The Poem

A casual glimpse of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Windows” is enough to reveal its modernity: The thirty-seven lines are of widely varying lengths and are not divided into stanzas. Still, the title is fairly traditional; windows are an age-old symbol of the human eye, the link between the inner world and the world outside. Similarly, the opening verse is reassuringly musical, with careful rhythms and long vowel sounds in the French; it is, however, also enigmatic.

“From red to green all the yellow dies”—the phrase may allude to colors on a canvas, to the colors of the spectrum, to a sunset, or to something else altogether. In spite of the later reference to “sunset,” the rest of the work does little to clarify this statement; in fact, at line 2, the poem seems to splinter into a bewilderingly random set of fragments, apparently generated by a process of free association.

Sights, sounds, thoughts, comments, events, memories, snatches of conversation, and rare poetic images are presented to the reader without any indication of their function. The impressions simply sit side by side, and it is up to the reader to work out the connections. For example, the primary colors of the first line may suggest the colorful macaws seen singing in the primitive (“native”) forests of the second line; these macaws, perhaps, then generate the “pihis”—mythical one-winged birds—whose “giblets” are presented, without commentary, in the...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Forms and Devices

“Windows” was originally written for the 1913 exhibition in Berlin of the cubist painter Robert Delaunay, Apollinaire’s favorite artist after Pablo Picasso. Delaunay’s preoccupations with color, with windows, and with the Eiffel Tower are all evident in the poem; more important, the poem has strong affinities with cubist techniques of collage.

Like a cubist painting, “Windows” mixes purely abstract elements (the colors) with an artistic representation of reality (“unfathomable violets”) and with directly presented reality (“towers”). The tone fluctuates between seriousness and flippancy, the poetic and the colloquial; the vocabulary is sometimes prosaic (the ironically capitalized “Codfish”), sometimes exotic (“pihis”); there are lines of sixteen syllables and lines of one syllable, as well as lines of conventional length. Logical connections between words and lines are removed; there is not even any punctuation or spacing between groups of verses to give clues as to the relationships involved. Legend has it that Apollinaire and some friends wrote the poem together at a café, each adding a line in turn; at first reading, that seems highly credible.

Nevertheless, this collage is skillfully handled, blending experimentation with tradition. Generally speaking, each element is coherent in itself and is confined to one or two lines. Thus the problem is merely one of unexpected combinations and the lack of an overall...

(The entire section is 507 words.)