Belgian Symbolism in Maurice Maeterlinck’s “The Death of Tintagiles”

© Kayla Walden, Ryerson University 2019

Introduction

Purple cover, title in the middle; bookended by three gold doves on either side of the cover, carrying leaves.
Fig. 1. Front cover design, The Pageant, vol. 1, December 1896, The Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain.

By looking at Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “The Death of Tintagiles” within Volume 1 of the 19th century little magazine The Pageant (1896) through the critical lens of fin-de-siècle symbolism, we can see his continental influence on folklore in British little magazines.

Maeterlinck’s play “The Death of Tintagiles” is a folkloric play with a simple plot consisting of an old man named Aglovale and two sisters, Ygraine and Bellangère, trying to protect their younger brother Tintagiles from a queen. The reader knows little about the queen because she is never actually presented within the play. Except for the initial act, the entirety of the play is set within a castle. As the title suggests, the play ends with the demise of Tintagiles after travelling through the castle with his sisters in an attempt to escape the queen.

The play “The death of Tintagiles” showcases Maeterlinck’s distinct style of symbolism due to its ability for the reader to experience an intimate connection and interpretation of the work. The play ironically shows that different aspects of it were influenced by several European countries, yet its insertion in The Pageant showcases the emergence of Belgium’s literary identity and its enhancement of cultural diversity within the magazine.

 

Maurice Maeterlinck

Black and white, 983 x 1,438, 564KB
Fig. 2. Maurice Maeterlinck, Black and White Photograph, 1903. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) began his career as a lawyer in Belgium. However, he soon left this occupation and became a successful poet, essayist and playwright, most successful for his symbolist works.

Although he was born in Belgium, he spent most of his life in France where the symbolist movement began. His plays were his greatest works and after producing his first play, “The Princess Maleine,” he became widely respected in the late 19th century as an inventive playwright that helped define and introduce the symbolist movement into the theatre (Wilkinson and Sachs). Many other playwrights of the time drew inspiration from his unique style and in 1911 he received the Nobel Prize in literature for his influential works.

 

British Little Magazines and Maeterlinck in The Pageant

Maeterlinck became well known in England at the time when British “little magazines” were popular. These magazines were filled with an eclectic assortment of literature and art, often in the form of folk tales, fairy tales or fantasy. They housed the works of many prolific writers of the late 19th century.

woman with long dark hair in a white robe standing in front of an open window
Fig 3. Charles Ricketts. Cupid and Psyche. Wood Carving, 1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Following suit with other little magazines of the time, literary editor Gleeson White and visual editor Charles H. Shannon curated a diverse collection of controversial, avant-garde works within these ‘decadent’ periodicals (Koenraad). Maeterlinck’s play fits well within The Pageant (1896-97) as morbidity was a common theme in the magazines (King). Many of the literary works were enhanced by featuring detailed illustrations between the pages, adding to their appeal. An example of this is Charles Rickett’s folklore wood carving “Cupid and Psyche” which is titled as “Psyche in the House” between the pages of “The Death of Tintagiles” (figure 3). The magazine differed from others at the time because it aimed to reach a wider audience than other magazines (King). Due to its date of publication in December during the Christmas season, one review called it “’the best gift book for the ordinary reader” (Koenraad).

Although the works within The Pageant may have been diverse, it lacked a broad assortment of writers from across Europe. Except for Irish writer W. B. Yeats, and Scottish writer Cunninghame Graham, Maeterlinck was the only non-British writer within Volume 1 of The Pageant. As the only Belgian writer within the magazine, he showcased the new national literary culture of Belgium to England: until the emergence of symbolism, the country had lacked any true identity.

 

French Symbolism in Literature

Fin-de-siècle symbolism differs from that of previous symbolic work in that it is far more abstract and authors often sought to produce a mood, leaving room for more complex meanings. French symbolism was written for a well-educated audience and sometimes seems as if it was made to look down on the lower class; Olds states that most authors used a “language that invites a privileged spectator to decipher it” (156).

In Arthur Symons’ famous essay, The Symbolist Movement in Literature he explains that in the renowned French poet Mallarmè’s work he sought perfection in his words and relied on the intelligence of the reader to understand his theme (180). His poetry showcases the beauty of words which allows for a more delicate relationship with the symbolic poetry. Many other poets of the time followed suit with this style, often writing about nature. This contrasts Maeterlinck’s symbolism because his work focuses on the symbolism within the characters and limited settings in his plays. Maeterlinck’s work encourages the reader to interpret the symbolism among their inner uncertainties, which was a somewhat innovative approach to writing at the time. Fellow symbolist writer André Gide wrote in 1891 Stèphane Mallarmè’s works can be seen as an embodiment of the symbolist movement in poetry and Maeterlinck’s can be seen as such for the movement within theatrical writing. (McGuinness 4).

 

Belgian Symbolism in Literature

The emergence of Belgian symbolism began in the 1880s during a time of political turmoil due to conflicting ideas on issues such as education. Young educated men opposing the political uproar began national literary journals where the style of writing first appeared (Ingelbien 193).

The symbolists drew inspiration from traditional Flemish folk tales that were different both socially and culturally than that of the middle class. Having such authentic roots, they were able to keep the tales of their ancestors alive, creating works with a more organic and wholesome approach. This allowed them to show their differences from French symbolism that Ingelbien states was “Latin and classical,” creating for themselves cultural nationalism (192).

Although Maeterlinck was born into a middle-class family in the industrialized city of Ghent, it was still part of the region of Flanders. This area was still mainly a Flemish-speaking agricultural society unlike the southern, urbanized part of the country (Ingelbien 191). His proximity to those that kept the classic Belgian folklore alive gave him inspiration to write in that style.

Belgium is a francophone country and many of the Belgian symbolists like Maeterlinck wrote in French rather than Flemish to give them a larger appeal within the symbolist movement in France, but drawing from Flemish legends allowed them to keep their national appeal. Laqua and Verbruggen explain that this created a paradoxical effect because with their growing success they were sometimes perceived as French rather than Belgian, which is still often the case today, and thus often denies their literary identity (253).

Maeterlinck’s folklore work represents some of folklore’s essential thoughts and values that Wilson states are, “the godlike capacity of the individual consciousness to bring splendid order out of chaos, and the social desire among people to communicate with consequence” (9). In the case of “The Death of Tintagiles”, it represents the epitome of folklore, thanks to his Belgian roots.

 

Arthurian Legends

Arthurian legends date back to the Middle Ages with countless tales written throughout Europe. After this period the legends were forgotten until their return in the 19th century. This period was not only a time of revival for these legends, but they were reinvented for a modern society expressed in a medieval form (Manicoff 8).

As a Belgian symbolist, Maeterlinck was inspired by the traditional Belgian folklore, yet within the play, “The Death of Tintagiles” the names of sister Ygraine and protagonist Tintagiles were British characters from Arthurian legends. There are many different versions and adaptations of these legends, so certain names represent different characters depending on the tale. In some cases, Ygraine was the name of King Arthur’s mother and Tintagiles was the name of a duke that was her first husband before marrying Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Janzen Kooistra). The legends are about royalty, so many works are set within castles. There is no mention of the characters in “The Death of Tintagiles” being royalty, therefore the play being set in a castle suggests that it was also inspired by these legends.

The title, “The Death of Tintagiles” may have also been inspired by the Victorian revival of the legends. Initially, there was a legend called, “The Death of Arthur” written in 1469 and reinterpretations of it became the inspiration for many poets and painters (figure 5).

Fig. 5. James Archer. The Death of King Arthur. 1859. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

These features make the play fit well within The Pageant because there were several works of art by pre-Raphaelite painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne Jones that were inspired by Arthurian legends. This is evidenced in Rossetti’s artwork titled, “The Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee” on the front piece of The Pageant.

All the aspects of Arthurian legends that Maeterlinck included in the play speak to a British audience where the legends were most popular, which helped his work achieve a stronger continental influence. These features would have been well received by the readers in little magazines like The Pageant.

 

Symbolism in “The Death of Tintagiles”

In contrast to French symbolism, Maeterlinck’s simplistic style is that which creates a different impact. Symons explains that unlike other authors, Maeterlinck didn’t write hoping for the reader to interpret his work in a specific way; instead, his work allows for a personal interpretation (317). In examining Maeterlinck’s plays such as “The Death of Tintagiles” we see that his work epitomizes his need to break free from the predominant theatrical presentations of Naturalism (John).

Few characters, a simple plot and setting, and an interesting way of presenting dialogue are all stylistic choices that add to this. There is short dialogue mixed with long passages including ellipses creating many pauses and cutting up the dialogue which adds to its dramatic effect. The minimalist approach has a profound outcome because the detailed descriptions that are given to the reader are just enough to allow them to imagine the setting and characters but still leaves much to the imagination. This can be seen in a passage in which Ygraine is explaining the castle to Tintagiles when he first arrives, “Do you see, behind the dead trees which poison the horizon, do you see the castle, there, right down in the valley?” (1.1.48). It continues in her descriptive monologue:

[…]It lies far down amid a mass of gloomy shadows…It is there we have to live…They might have built it on top of the great mountains which surround it…The mountains are blue in the day-time…One could have breathed. One could have looked down on the sea and on the plains beyond the cliffs…But they preferred to build it deep down in the valley; too low for even air to come…It is falling in ruins and no one troubles…The walls are crumbling: it might be fading away in the gloom…There is only one tower that time does not touch…It is enormous: and its shadow is always in the house. (1.1.48-49)

Here we understand that the castle is decrepit and dark, thus setting an ominous mood for the rest of the play. The pauses allow for the reader to stop and reflect about the description being presented and the mood being created.

A possible interpretation is that Tintagiles represents the inner child in all of us, and the sisters are the barriers we create to try to protect ourselves from the misfortune that may occur throughout our lives. The menacing queen is the reality of unavoidable hardships we face in life. This character also shows us that we cannot outrun our struggles or inevitable deaths because that is to run from fate. When Agraine initially speaks of the queen to Tintagiles as he arrives she states that, “she has a power which we do not understand, and we live here with a terrible weight on our soul” (1.1.49). Even though they have not met the queen, she has the power to instill imminent fear and anxiety in them.

Philosophically speaking, the play has an almost metaphysical effect as it allows us to question human existence. We question who we are, what humanity is and what it means to be alive on a very personal and soul searching level. The ability for the reader to have such a subjective interpretation allows them to feel the play, not just evoke an emotion within them. This can be seen when Ygraine is frightened and wandering through the castle after the queen’s servants steal Tintagiles:

“I am falling…Oh! Oh! my poor life! I can feel it…It is trembling on my lips – it wants to depart…I have seen nothing, I have heard nothing…Oh! This silence[…]Some say one thing some say the other; but the way of the soul is quite different. When the chain is taken off, there is much more than one knows[…]It is difficult to get so far – and it is all forbidden…How cold it is…And so dark that one is afraid to breathe…They say there is poison in these gloomy shadows[…]” (5.1.68).

A marionette with red and white striped clothing and a long neck with three faces on top of each other.
Fig. 4. Tiller family marionette company, 1870s-1890s Marionette, Carved Wood. V&A Museum Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

If one allows themselves to get lost within the awakened consciousness of their inner anxieties, the play becomes the whole embodiment of symbolism itself. As Symons stated in his essay, Maeterlinck writes to the spirit, soul and the mysteries of life (314, 319).

Before its insertion in The Pageant, the plays “The Death of Tintagiles,” “Alladine and Palomides,” and “The Interior” were all released together as The Three Little Dramas for Marionettes in 1894. Instead of real actors, marionettes on strings would show the limitations of humanity being controlled by fate (figure 4). Maeterlinck’s introduction of marionettes into symbolist theatre showcases an important aspect of his plays on stage and his influence on playwrights that followed him.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, Maeterlinck’s symbolist writing was unique in that he did not write with just one symbolic meaning in mind, thus allowing the reader to become actively involved in the story. Ironically, it is the emptiness created in “The Death of Tintagiles” that allows for it to be filled with meaning. Whereas most of French symbolism offers an emotion, Maeterlinck offers an awakening of the soul and he encourages his readers to fully feel the narrative.

After “The Death of Tintagiles” was well-received in French, the editorial choice to have an English translation in The Pageant gave the play an even wider continental influence than if it had been left untranslated. The insertion of “The Death of Tintagiles” within The Pageant resulted in the representation of cultural diversity within the magazine due to Maeterlinck’s nationality, although this outcome was likely not an editorial focus.

Several European countries influenced Maeterlinck’s style, allowing him in turn to have a more continental influence. The combined fusion of a number of factors led to his success as a writer:  his initial inspiration from traditional Flemish folklore,  the growing popularity of the symbolist movement in France influencing him to write in French, and the popularity of British Arthurian legends in its Victorian revival. By studying the works of authors apart from the French and English, like Maeterlinck’s “The Death of Tintagiles,” we see that 19th century little magazines like The Pageant may have originated in England, but they represent the greatest works at the time from the entire continent. Further studies into the origins of each author in a magazine can show that each artistic movement such as symbolism, romanticism, and naturalism should be seen more than singular movements. When we study the authors of folklore, fairy tale or fantasy literature, we learn the inspirations of each work which gives each writer and artist their own version of a movement like a puzzle piece that, when combined with other authors in a magazine, shows the true essence of a movement.


Works Cited

Ingelbien, Raphaël. “Symbolism at the Periphery: Yeats, Maeterlinck, and Cultural Nationalism.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 42 no. 3, 2005, pp. 183-204. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cls.2006.0003

Janzen Kooistra, Lorraine. “Re: Information on The Pageant.” Received by Kayla Walden, 29 January 2019.

John, S. Beynon. “Maeterlinck – Maurice.” The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, edited by Peter France, Oxford University Press, 2005.

King, Frederick D. “The Pageant (1896-1897): An Overview,” Pageant Digital Edition, Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/pageant_overview/.

Koenraad, Claus. “PAGEANT (1896-1897).” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. ProQuest, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:c19index-us&rft_dat=xri:c19index:DNCJ:1099

Laqua, Daniel, and Christophe Verbruggen. “Beyond the Metropolis: French and Belgian Symbolists between the Region and the Republic of Letters.” Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2013, pp. 241–58, Euppublishing. https://www-euppublishing-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/pdfplus/10.3366/ccs.2013.0090.

Mancoff, Debra N. The Return of King Arthur: The Legend Through Victorian Eyes. Harry N. Abrams Incorporated Publishers, 1995.

Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Death of Tintagiles. The Pageant, translated by Alfred Sutro, vol. 1, 1896, pp. 47-71. The Yellow Nineties Online, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, http://archive.org/stream/Pageant1896_201609/Pageant1896#page/n0/mode/2up

McGuinness, Patrick. Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Olds, Marsha C. “Literary Symbolism.” A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, edited by David Bradshaw and Kevin J. H. Malden, vol. 28, no. 14, 2006, pp. 155–62, http://www.rcs.msu.edu/files/9014/3923/6639/Literary_Symbolism.pdf.
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Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Rev. and enl, E. P. Dutton and Company, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015010337296.

Wilkinson, Lynn R., and Leon Sachs. “Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature: Part 3.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 331, Literature Resource Center, Jan. 2007, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/apps/doc/H1200013184/LitRC?u=rpu_main&sid=LitRC&xid=869524f7.

Wilson, William A. Marrow of Human Experience, The: Essays on Folklore. Edited by Jill Terry Rudy, University Press of Colorado, 2006, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/j.ctt4cgkmk.5?refreqid=excelsior%3A2c443ee5b4e932cf80aad81b2e82d9b4&seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

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