Count Maurice Maeterlinck was born in Ghent, Belgium to a wealthy, French-speaking family. He wrote poems and short novels during his studies, which he destroyed later; only fragments are left.
Read Our Friend the Dog by Maurice Maeterlinck, one of 11 of his works available free from Project Gutenberg.
After finishing his law studies at the University of Ghent in 1885, he spent a few months in Paris, France. He met there some members of the then new Symbolism movement, Villiers de l'Isle Adam in particular. The latter would have a big influence on the work of Maeterlinck.
In 1889, he became famous overnight after his first play, La princesse Maleine had received enthusiastic praise from Octave Mirbeau, the literary critic of Le Figaro (August 1890). In the following years, he wrote a series of symbolist plays characterized by fatalism and mysticism, most importantly L'Intruse (The Intruder, 1890), Les Aveugles (The Blind, 1890) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1892, this last of which received several well-known musical treatments (see below).
His greatest contemporary success, however, was the fairy play L'Oiseau Bleu (The Blue Bird, 1909). This play has been made into several films, including one made in 1940 in Technicolor, starring Shirley Temple (her first unsuccessful film), and the joint United States/Soviet Union production The Blue Bird (Russian: Sinyaya Ptitsa) (1976), starring Elizabeth Taylor (this version was also not a box office success, and was savaged by the critics). By a decree of 26 January 1914, his opera omnia was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Roman Catholic Church.
He had a relationship with the singer Georgette Leblanc from 1895 till 1918. In 1919 he married Renée Dahon; together they went to the United States in 1940.
In 1926 he published La Vie des Termites (The Life of the White Ant) plagiarising ('Die Huisgenoot', Nasionale Pers, 6 January 1928, cover story) "The Soul of the White Ant" researched and written by the South African poet and scientist Eugene Marais (1871 - 1936). Marais' later suicide has been attributed to this act of plagiarism by some ('The Dark Stream', Leon Rousseau, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town, 1982). Maeterlinck's own words in La Vie de Termites indicate that the possible discovery or accusation of plagiarism worried him:
It would have been easy, in regard to every statement, to allow the text to bristle with footnotes and references. In some chapters there is not a sentence but would have clamoured for these; and the letterpress would have been swallowed up by vast masses of comment, like one of those dreadful books we hated so much at school. There is a short bibliography at the end of the volume which will no doubt serve the same purpose.
Sadly, the name of Eugene Marais is conspicuous by its absence from the bibliography.
In 1930 he bought a château in Nice, France, and named it Orlamonde, a name occurring in his work Quinze Chansons.
He was made a count by Albert I, King of the Belgians in 1932.
According to an article published in the New York Times in 1940, he arrived in the United States from Lisbon on the Greek Liner Nea Hellas. He had fled to Lisbon in order to escape the Nazi invasion of both Belgium and France. The Times quoted him as saying, "I knew that if I was captured by the Germans I would be shot at once, since I have always been counted as an enemy of Germany because of my play, 'Le Bourgmestre de Stillemonde,' which dealt with the conditions in Belgium during the German Occupation of 1918."
He returned to Nice, France after the war and died there in 1949.