Émile Verhaeren wrote several plays, one of which, Les Aubes (1898; The Dawn, 1898), was immediately translated into English by Arthur Symons. In the early 1880’s, Verhaeren’s art criticism, which was published in journals, had a considerable impact, popularizing Impressionism in Belgium. Throughout his life, he continued to produce criticism, treating Low Country painters of the past as well as evaluating artists of his own day. In view of Verhaeren’s deep interest in aesthetics and art history, it is no wonder that students of his poems have consistently viewed them in the light of painting and graphics.
Émile Verhaeren’s literary reputation has suffered a steady decline since his death. Very popular and highly regarded in his lifetime, commanding both a large readership and respect from such demanding critics as Paul Valéry, he is virtually unread today. Nevertheless, Verhaeren is among Belgium’s preeminent poets, and his works, though out of fashion, are of great historical value, reflecting diverse and even contradictory aesthetic trends of his time. A Naturalist, a Symbolist, a proto-Expressionist, Verhaeren was above all a poet with a passionate faith in humanity.
During the period from 1890 to 1910, when Verhaeren’s attentions turned to social issues, he produced two trilogies that are breathtaking in their all-encompassing scope. The first includes Les Campagnes hallucinées (the deluded countries), Les Villages illusoires (the illusory villages), and Les Villes tentaculaires (the tentacular cities); the second trilogy consists of Les Visages de la vie (the aspects of life), Les Forces tumultueuses (tumultuous forces), and La Multiple Splendeur (the multiple splendor). These works demonstrate a turning away from a subjective fixation on the self toward a new objectivity in dealing with the world. They are informed by a strong faith in human progress, but this optimism is not unmixed: Verhaeren never forgets the darker side of the new machine age.
Les Villages illusoires is one of Verhaeren’s most popular works and one of his most carefully designed collections. The pieces that constitute it alternate between detailed realistic descriptions of various types of workmen going about their activities and quiet mood pieces that describe natural phenomena and that offer interludes between scenes of dynamic, often frenetic, activity.
The most often anthologized poem of this collection is “La Neige” (“The Snow”), one of the atmospheric interludes. This lyric paints a melancholy winter scene not unlike that of...