Émile Verhaeren

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ÉMILE VERHAEREN

BY

STEFAN ZWEIG

LONDON
CONSTABLE AND COMPANY LTD
1914


Émile Verhaeren from an unpublished photograph by Charles Bernier, 1914. Émile Verhaeren from an unpublished photograph by Charles Bernier, 1914.

PREFACE

Four years have passed since the present volume appeared simultaneously in German and French. In the meantime Verhaeren’s fame has been spreading; but in English-speaking countries he is still not so well known as he deserves to be.

Something of his philosophy—if it may be called philosophy rather than a poet’s inspired visualising of the world—has passed into the public consciousness in a grotesquely distorted form in what is known as ‘futurism.’ So long as futurism is associated with those who have acquired a facile notoriety by polluting the pure idea, it would be an insult to Verhaeren to suggest that he is to be classed with the futurists commonly so-called; but the whole purpose of the present volume will prove that the gospel of a very serious and reasoned futurism is to be found in Verhaeren’s writings.

Of the writer of the book it may be said that there was no one more fitted than he to write the authentic exposition of the teaching which he has hailed as a new religion. His relations to the Master are not only those of a fervent disciple, but of an apostle whose labour of love has in German-speaking lands and beyond been crowned with signal success. Himself a lyrist of distinction, Stefan Zweig has accomplished the difficult feat, which in this country still waits to be done, of translating the great mass of Verhaeren’s poems into actual and enduring verse. Another book of his on Verlaine is already known in an English rendering; so that he bids fair to become known in this country as one of the most gifted of the writers of Young-Vienna.

As to the translation, I have endeavoured to be faithful to my text, which is the expression of a personality. Whatever divergences there are have been necessitated by the lapse of time. For help in reading the proofs I have to thank Mr. M.T.H. Sadler and Mr. Fritz Voigt.

J. BITHELL.

HAMMERFIELD,
Nr. HEMEL HEMPSTEAD,
14th July 1914.


CONTENTS

PART I

THE NEW AGE
THE NEW BELGIUM
YOUTH IN FLANDERS
‘LES FLAMANDES’
THE MONKS
THE BREAK-DOWN
FLIGHT INTO THE WORLD

PART II

CONTEMPORARY FEELING
TOWNS (‘LES VILLES TENTACULAIRES’)
THE MULTITUDE
THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
THE NEW PATHOS
VERHAEREN’S POETIC METHOD
VERHAEREN’S DRAMA

PART III

COSMIC POETRY
THE LYRIC UNIVERSE
SYNTHESES
THE ETHICS OF FERVOUR
LOVE
THE ART OF VERHAEREN’S LIFE
THE EUROPEAN IMPORTANCE OF HIS WORK

BIBLIOGRAPHY
INDEX


PART I

DECIDING FORCES

LES FLAMANDES—LES MOINES—LES SOIRS—LES

DÉBÂCLES—LES FLAMBEAUX NOIRS—AU BORD DE

LA ROUTE—LES APPARUS DANS MES CHEMINS

1883-1893


Son tempérament, son caractère, sa vie, tout conspire à nous montrer son art tel que nous avons essayé de le définir. Une profonde unité les scelle. Et n’est-ce pas vers la découverte de cette unité-là, qui groupe en un faisceau solide les gestes, les pensées et les travaux d’un génie sur la terre, que la critique, revenue enfin de tant d’erreurs, devait tendre uniquement?

VERHAEREN, Rembrandt.


THE NEW AGE

Tout bouge—et l’on dirait les horizons en marche.
É.V., ‘La Foule.’

The feeling of this age of ours, of this our moment in eternity, is different in its conception of life from that of our ancestors. Only eternal earth has changed not nor grown older, that field, gloomed by the Unknown, on which the monotonous light of the seasons divides, in a rhythmic round, the time of blossoms and of their withering; changeless only are the action of the elements and the restless alternation of night and day. But the aspect of earth’s spirit has changed, all that is subjected to the toil of man. Has changed, to change again. The evolution of the phenomena of culture seems to proceed with ever greater rapidity: never was the span of a hundred years as rich, as replete as that which stretches to the threshold of our own days. Cities have shot up which are as huge and bewildering, as impenetrable and as endless, as nothing else has been save those virgin forests now fast receding before the onward march of the tilled land. More and more the work of man achieves the grandiose and elementary character that was once Nature’s secret. The lightning is in his hands, and protection from the weather’s sudden onslaughts; lands that once yawned far apart are now forged together by the iron hoop with which of old only the narrow strait was arched; oceans are united that have sought each other for thousands of years; and now in the very air man is building a new road from country to country. All has changed.

Tout a changé: les ténèbres et les flambeaux.
Les droits et les devoirs out fait d’autres faisceaux,
Du sol jusqu’au soleil, une neuve énergie
Diverge un sang torride, en la vie élargie;
Des usines de fonte ouvrent, sous le ciel bleu,
Des cratères en flamme et des fleuves en feu;
De rapides vaisseaux, sans rameurs et sans voiles,
La nuit, sur les flots bleus, étonnent les étoiles;
Tout peuple réveillé se forge une autre loi;
Autre est le crime, autre est l’orgueil, autre est l’exploit.[1]

Changed, too, is the relation of individual to individual, of the individual to the whole; at once more onerous and less burdensome is the network of social laws, at once more onerous and less burdensome our whole life.

But a still greater thing has happened. Not only the real forms, the transitory facts of life have changed, not only do we live in other cities, other houses, not only are we dressed in different clothes, but the infinite above us too, that which seemed unshakable, has changed from what it was for our fathers and forefathers. Where the actual changes, the relative changes also. The most elementary forms of our conception, space and time, have been displaced. Space has become other than it was, for we measure it with new velocities. Roads that took our forefathers days to traverse can now be covered in one short hour; one flying night transports us to warm and luxuriant lands that were once separated from us by the hardships of a long journey. The perilous forests of the tropics with their strange constellations, to see which cost those of old a year of their lives, are of a sudden near to us and easy of access. We measure differently with these different velocities of life. Time is more and more the victor of space. The eye, too, has learned other distances, and in cold constellations is startled to perceive the forms of primeval landscapes petrified; and the human voice seems to have grown a thousand times stronger since it has learned to carry on a friendly conversation a hundred miles away. In this new relationship of forces we have a different perception of the spanning round of the earth, and the rhythm of life, beating more brightly and swiftly, is likewise becoming new for us. The distance from springtime to springtime is greater now and yet less, greater and yet less is the individual hour, greater and less our whole life.

And therefore is it with new feelings that we must comprehend this new age. For we all feel that we must not measure the new with the old measures our forefathers used, that we must not live through the new with feelings outworn, that we must discover a new sense of distance, a new sense of time, a new sense of space, that we must find a new music for this nervous, feverish rhythm around us. This new-born human conditionality calls for a new morality; this new union of equals a new beauty; this new topsy-turvydom a new system of ethics. And this new confrontation with another and still newer world, with another Unknown, demands a new religion, a new God. A new sense of the universe is, with a muffled rumour, welling up in the hearts of all of us.

New things, however, must be coined into new words. A new age calls for new poets, poets whose conceptions have been nurtured by their environment, poets who, in the expression they give to this new environment, themselves vibrate with the feverish rotation of life. But so many of our poets are pusillanimous. They feel that their voices are out of harmony with reality; they feel that they are not incorporated with the new organism and a necessary part of it; they have a dull foreboding that they do not speak the language of our contemporary life. In our great cities they are like strangers stranded. The great roaring streams of our new sensations are to them terrific and inconceivable. They are ready to accept all the comfort and luxury of modern life; they are quick to take advantage of the facilities afforded by technical science and organisation; but for their poetry they reject these phenomena, because they cannot master them. They recoil from the task of transmuting poetical values, of sensing whatever is poetically new in these new things. And so they stand aside. They flee from the real, the contemporary, to the immutable; they take refuge in whatsoever the eternal evolution has left untouched; they sing the stars, the springtime, the babbling of springs which is now as it ever was, the myth of love; they hide behind the old symbols; they nestle to the old gods. Not from the moment, from the molten flowing ore, do they seize and mould the eternal—no, as ever of old they dig the symbols of the eternal out of the cold clay of the past, like old Greek statues. They are not on that account insignificant; but at best they produce something important, never anything necessary.

For only that poet can be necessary to our time who himself feels that everything in this time is necessary, and therefore beautiful. He must be one whose whole endeavour as poet and man it is to make his own sensations vibrate in unison with contemporary sensations; who makes the rhythm of his poem nothing else than the echoed rhythm of living things; who adjusts the beat of his verse to the beat of our own days, and takes into his quivering veins the streaming blood of our time. He must not on this account, when seeking to create new ideals, be a stranger to the ideals of old; for all true progress is based on the deepest understanding of the past. Progress must be for him as Guyau interprets it: ‘Le pouvoir, lorsqu’on est arrivé à un état supérieur, d’éprouver des émotions et des sensations nouvelles, sans cesser d’être encore accessible à ce que contenaient de grand ou de beau ses précédantes émotions.’[2] A poet of our time can only be great when he conceives this time as great. The preoccupations of his time must be his also; its social problem must be his personal concern. In such a poet succeeding generations would see how man has fought a way to them from the past, how in every moment as it passed he has wrestled to identify the feeling of his own mind with that of the cosmos. And even though the great works of such a poet should be soon disintegrated and his poems obsolete, though his images should have paled, there would yet remain imperishably vivid that which is of greater moment, the invisible motives of his inspiration, the melody, the breath, the rhythm of his time. Such poets, besides pointing the way to the coming generation, are in a deeper sense the incarnation of their own period. Hence the time has come to speak of Émile Verhaeren, the greatest of modern poets, and perhaps the only one who has been conscious of what is poetical in contemporary feeling, the only one who has shaped that feeling in verse, the first poet who, with skill incomparably inspired, has chiselled our epoch into a mighty monument of rhyme.

In Verhaeren’s work our age is mirrored. The new landscapes are in it; the sinister silhouettes of the great cities; the seething masses of a militant democracy; the subterranean shafts of mines; the last heavy shadows of silent, dying cloisters. All the intellectual forces of our time, our time’s ideology, have here become a poem; the new social ideas, the struggle of industrialism with agrarianism, the vampire force which lures the rural population from the health-giving fields to the burning quarries of the great city, the tragic fate of emigrants, financial crises, the dazzling conquests of science, the syntheses of philosophy, the triumphs of engineering, the new colours of the impressionists. All the manifestations of the new age are here reflected in a poet’s soul in their action—first confused, then understood, then joyfully acclaimed—on the sensations of a New European. How this work came into being, out of what resistance and crises a poet has here conquered the consciousness of the necessity and then of the beauty of the new cosmic phase, it shall be our task to show. If the time has indeed come to class Verhaeren, it is not so much with the poets that his place will be found. He does not so much stand with or above the verse-smiths or actual artists in verse, with the musicians, or painters, as rather with the great organisers, those who have forced the new social currents to flow between dikes; with the legislators who prevent the clashing of flamboyant energies; with the philosophers, who aim at co-ordinating and unifying all these vastly complicated tendencies in one brilliant synthesis. His poetry is a created poet’s world; it is a resolute shaping of phases, a considered new æstheticism, and a conscious new inspiration. He is not only the poet, he is at the same time the preacher of our time. He was the first to conceive of it as beautiful, but not like those who, in their zeal for embellishment, tone down the dark colours and bring out the bright ones; he has conceived of it—we shall have to show with what a painful and intensive effort—after his first most obstinate rejection of it, as a necessity, and he has then transformed this conception of its necessity, of its purpose, into beauty. Ceasing to look backwards, he has looked forwards. He feels, quite in the spirit of evolution, in the spirit of Nietzsche, that our generation is raised high above all the past, that it is the summit of all that is past, and the turning-point towards the future. This will perhaps seem too much to many people, who are inclined to call our generation wretched and paltry, as though they had some inner knowledge of the magnificence or the paltriness of generations gone. For every generation only becomes great by the men who do not despair of it, only becomes great by its poets who conceive of it as great, by its charioteers of state who have confidence in its power of greatness. Of Shakespeare and Hugo Verhaeren says: ‘Ils grandissaient leur siècle.’[3] They did not depict it with the perspective of others, but out of the heart of their own greatness. Of such geniuses as Rembrandt he says: ‘Si plus tard, dans l’éloignement des siècles, ils semblent traduire mieux que personne leur temps, c’est qu’ils l’ont recréé d’après leur cerveau, et qu’ils l’ont imposé non pas tel qu’il était, mais tel qu’ils l’ont déformé.’[4] But by magnifying their century, by raising even ephemeral events of their own days into a vast perspective, they themselves became great. While those who of set purpose diminish, and while those by nature indifferent, are themselves diminished and disregarded as the centuries recede, poets such as these we honour tell, like illumined belfry clocks, the hour of the time to generations yet to come. If the others bequeath some slight possession, a poem or so, aphorisms, a book maybe, these survive more mightily: they survive in some great conception, some great idea of an age, in that music of life to which the faint-hearted and the ungifted of following epochs will listen as it sounds from the past, because they in their turn are unable to understand the rhythm of their own time. By this manner of inspired vision Verhaeren has come to be the great poet of our time, by approving of it as well as by depicting it, by the fact that he did not see the new things as they actually are, but celebrated them as a new beauty. He has approved of all that is in our epoch; of everything, to the very resistance to it which he has conceived of as only a welcome augmentation of the fighting force of our vitality. The whole atmosphere of our time seems compressed in the organ music of his work; and whether he touches the bright keys or the dark, whether he rolls out a lofty diapason or strikes a gentle concord, it is always the onward-rushing force of our time that vibrates in his poems. While other poets have grown ever more lifeless and languid, ever more secluded and disheartened, Verhaeren’s voice has grown ever more resonant and vigorous, like an organ indeed, full of reverence and the mystical power of sublime prayer. A spirit positively religious, not of despondency, however, but of confidence and joy, breathes from this music of his, freshening and quickening the blood, till the world takes on brighter and more animated and more generous colours, and our vitality, fired by the fever of his verse, flashes with a richer and younger and more virile flame.

But the fact that life, to-day of all days, needs nothing so urgently as the freshening and quickening of our vitality, is good reason why—quite apart from all literary admiration—we must read his books, is good reason why this poet must be discussed with all that glad enthusiasm which we have first learned for our lives from his work.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] ‘Aujourd’hui'(Les Héros).

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