Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
have been so greatly enriched in the past two or three
years by an introduction to Mr. Maurice Maeterlinck
and his work, that one cannot but welcome the first
translation of the poems of his friend and compatriot,
Emile Verhaeren. The present volume is all too brief,
containing, as it does, hardly a score of lyrics; but
it is a beginning, and one may hope for more. The poems
here presented have been selected and translated by
Alma Strettell, who will be remembered as the collaborator
with Carmen Sylva in The Bard of the Dimborvitza.
a brief introductory note we gather that Emile Verhaeren
was born at St. Amand, near Antwerp, in 1855; that his
boyhood was passed on the banks of the Scheldt, "in
the midst of the wide-spreading Flemish plains, a country
of mist and flood, of dykes and marshes;" that
after some time spent in a college in Ghent, he became
a student at the University of Lorrain, where he founded
and edited a journal called La Semaine and where
he also formed his close friendship with Maeterlinck;
that he was called to the bar at Brussels in 1881, but
soon abandoned his legal career to devote himself to
literature. In 1883 he published his first book of poems,
and since that time he has brought out no less than
the first thing one notices in these poems is their
uncompromising realism. In the opening poem on "Rain,"
yesternight it keeps unravelling
Down from the frayed and flaccid rags that cling
About the sullen sky,
The low, black sky;
Since yesternight, so slowly, patiently,
Unravelling its threads upon the roads,
Upon the roads and lanes, with even fall
is a realism like Whitman's or Emerson's, and reveals
the vigilant eye of the born artist whom nothing escapes.
And yet there is much more than realism on every page,
the symbolism of a larger significance, as in "The
his village gray
At the foot of the dykes, that
With weary weaving of curves and lines
Toward the sea outstretching
The rope-maker, visionary white,
Stepping backward along the
Prudently 'twixt his hands combines
The distant threads, in their
That came to him from the infinite.
course the magic of poetry vanishes in all but the best
of translations, and these renderings of Verhaeren's
novel and powerful lyrics leave much to be desired;
they are, indeed, almost hopelessly flat and vapid;
but even so, one perceives a large imagination gleaming
through them. They reveal a smouldering Titanic fancy,
like Francis Thompson's, which cannot but impress itself
sooner or later on the English, speaking world.
what do we mean by symbolism in poetry? If the question
could be answered in one word, perhaps we should have
to say we mean implication. Not that symbolistic art
is not explicit as well. It may be eminently explicit,
clear, definite and realistic, so that a casual look
at it would reveal no more than a simple and faithful
transcript from nature. But presently as we regard it,
there is borne in upon us by some turn of phrase, or
some shade of possible meaning in the words, the dawning
conviction that more may be meant than we at first supposed.
There is something implied, behind and beneath the obvious
apparent work of beauty.
differs from allegory in being less obvious, more subtle.
Allegory invented the symbol to stand as a crude explanation
of its thought; symbolism merely hints at the underlying
allegory by the faintest implication of suggestion.
It does not depend on the grosser values of words, but
on their finer, acquired incidental qualities. In allegory
we are given the personification of abstractions; in
symbolism we are allowed to gather our abstract conclusions
from the concrete form. Symbolism does not condescend
to the use of personification; it finds that childish
method of art somewhat inadequate to its purpose-much
too tedious and simple. For the growth of our devotion
to simplicity in art must be qualified. We are constantly
insisting on the necessity of simplicity; but as a matter
of fact, this new simplicity is more apparent than real.
For complexity and implication are the corner stones
of art. It is not until we begin to combine colors and
lines that drawing and painting begin; it is not until
we begin to combine the complex qualities of words and
rhythms that poetry is born.
too in the new sort of simplicity, we have abandoned
the old cumbersome device of allegory and personification;
but, at the same time, we have added the subtle quality
of implication, and in doing so we have vastly extended
the domain of art in the psychic world. As long as art
is perfectly obvious and definite, it is appealing to
the perfectly definite range of human reason. Rational
art is a limited art. The allegory of Pilgrim's Progress
can mean only one thing, perfectly explicable and
defined. But the moment we drop this method of art and
introduce symbolism, we are passing outside the horizon
of rational thought into the vast borderland of undefined
emotions, premonitions and conjectures. Symbolism is
competent to deal not only with phenomena of thought
but with all those vaguer unclassified phenomena of
psychic influence as well.
cannot tell why a certain cadence affects you in a certain
way, or what is the meaning of the color blue; and yet
these are powerful and legitimate means of expression.
True, they are only beginning to be studied as artistic
media, but they have always been used by the native
cunning of the painter and the word-builder. Symbolism,
depending on them as it does, cannot but inherit new
dominions of spirituality in man's nature, extending
the territories of art and enlarging the borders of
human joy. For that, after all, is the greatest function
of art-the emancipation of the spirit, the enlargement
of our mental horizon, and the refining and extension
of happiness. And I think we may be sure that, whatever
strange vagaries art may indulge on the way, its ultimate
development will always reach toward these ends.
New Symbolist," Commercial Advertiser, Mar.
25, 1899 [back]