Maeterlinck and Music

ONE is always meeting with curious literary and artistic affinities where one least expects them. The human mind, of course, is really homogeneous throughout. We have all to build up our inner and outer universe out of very much the same kind of brain and sense organs : so that it is hardly surprising if here and there one feels that the work of this or that musician or artist is the counterpart of the work of this or that poet or prose writer, or vice versa. One sees, for example, a good deal of Weber and the German Romanticists in the stories of Hoffmann ; of Lessing and Diderot in the work of Gluck; of Tourgeniev and Dostoievsky in the music of Tschaikovsky ; of Berlioz’s music — as Heine suggested — in the pictures of Martin. This phenomenon is so frequent as to excite little wonder. What is rather more curious is to find, here and there, that one of the main spiritual principles of a certain artist is implicit in the aesthetic system of another artist who works in an entirely different medium, and whose whole work, at first sight, seems to be of a diametrically opposite order. Between Wagner and Maeterlinck, for instance, who would say that there is a fundamental sympathy of soul and a community of artistic outlook, —between the musician of stupendous passion and restless activity and the quiet mystic who seems to be serenely poised far above all activity and all passion, placing, in his lofty philosophizing, so little store by all the things that appeared so vital, so real, to the musician ? Nevertheless, there is, as I shall try to show, a curious similarity between the aesthetic systems of the two men. They share something of the same excellencies ; they break down or find their limitations almost at the same point. Let us examine the two systems cursorily.


If we did not possess Maeterlinck’s own dramas, we might be able to judge from his essays what his position toward the drama and fiction would be. Here we have revealed to us a manner of feeling life and of looking out upon the world that could find expression only in some such dramatic form as Maeterlinck’s. The dramatist himself, however, has given us, in his exquisite chapter on The Tragical in Daily Life, a statement, at once explicit and impassioned, of his creed. He expounds the theory that the ordinary tragedy of startling incident is, or ought to be, a thing of the past, a concept of barbaric ages, when men could lay hold of the secret underforces of life only by reaching after them through crude and violent action. In a more refined and subtle age, we should be able to trace the hand of destiny even when it does not work through media so coarse and palpable. It is not the primitive sensation of seeing one man act the murder of another that is the essence of tragedy. It is the sense of spiritual enlightenment that comes to us; the feeling that, somehow or other, the murder itself, the passion and events that led up to it, the consequences that flow from it, are all subtly interwoven threads of the great indwelling laws of things. Most of the action, indeed, that is associated with our current notion of tragedy is, from a higher point of view, both superfluous in itself and an evidence of our degradation. We should be capable of being moved to pity, of feeling the most refined tragic sorrow, by a play that eliminates the coarser facts, and relies on gentler and more intimate suggestions of universal truth. Our present age, he thinks, is capable, or is becoming capable, of this. “ In former days,” he says in his essay on The Awakening of the Soul, “if there was question, for a moment, of a presentiment, of the strange impression produced by a chance meeting or a look, of a decision that the unknown side of human reason had governed, of an intervention or a force, inexplicable and yet understood, of the secret laws of sympathy and antipathy, of elective and instinctive affinities, of the overwhelming influence of the thing that had not been spoken, — in former days these problems would have been carelessly passed by; and, besides, it was but seldom that they obtruded themselves upon the serenity of the thinker. They seemed to come about by the merest chance. That they are ever pressing upon life, unceasingly and with prodigious force, — this was unsuspected of all; and the philosopher hastened back to familiar studies of passion, and of incident that floated on the surface.”

This is clearly part of a philosophy of life and art in which the cruder nervous strands are put aside, as useless for that spiritual illumination which the thinker desires. They are too thick to be sensitive to the finer currents that pass through them; only the more delicate nerve tracts, alive to every wave of feeling, can be stimulated to philosophic light and heat. The essence of all Maeterlinck’s work, of course, is this super-sensitiveness. He is endowed with other senses than ours, other modes of apprehending the universe. His finer nerves catch vibrations in men, in life, in the very air around him, that fall dead upon our coarser fibres. Most of his thinking and writing is too subtle, too tense, too rarefied, for ordinary men, even for ordinary artists. And he, for his part, seems always hampered by having to express super-sensuous, super-intellectual things in a language that was made, in the first place, to express the usual sensuous and intellectual life. He is beset by intuitions that can never find adequate expression in words. “ How strangely,” he says, “ do we diminish a thing as soon as we try to express it in words! ” Speech hardly seems necessary to him as a means of carrying on his thoughts, which, as they lie in deeper, more obscure places than language — the invention of the majority — has ever visited, must seek a more immediate way of passage from his own brain to that of another. “ A time will come, perhaps, when our souls will know of each other without the intermediary of the senses. ... A spiritual epoch is perhaps upon us.” Thus the favorite means of communication between the souls of the spiritual elect is, not speech, but silence, — silence, which is far more eloquent, far more illuminative of the profoundest depths of being, than language can ever be. “ It is idle,” he writes, “ to think that by means of words any real communication can ever pass from one man to another. ... It is only when life is sluggish within us that we speak.” As the mystic despises words as instruments of communication, so he looks down upon facts as guides to knowledge. As the inner life is too subtle to be expressed in ordinary language, so its interests are too refined to be spent upon crude facts. These are “ nothing but the laggards, the spies and camp followers, of the great forces we cannot see.”


Here, then, is a philosophy of life which, in the hands of the artist, aims at creating a new type of “ static ” drama, in which speech shall give way, as far as possible, to suggestion, incident and action to the immediate revelation of soul states. Though the drama is to deal with real life in a way that Maeterlinck would regard as most rigorously real, there is to be a progressive withdrawal from most of the points that the average man regards as the essence of reality. In the first place, naked facts and violent actions are to be passed over, as not necessary to the true dramatic spirit; in the second place, mere words are no longer to be looked upon as indispensable intermediaries between the thought and the expression. Now all this, in its main features, finds a very close parallel in the work and the arguments of Wagner. Let us look for a moment at his theories as they figure in actual practice, taken out of the wordy metaphysic in which he delighted to obscure them. The drama and the novel, as we now have them, represent an attempt to fill the reader with a certain emotion that is in the brain of the writer. The tragedy of King Lear, for example, aims at inspiring in us a sentiment of pity for an old man who is shattered by filial ingratitude. Othello aims at enlisting our sympathies for an affectionate man and wife whose happiness is broken to pieces partly by misunderstanding, partly by diabolical machinations. There are innumerable other points in the plays, but these are the great central forces. These are what moved Shakespeare to the composition of the dramas. These are the ideas from which he started ; and these are the ideas that remain with us when we have seen or read the plays. But, owing to the clumsy, intractable nature of the material in which he works, the dramatist can project this central idea or feeling into us only by a most roundabout process. He cannot plunge at once into his subject. He must commence at a point far distant from that to which he wishes to lead us, and then work up to it gradually. He cannot communicate an emotion without unfolding before our eyes the long and complex scenes or set of circumstances that give rise to this emotion. He cannot confine himself to the characters and the events that make up the real drama; he has to illustrate these, — to draw sparks from them, as it were, by the impact of minor incidents and persons. In a word, he has to fill us with a multiplicity of superfluous feelings before he can communicate to us the one feeling that is really essential.

In music all this is altered. There being no distinction between the feeling and the expression, no bar between the emotion and the speech, the musician can plunge at once into the very heart of his subject. Further, he need never leave it; he can devote all his energies to elucidating the really necessary things ; he has no need to waste half his time in showing, from the description of extraneous things, how such and such a situation has come about, or how a man comes to feel in such and such a way. It takes an hour’s reading of the Tristan legend, or any poem on the subject, before we feel the atmosphere of tragedy closing round us, or know precisely why it should come. In Wagner’s opera, not only is the fact that there is a tragedy suggested in the first bars of the music, but the very tint and spiritual quality of the tragedy are painted for us at once. All through the work, again, we are concerned with nothing but precisely that territory of emotion, of love, grief, and pity, to which the legend and the poets have to guide us by devious and frequently uncolored paths. We see Tristan and Isolde in the first bar and in the last; we never leave them for a moment. Thus not only does the musician draw us at once to the point he wishes us to reach, but his independence of all the scaffolding necessary to the poet gives him more freedom of development. He can wring from the souls of his characters the last bitter juices of their emotions. Wagner himself was fond of pointing out his gradual growth in these respects. In the Flying Dutchman he tried “ to keep the plot to its simplest features; to exclude all useless detail, such as the intrigues one borrows from common life.” The plot of Tannhäuser will be found “ far more markedly evolving from its inner motives ; ” while “ the whole interest of Lohengrin consists in an inner working within the heart of Elsa, involving every secret of the soul.” Wagner’s aim was to shake himself clear of the wearisome mass of detail that, in the poetical drama, is necessary to show the “ whence and wherefore ” of each feeling. “ I too, as I have told you,” he writes, “ felt driven to this ‘ whence and wherefore ; ’ and for long it banned me from the magic of my art. But my time of penance taught me to overcome the question. All doubt at last was taken from me, when I gave myself up to the Tristan. Here, in perfect trustfulness, I plunged into the inner depth of soul events, and from out this inmost centre of the world I fearlessly built up its outer form. A glance at the volumen of this poem will show you at once that the exhaustive detail work which an historical poet is obliged to devote to clearing up the outward bearing of his plot, to the detriment of a lucid exposition of its inner motives, I now trusted myself to apply to these latter alone. Life and death, the whole import and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul. The whole affecting Action comes about for the reason only that the inmost soul demands it, and steps to light with the very shape foretokened in the inner shrine.”

Here the analogy with Maeterlinck’s theory becomes evident. Both men despise the cruder, external, historical, active facts on which the drama has felt itself till now compelled to rely; both aim at a subtle form of drama in which the soul states shall be the first and last thing. There is more in life, they say, than conscious reason ; it is the innermost processes of the soul that we desire to have laid bare to us in drama. This reflection led Wagner to the choice of the myth as the best material on which to work. “ I therefore believed,” he writes, 舠 I must term the ' mythos ’ the poet’s ideal Stuff,—that native, nameless poem of the Folk, which throughout the ages we ever meet new handled by the great poets of periods of consummate culture; for in it there almost vanishesthe conventional form of man’s relations, merely explicable to abstract reason, to show instead the eternally intelligible, the purely human.” To Maeterlinck, also, the “ purely human ” — the whole man, the essential man — lies deeper than what is “ merely explicable to abstract reason.” “ A new, indescribable power,” he says, in speaking of Ibsen’s Master Builder, “ dominates this somnambulistic drama. All that is said therein at once hides and reveals the sources of an unknown life. And if we are bewildered at times, let us not forget that our soul often appears, to our feeble eyes, to be but the maddest of forces, and that there are in man many regions more fertile, more profound, and more interesting than those of his reason or his intelligence.”

For these obscure regions of the soul words alone are plainly an inadequate mode of expression. Hence both Wagner and Maeterlinck feel that some more direct kind of utterance is required, some more immediate means of communication between the feeling of the artist and the feeling of the auditor. Wagner finds this in music, which substitutes a direct appeal for the indirect appeal of the ordinary poet. The dramatic poem must be draughted “ in such a fashion that it may penetrate the finest fibres of the musical tissue, and the spoken thought entirely dissolve into the feeling.” Not that there is to be any surrender of that grip upon the inner life that is the essence of thoughtful drama. On the contrary, Wagner maintains, after the manner of Maeterlinck, it is only when the soul is set free from the disturbing accidents of the temporary life that it can see clearly into the movements of the universal life. Wagner holds that in the Beethoven symphony, for example, a world view is presented, quite as philosophical, quite as logically connected, as any that can be put together in words. “ In this symphony, instruments speak a language whereof the world at no previous time had any knowledge; for here, with a hitherto unknown persistence, the purely musical expression enchains the hearer in an inconceivably varied mesh of nuances ; rouses his inmost being, to a degree unreachable by any other art; and in all its changefulness reveals an ordering principle so free and bold that we can deem it more forcible than any logic, yet without the laws of logic entering into it in the slightest; nay, rather, the reasoning march of thought, with its track of causes and effects, here finds no sort of foothold. So that this symphony must positively appear to us a revelation from another world ; and in truth it opens out a scheme of the world’s phenomena quite different from the ordinary logical scheme, and whereof one foremost thing is undeniable : that it thrusts home with the most overwhelming conviction, and guides our feeling with such a sureness that the logic-mongering reason is completely routed and disarmed thereby.”

Now set beside this view of the relations of the musical drama to the poetical drama Maeterlinck’s comparison of his own dramatic ideals with those of the “ active ” poet. The latter passes unthinkingly over many of the feelings that give significance to a tragic event. Why should not these feelings, the essential core of the drama, be given fuller play, and the mere incidents be looked upon as either superfluous or purely ancillary ? The whole of Maeterlinck’s magnificent passage must here be quoted : “ The mysterious chant of the Infinite, the ominous silence of the soul and of God, the murmur of Eternity on the horizon, the destiny or fatality that we are conscious of within us, though by what tokens none can tell, — do not all these underlie King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet ? And would it not be possible, by some interchanging of the roles, to bring them nearer to us, and send the actor farther off ? Is it beyond the mark to say that the true tragic element, normal, deep-rooted, and universal, — that the true tragic element of life only begins at the moment when so-called adventures, sorrows, and dangers have disappeared ? . . . When we think of it, is it not the tranquillity that is terrible, the tranquillity watched by the stars ? And is it in tumult or in silence that the spirit of life quickens within us ? Is it not when we are told, at the end of the story, ‘ They were happy,’ that the great disquiet should intrude itself ? What is taking place while they are happy ? Are there not elements of deeper gravity and stability in happiness, in a single moment of repose, than in the whirlwind of passion ? Is it not then that we at last behold the march of time, — ay, and of many another on-stealing besides, more secret still, — is it not then that the hours rush forward ? Are not deeper chords set vibrating by all these things than by the dagger stroke of conventional drama ? Is it not at the very moment when a man believes himself secure from bodily death that the strange and silent tragedy of the being and the immensities does indeed raise its curtain on the stage ? Is it while I flee before a naked sword that my existence touches its most interesting point ? Is life always at its sublimest in a kiss ? Are there not other moments, when one hears purer voices that do not fade away so soon ? Does the soul flower only on nights of storm ? Hitherto, doubtless, this belief has prevailed. It is only the life of violence, the life of bygone days, that is perceived by nearly all our tragic writers ; and truly may one say that anachronism dominates the stage, and that dramatic art dates back as many years as the art of sculpture.”

He places the spiritual purposes of painting and music on a higher plane; “ for these,” he says, “ have learned to select and reproduce those obscurer phases of daily life that are not the less deep-rooted and amazing. They know that all that life has lost, as regards mere superficial ornament, has been more than counterbalanced by the depth, the intimate meaning, and the spiritual gravity it has acquired. The true artist no longer chooses Marius triumphing over the Cimbrians, or the assassination of the Duke of Guise, as a fit subject for his art; for he is well aware that the psychology of victory or murder is but elementary and exceptional, and that the solemn voice of men and things, the voice that issues forth so timidly and hesitatingly, cannot be heard amidst the idle uproar of acts of violence. And therefore will he place on his canvas a house lost in the heart of the country, an open door at the end of a passage, a face or hands at rest, and by these simple images will add to our consciousness of life, which is a possession that it is no longer possible to lose.”


The excellence and the wisdom of these thoughts need no pointing out. What is the defect in them, — or, rather, wherein are they incomplete ?

This may be seen, in the first place, by playing off Maeterlinck’s theory against that of Wagner. It is quite true, as Wagner says, that his kind of musicdrama has one great advantage over the poetical drama: that by surrendering certain outlying interests it can expend all its power on the central interest, — giving full play, as Wagner would express it, to the inner motives of the dramatic action. But, on the other hand, music must, from its very nature, fail to touch a score of ideas and passions that are within us, and for whose expression we are compelled to go to poetry unhampered by music. Thus there are certain mental states with which music can have absolutely no communion. The girl can sing, as Ruskin has told us, of her lost love, but the miser cannot sing of his lost money bags. For a study of the miser, then, and of all the shades of character that resemble his, we must look, not to music, but to poetry. Again, any one who has seen Verdi’s Othello on the stage must have been struck with the feebleness of the character-drawing of Iago. A monster of this kind, of cunning and deception, is a concept almost entirely foreign to the art of music, which does indeed give a heightened value to the primary emotions, but, on the other hand, cannot get beyond these. One has frequently the utmost difficulty in believing that Wagner’s Mime is a hateful character, owing to the inability of music to express the mean and despicable. It can render, mainly by physical means, the horrible and the terrible, but the contemptible is beyond its sphere.

Nor, again, even in the field where music and poetry meet, does music so far cover the ground, as Wagner would contend, as to make non-musical poetry superfluous, a mere echo. For the sheer emotional beauty of pity, for exquisite tenderness and complete consolation, nothing, in any art, could surpass certain portions of Parsifal. But it is essentially an inward emotion here ; it achieves its miracle by casting its own lovely atmosphere round the crude, hard facts of the world. If we want an expression of pity that shall bear more closely on our real life, give us the emotional balm at the same time that it puts our severer thought to rest, we must go to poetry. Look at the colloquy of the poets in the Rubáiyát, in which Omar pours out the vials of his compassion upon the marred and broken beings of this world : —

“ Said one among them —‘ Surely not in vain
My substance of the common Earth was ta’en
And to this Figure moulded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.'
“ Then said a Second— ‘ Ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy:
And He that with his hand the Vessel made
Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.’
“ After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make ;
‘ They sneer at me for leaning all awry :
What ! did the Hand then of the Potter shake ? ’ ”

There is not here the sensuous anodyne of Wagner’s music, but there is something equally precious ; the thought is farther flung ; it brings more elements of reality back with it to be bathed and softened in emotion ; it stirs the more vital philosophic depths. So, again, with the line Maeterlinck himself places in the mouth of old Arkel, after one of the most terrible scenes in Pelleas and Melisanda: “ If I were God, how I should pity the heart of men ! ” Music, in its grave speech after a dire catastrophe, may almost compass some such wealth of tragical significance as this ; but there is in Maeterlinck’s line a peculiar, ultimate divination that can be conveyed to us only in words. Numberless other instances might be cited, all proving this existence of a philosophic sphere to which even the greatest music can never have access. Matthew Arnold may have been a prejudiced witness, being a poet himself ; yet one feels that he has the right with him in that passage, in his Epilogue to Lessing’s Laocoön, in which he points out how the painter and the musician excel respectively in expressing “the aspect of the moment” and “the feeling of the moment,” but that the poet deals more philosophically with the total life and interlacement of things : —

“ He must life’s movement tell!
The thread which binds it all in one,
And not its separate parts alone.
The movement he must tell of life,
Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife ;
His eye must travel down, at full,
The long, unpausing spectacle ;
With faithful un relaxing force
Attend it from its primal source,
From change to change and year to year,
Attend it of its mid career,
Attend it to the last repose,
And solemn silence of its close.”

Arnold’s expression might have been a little more artistic, but there is no controverting the general truth he voices: that poetry looks before and after in a way that music cannot possibly do; is wider in its sweep than music, clearer in its vision, making up for its diminished idealism by its sympathetic evocation of a hundred notes that are denied to music.


And just as we pass from music to poetry to reach certain emotions that are not to be found in the more general art, so we pass from Maeterlinck’s aesthetic world to that of the cruder realist, in the search for certain further artistic satisfactions. Mysticism has this in common with music: that it gives voice to the broader, more generalized feelings of mankind, and hesitates to come into contact with the less ecstatic faculties that are exercised upon the harder facts of life. Maeterlinck, like Wagner, tries to lay hold upon the universal in art; but he does so simply because, again like Wagner, he is comparatively insensitive to other stimuli. And as Wagner’s aesthetic holds good only of a musical drama like his own, so Maeterlinck’s theory of drama is completely valid only for those who share his general attitude toward life and knowledge. If in the semiswoon of the faculties before the abyss of the universal we come closest to the real roots of things, then is there nothing to be added to or taken from Maeterlinck’s statement of the essence of drama. If, on the other hand, the evolution of the more acutely specialized perceptions in us points to our need of a mental system that shall embrace ever more and more of the phenomena of the world, then must we have an art that shall shape these perceptions into a beauty of their own. Did we all apprehend the universe as Maeterlinck does, — through a kind of sixth sense that is an instantaneous blend of the ordinary five ; could we all arrive at his serenely philosophical outlook, and be content with so much understanding of the world as came to us in immediate intuitions, — we should then see in his art a mode of expression coextensive with all that we could know or feel. But since we do not all look at life with the semi-Oriental fatalism of Maeterlinck, in whose soul the passive elements seem to outweigh the active, we have to turn to other modes of dramatic art for the satisfaction of our cravings. “ The poet,” he says in one place, “ adds to ordinary life something, — I know not what, — which is the poet’s secret: and there comes to us a sudden revelation of life in its stupendous grandeur, in its submissiveness to the unknown powers, in its endless affinities, in its aweinspiring misery.” Well, for a great many of us there are moments when “submissiveness to the unknown powers ” does not express the be-all and the end-all of life, — more vivid moments of revolt, of struggle with uncertainties, of passionate assertions of personality, far removed from the gray resignation of the mystic. If life is ugly and bitter, there is an art that can interest us deeply in this bitterness and ugliness, because it ministers to that deep-seated need of ours to leave no corner of life and nature unexplored. This art of the mercilessly real may not be so “ philosophical ” as Maeterlinck’s ; it may not speak to us so clearly of the “ mysterious chant of the Infinite, the ominous silence of the soul and of God, the murmur of Eternity on the horizon,” for these voices can make themselves heard only in a wider, less troubled space than ours. But just as the poet relinquishes some of the formal perfection of the musician, finding his compensation in his power to touch a wider range of things, so the realist finds in the bracing, ever interesting contact with the cruder facts of life something that compensates him for missing the broader peace of the mystic, — a sense of personality, of struggle with and dominion over inimical forces, that the languor of mysticism cannot provide. No human reason, says Maeterlinck, in our actions ; “ no human reason ; nothing but destiny.” Well, thought and action, to the mystic, may be only the children of illusion ; but may there not be as much illusion in passivity, in the ecstatic collapse of the intellect under the pressure of an incomprehensible world ? In the Maeterlinck drama, beautiful as it is, we cannot all of us find complete satisfaction. To quote the words that he himself has used in another context: “ Here we are no longer in the wellknown valleys of human and psychic life. We find ourselves at the door of the third inclosure, — that of the divine life of the mystics. We have to grope timidly, and make sure of every footstep, as we cross the threshold.” And when we have crossed the threshold, we find ourselves hungering and thirsting for the more troubled, but at any rate broader life we have left behind us ; just as the Wagnerian drama, mighty as it is, brings home to us the fact that there are needs of our nature that music cannot satisfy. Formal perfection, absolute homogeneity, are obtainable in an art only when we abstract it from outer incident and long reflection. Music comes before poetry in this respect, poetry before the drama, the drama before fiction. Take, from a master of reticence, an example of apparent dissipation of artistic force that Wagner would have held to prove his theories. It is the scene in Madame Bovary where Léon, expecting to see Emma, is detained at dinner by Homais. “ At two o’clock they were still at table, opposite each other. The large room was emptying; the stovepipe, in the shape of a palm tree, spread its gilt leaves over the white ceiling, and near them, outside the window, in the bright sunshine, a little fountain gurgled in a white basin, where, in the midst of watercress and asparagus, three torpid lobsters stretched across to some quails that lay heaped up in a pile on their sides.” “ Three torpid lobsters”! Wagner would have said: “ What have these to do with art ? Music’s manner of describing the impatience of two separated lovers is that of the mad prelude to the duet in Tristan. Here we have all the essential soul states, without the admixture of crude external realities.” But there is something in Léon’s impatience that music cannot express, — the dreary boredom of his companion, the helpless wandering of the mind over the insignificant uglinesses of his surroundings. This also is part of human psychology, and a part that can find expression only in words. In consideration of the wider sweep of the artistic net, we gladly abate our demands for perfection of quality in the yield ; for the phenomena of the extensive and the intensive are intended to be compensatory, the one taking the burden upon itself where the strength of the other fails. Wagner erred in thinking that the union of all the arts in music-drama could render each separate art superfluous; Maeterlinck errs in thinking that the mystic, in his withdrawal to the centre of consciousness, can tell us all we desire to know of the outer circle.

Ernest Newman.