About Maurice Maeterlinck by Daniel Gerould



Maurice Maeterlinck opened the modernist era in drama by acknowledging how little we know, or can ever know, about ourselves and our world. Instead of the high living, characteristic of the Belle Epoque, mirrored on stage in the costume melodramas of Victorien Sardou and the well-made farces of Georges Feydeau, in Maeterlinck’s plays disembodied spirits in timeless interiors or legendary landscapes posed unanswerable questions about the enigma of existence

To respond to the mystery surrounding us, the poet proposed intuitive thinking that lay above and below the rational intelligence that guides the practical transactions of life. A full decade before the publication of Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of the Dreams) in1900, it was Maeterlinck—not Freud—who first introduced a young generation of artists to the unconscious and the dreaming mind. The depths of being cannot be grasped by the intellect, Maeterlinck posited, but the hidden meaning of all things, impervious to the logic of day, lies open to a spiritual faculty shared by all. By the time Freud’s theories of the subconscious gained currency in the early twentieth century, striking artistic manifestations of his theories already existed, due in part to the Belgian poet’s pioneering dramas and essays. In his insistence on the priority of an inner reality expressed in dreams, childhood memory, and the unconscious, Maeterlinck had anticipated Freud and the Surrealists who followed in his wake.  

The new uncharted areas to which the author of Pelleas and Melisande was attuned included the inscrutable powers that control our destiny and shape our daily lives. He saw humankind amidst the natural world of plants, animals, and inanimate objects, as well as in relation to the cosmos and infinity. Although it was unknown and unknowable, the mysterious reality that Maeterlinck saw as the essential human condition was something common to the species, present in everyday life, egalitarian and accessible to each of us. Transcendent psychology could reveal the profound reality of the soul which exists beyond reason and is alike for all humans.  The soul, the inner being, or mystical self is connected to all other souls, to the natural world, and to the cosmos. Alike in all of us, human souls can converse among themselves. Communication among a vast sea of souls can be achieved through the use of intuition.  We have lost our identity in the modern world, distracted by moral and social differences and distinctions of only superficial and passing importance. The murderer, prostitute, and respectable citizen stood equal before the unknown.

 Maeterlinck brought to the French stage and to world literature a new spirituality, conceived neither as specifically Christian or even as traditionally religious. Although these beliefs and teachings were already current in the flourishing circles of nineteenth-century European occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism, the doctrines remained esoteric and stayed confined to cults until Maeterlinck arrived in Paris at just the opportune moment to introduce a controversial theory of theatre. Paradoxically, no one proved better equipped to bring a new unworldly aesthetic and spiritual worldview to the stage than this large, healthy, and athletic outsider from provincial Ghent, adept at boxing and cycling, with his rosy complexion, impassive expression, and sharp sense of money matters. 


Like many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century innovators, Maeterlinck made his starting point a truculent revolt against the dominant positivistic thought that took credit for the prosperity and material progress of the Belle Epoque. He rejected outright the rationalistic logic of the psychological approach to human passions and social relations represented by the secular French moralists and philosophers.

Although his own poetry derives from the theories and practice of the Paris avant-garde represented by Villiers-de-l’Isle-Adam, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, at the beginning of his career Maeterlinck defined himself and his position by taking an adversarial stance to the French literary tradition and by choosing instead foreign precursors and forbears. Maeterlinck dismisses the Latin tradition of clear and precise ideas—in thought, language, and culture—of which he, like Antonin Artaud after him, is profoundly suspicious because he feels that clarity quickly closes doors and prevents deeper understanding on multiple, sometimes contradictory levels. 

Although he wrote in French, Maeterlinck sought filiations to Germanic and Anglo-Saxon traditions of literature and to his own Flemish roots. He read the German romantics and Novalis, De Quincey, Carlyle, Emerson, and Whitman.  Following these models, he developed a new kind of poetic prose in which he wrote both plays and essays. He saw himself not as a man of the theatre, but rather as a creative mind working across disciplines. 

The two extraordinary site-specific performances given at the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille, Maeterlinck’s castle in Normandy—Macbeth in August 1909 and Pelleas and Melisande in August 1910 —were produced, staged, and acted twice each by Georgette Leblanc. The invited, but paying ambulatory audiences of fifty, optionally dressed in medieval costume, followed the action about the grounds and castle, both indoors and out. The initially skeptical poet was ultimately won over to the grandiose spectacles by the enthusiastic reactions of public and critics, but everything had to done to avoid disrupting his daily routine of quiet work, regular meals, and early bedtimes.

 Throughout his career Maeterlinck made no sharp distinctions between poetry and philosophy, and saw little that separated his roles as poet, playwright, scientist, and philosopher. As a natural historian of the evolution of different species, he turned his back on theatrical traditions devoted to the depiction of manners and morals—humankind’s social history—and looked instead further inward and further outward.  He stressed the fact that human beings are related to other kinds of beings and other modes of existence and that they are also related to themselves at other moments in their own evolutionary process. Humankind, the poet maintained, must experience itself as a child, as a pre-natal embryo, and as part of its own early pre-history on the earth.

What Maeterlinck requires of the theatre is a total change of perspective. The dramatist should observe humankind from very close up, as through a microscope or ex-ray which would disclose the secrets of the soul, and at the same time should view the human condition from afar, as through a telescope which would reveal our place in the cosmos. 

To make connections with the mystic traditions of Flemish and Germanic thought, Maeterlinck worked as a translator, producing French versions of his great precursors Ruysbroeck and Novalis.  He also wrote an introduction to a new volume of Emerson’s essays in French translation. In these editions, Maeterlinck’s aim is not to introduce alien cultures or delve into the national pasts of other countries, but rather to reveal the interconnections of inner and outer world and the mirroring of macrocosm in microcosm. 

Although he was involved in several innovative private and elite productions of Shakespeare, John Ford, and his own plays, Maeterlinck was decidedly not a man of the theatre and usually kept his distance from the world of the professional stage. From Maeterlinck’s point of view, the theatre of commerce asked all the wrong questions of material agency while failing to pose the essential ones of an ontological nature.  A true art of the theatre is rendered impossible by the physical presence and personality of ego-bound actors, whom Maeterlinck hoped to replace by puppets—as did his like-minded contemporary Gordon Craig.  Maeterlinck’s visionary conception of theatrical art demanded abstraction and the transcending of material reality through symbolic representation by a disincarnated actor.


Maeterlinck was drawn toward two different theatrical models, one of which he himself virtually invented. This model, which he theorized extensively, is the tragedy of the everyday  (le tragique quotidien): a static drama of the human condition devoid of action, except for mounting terror and  a growing realization of doom.

For this new type of drama there were few precedents.  It meant a clean sweep, ridding the stage of many venerable traditions and conventions and wiping out old rules of composition. Eliminated were ostentatious bourgeois settings, jigsaw puzzle dialogue, raisonneurs, characters defined by social position and profession, problems of money, marriage, and adultery, and journalistic topics of the day. What was left?  A tense quiet drama of waiting that unfolded in austere and anxious interiors, at the same time both contemporary and timeless, which became metaphors for states of soul and had their visual counterparts in the mysterious, darkly introspective domestic scenes painted by Edvard Munch, Xavier Mellery, and James Ensor.  

Maeterlinck wanted to liberate theatre from being narrowly culture bound and free it from socially constructed human beings. The theatre of the soul reached back to the primitive and primeval, to the origins of art in the world of the child, the peasant, and the savage. The conte, märchen, or fairy tale provided a modern version of myth and a means of escape from the modern world. Here Maeterlinck was proposing a backward-looking avant-garde, deeply archaic in its quest for sources.

His second theatrical model, also from the past, was the decadent and macabre Jacobean drama of Tourneur, Webster, and Ford, which Maeterlinck read in English in the Mermaid Series edited by Havelock Ellis, the ground-breaking psychologist of sex. The Belgian playwright loved, imitated, and wrote perceptively about these old English plays, which were at just this time starting to be rediscovered and performed again by William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society after two centuries of neglect.

Ranking the English Renaissance drama of the Elizabethan era as the greatest of all time, Maeterlinck was fascinated by the violence, flamboyant poetry, and spirit of revolt expressed in these works. He repeatedly discusses his predilection for John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two of the most violent and blood-drenched plays of the period, both of which he translated. In his adaptations of Macbeth and ‘Tis Pity, Maeterlinck, in order to produce a more disturbing effect, omits the final scenes in which society begins to reassert control and the survivors of the catastrophe try to make sense of what has happened, leaving instead the last words to Giovanni and Macbeth. In these adaptations, there is no justice or restoration of order, only the bloody deaths of the defiant heroes.

It was Maeterlinck’s version of ‘Tis Pity (from which he excised subplots and  buffoonery to achieve greater French unity and simplicity) as Annabelle that was staged by Lugne-Poë at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in 1898, the first modern production of the play. For Maeterlinck the play revealed humankind as subject to a mysterious cosmic destiny.

In the “Preface” to his translation of ‘Tis Pity, he praises Ford for his exploration of the soul.

“Ford penetrated into the darkness of the undifferentiated inner life. He went down to the blackest regions where all souls begin to resemble one another since they cease to owe much of anything to external circumstances.” 

Antonin Artaud adopted Maeterlinck’s hyperbolic praise of Ford’s play and made it one of the pillars of his theatre of cruelty.

Although in his writings on the tragedy of the everyday, Maeterlinck the theorist argued that the violence, murder, and excessive passions of more barbarous ages no longer belonged in the modern theatre, Maeterlinck the playwright could never deny his own atavistic longings. The violence in his plays is all the more threatening for being forcibly contained and kept unseen behind closed doors until the final inevitable outburst.  

The Belgian poet created a theatre of fear, a tautly restrained melodrama of the interior, whose aesthetics of suspenseful dread was adopted by André de Lorde, the master craftsman of the Grand Guignol in its heyday from 1902 to 1914.  De Lorde considered his theatre of terror as an assault on the nervous system in which “everything remains invisible, nothing is shown.” The horror lay not in what the audience saw, but in what they anticipated. In emulation of  Maeterlinck’s The Blind, de Lorde with the psychologist Alfred Binet, his frequent collaborator, in 1912 wrote Les Invisibles (The Invisible), a one-act play set in an asylum for blind inmates who as their terror mounts reveal an uncanny ability to sense the coming of death. Avoiding any external trick effects of horror through make-up or stage business, The Invisible was performed not at the Grand Guignol, but in a provincial French theatre.


At the start of his career Maeterlinck was an assiduous reader, and he assimilated and appropriated what he read with great skill and daring.  Princess Maleine is an intricate tissue of citations, borrowings, reminiscences, echoes, and traces of the young poet’s prodigious readings in British, and American, and European literature. He has created his first play out of the characters, plots, settings, situations, themes, images, and phrases that he has taken from among other sources Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, Middleton’s Women Beware Women, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Dekker and Ford’s The Witch of Edmonton, Dekker’s Honest Whore, Ford’s Tis Pity, and Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King, all of which is interwoven with major elements taken from the Grimm Brothers’ Tales (in English translation), especially “Maid Maleen,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems “Sister Helen” and “Willowwood,” Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The literariness of Princess Maleine is overwhelming, but the play’s emotional power and theatrical impact demonstrate that a youthful work may be almost exclusively derivative of other works of literature, rather than a representation of life, and yet be artistically innovative and a deeply personal expression of the author’s inner world of the imagination. In Princess Maleine Maeterlinck aimed not to imitate reality, but to give expression to the dangerous dreams, repressed desires, and hidden anxieties haunting the troubled psyches of his contemporaries.

Oscar Wilde, whose Salome owes many of its stylistic devices and much of its lunar atmosphere to Princess Maleine, met Maeterlinck in May 1898 when he was invited by Georgette Leblanc to their Paris apartment for dinner.  In a letter to Robert Ross Wilde recalls the evening and his impressions of the poet.  “He is very bon garçon—of course he has quite given up art.  He only thinks of making life sane and healthy—and freeing the soul from the trammels of culture. Art seems to him now a malady, and the Princess Maleine an absurdity of his youth. He rests his hope of humanity in the bicycle.”  Maeterlinck’s description of their meeting is recorded in the essay published here for the first time in any language.

At the beginning of his career, Maeterlinck also wrote several fantastic tales, devoted to the occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Inspired by Hoffmann, Baudelaire, and Poe and written primarily by poets, the French fantastic tale that flourished at the fin-de-siècle was characterized by its oblique style, its atmospheric evocation of horror in everyday settings, and its blend of mysticism and lurking violence. Maeterlinck followed the example of Cruel Tales by Villiers-de-l’Isle-Adam, who was the young Belgian’s mentor and model on his first visits to Paris. From the impoverished nobleman Villiers Maeterlinck learned the need for a mask, a visionary stance toward otherworldly imperatives, and sarcastic disdain for the artificiality and absurdity of the modern world. Inspired by his reading of  De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, and Poe’s Tales, Maeterlinck’s first-person narrative Onirology is a pioneering exploration of the hidden meaning of dreams, repressed memories, and the pre-Freudian unconscious. In the bizarre tale set in a New England redolent of Hawthorne, theatre is used as a metaphor for the dream. This idea will serve as the basis for Maeterlinck’s  oneiric conception of theatre  that he will soon advance in poetic theoretical essays, such as “The Tragedy of the everyday,” which were to have influence on writers like Chekhov, Hofmannsthal, and Yeats and on directors like Craig, Meyerhold, and Artaud.


Maeterlinck’s characters also come out of story books for children. They inhabit a magical realm of folklore originating in the Arthurian legends cultivated by the pre-Raphaelites. The playwright had framed and hung along the walls of his studio pictures from legend and fairy tale by the British artist and illustrator Walter Crane. Known as the most pictorial of playwrights, he worked closely with Belgian Symbolist artists, Charles Doudelet, George Minne, and Georges de Feure, who illustrated his books and did costume and stage design for his plays. On the other hand, the paintings of Emile Fabry evoke the theatrical world of Maeterlinck without being directly tied to any particular plays or productions.

Edouard Vuillard painted the sets for The Intruder at Paul Fort’s Theatre de l’Art in 1891.The Russian painter, stage designer, and mystical guru Nicholas Roerich found Maeterlinck the Western playwright with whom he had the greatest affinity and whose medieval mysteries corresponded to his own vision of Europe. Roerich designed the sets and costumes for Princess Maleine in 1913, illustrated a volume of Maeterlinck’s dramas, and made paintings based on other plays.

Tension between dream and waking hovers over the sinister nightmarish landscape that Maeterlinck’s characters inhabit. These legendary silhouettes derived from folklore and fairy tale move through the dark and light of a shadow theatre. They do not require complex life-stories, psychological sub-texts, or back narratives because they pre-exist in the collective unconscious. 

Maeterlinck’s great heroine of silence, Melisande, is a variant of Melusine, the most famous of the fées of French romance, who first appears in 1211 in the writings of Gervasius of Tilbury. Water sprites and sirens are called undines or melusines, who appear in the Animal Bride tales of medieval Europe. In these accounts, a Count meets Melusine beside a pond and falls in love with her, only to discover when it is too late that on Saturdays she is a scaly serpent from the waist down.  She is daughter of the waters; well and fountain are her habitat. Her origin is a mystery without any explanation.  Melisande too comes from nowhere, a soul given over to the forces of destiny.  She knows nothing, and her words reveal nothing, because she rejects lucidity and intelligence

In the last scene of Pelleas, old king Arkel exclaims, “But the sadness . . . the sadness of all we see!”  This principle of pan-empathy, which infuses the entire play and all of Maeterlinck’s work, is comparable to the Japanese concept of mono no aware, variously translated as “the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to things” (and sometimes seen as akin to Virgil’s lacrimae rerum).  As a concept describing the essence of Japanese culture, mono no aware was first formulated by the literary scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century

It entails the capacity to experience the objective world in a direct and unmediated fashion and to understand sympathetically the objects and natural world around one without resorting to language and other mediators.

Japanese aesthetics had a strong impact on the French artistic avant-garde in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The vogue of Japanese woodblock prints, emphasizing bold design, flat surfaces, and empty spaces, was a major manifestation of Japonisme. Although he was not necessarily influenced directly by these orientalist trends, having his own native sources in Flemish primitivism, Maeterlinck nonetheless cultivated a minimalist poetics and mystical empathy that drew upon the same anti-Western rationalism as did Japonisme. Japanese wood-block prints paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of Maeterlinck’s early plays and poetics by French artists.


At the turn-of-the-century Paris was the international world capital of poetry, and for Maeterlinck the most important calling was that of poet. By the time he published his first collection of poems, Hothouses (Serres chaudes), in 1888, Maeterlinck had developed a carefully crafted poetic persona who wore the mask of an impassive contemplative observer. An estranged viewer of other people’s disasters, the poet, cut off from outside, manages to keep uninvolved as he watches through a pane of glass from the interior of his greenhouse or diving bell, from which he cannot escape. His mind is open, able to roam and make daring associations, but his soul is closed to experience from outside. He watches in total silence and detachment. For Maeterlinck the deepest well of wisdom lies in the child’s dispassionate gaze of wonder at the horrors of life. 

The Belgian poet is not without an ironic sense of the absurd, but his is the dead-pan humor of an overgrown adolescent unabashedly amused at the atrocity of existence. He longs to return to prior states of being— pre-natal memories and embryonic ur-existences that are more visceral than contemporary urban civilization. Poetry, Maeterlinck tells us, has its deepest sources in the Flemish painters, from Brueghel and from Bosch’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, a war-cry later to be taken up by Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double.

Maeterlinck has been said to be a modernist without the modern world, his modernity perhaps lying in his very rejection of the modern world. Yet in the poems of Hothouses, particularly those in free verse, which are directly inspired by Whitman, Maeterlinck gives us disconnected images of a modern world (anticipating landscapes of the 1914 war)—ocean liners, asylums, hospital tents—suggesting anguished dreams and fragmented hallucinations from a battlefield survivor. As in a painting by Magritte, the images are contradictory, often presenting irreconcilable opposites.

Maeterlinck’s analogical compositional technique, dispensing with harmony and balance in its strange juxtapositions, relies on a belief in the mystical unity of the entire universe. Humankind is linked to all of creation; there is an occult kinship between the humans and universe; and our intuitions of self and of world mirror one another.

In his defense of Maeterlinck against charges of dementia (brought by Max Nordau in his notorious attack on modernism, Degeneracy, of 1893) for linking disparate images without any logical connections among them, the Russian Silver Age poet and translator Valery Briusov points out that in this new kind of poetry the reader is responsible for uniting the random images in a coherent whole. The audience becomes co-creators with the poet.

The cloistered viewpoint, remote stance, startling associative images, and optical effects of looking through a glass that can magnify or reduce the dimensions (and import) of what is seen constitute a new visual language that found fruition in the cinematography of Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, and their followers in the Nouvelle Vague.  In Julian Schnabel’s film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the autobiographical novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Maeterlinck’s trope of enclosure in a diving bell is explicitly and repeatedly shown as an image of psychic alienation.


At the time he first came to world-wide notice, the most heartfelt artistic response to Maeterlinck’s opening on the unknown came from composers—especially composers of the youngest generation—who set out to demonstrate that the non-verbal language of music could in fact convey the inexpressible mystery and represent the invisible powers directing our fate that the poet had so powerfully evoked in his plays. Carl Orff, Arnold Schoenberg, Jan Sibelius, Bohuslav Martinu, Dimitri Mitropulos, Koscak Yamada, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Sergei Rachmaninov, among others, found in Maeterlinck’s early dramas a powerful incentive to compose theatre music or tone poems.. For these composers, many still in their formative years, Maeterlinck offered a vision, beyond words, of humankind’s place in the universe that called out for music as its collaborative medium. In 1889, before he had ever heard of Maeterlinck, Debussy wrote, “Music begins where words are no longer capable of expression; music is made for the inexpressible,” indicating with prophetic foresight what would draw him to Pelleas and Melisande.

In none of these cases, however, was there an actual collaboration in which composer and author worked together—as between, for example, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofsmannthal. Maeterlinck himself was notoriously deaf to music whose poetics he was unable to fathom. The musicians rather put Maeterlinck’s fables to use as seeds that once planted produced compositions less illustrations of pre-existing texts than new works growing out of fertile soil.

In his book, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Hermann Broch points out that Maeterlinck’s lyrics are mimetic poetry in need of balletic interpretation, but that his plays require impressionistic music as their source of life. “Practically every one of Maeterlinck’s poems can be used as the text for a mimic expressive dance, whereas the theater pieces consistently demand musical support.”  (Chapter 4: Tower of Babel, (1) Fin de siècle, fin d’un millénaire)

Spirituality was in the air at the turn-of-the century, but institutional religion offered only facile answers to the existential questions posed by Maeterlinck’s plays. Therefore artists turned to alternative forms of spirituality. Maeterlinck’s mythical, fairy-tale stories with their child heroes and heroines confronting inexorable fate spoke directly to the imaginative yearnings of composers suffering from the blows of fate, real or imagined. Thus it was that Lili Boulanger, dying of cancer at the age of nineteen, found that the heroine of Princess Maleine enacted her very own story, and she wrote to the author about her hopes of finishing her operatic version of the play before she was struck down. The playwright wrote back, assuring her that that she would succeed in triumphing over death. Maeterlinck uncharacteristically seemed ready to intervene in his own work and grant the ill-fated double of his heroine a reprieve from the inevitable. But in keeping with the playwright’s darker vision, Lili died a few weeks later, her opera Princesse Maleine unfinished.                        


As author of pensées (thoughts), Maeterlinck again turned to German and English writers for his models. A practitioner of both the fragment and the essay, Maeterlinck  eschewed the classical French aphorism. His shunning of the aphorism and his varying success with fragment and essay are indicative of the poet’s creative temperament and help define his artistic profile.

At the beginning of his career, Maeterlinck felt an affinity for the brief truncated form of the fragment devoted to philosophical and literary themes, as it had been developed by the German romantics, the Schlegel brothers and particularly Novalis, whom he translated and introduced in a collection of the latter’s writings. Maeterlinck's Cahier Bleu (1888) and early unpublished notebooks consist of such fragments which are incomplete thoughts and speculations that cross the boundaries between the arts and other disciplines. These fragments, which are not grouped according to subject matter, may seem repetitious or contradictory. The thoughts are necessarily unfinished and imperfect because they seek deeper meanings than can be neatly formulated, given rational expression, and systematized.

On the other hand, Maeterlinck rejected the wit and irony of the closed aphorisms in the worldly tradition of French moralists and psychologists–from La Rochefoucauld through Vauvenargues and Chamfort to Stendhal–as being too narrowly focused on the ego and passions as the reigning aspects of life. Maeterlinck’s anthropocosmic fragments put humankind back in larger realms of past and future, of childhood and old age, of death and sickness, of animal and plant world, and of eternal things seen from a panoramic spiritual perspective.

Although he never completely abandoned the form of the fragment (some of his later collections, such as Before the Great Silence of 1934, are entirely fragments), Maeterlinck produced more and more volumes of essays on monothematic subjects, such as “Silence,” “The Awakening of the Soul,” “Deeper Life,” and “Inner Beauty.” Following the example of Emerson, Maeterlinck relinquished the discontinuous form of the intimate, intuitive fragment for the extended, sequential form of the structured essay. Starting in the mid-1890s with The Treasure of the Humble, he moved from the abrasive to the comforting. This shift to the spiritually uplifting Emersonian essay resulted in books that were more easily accessible to readers and therefore more saleable. 

As a thinker and popular philosopher Maeterlinck enjoyed considerable success with a growing body of middle-class readers, of varying degrees of faith – Christian, skeptical, and agnostic – who looked to the writer as a sage offering his disciples wisdom on spiritual matters. Had the apostle of silence turned into a windbag? And was his philosophy a justification of the status quo? Souls everywhere, the poet maintained, are alike and can communicate with one another regardless of wealth or class. Seeming to take for granted his class position and all the inequities of the world, the chateau-dwelling millionaire mystic promised spiritual treasures to the humble, offering them as a consolation the virtue of resignation.  

The theme of the mysterious powers that shape human destiny is one that Maeterlinck shares with Strindberg and other turn of the century writers. Confessing all his own peculiar paranoias and phobias, the outcast author of The Inferno, a pariah in his native Sweden, gives these powers convincing vividness and immediacy. On the contrary, Maeterlinck reveals surprisingly little of his own life, and the mysterious powers that so fascinate him remain vague and abstract without any passionately imagined human life upon which to prey. Unlike Strindberg, Maeterlinck is unwilling to divulge his own experiences and enter into the details and particularities of daily life, which he dismisses as unimportant. Maeterlinck affects a Whitmanesque embrace of the mystery and greatness of all that is, but declines to make the enumeration of particulars that Whitman revels in, especially in his exaltation of the body.  In his essays Maeterlinck takes no account of such external impersonations and personifications, but speaks as a disembodied spirit.  His grand concepts are designed to uplift and reassure; hyperbole and superlative lay claim to significance; but where, we may ask, is the hard evidence? His style loses its edge and becomes facile and redundant.

Devoid of any personal revelations or invented anecdotes, Maeterlinck’s essays on the lofty themes of human destiny seem unspecified, vague, and colorless, especially in English translation where the absence of concrete detail results in a lulling monotony. In French, the rhythms, sounds, and symmetries of Maeterlinck’s accomplished rhetoric carry the reader along, although rarely achieving the startling and abrasive vigor of his early fragments. In rejecting the French essayistic formula of intellectual argumentation and witty parry and ironic riposte, Maeterlinck set out to follow the Anglo-American model of Carlyle, Emerson, and Whitman, but for the most part fails to achieve the incisive personal tone of his models. It is not until the very end of his life that in Blue Bubbles (Bulles bleues), memoirs published just before his death, Maeterlinck returned to his own past, now seen nostalgically in a sweet, quaint light.


In his books about bees, termites, and ants, Maeterlinck practiced cultural entomology, a new emerging genre based on the perceived analogy between the life of insects and that of the human collective. Combining philosophy, science, and literature, cultural entomology was well suited to the Belgian’s experience, talents, and cast of mind, and he created several of his most popular and enduring works in the genre.

 Maeterlinck had become first acquainted with apiculture as a child in Ghent, and even kept bees in his Paris apartment. As a nature writer, Maeterlinck’s observations are experimental, his descriptions poetic, and his reflections speculative.  The Belgian poet excelled in exploring alternative universes of different dimensions governed by their own laws. Here Maeterlinck’s approach to the enigma of human existence became (pseudo-) scientific and comparative, and for the first time the poet turned his attention directly to problems of modernity. In his nature writing in contrast to his plays, the poet had occasion to deal with modern collective life, giving his qualified approval to self-sacrificing socialism in the beehive while condemning Soviet-style communism in the termite nest.

Although they have been dismissed as “belletristic nonsense” by biologists like E.O. Wilson (author of Insect Societies), The Life of the Bees and The Life of the Termites are among Maeterlinck’s most original and influential works. Rather than vulgar popularizations of science, these books represent a new form of imaginative prose, at the borders of science, philosophy, and poetry, full of more traditional suspense and drama than his early plays. 

Maeterlinck was perhaps a closer observer of insects than of men and women, and expressed greater wonder and respect for bees than for human beings. Because of his long attachment to his subject and unflagging observation of his subjects, Maeterlinck’s nature writing is among his most compelling and continues to be read more widely than his essays on spiritual themes. 

As a pioneering cultural entomologist, Maeterlinck has had a marked influence on later writers in the field, but more surprisingly also on the history of cinema. The landmark Franco-era Spanish film by Victor Erice, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), owes both its title and inspiration to Chapter 6 of Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bees. Erice’s enigmatic film consists of a series of meditations about existential isolation and the close links between life and death on the part of solitary members of a traumatized family who rarely confront one another or exchange any words. The bee-keeping father Fernando has an open copy of Maeterlinck’s book on the desk in his study.

In the case of the bees, the Belgian poet finds that the “spirit of the hive” can offer a positive goal and model for a cult of the future, in which the individual realizes happiness by serving the human collective. In the case of the termites, the species most like our own according to Maeterlinck, the communistic society that these insects create serves as a cautionary tale showing what awaits us under Bolshevism when the social instincts totally dominate individual desires:–collective coprophagy.

Here Maeterlinck necessarily comes down to earth, at least at times. Looking into the bee hive or termite nest, the poet as voyeur watching the insects’ total life cycle becomes visceral, hearty, sly, and even ribald. In “The Nuptial Flight,” Maeterlinck enjoys observing and describing the spectacular copulation with the queen bee high in the sky and the impressive operation of the male bee’s sexual organ (although this erotica was attenuated in earlier English translation). The poet even admits that this biologically authentic rendering of the event undercuts the grandiose spiritual version that he has just given. Such an honest  confession makes one wish that Maeterlinck had, throughout his career as a seer, given the tactile physical account alongside the idealized spiritual version.

  Maeterlinck particularly enjoys the ingenious uses made by the termites of their own excrement, and he describes with relish how the workers feed the contents of their intestines to the other higher classes by a direct delivery system from tail to stomach.  This enables Maeterlinck to liken the termites’ collective system to “absolute communism, a communism of the oesophagus and the bowels, a collective coprophagy.” (p. 69) The poet remarks that nature does not always emerge as either benign or purposeful, but rather as random and cruel. “In a word, Nature has shown herself, as far as the termite is concerned, almost as unjust, ill-disposed, ironical and fantastic, as illogical and treacherous, as towards man.” (Introduction: p. 17) In such passages Maeterlinck reveals himself to share the worldview of the theatre of cruelty and the absurd.


In the early 1890s Maeterlinck’s elevation to fame was swift and sudden. By the mid nineteenth-century he was acclaimed as an avant-garde author ahead of his time, but within a decade Maeterlinck’s ideology and literary persona, which had brought him world-wide celebrity and a sizeable fortune, made him appear stolidly old-fashioned. By 1914 he had been eclipsed by a new generation of avant-gardists ruthless in disowning their ancestors, who regarded the author of Pelleas and Melisande as a cultural curiosity from the past century. Once an admirer of the Belgian poet, Tommasso Marinetti, leader of the Futurists, quickly discarded Maeterlinck and renounced his meditative aesthetics and cult of silence in favor of art as action. 

Maeterlinck’s metamorphosis from rebellious innovator to popular public figure occurred with varying resonances in different places. During World War I in Russia, where the playwright’s enormous fame never lost luster, Maeterlinck acquired a new persona as national poet-patriot. Russians remained convinced that the brave Belgian amateur boxer had gone to the front to fight the Hun despite denials in the press, explaining that Maeterlinck’s attempts to volunteer had been turned down because of his age.  

The most widely performed Russian playwright of the time, Leonid Andreyev (whose own dramas and theories were deeply influenced by the author of The Blind) wrote a drama King, Law, and Freedom, in which the hero is a famous national poet, patterned after Maeterlinck, who goes off to war with his two sons to save his country. The author is visited by a nobleman, representing Belgium’s King Albert, and the two super-patriots decide to save the country by opening the dikes and drowning the invading Germans. After being successfully staged in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, the play was made into a film. 

By the 1920s the times had changed radically, but Maeterlinck appeared to have stood still in a faded fin-de-siècle.  Maintaining that the tragedy of the everyday was the drama of the future, Maeterlinck had argued that the times of barbarism were over and that the more refined present day had moved beyond violence and bloodshed. World War I dispelled these notions of spiritual progress leading to a quiet communion of souls and made Maeterlinck’s serenity and aloof stance appeared incompatible with the realities of the time. Retreat to the timeless realm of spiritual values seemed a denial of history.

Maeterlinck’s disengagement made him a writer out of step with the brutal times; his beliefs did not suit an age of dictators. In the 1920s and 30s  new generations of European writers were no longer interested in contemplating the unknown and the posing unanswerable questions about human destiny—on the contrary, they were looking for immediate answers to pressing social problems. Vladimir  Mayakovsky and Bertolt Brecht, who advocated a socially committed, anti-metaphysical theatre, endorsed a political system and philosophy that provided certainties of the kind that Maeterlinck’s agnostic and tolerant mysticism sought to transcend.

 But Maeterlinck had not disappeared, but was only in eclipse, still present, although as yet invisible to many eyes. However, there were those like Artaud, Breton, and the Surrealists, who in their celebration of the dream and its inseparability from life continued to remember and honor Maeterlinck as a precursor and active presence. Artaud pointed out that there was more in Maeterlinck than the tragedy of the everyday and called attention to his predilection for violence and the oneiric. By the 1960s, Maeterlinck the playwright re-emerged as a precursor of Beckett and grand-parent of the theatre of the absurd. His plays have continued enjoyed increasingly frequent revivals in the twenty-first century.

The times have at last caught up with Maeterlinck. In his address “The End of Modern Era,” given in 1992 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Vaclav Havel maintained that the fall of communism was a warning that the dominant train of thought since the Renaissance, i.e. that the world is objectively knowable through human reason and that by means of this knowledge man can rationally direct the world for his own benefit, had run its course and reached a dangerous crisis. Instead of such arrogance, Havel argued, man must try to get closer to reality through personal experience, the soul, and individual spirituality, and through trust in one’s own subjectivity humankind must achieve a link to the subjectivity of the world. These are terms that go back to the language of Maeterlinck’s once discredited spirituality with its calls for a communion of souls in the name of pluralism and diversity and its rejection of abstract dogmas and ideologies that imprison humankind.

Daniel Gerould