellow-men, no longer trying to “express the inexpressible,” but, in all simplicity, to tell them what he sees.
“Above all, let us never forget that an act of goodness is in itself an act of happiness. It is the flower of a long inner life of joy and contentment; it tells of peaceful hours and days on the sunniest heights of our soul.” This thought lies at the root of his whole philosophy — goodness, happiness, love, supporting each other, intertwined, rewarding each other. “Let us not think virtue will crumble, though God Himself seem unjust. Where could the virtue of man find more everlasting foundation than in the seeming injustice of God? “Strange that the man who has written these words should have spent all his school life at a Jesuit college, subjected to its severe, semi-monastic discipline; compelled, at the end of his stay, to go, with the rest of his fellows, through the customary period of “retreat,” lasting ten days, when the most eloquent of the fathers would, one after the other, deliver sermons terrific to boyish imagination, sermons whose unvarying burden was Hell and the wrath of God — to be avoided only by becoming a Jesuit priest. Out of the eighteen boys in the “rhétorique” class, eleven eagerly embraced this chance of escape from damnation. As for M. Maeterlinck himself — fortunately a day-boarder only — one can fancy him wandering home at night, along the canal banks, in the silence broken only by the pealing of church bells, brooding over these mysteries . . . but how long a road must the man have travelled who, having been taught the God of Fra Angelico, himself arrives at the conception of a “God who sits smiling on a mountain, and to whom our gravest offences are only as the naughtiness of puppies playing on the hearth-rug.”
His environment, no less than his schooling, helped to give a mystic tinge to his mind. The peasants who dwelt around his father’s house always possessed a peculiar fascination for him; he would watch them as they sat by their doorway, squatting on their heels, as their custom is — grave, monotonous, motionless, the smoke from their pipes almost the sole sign of life. For the Flemish peasant is a strangely inert creature, his work once done — as languid and lethargic as the canal that passes by his door. There was one cottage into which the boy would often peep on his way home from school, the home of seven brothers and one sister, all old, toothless, worn — working together in the daytime at their tiny farm; at night sitting in the gloomy kitchen, lit by one smoky lamp — all looking straight before them, saying not a word; or when, at rare intervals, a remark was made, taking it up each in turn and solemnly repeating it, with perhaps the slightest variation in form. It was amidst influences such as these that his boyhood was passed, almost isolated from the world, brooding over lives of saints and mystics at the same time that he studied, and delighted in, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Goethe and Heine. For his taste has been catholic always; he admires Meredith as he admires Dickens, Hello and Pascal no less than Schopenhauer. And it is this catholicity, this open mind, this eager search for truth, that have enabled him to emerge from the mysticism that once enwrapped him to the clearer daylight of actual existence; it is this faculty of admiring all that is admirable in man and in life that some day, perhaps, may take him very far.
It will surprise many who picture him as a mere dreamy decadent, to be told that he is a man of abiding and abundant cheerfulness, who finds happiness in the simplest of things. The scent of a flower, the flight of sea-gulls around a cliff, a cornfield in sunshine — these stir him to strange delight. A deed of bravery, nobility, or of simple devotion; a mere brotherly act of kindness; the unconscious sacrifice of the peasant who toils all day to feed and clothe his children — these awake his warm and instant sympathy. And with him, too, it is as with De Quincey when he says, “At no time of my life have I been a person to hold myself polluted by the touch or approach of any creature that wore a human shape”; and more than one unhappy outcast, condemned by the stern law of man, has been gladdened by his ready greeting and welcome. But, indeed, all this may be read of in his book — I desired but to make it clear that the book is truly a faithful mirror of the man’s own thoughts, and feelings, and actions. It is a book that many will love — all those who suffer, for it will lighten their suffering; all those who love, for it will teach them to love more deeply. It is a book with its faults, doubtless, as every book must be; but it has been written straight from the heart, and will go to the heart of many. . .