Count Maurice Maeterlinck

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Count Maurice Maeterlinck

The Belgian poet, dramatist, and essayist Count Maurice Maeterlinck (1863-1949) is known for his symbolist dramas and for his writings on insects, flowers, and man's mystical inner life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911.

Maurice Maeterlinck was born in Ghent on Aug. 29, 1863. He was destined by his family for a career in law but turned early to the world of letters. In 1886 he went to Paris, where he met Villiers de I'Isle-Adam, Saint-Paul Roux, and Catulle Mendès. Three years later he published a volume of verse, Serres chaudes (Hothouses), and a five-act play, La Princesse Maleine, the first in a long series of dramatic works, among the most notable being two one-act plays, L'Intruse (1890; The Intruder) and Les Aveugles (1890; The Blind); Pelléas et Mélisande (1892); Intérieur (1894); La Mort de Tintagiles (1894); Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896); Monna Vanna (1902); and L'Oiseau bleu (1909; The Blue Bird). Other plays are Les Sept Princesses (1891), Alladine et Palomides (1894), Joyselle (1903), Ariane et Barbe Bleu (1907), Marie Magdeleine (1910), Le Miracle de Saint Antoine (1919), Le Bourgmestre de Stilmonde (1919), Les Fiancailles (1922), La Princesse Isabelle (1935), and Jeanne d'Arc (1948).

Maeterlinck's preoccupation with man's inner life and spiritual mystery is evident in Le Trésor des humbles (1896; The Treasure of the Humble), a collection of essays whose chapters "Silence," "The Awakening of the Soul," "The Tragic in Everyday Life," "The Inner Life," and "The Beauty Within" afford a rich introduction to Maeterlinck's thought and provide a very helpful background for his symbolist plays, where unseen forces are at work beyond the ordinary levels of human consciousness. The Intruder and The Blind show Maeterlinck's effective technique of suggestion and creation of mood or emotion by repetition, oversimplified vocabulary, and the use of symbols and periods of silence—a technique employed to remarkable advantage in Pelléas et Mélisande.

In Maeterlinck's characteristic symbolist plays, the individuals who sense most profoundly the spiritual mystery in which they move are those at the extremes of life—the very young and the very old, the blind, and those in love. Other characters tend to exist unperceiving. But even the most sensitive seem incapable of comprehending their situations or resolving their destinies, so that in watching them one seems to be observing figures in a dream allegory rather than living beings.

Maeterlinck wrote books and collections of speculative essays on a variety of subjects, among them The Life of the Bees (1901), The Intelligence of Flowers (1907), Death (1913), The Great Secret (1921), The Life of Space (1928), The Life of the Ants (1930), Before the Great Silence (1934), The Shadow of the Wings (1936), Before God (1937), and The Great Portal (1939). He died in Nice on May 7, 1949.

Further Reading

Useful studies of Maeterlinck and his work include Edward Thomas, Maurice Maeterlinck (1911); Jethro Bithell, Life and Writings of Maurice Maeterlinck (1913); Una Taylor (Lady Troubridge), Maurice Maeterlinck: A Critical Study (1914); and W. D. Halls, Maurice Maeterlinck: A Study of His Life and Thought (1960).

Additional Sources

Halls, W. D., Maurice Maeterlinck: a study of his life and thought, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1960.

Leblanc, Georgette, Souvenirs: my life with Maeterlinck, New York: Da Capo Press, 1976, 1932.

Mahony, Patrick, Maurice Maeterlinck, mystic and dramatist: a reminiscent biography of the man and his ideas, Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 1984. □