A new translation of one of Maeterlinck’s four great nature essays.
“The republication of Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘The Intelligence of Flowers,’ regrettably forgotten in our time, is long overdue. The introduction by Mosley is itself a gem, and contains one of the best overviews in print of writings about intelligence in Nature.” — Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature
The second of Maeterlinck’s four celebrated nature essays—along with those on the life of the bee, ant, and termite—“The Intelligence of Flowers” (1907) represents his impassioned attempt to popularize scientific knowledge for an international audience. Writing with characteristic eloquence, Maeterlinck asserts that flowers possess the power of thought without knowledge, a capacity that constitutes a form of intelligence. Appearing one hundred years after the first publication, Philip Mosley’s new translation of the original French essay, and the related essay “Scents,” maintains the verve of Maeterlinck’s prose and renders it accessible to the present-day reader. This is a book for those who are excited by creative encounters between literature and science as well as current debates on the relationship of humankind to the natural world.
It would be superfluous to redraw the picture of the great systems of floral fertilization: the play of stamens and pistil, the seductiveness of scents, the appeal of harmonious and striking colors, the development of nectar, totally useless to the flower, and which it manufactures only to attract and hold the foreign liberator, the messenger of love, bee, bumblebee, fly, butterfly, moth, which must bring it the kiss of the distant, invisible, motionless lover…
We could truly say that ideas come to flowers in the same way they come to us. Flowers grope in the same darkness, encounter the same obstacles and the same ill will, in the same unknown. They know the same laws, same disappointments, same slow and difficult triumphs. It seems they have our patience, our perseverance, our self-love; the same finely tuned and diversified intelligence, almost the same hopes and the same ideals. Like ourselves, they struggle against a vast indifferent force that ends by helping them. — from “The Intelligence of Flowers”
“…a wonderfully enjoyable, insightful and worthwhile read … This work would be of interest to anyone excited by the remarkable process of the plant world and would expressly appeal to gardeners and flower growers.” — Huntia
“A rare gem, written … in lyrical and accessible prose.” — The Times Literary Supplement
“…Maeterlinck is a seductive essayist … [and] writes with the same intrinsic humility that will be familiar to admirers of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Mary Oliver.” — The Boston Globe
“That the intelligence of flowers provides Maeterlinck with a theory riddled with contradictions—mostly as a result of his metaphoric reasoning—seems less important than the fundamental truths of the metaphors unto themselves. As a result, ‘The Intelligence of Flowers’ is happily welcome once more, in this centenary reissue.” — San Francisco Chronicle
This essay on Wisdom and Destiny was to have been a thing of some twenty pages, the work of a fortnight; but the idea took root, others flocked to it, and the volume has occupied M. Maeterlinck continuously for more than two years. It has much essential kinship with the "Treasure of the Humble," though it differs therefrom in treatment; for whereas the earlier work might perhaps be described as the eager speculation of a poet athirst for beauty, we have here rather the endeavour of an earnest thinker to discover the abode of truth. And if the result of his thought be that truth and happiness are one, this was by no means the object wherewith he set forth. Here he is no longer content with exquisite visions, alluring or haunting images; he probes into the soul of man and lays bare all his joys and his sorrows. It is as though he had forsaken the canals he loves so well—the green, calm, motionless canals that faithfully mirror the silent trees and moss-covered roofs—and had adventured boldly, unhesitatingly, on the broad river of life.
He describes this book himself, in a kind of introduction that is almost an apology, as "a few interrupted thoughts that entwine themselves, with more or less system, around two or three subjects." He declares that there is nothing it undertakes to prove; that there are none whose mission it is to convince. And so true is this, so absolutely honest and sincere is the writer, that he does not shrink from attacking, qualifying, modifying, his own propositions; from advancing, and insisting on, every objection that flits across his brain; and if such proposition survive the onslaught of its adversaries, it is only because, in the deepest of him, he holds it for absolute truth. For this book is indeed a confession, a naive, outspoken, unflinching description of all that passes in his mind; and even those who like not his theories still must admit that this mind is strangely beautiful.
There have been many columns filled—and doubtless will be again—with ingenious and scholarly attempts to place a definitive label on M. Maeterlinck, and his talent; to trace his thoughts to their origin, clearly denoting the authors by whom he has been influenced; in a measure to predict his future, and accurately to establish the place that he fills in the hierarchy of genius. With all this I feel that I have no concern. Such speculations doubtless have their use and serve their purpose. I shall be content if I can impress upon those who may read these lines, that in this book the man is himself, of untrammelled thought; a man possessed of the rare faculty of seeing beauty in all things, and, above all, in truth; of the still rarer faculty of loving all things, and, above all, life.
THE WOODCUTTER'S COTTAGE
Once upon a time, a woodcutter and his wife lived in their cottage on the edge of a large and ancient forest. They had two dear little children who met with a most wonderful adventure.
But, before telling you all about it, I must describe the children to you and let you know something of their character; for, if they had not been so sweet and brave and plucky, the curious story which you are about to hear would never have happened at all.
Tyltyl—that was our hero's name—was ten years old; and Mytyl, his little sister, was only six.
Tyltyl was a fine, tall little fellow, stout and well-set-up, with curly black hair which was often in a tangle, for he was fond of a romp. He was a great favorite because of his smiling and good-tempered face and the bright look in his eyes; but, best of all, he had the ways of a bold and fearless little man, which showed the noble qualities of his heart. When, early in the morning, he trotted along the forest-road by the side of his daddy, Tyl the woodcutter, for all his shabby clothes he looked so proud and gallant that every beautiful thing on the earth and in the sky seemed to lie in wait for him to smile upon him as he passed.
His little sister was very different, but looked ever so sweet and pretty in her long frock, which Mummy Tyl kept neatly patched for her. She was as fair as her brother was dark; and her large timid eyes were blue as the forget-me-nots in the fields. Anything was enough to frighten her and she would cry at the least thing; but her little child soul already held the highest womanly qualities: she was loving and gentle and so fondly devoted to her brother that, rather than abandon him, she did not hesitate to undertake a long and dangerous journey in his company.
What happened and how our little hero and heroine went off into the world one night in search of happiness: that is the subject of my story.
My Essay on Death led me to make a conscientious enquiry into the present position of the great mystery, an enquiry which I have endeavoured to render as complete as possible. I had hoped that a single volume would be able to contain the result of these investigations, which, I may say at once, will teach nothing to those who have been over the same ground and which have nothing to recommend them except their sincerity, their impartiality and a certain scrupulous accuracy. But, as I proceeded, I saw the field widening under my feet, so much so that I have been obliged to divide my work into two almost equal parts. The first is now published and is a brief study of veridical apparitions and hallucinations and haunted houses, or, if you will, the phantasms of the living and the dead; of those manifestations which have been oddly and not very appropriately described as "psychometric"; of the knowledge of the future: presentiments, omens, premonitions, precognitions and the rest; and lastly of the Elberfeld horses. In the second, which will be published later, I shall treat of the miracles of Lourdes and other places, the phenomena of so called materialization, of the divining-rod and of fluidic asepsis, not unmindful withal of a diamond dust of the miraculous that hangs over the greater marvels in that strange atmosphere into which we are about to pass.
 Published in English, in an enlarged form, under the title of Our Eternity (London and New York, 1913)—Translator's Note.
When I speak of the present position of the mystery, I of course do not mean the mystery of life, its end and its beginnings, nor yet the great riddle of the universe which lies about us. In this sense, all is mystery, and, as I have said elsewhere, is likely always to remain so; nor is it probable that we shall ever touch any point of even the utmost borders of knowledge or certainty. It is here a question of that which, in the midst of this recognized and usual mystery, the familiar mystery of which we are almost oblivious, suddenly disturbs the regular course of our general ignorance. In themselves, these facts which strike us as supernatural are no more so than the others; possibly they are rarer, or, to be more accurate, less frequently or less easily observed. In any case, their deep-seated cause, while being probably neither more remote nor more difficult access, seem to lie hidden in an unknown region less often visited by our science, which after all is but a reassuring and conciliatory espression of our ignorance. Today, thanks to the labours of the Society for Psychical Research and a host of other seekers, we are able to approach these phenomena as a whole with a certain confidence. Leaving the realm of legend, of after-dinner stories, old wives' tales, illusions and exaggerations, we find ourselves at last on circumscribed but fairly safe ground. This does not mean that there are no other supernatural phenomena besides those collected in the publications of the society in question and in a few of the more weighty reviews which have adopted the same methods. Notwithstanding all their diligence, which for over thirty years has been ransacking the obscure corners of our planet, it is inevitable that a good many things escape their notice, besides which the rigour of their investigations makes them reject three fourths of those which are brought before them. But we may say that the twenty-six volumes of the society is Proceedings and the fifteen or sixteen volumes of its Journal, together with the twenty-three annuals of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, to mention only this one periodical of signal excellence, embrace for the moment the whole field of the extraordinary and offer some instances of all the abnormal manifestations of the inexplicable. We are henceforth able to classify them, to divide and subdivide them into general, species and varieties. This is not much, you may say; but it is thus that every science begins and furthermore that many a one ends. We have therefore sufficient evidence, facts that can scarcely be disputed, to enable us to consult them profitably, to recognize whither they lead, to form some idea of their general character and perhaps to trace their sole source by gradually removing the weeds and rubbish which for so many hundreds and thousands of years have hidden it from our eyes.
THE MYSTERY OF JUSTICE
I speak, for those who do not believe in the existence of a unique, all-powerful, infallible Judge, for ever intent on our thoughts, our feelings and actions, maintaining justice in this world and completing it in the next. And if there be no Judge, what justice is there? None other than that which men have made for themselves by their laws and tribunals, as also in the social relations that no definite judgment governs? Is there nothing above this human justice, whose sanction is rarely other than the opinion, the confidence or mistrust, the approval or disapproval, of our fellows? Is this capable of explaining or accounting for all that seems so inexplicable to us in the morality of the universe, that we at times feel almost compelled to believe an intelligent Judge must exist? When we deceive or overcome our neighbour, have we deceived or overcome all the forces of justice? Are all things definitely settled then, and may we go boldly on: or is there a graver, deeper justice, one less visible perhaps, but less subject to error; one that is more universal, and mightier?
That such a justice exists we all of us know, for we all have felt its irresistible power. We are well aware that it covers the whole of our life, and that at its centre there reigns an intelligence which never deceives itself, which none can deceive. But where shall we place it, now that we have torn it down from the skies? Where does it weigh good and evil, happiness and disaster? Whence does it issue to deal out reward and punishment? These are questions that we do not often ask ourselves, but they have their importance. The nature of justice, and all our morality, depend on the answer; and it cannot be fruitless therefore to inquire how that great idea of mystic and sovereign justice, which has undergone more than one transformation since history began, is being received to-day in the mind and the heart of man. And is this mystery not the loftiest, the most passionately interesting, of all that remain to us: does it not intertwine with most of the others? Do its vacillations not stir us to the very depths of our soul? The great bulk of mankind perhaps know nothing of these vacillations and changes, but for the evolution of thought it suffices that the eyes of the few should see; and when the clear consciousness of these has become aware of the transformation, its influence will gradually attain the general morality of men.
In these pages we shall naturally have much to say of social justice: of the justice, in other words, that we mutually extend to each other through life; but we shall leave on one side legal or positive justice, which is merely the organisation of one side of social justice. We shall occupy ourselves above all with that vague but inevitable justice, intangible and yet so effective, which accompanies and sets its seal upon every action of our life; which approves or disapproves, rewards or punishes. Does this come from without? Does an inflexible, undeceivable moral principle exist, independent of man, in the universe and in things? Is there, in a word, a justice that might be called mystic? Or does it issue wholly from man; is it inward even though it act from without; and is the only justice therefore psychologic? These two terms, mystic and psychologic justice, comprehend, more or less, all the different forms of justice, superior to the social, that would appear to exist to-day.
OUR FRIEND, THE DOG
I have lost, within these last few days, a little bull-dog. He had just completed the sixth month of his brief existence. He had no history. His intelligent eyes opened to look out upon the world, to love mankind, then closed again on the cruel secrets of death.
The friend who presented me with him had given him, perhaps by antiphrasis, the startling name of Pelléas. Why rechristen him? For how can a poor dog, loving, devoted, faithful, disgrace the name of a man or an imaginary hero?
Pelléas had a great bulging, powerful forehead, like that of Socrates or Verlaine; and, under a little black nose, blunt as a churlish assent, a pair of large hanging and symmetrical chops, which made his head a sort of massive, obstinate, pensive and three-cornered menace. He was beautiful after the manner of a beautiful, natural monster that has complied strictly with the laws of its species. And what a smile of attentive obligingness, of incorruptible innocence, of affectionate submission, of boundless gratitude and total self-abandonment lit up, at the least caress, that adorable mask of ugliness! Whence exactly did that smile emanate? From the ingenuous and melting eyes? From the ears pricked up to catch the words of man? From the forehead that unwrinkled to appreciate and love, or from the stump of a tail that wriggled at the other end to testify to the intimate and impassioned joy that filled his small being, happy once more to encounter the hand or the glance of the god to whom he surrendered himself?
Pelléas was born in Paris, and I had taken him to the country. His bonny fat paws, shapeless and not yet stiffened, carried slackly through the unexplored pathways of his new existence his huge and serious head, flat-nosed and, as it were, rendered heavy with thought.
For this thankless and rather sad head, like that of an overworked child, was beginning the overwhelming work that oppresses every brain at the start of life. He had, in less than five or six weeks, to get into his mind, taking shape within it, an image and a satisfactory conception of the universe. Man, aided by all the knowledge of his own elders and his brothers, takes thirty or forty years to outline that conception, but the humble dog has to unravel it for himself in a few days: and yet, in the eyes of a god, who should know all things, would it not have the same weight and the same value as our own?
IT is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all civilised countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet, Weber, Clement, the Abbe Collin, etc. English-speaking countries have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany has Dzierzon, Van Berlespoch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.
Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica, Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and experiments I have made during my twenty years of beekeeping I shall reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Reaumur addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom he accused of substituting for the marvellous reality marvels that were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make towards the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the text-books as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive; but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that, in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.
Luc paused and also looked. It would soon be six o'clock, and the light of that wretched, muggy, mid-September evening was already waning. It was a Saturday, and since Thursday the rain had scarcely ceased to fall. It was no longer coming down at present, but across the sky an impetuous wind was still driving a number of clouds, sooty ragged clouds, athwart which filtered a dirty, yellowish twilight, full of mortal sadness. Along the road over which stretched lines of rails, and where big paving-stones were disjointed by continuous traffic, there flowed a river of black mud, all the gathered moistened dust of the neighbouring coal-works of Brias, whose tumbrels were for ever going by. And that coal-dust had cast a blackness as of mourning over the entire gorge; it fell in patches over the leprous pile of factory buildings, and seemed even to besmirch those dark clouds which passed on interminably like smoke. An ominous melancholy swept by with the wind; one might have thought that the murky quivering twilight was bringing the end of the world in its train.