IN a broad sense, all language is symbolism and all art is language. To the artist the material universe is a medium through which to express the immaterial realities of thought and feeling. There cannot be art except where the two elements are present together,--the immaterial passion, action or reflection, and the material embodiment by which it is made manifest through the senses to the instinct, intelligence and imagination of humanity. The one is the symbol -- it would not exceed the modesty of prose to say, the sacrament of the other.
But Symbolism, as the name of a school, evidently demands a narrower definition. It must be distinguished from Realism on the one hand, and from Expressionism on the other, and these distinctions arise from radical psychological differences in men. Without presuming to divide mankind by hard and fast lines into classes, it may be said generally that there are three ways of looking at the world, and that every individual adopts one of these ways predominantly. There are those of "yellow primrose" celebrity, who see the material appearance and nothing beside. To another class the impression of the sensible object is relatively faint, and the important thing seems to be the idea, the general principle. The third type concerns itself chiefly with people, and has a tendency in many cases to conceive even inanimate things as having a fictitious kind of personality. The first is the natural, the second the ethical, the third the poetic mind. One views the world as thing, one as law, or abstract intelligence, one as personality. Not that any one has one of these outlooks to the absolute exclusion of the other two. The human soul is not so simple as all that. But now toward one, now toward another of these sub-conscious philosophies the individual and the race alike veer, and art veers with them. If the thing be uppermost in men's minds, we shall have an imitative and realistic output; if the soul, a poetic, perhaps even a dramatic one. If the abstract idea dominate, art turns to symbolism of necessity. The body is its own majestic speech, and the emotions of the soul have their instinctive and spontaneous language, but for the idea expression must be forcibly created. The life and heart find utterance through natural correspondences, -- metaphors that exist by the constitution of things; but for the mental we must find artificial correspondences, allegories, and consciously invented symbols.
As with everything else, there is a rhythm in the recurrence of artistic schools. This idea seems to be true, though popular. But the recurrence is never in exactly the same form. The symbolism of today , diverse as are the forms it takes in the work of Mallarmé in France, of Maeterlinck in Belgium, of Gilbert Parker in England, and Bliss Carman in America, has yet a general character that differentiates it from the symbolism of other periods. It by no means of necessity involves a complete and consistent allegory. Its events, its personages, its sentences rather imply than definitely state an esoteric meaning. The story, whether romantic as "The Seven Princesses" or realistic as "The Intruder," lives for itself and produces no impression of being a masquerade of moralities; but behind every incident, almost behind every phrase, one is aware of a lurking universality, the adumbration of greater things. One is given an impression of the thing symbolized rather than a formulation. Not only is the allegory not reached by the primitive device of personification, but it shows no trace of being in any way made to order. It is an allegory that will never bite anybody--but the Browning societies. Instead of looking at marionettes with most gross and palpable strings, we see a living picture, with actuality and motive sufficient to itself, while yet we cannot rid ourselves of the haunting presence of vast figures in the wings. It is perfectly clear that the invisible "Intruder" is Death, that "The Blind" is the symbol of a world lost in the dark forest of unfaith and unknowledge,--its ancient guide, the Church, sitting dead in the midst of the devotees and them of little faith, who all alike have lost the swift vision of the intuition and can inform themselves of their situation only by the slow uncertain groping of the reason. In vain they seek for a guide in animal instinct, in the glimmer of vision possessed by the poet,--who turns aside and gathers flowers,--in some power of insight fancied in insanity, in the newborn future that cannot utter yet its revelation. But these correspondences must not be pursued too curiously. They are intended to appeal to the imagination and the emotions, not to the mere ingenuity of the intellect.
In this new movement Maeterlinck is not alone. Such symbolism, suggestive rather than cut-and-dried, is the same that Gilbert Parker uses in "Pierre and His People." So in one of the stories in that volume the Man and the Stone, existing primarily for their own simple terrific story, are lifted up at the same time into Titanic primitive types. Charles G.D. Roberts' tales of animals, such as "The Young Ravens that call upon Him," are symbolic in the same way, not with the artificial symbolism of "Aesop's Fables" and "Reineke Fuchs," but by revealing in the simple truth of animal life a universal meaning. The symbol is not invented; the thing is found to be symbolic. This, if not the final word of poetry, has always been its first word, and it promises well for the poetic quality of the literature that is to be, that the strongest of the young writers of today have a tendency to myth-making.
This is the more convincing, that this movement is not the imitation by the many of the eccentricities of one, but the spontaneous and independent development, in writers alien in race, residence, and experience, of similar traits and methods. It is possible, of course, though not probable, that Ibsen was under the influence of Maeterlinck to some extent in writing "The Master-Builder,"--a play of sheer symbolism if ever one was written. Mallarmé, probably the greatest French poet since Hugo, is surrounded by an enthusiastic circle of disciples, and Maeterlinck may have fallen under the charm of his personality and his conversation. And yet, barring the symbolic principle which they hold in common, it would be difficult to find two writers more unlike than Maeterlinck and Mallarmé. William Sharp's "Vistas" and Oscar Wilde's "Salomé" might perhaps not have been written had the authors been less familiar with the contemporary literature of the Continent. But Carman, Roberts, and Parker have evidently reached their results without any communication with France or Belgium. Their work is saner, fresher, and less morbid. The clear air of the lakes and prairies of Canada blows through it. It has not the kind of likeness that comes of imitation, and I doubt if one of the three has ever given any special consideration to Maeterlinck, or is familiar with his books.
Symbolism, then, is not a school, in the sense of a clique. It is a drift in art, that has of late years begun to set in wherever the arts flourish. It is obtaining in painting, among the most extreme radicals, as well as in literature. It would be interesting to trace the connection between English Pre-Raphaelitism and the new movement, between the pictures of the école symboliste and those of Watts and Burne-Jones, between the new poets and Rossetti; but it is my intention here rather to indicate some of the points that are suggested by the new school, than to pursue any of them exhaustively.
Two things individualize Maeterlinck from the rest of the school, -- the peculiarity of his technique, and the limitation of his emotional range. His conceptions are romantic to the last degree, and so also is their setting, except perhaps in "L'Intruse" and "Intérieur;" but the dialogue is written in a language of the simplest realism. His vocabulary usually, except in some of the stage directions, though chosen with nicety, is hardly more copious than that of a peasant. The simple iteration characteristic of all real conversation, but especially of the conversation of Frenchmen, is imitated to an extent to which even Dumas père, who was a master of its effectiveness, never pushed it. But this iteration is not used merely for the sake of realism. It is part of a general appreciation and effective use of the principle of parallelism in art.
Parallelism has been better understood in decorative art than in any other. Its value for expression has been but meagrely recognized. In poetry, since its magnificent uses by the Hebrews, it has been chiefly confined to its most artificial form of antithesis and to the subordinating and decorative purposes of metre and rhyme. Maeterlinck is almost, if not quite alone among modern writers in so using it as to confirm the general dictum of Delsarte for all the arts, that parallelism, in its usual uses a principle of convention, of weakness, or of subordination, may become, simply by being carried a step further, a powerful instrument to express the shadow-land of human emotions.
For his use of iterations of phrase in the dialogue, Maeterlinck has been criticized more severely than for anything else he has done. It has been called "mere Ollendorf" and held up to unsparing ridicule. But in almost every instance the reviewers who have waxed so facetious, have supported their position by quoting snatches of dialogue isolated from all connection with the scene of which they are a part and which is their justification. In no case have they indicated the exceptional circumstances, the emotions of amazement, of horror, of hysterical fear, which accompany the extreme instances they cite. Not that I would claim any literary impeccability for Maeterlinck; far from it. He walks continually on the dangerous border between the tragic and the ridiculous, and it would be strange indeed if he never made a misstep; but in the main it must be confessed that he has a cool head and a sure footing. He has been accused of a lack of humor, but it is rather a restriction to one kind of humor, --the hysterical mirth of tragic crises, the grin on the everlasting skull.
For this is the other characteristic that separates Maeterlinck from his fellows,--his restriction, whether voluntary or of necessity, to a single mood. His master-tone is always terror -- terror, too, of one type, -- that of the churchyard. If other emotions are presented, they are transposed into this key. He is a poet of the sepulchre, like Poe, --as masterly in his own method as Poe was in his, and destined, perhaps, to exert the same wide influence. His devotion to the wormy side of things may prevent him from ever becoming popular; yet Poe's ghastly tales won more than a narrow circle of readers, and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" crowded the theatres. At any rate, whether M. Maeterlinck's subjects please or not, the method which he and the others whom I have mentioned have adopted, is not likely to become obsolete as long as the world still hearkens to the parables of the Man of Nazareth.
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