By Jessilyn Marth
August 29th, 1862, Maurice Polydore Marie Bernard Maeterlinck, better known simply as Maurice Maeterlinck, was born in Ghent, Belgium. Maeterlinck’s family was “that of the Catholic-professing, conservative, rich, French-speaking bourgeoise of Flanders” (Halls 4, original italics). Due to his family’s Catholic beliefs, he began school at a convent in Ghent. Starting this school at the age of six, “he learned his prayers, the catechism, and some arithmetic” (Halls 5). His classroom in the convent was decorated with images of the scenes of the bible, one such scene was “Massacre of the Innocents;” and, this picture formed the foundation for the first short story he wrote (Halls 6).
After one year at the convent school, Maeterlinck became a student at a private school with which his father later became displeased due to its out-of-date curriculum, specifically concerning the subject of grammar. About a year after Maeterlinck had his first communion, his father took him out of private school, and he was placed at Jesuit College de Sainte-Barbe in his hometown of Ghent (Halls 6). His second wife, Georgette Leblanc, wrote that Maeterlinck frequently stated he “would not have his life over again because of his seven years at college. For him there is one crime that cannot be forgiven, that which poisons the joys and destroys the smile of a child” (Halls 7). Maeterlinck truly disliked his spiritual education because of the constant church services and reiteration of sin’s consequences (Halls 8). Additionally, poetry was forbidden at the school, and it did not make for a happy place for him as a poet (Bithell 3). Though, from this education he says, “I had ended up believing that one must believe and that I did believe” (Halls 8, original italics). He loathed his schooling; however, the religious order of his early schooling and monastic training fostered his fascination with mysticism (Bithell 53).
Mysticism, at its core, “is the experimental knowledge that, in one way or another, everything is interconnected, that all things have a single source” (Borchert 3-4). And, the teachings of mysticism are composed of facets. Inclusive in these facets are “the personal and interior experiences of the soul in states of contemplation, and the psychological rules governing those states; above all, with the emotional reactions of the self to the impact with the Divine” (Underhill 52). Another important facet of mysticism was “more suggestive and evocative speech…symbols which come naturally…derived from the ideas of space and of wonder” (Underhill 53).
Flemish literature and painting were both heavily influenced by mysticism during the late1 9th/early 20th century, and Maeterlinck’s works followed suit. In the same year that he wrote The Intruder (1891), Maeterlinck translated and wrote the preface for the 14th century work Die Chierheit der gheesteleker Brulocht (The Ornamentation of the Nuptials of the Spirit), authored by one of the most famous of Flemish mystics, Jan Van Ruysbroeck, who also served as a Catholic priest in Brussels (Bithell 53-54).
Maeterlinck was extraordinarily well-read in the mystics, like Ruysbroeck – Meister Eckhart, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avilla, H. Cornelius Agrippa – and held them in high esteem. In reference to the teachings of mysticism, Maeterlinck states, “All certainty is in them alone” (Bithell 54). Mystic beliefs came from Medieval thinking. Western Medieval Europe and the Church strove to live in a “Holy City of God” as coined by St. Augustine (354 – 430 CE) in his book The City of God (Borchert 176). St. Augustine’s ideas propelled mysticism into Medieval society. St. Augustine functioned under the belief that the foundation of human life was grounded in mysticism and that mysticism was rooted in God. The “Holy City of God” is a society ruled by God, who is in everything and is the culmination of everything—where humanity finds its final rest (Borchert 176). Leaders of the Church in Medieval Europe took to this philosophy in the 11th century. In 1046, “the popes decreed that they, the monasteries, and the churches were not subject to the temporal powers.” From there, society grew into the “golden age of Christian mysticism” in the 14th century, the time when Ruysbroeck’s works on mysticism flourished (Underhill 2). From here, it is easy to note that religion and mysticism find common ground in God.
Maeterlinck’s early plays, like The Intruder, are known for their ties to mysticism, in regard to the inexplicable nature of love and death. Why does one love? Why does one die? Maeterlinck attempts to explore these questions, as does mysticism. On the subject of death, Maeterlinck has stated he believes that “It is our death that guides our life, and life has no other aim than death” (Bithell 39). In a similar respect, mysticism according to St. Augustine holds that death is the ultimate means to find rest with God. As well, death was a principle subject matter in Maeterlinck’s schooling at Jesuit College de Sainte-Barbe. “The frequent evocation of death by the good Jesuits reinforced a pessimistic disposition latent already in Maeterlinck” (Halls 9). A former student of the Jesuit College Sainte-Barbe reinforces this, commenting, “Death! This it was that the priests who were our teachers enthroned among us as soon as term began” (Halls 9). It is clear that mysticism and his early spiritual schooling fostered Maeterlinck’s preoccupation with death. In regards to love, mysticism scholar, Brochert, argues that mysticism and love are almost one in the same because each “indicates an experience and also what grows out of experience… (mystics’) “lives are a love affair with the all-embracing reality that permeates and surpasses mundane existence” (Borchert 4). Moreover, in the preface of a collection of his works published in 1901 and 1902, Maeterlinck also says that in his early plays that even his characters who are wise and possess foresight, “can change nothing in the cruel and inflexible games which Love and Death practice among the living” (Bithell 40).
As a young man, Maeterlinck was of celebrity-status in Europe because of the success of his early plays, most notably Princesse Maleine (1889) and Pelléas and Mélisande (1892). Many other plays came later in his life, such Monna Vanna (1902) and La Magdalena (1910). And although critics and the public may go back and read Maeterlinck’s plays, he never set an eye on them after they were published. His opinion was such that, “Only a dog goes back to his vomit. Once the thing is done, it has no further interest for me” (Harris 311). Interesting to note is that he gave this as the answer in an interview when asked which of his works he favored most (Harris 311). From this, it shows Maeterlinck was not sentimental about what he authored.
Towards the end of his life, he became more well-known for his philosophical writings. Additionally, Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize in 1911, in 1932 was named “Count of Belgium,” and died on May 6, 1949 (Frenz).
Bithell, Jethro. Life and Writings of Maurice Maeterlinck. New York and Melbourne: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., LTD, 1913. Print: The Open Library.
Borchert, Brung. Mysticism: Its History and Challenge. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1994. Print.
Frenz, Horst. “Maurice Maeterlinck – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 2 Mar 2014.
Halls, W. D. Maurice Maeterlinck: A Study of his Life and Thought. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Print.
Harris, Frank. Contemporary Portraits. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1915. Print: The Open Library.
Underhill, Evelyn. Ruysbroeck. London: G. Bell and Sons LTD., 1915. Print.