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FIRST POEMS: "SERRES CHAUDES"
WHEN Maeterlinck was a young man of W twenty-four he
met Villiers de l'Isle Adam and other symbolists in Paris. He became a symbolist
himself. His early poems, some of them published during that visit to Paris
and collected afterwards with others in "Serres Chaudes," are symbolist or
they are nothing; his early plays were accepted as symbolist. It is not obvious
what is here meant by symbolism, but it is not merely the use of symbols.
"It is all," writes Mr. Symons, "an attempt to spiritualize literature, to
evade the old bondage of rhetoric, the old bondage of exteriority. Description
is banished that beautiful things may be evoked, magically .... " Writing
of the sonnets of Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) he says that here, "for the
first time in French, words are used as the ingredients of an evocation,
as themselves not merely colour and sound, but symbol." Probably it is meant
that they are used solely as an evocation, and deliberately so. One of the
examples, "El Desdichado," has something like the magic of the not quite
intelligible song of Taliesin, beginning:
Primary chief bard am I to Elphin,
for it ends: "Am I Eros or Phbus? . . . Lusignan or Biron? My brow is still flushed from the queen's kiss; I have been dreaming in the grotto of the syren and twice have I victoriously crossed Acheron playing on the lyre of Orpheus, sometimes in the tone of a saint's sighing and at other times of a fairy's cry." It is hardly necessary to say that the words do not take us farther or deeper than certain phrases of older poets and even prose-writers, like:
And battles long ago;
Merry it was in Silver Wood;
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
or, "The famous nations of the dead"; or, "Apame, the King's concubine, the daughter of the admirable Bartacus, sitting at the right hand of the King, and taking the crown from the King's head, and setting it upon her own head"; or, "And the world shall be turned into the old silence seven days." We know that the words of poets and of others who can handle words often mean much more than the same mean in another place or at another time. We are almost certain that their words have often come to mean something different from what was consciously present in their minds when they wrote, and often more vast. Maeterlinck knew this, and expressed it in 1890, in a criticism now printed in Gerard Harry's "Maurice Maeterlinck." "Is it not," he asks, "by examining what he has not consciously intended that we penetrate the essence of a poet? The poet premeditates this, premeditates that, but woe to him if he does not attain something else beside!" But the symbolists, having come late into this world, are more self-conscious than men before them, and it appears to be their task to produce consciously the strange echoing and branching effects of magic which came to earlier men straight from the gods. Mr. F. Y. Eccles puts it in this way in the brilliant Introduction to his "Century of French Poets":
"Of the many tendencies imputed to symbolism this is the most characteristic -- out of an acuter perception of what all poets have always known, that words are insufficient if their power is bounded by their meaning, emerged an audacious doctrine which branded their representative function as inferior, and sought to shift the poetical interest from what they signify to what they may suggest. In the Parnassian system description was paramount, and feeling sprang from it immediately: the emotion which symbolism pursues bears no constant relation to the objects represented or the ideas expressed; rather it aims at the recovery of vanished moods by curious incantations, by the magical use of verbal atmosphere. To fashion a true likeness of the material world it holds a vain and illusory undertaking: It values sights, sounds, scents, and savours for their secret affinities with states of the soul .... "
It is a little unkind to words to suppose that they can
be bounded by their meaning, but apparently the symbolist most insist that
his words are not only not so bounded, but have a further significance which
is quite precise; otherwise there were no difference between the old and
the new. It is a dangerous difference. For a poem of the old kind has a simple
fundamental meaning which every sane reader cad agree upon; above and beyond
this each one builds as he can or must. In the new there is no basis of this
kind; a poem means nothing unless its whole meaning has been grasped. Take,
for 3n example of the old, a seventh-century Chinese poem from Mr. Cranmer's
"Lute of Jade." It is called "Tears in the Spring":
|Clad in blue silk and bright embroidery,
At the first call of spring the fair young bride,
On whom as yet Sorrow has laid no scar,
Climbs the Kingfisher's Tower. Suddenly
She sees the bloom of willows far and wide,
And grieves for him she lent to fame and war.
This is explicit enough and amazingly condensed; but, even so, the many elements in it combine, and then fall away and leave something more than the sum of them all, and that something over gives the poem its great beauty, which we may call symbolical if we like, but not symbolist. A symbolist might have used the same scene, but probably with this difference, that he would have drawn no conclusions from it; he would have left it to make its own effect. In the same way a symbolist poet might have seen the Highland reaper as a symbol, but would not have interpreted the symbol like Wordsworth. But, look at "Ennui" from Maeterlinck's "Serres Chaudes ":
"The careless peacocks, the white peacocks, have fled; the white peacocks have fled from the ennui of waking. I see the white peacocks, the peacocks of to-day, the peacocks in rows during my sleep, the careless peacocks, the peacocks of to-day, arriving lazily at the sunless lake. I hear the white peacocks, the peacocks of ennui, awaiting lazily the sunless days."
This is a dangerous poem for those who think that symbolist
poems must be judged by new standards. There is no meaning upon which all
of them would agree. The first wish of the tolerant reader seeking for profound
and designed significance must be for a dictionary to explain "peacocks,"
especially "white peacocks." He will be all the more disturbed by his lack
of comprehension, because probably he would like to think of white peacocks;
but this the words will not allow. The birds have to be examined like an
heraldic device. The most he can do is to think-perhaps upon a suggestion
from a remembered picture -- of a large grey house with white peacocks on
the empty terraces, and over all a Sunday desolation of ennui and silence.
Nor is this poem the most difficult -- not to understand, but to meet in
such a way that understanding is possible. For the poem seems to contain
interpretation as well as a symbol; so does "Fauves Lasses," with its "yellow
dogs of my sins," "squint-eyed hyenas of my hates," "flocks of temptations."
"Chasses Lasses" is a poem written in cypher, and containing a glossary of
its own terms:
| "My soul is sick to-day; my soul is sick with absence; my soul
has the sickness of silence; and my eyes
light it with tedium.
"I catch sight of hunts at a standstill, under the blue lashes of my memories; and the hidden hounds
of my desires follow the outworn scents.
"I see the packs of my dreams threading the warm forests, and the yellow arrows of regret seeking the
white deer of lies.
"Ah, God! my breathless longings, the warm longings of my eyes, have clouded with breaths too blue
the moon which fills my soul."
If this method is characteristic of the" decadence" and
modern France, it is not new. Is it not upon the same model as the song which
Musidorus, in Sidney's "Arcadia," sang to Pamela, "to show what kind of a
shepherd he was." This is the song:
|My sheep are thoughts, which I both guide and serve;
Their pasture is fair hills of fruitless love:
On barren sweets they feed, and feeding starve:
I wail their lot, but will not other prove.
My sheep-hook is wan hope, which all upholds:
My weeds, desire, cut out in endless folds:
What wool my sheep shall bear, while thus they live,
Dry as it is, you must the judgment give.
Then Pamela turns to Mopsa and says: "Take heed to yourself, for your shepherd can speak well ...." This passed in Sidney's time for the language of emotion, as that of "Chasses Lasses" does in our own. Both appear to be purely fanciful writing according to a fashion, and more cannot be said of them than that the exposure of the symbols has given the lines a naive decorative value.
It is harder to speak of the poems which are not thus translated for us by the one man who has their secret, Maeterlinck himself. It would be simple to accept them all together as a not obscure symbol of something familiar -- youth; or to take the words of them as bounded by their customary meaning, the words that recur, most of them, many times -- sadness, weariness, ennui, melancholy, pallor, feebleness, immobility. These are truly mots propres, the right words not sought but inevitable and significant, like Shelley's "wingéd," or Ruskin's "entirely." The poems seem to represent a weariness, a melancholy, an unrest that belong to the writer only when he writes. These feelings, when they are profound, are not so eager to be quickly told. The pallor and melancholy are parts of the writer's refinement, and are unconsciously chosen, partly, perhaps, out of respect for the pictures by Burne-Jones on his walls, and partly as an easy method of distinguishing himself from a vile world not in the least melancholy and pale, or desiring to be so. If there is anything here to be called sorrow it is no more passionate than wall-paper, and is not due to loss of faith, fortune, wife, health, leg, teeth, or the like, but to this excessive refinement in protest against those whom he despises, and in imitation of the admired. In the absence of information it is impossible to be certain, but it seems likely that most of "Serres Chaudes" is due to Paris and the literary life. The little of his still earlier work which I have seen has nothing of this character. "The Massacre of the Innocents," a perfectly Flemish piece of objective realism, is as unlike as possible, and this may have been written before the visit to Paris, though, whether it was or not, its lucidity and entire lack of display of emotion make it a significant contrast with the languor and confusion of" Serres Chaudes."
When referring, years later, in "The Buried Temple" to
his early plays, Maeterlinck spoke of them as the work of" some obscure poetical
feeling" within him which believed in a hostile and encompassing fate, and
he claimed that, with the sincerest poets, a distinction has often to be
made "between the instinctive feelings of their art and the thoughts of their
real life." What else is this than what Keats wrote in the dedication of
"Endymion" when he was at the same age as the Maeterlinck of" Serres Chaudes
"? "The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a
man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is
in a ferment .... " In a young man of the middle class living an easy, sheltered
existence, chiefly in our modern cities, as it is so natural and common to
do, the brave fervour of youth is often girt up neither by experience in
the past nor by a sufficient object in the present; it must spend itself,
and it does so upon little things, borrowed things, which are presently seen
for what they are, and share with the fervour the same neglect and even contempt.
The poem called "Serres Chaudes" expresses the sense of strangeness and vanity
which comes to this state when life is at once too languid and too difficult
because it is all cloistered within the brain:
| "O hothouse in the midst of the woods, with your
doors for ever closed; and all the things under your
dome, with their counterparts in my soul!
"The thoughts of a hungry princess; the weariness of a sailor in the desert; a brass band playing under
the windows of incurables.
"Seek the warmest corners! Such, a woman fainting on a harvest day. Postillions are in the courtyard
of the hospital; while in the distance passes an attendant, once an elk-stalker,
"Look closely, by moonlight! How out of place is everything here! Such, a mad woman before the
justices; a man-of-war under full sail on a canal; night-birds perching on lilies; a noontide death-knell
(there, under those bell-glasses!); a station for the sick in the open fields; the smell of ether during a day
"Ah, God! God! when shall we have the rain and the snow and the wind in the hothouses?"
Here, too, "with their counterparts in my soul," if not a complete explanation, is a timid admission of the need of one. But the piece is hardly more than a catalogue of symbols that have no more literary value than words in a dictionary. It ignores the fact that no word, outside works of information, has any value beyond its surface value except what it receives from its neighbours and its position among them. Each man makes his own language in the main unconsciously and inexplicably, unless he is still at an age when he is an admiring but purely æsthetic collector of words; certain words-he knows not why -- he will never use; and there are a hundred peculiarities in his rhythms and groupings to be discovered. In the mainly instinctive use of his language the words will all support one another, and, if the writing is good, the result of this support is that each word is living its intensest life. The first few words of a work of art teach us, though we do not know it at the time, exactly how much value we are to give to all the rest, whether they are to be words only, or images, or spirits. They admit us, or teach us that we cannot be admitted, to the author's world. Any writer whose words have this power may make a poem of anything -- a story, a dream, a thought, a picture, an ejaculation, a conversation. Whatever be the subject, the poem must not depend for its main effect upon anything outside itself except the humanity of the reader. It may please for the moment by the aid of some irrelevant and transitory interest-political interest, for example; but, sooner or later, it will be left naked and solitary, and will so be judged, and if it does not create about itself a world of its own it is condemned to endure the death which is its element. These worlds of living poems may be of many different kinds. As a rule they are regions of the earth now for the first time separated from the rest and made independent; they may be lit by the sun of every one, or by another, or by the moon, or by a green lantern: whatever they are, they are stronger than this world, and their light more steadfast than sun or moon. Wordsworth writes a poem in the hope of making it give the same impression as a certain hawthorn-tree gives to him; Keats because he cannot dismiss from his mind the words, "Dost thou not hear the sea?"; Burns because a girl pleases and evades him. Anything, however small, may make a poem; nothing, however great, is certain to. Concentration, intensity of mood, is the one necessary condition in the poet and in the poem. By this concentration something is detached from the confused immensity of life and receives individuality, and this creativeness brings into my mind the inhuman solitariness of the world at the moment when Deucalion stooped to make the first men out of stones; and the waste of waters when the dove bore an olive-leaf into the ark out of the monotonous waste. But the early Maeterlinck turned no stones into men, nor found the crest of a tree piercing the dead sea. Nothing in "Serres Chaudes" persuades us to see this creative high value in the words; they give no help to one another. It is as far from the writing of a sloven or a common man as from that of a master, but it says nothing save that it belongs to a school to which it has turned in the confusion of its unrest. Whatever its intention, it has not that quality of style which at once takes and retains possession of the reader.
To give such a poem significance it would be necessary to make a key to it, like St. Melito's key to the Bible, where it is shown that in one place the word "Camelus" stands for Christ, in another for love of this world; that "Leo" means Christ, Mark the Evangelist, the Devil, Antichrist; that "Unicornis" is Christ, but "Unicornes" the proud. But the extreme example of such symbolism is found in a verse by Adam de St. Victor, where the word "dragon" is used three times in three different senses within two lines -- Christ, the Devil and something like Antichrist. But this is not literature; as well might algebra be called literature. It is not deep enough. It was no symbolism of this kind that gave the words," I believe in the forgiveness of sins'' inexorable significance to Luther as if the door of Paradise had been thrown wide open, William James, from whom this example is taken, gives other examples of persons for whom "Philadelphia" and "chalcedony" had "a mighty fascination,'' and "the words woods and forests would produce the most powerful emotion."
"Most of us," says James, "can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young; irrational doorways, as they were, through which the mystery of fact, the wilderness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility."
A curious example of this value of a single word or phrase may be seen in George Herbert's poem, "My Master," and in the treatise on "The Song of Angels," by a fourteenth-century English mystic, Walter Hilton:
"Some man setteth the thoughts of his heart only in the name of Jesu, and steadfastly holdeth it thereto, and in short time him thinketh that the name turneth him to great comfort and sweetness, and him thinketh that the name soundeth in his heart delectably, as it were a song; and the virtue of this liking is so mighty, that it draweth in all the wits of the soul thereto. Whoso may feel this sound and this sweetness verily in his heart, wete thou well that it is of God, and, so long as he is meek, he shall not be deceived. But this is not angel's song; but it is a song of the soul by virtue of the name and by touching of the good angel."
This is an example of the extreme and highest symbolism of words. Were it common in this degree there could be no more poetry, or it would be more accurate to say that there could be nothing else but poetry.
It is an old opinion that all visible things are symbols.
Sallustius, the friend of Julian the Apostate, says Professor Gilbert Murray,
held the world itself to be a great myth, and the myths to be all allegories.
Paris, for example, being "the soul living according to the senses," and
therefore only able to see beauty, which is Aphrodite. For him the value
of a thing lay "not in itself, but in the spiritual meaning which it hides
and reveals." Heraclitus of Ephesus "deliberately expressed himself in language
which should not be understood by the vulgar and which bore a hidden meaning
to his disciples," and he said that "if Homer used no allegories he committed
all impieties " -- on which Professor Murray makes the illuminating comment
that "on this theory the words can be allowed to possess all their own beauty
and magic, but an inner meaning is added quite different from what they bear
on the surface." Ruskin seems to have held a similar opinion to this of
Heraclitus, for he sees a designed significance in the fact that Ophelia's
name means "serviceableness," and seriously writes: "Hamlet is, I believe,
connected in some way with ' homely,' the entire event of the tragedy turning
on betrayal of home duty." But had Shakespeare paused to secure effects of
this kind, assuredly he could not have produced so many that are infinitely
more powerful. The laws governing æsthetic and spiritual effects are
innumerable; those which can be discovered are probably few in comparison,
and if these are deliberately followed it is more than likely that many others
will be fatally disobeyed. Maeterlinck, for example, had learnt a few when
he wrote "Feuillage du Coeur":
| "Under the blue crystal bell of my weary melancholy
moods, my dim bygone griefs take gradually
their motionless form:
"Symbolic growths! Brooding water-lilies of pleasures, slow-growing palms of my desires, cold
mosses, pliant bindweed:
"Alone among them a lily, pale and weak in rigidity, marks its motionless ascent above the grief-laden
"And in the glimmer which it radiates, gradually, moon-like, lifts its mystical white prayer to the
But is there anything here in addition which can awaken and gratify the profound receptivity of spirit most fit for communion with a poet? Mr. W. B. Yeats, in his essay on "The Symbolism of Poetry," rebukes those -- the journalists -- who, in his opinion, are certain "that no one, who had a philosophy of his art, or a theory of how he should write, has ever made a work of art" and supports himself by the words of Goethe: "A poet needs all philosophy, but he must keep it out of his work." The qualification he half rejects, but when he comes to give examples of potent symbolism he finds them chiefly in writers like Burns, who did not know the word and would perhaps have been astonished and even amused by the theory itself. Even Mr. Symons, loyal critic of the professed symbolists, has to say that "Symbolism, as seen in the writers of our day, would have no value if it were not seen also, under one disguise or another, in every great imaginative writer."
It must now be apparent that entirely conscious symbolism
comes very near to being allegory, which of all things is abhorred by symbolists.
Mr. Yeats himself is a poet who is far more than a symbolist, yet it is possible
to see in his work this danger skirted, and sometimes upon the wrong side.
He confesses, in the notes to his "Wind among the Reeds," that he "has made
the Seven Lights, the constellation of the Bear, lament for the theft of
the Rose, and has made the Dragon, the constellation Draco, the guardian
of the Rose, because these constellations move about the pole of the heavens,
the ancient Tree of Life in many countries, and are often associated with
the Tree of Life in mythology." It was natural that he should have said,
after quoting from Goethe, that to keep his philosophy out of his work is
not always necessary for the poet; for, had he kept his own out of the notes
to "The Wind among the Reeds," the annotated poems must have fallen short
of his reader. An example is "Mongan laments the change that has come upon
him and his beloved," beginning:
|Do you not hear me calling, white deer with no horns?
I have been changed to a hound with one red ear;
I have been in the Path of Stones and the Wood of Thorns,
For somebody hid hatred and hope and desire and fear
Under my feet that they follow you night and day ....
"I got my hound and deer," runs his note," out of a last century Gaelic poem .... This hound and this deer seem plain images of the desire of man 'which is for the woman,' and 'the desire of the woman which is for the desire of the man,' and of all desires that are as these." It may be that a day will come when tile force of Mr. Yeats's genius will have added to common culture the special knowledge through which alone the poem is intelligible. At present the language of it is dead or merely private, like that of Heraclitus, and the note, so far from helping the poem, attracts attention exclusively to itself. It is again a question of style. The poet's words refuse to make any impression corresponding to his intention; they speak to the brain alone, and can reveal only his interest in mythology. Similar notes to "Serres Chaudes" must have been extraordinarily interesting; but if Maeterlinck does not write them it is doubtful whether any one else can or will.
The one piece in the little book which is perfectly
intelligible is "Hôpital." It should have been placed, instead of "Serre
Chaude," at the front of the collection, because it is like that poem and
at the same time reveals its own origin, real or imaginary. It is nothing
but a series of the fantastic images in a feverish man's brain. Each one
of the images, tike the hothouse in the midst of the snow, the churching
of a woman in a storm, the banquet spread in a forest, the meadow sheep trotting
sadly into the wood, may well have come up before one sick man lying in a
hospital on the bank of a canal, and many of them are, taken by themselves,
at least suggestive. As a whole the poem is neither realism nor impressionism,
nor successful in any class, because the parts have nothing to hold them
together and to transform them from the state of notes into poetry. Nothing
sufficient is done to prepare the way for the procession of fever pictures
and no conclusion is drawn from them; each part is greater than the whole.
There are half a dozen other poems -- such as "Cloche à Plongeur"
and "Âme" -- which do not differ essentially from "Hôpital."
Instead of the dream of a fever-patient the excuse is a hothouse, a bell-glass,
or a diving-bell, and he sets off at once with a catalogue of such
bric-à-brac as antediluvian beasts invading towns, all a king's daughters
(on a parliament day) wandering in the meadows, crows hatched by swans, a
sister shelling peas at the foot of an incurable's bed, a nuptial banquet
celebrated in a cave, princesses going to bed at midday, like those in his
play of" Les Sept Princesses." The hospital recurs in more than one poem,
for example in that on a diving-bell he compares the pallor of those who
are going to die with that of patients who listen to the rain tranquilly
falling in the hospital garden. A sleeping, swooning, fainting, a feverish
condition seems to be the foundation of all. The things seen are remote and
solemnly absurd, like things seen very far away in an influenza dream at
midday. Evidently Maeterlinck liked this magic of looking through the wrong
end of a telescope: he was the amateur looking at a diving-bell and thinking
of going down in the green water and seeing "strange" creatures round about.
He speaks of "the water of dream" and of the "profound reflections of things
" -- lilies, palms, roses, weeping under the waters and barred over by "the
mournful ennui of reeds." He was perhaps dazed by the seeming depth of reflecting
water, and the flowers, seen as it were in the sky, were natural to his soul
where things innumerable of different and far climates might blossom together,
provided that there were enough hothouses. Many of the poems bring before
the mind a man in either a conservatory or a hothouse looking out on a level,
watered country with swans and flocks of sheep. Nearly all things affect
him through his eyes only, and as if he had seen them by compulsion and not
choice; he does not love any of them; his eyes have caught his soul in a
trap, as he says in "Apres-midi," and there again he is lying in bed listening
to the hours, waiting for rain to fall on the '.turf and on his motionless
dreams, while his gaze is following lambs in the towns upon the horizon.
No wonder that he addressed his soul as "truly overmuch in shelter " -- in
shelter like the plants under the sweating and misty bell-glass. "Ennui,"
which has already been quoted in a translation, is, after all, the most perfect
of this soul's dreams. He saw white peacocks because he preferred what was
less common -- a black kingfisher, or a white pillar-box, and so on. But
lull the mind and lay it back, as it were, on a pillow of sultry noon, and
let the birds, the indolent, careless birds have their way, as they did in
the poet's dream. The poem is made of strange birds and beautiful, monotonous
words full of nasal vowels:
|Les paons nonchalants, les paons blanc ont fui,
Les paons blancs ont fui l'ennui du reveil;
Je vois les paons blancs, les paons d'aujourd'hui,
Les paons en allés pendant mon sommeil,
Les paons nonchalants, les paons d'aujourd'hui,
Atteindre indolents l'étang sans soleil,
J'entends les paons blancs, les paons de l'ennui,
Atteindre indolents les temps sans soleil.
This is the music of words, and nothing but words -- words in their barbaric and unintellectual purity, and according to your ear for such will be the clearness, beauty, and significance of the white peacocks which they create. Banish all thoughts of symbolism and of different standards, and it is a beautiful poem of refined and luxurious indolence.
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