#200: THE SADNESS OF ALL THIS. Like Norman Shapiro’s translations of Theophile Gautier, Richard Howard’s 2003 translations of the verse of Maurice Maeterlinck offer the chance to recover a poet now quite forgotten to English-language readers. If you can recall the old catchphrase “the bluebird of happiness,” you are pulling up words from Maeterlink’s once famous play “The Blue Bird”; the entomologically-minded will know he did a widely-read book, The Secret Life of Bees; opera fans will know that his play “Pelleas and Melisande” was turned into an opera by Debussy. (Maeterlinck had great luck with composers: his works were set by Honegger, Dukas, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, and a raft of others.) He won the Nobel in 1911. But on the scales of the forgotten, Gautier by comparison now seems almost a marquee star. The later part of Maeterlinck’s career was blighted by a (justified) charge of plagiarism; and he does not seem to have been a person well-equipped to deal with the world as it is (he was offered a title as a count, but forgot to fill out the paperwork).
Serres Chaudes (translated by Howard as Hothouses) was published in 1889 but seems to pull a good deal of nineteenth-century French poetry along behind it. (Maeterlinck was Belgian, born in Ghent, but did all of his literary work in French.) Maeterlinck was diagnosed as neurasthenic, but neurasthenia—in its literary manifestation, a severe, claustrophobic sense of the distance between the everyday and the ideal—seems almost the natural state of so much verse of the time. The work of Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme: Jean Valjean’s famous odyssey through the sewers of Paris is not darker or more enclosing. Indeed, the poems of Hothouses were ill-received at the time: seen as “the very decadence of Decadence,” in Howard’s phrase. So I was a bit surprised when I found myself taken up with them. For the first few pages I was reading them more or less historically: noticing how much they were of their day, and certainly noticing the resemblance of the formal poems to Verlaine. But I soon found myself reading the poems aloud, and falling in with their forlorn music, the lovely rhymes, their almost voluptuous sense of grief and repentance: “la tristesse de tout cela,” one poem ends: “the sadness of all this.” Maeterlinck has his crowd of vivid symbolic images—sometimes almost too many, like the farm animals flying around in the tornado in the movie of “The Wizard of Oz.” But here too I found myself surrendering to them. And reading Richard Howard’s non-metrical versions have an interest of their own: they’re like a mini-course in the challenges of rendering French verse in English. If the book were any longer it would probably all get to seem a bit much—as it is, it seemed a wonderful short visit, not to another time and country, but almost to another planet.
Hothouses, by Maurice Maeterlinck (Princteon University Press, 2003). If you get interested and would like another visit to planet Maeterlinck, a lovely silent film version of his play “L’Oiseau Bleu” (“The Blue Bird”), directed by Maurice Tourneur, himself a prolific and forgotten director in the days of silent film, can be seen on Youtube. It dawdles along a bit, but it too is charming and redolent of its time.