1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Maeterlinck, Maurice

MAETERLINCK, MAURICE (1862–), Belgian-French dramatist and poet, of Flemish extraction, was born at Ghent on the 29th of August 1862. He was educated at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, and then at the university of his native city, where, at the age of twenty-four, he was enrolled as a barrister. In 1887 he settled in Paris, where he immediately became acquainted with Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and the leaders of the symbolist school of French poetry. At the death of his father, Maeterlinck returned to Belgium, where he thenceforth mainly resided: in the winter at Ghent, in the summer on an estate at Oostacker. He had by this time determined to devote his whole life to poetry, a dedication which his fortune permitted. His career as an author began in 1889, when he published a volume of verse, Serres chaudes, and a play, La Princesse Maleine, the latter originally composed in metre, but afterwards carefully rewritten in prose, the vehicle which the author continued to use for his dramatic work. Maeterlinck was at this time totally unknown, but he became famous through an article by Octave Mirbeau, prominently published in the Paris Figaro, entitled “A Belgian Shakespeare.” The enthusiasm of this review and the excellence of the passages quoted combined to make Maeterlinck the talk of the town. Maeterlinck, among his Belgian roses, continued to work with extreme deliberation. In 1890 he published, in Brussels, two more plays, L’Intruse and Les Aveugles; followed in 1891 by Les Sept princesses. His strong leaning to mysticism was now explained, or defined, by a translation of the Flemish medieval visionary, the Admirable Ruysbroeck, which Maeterlinck brought out in 1891. In 1892 appeared what has been perhaps the most successful of all his plays on the stage, Pelléas et Mélisande, followed in 1894 by those very curious and powerful little dramas written to be performed by marionettes: Alladine et Palomides, Intérieur and La Mort de Tintagiles. In 1895 Maeterlinck brought out, under the title of Annabella, a translation of Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, with a preface. Two philosophical works followed, a study on Novalis (1895) and Le Trésor des humbles (1896). In 1896 he returned to drama with Aglavaine et Sélysette and to lyric verse with Douze chansons. A monograph on the ethics of mysticism, entitled La Sagesse et la destinée, was issued, as a kind of commentary on his own dramas, in 1898; and in 1901 Maeterlinck produced a fascinating volume of prose, founded upon observations made in his apiaries at Oostacker, in which philosophy, fancy and natural history were surprisingly mingled—La Vie des abeilles. In 1902 he published Le Temple enseveli and Monna Vanna; in 1903 Joyzelle. In 1901 he began to issue, in Brussels, an edition of his complete dramatic works.

The nature of Maeterlinck’s writings, whether in prose or verse, has been strictly homogeneous. Few poets have kept so rigorously to a certain defined direction in the practice of their art. Whether in philosophy, or drama, or lyric, Maeterlinck is exclusively occupied in revealing, or indicating, the mystery which lies, only just out of sight, beneath the surface of ordinary life. In order to produce this effect of the mysterious he aims at an extreme simplicity of diction, and a symbolism so realistic as to be almost bare. He allows life itself to astonish us by its strangeness, by its inexplicable elements. Many of his plays are really highly pathetic records of unseen emotion; they are occupied with the spiritual adventures of souls, and the ordinary facts of time and space have no influence upon the movements of the characters. We know not who these orphan princesses, these blind persons, these pale Arthurian knights, these aged guardians of desolate castles, may be; we are not informed whence they come, nor whither they go; there is nothing concrete or circumstantial about them. Their life is intense and consistent, but it is wholly of a spiritual character; they are mysterious with the mystery of the movements of a soul. These characteristics, which make the dramatic work of Maeterlinck so curious and unique, are familiar to most readers in Pelléas et Mélisande, but are carried, perhaps, to their farthest intensity in Aglavaine et Sélysette, which seems to be written for a phantom stage and to be acted by disembodied spirits. In spite of the violence of his early admirers, and of the fact that the form of his dramas easily lent itself to the cheap ridicule of parodists, the talent of Maeterlinck has hardly met with opposition from the criticism of his time. It has been universally felt that his spirit is one of grave and disinterested attachment to the highest moral beauty, and his seriousness, his serenity and his extreme originality have impressed even those who are bewildered by his diaphanous graces and offended at his nebulous mysticism. While the crude enthusiasm which compared him with Shakespeare has been shown to be ridiculous, the best judges combine with Camille Mauclair when he says: “Maurice Maeterlinck est un homme de génie authentique, un très grand phénomène de puissance mentale à la fin du xixe siècle.” In spite of the shadowy action of Maeterlinck’s plays, which indeed require some special conditions and contrivances for their performance, they are frequently produced with remarkable success before audiences who cannot be suspected of mysticism, in most of the countries of Europe. In his philosophical writings Maeterlinck shows himself a disciple of Novalis, of Emerson, of Hello, of the Flemish Catholic mystics, and he evolves from the teachings of those thinkers a system of aesthetics applicable to the theatre as he conceives it.  (E. G.)