The Poem

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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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 third.

As if recalling Apollinaire’s earlier use of the “pihi” in his most famous poem, “Zone,” the fourth and fifth lines step back from sound and vision to talk about poetry: There is a poem to be made about this bird, says the unidentified speaker, and “we’ll send it by telephone,” the new world-linking technology seen so powerfully in “Liens” (“Chains”).

These first five lines contain the themes for the whole poem: color, exoticism, the bird’s-eye view of the world, and universal connections. After that, the confusion seems to increase, another powerfully suggestive verse (verse 6) contrasting sharply with the most crudely realistic line of the poem (line 9). Yet just as it seems as if all coherence has been lost, the spiderlike hands at the window gradually begin to weave the threads together again, as S. I. Lockerbie has shown. The disruptive snatches of conversation slowly fade out, the links between lines become stronger, and when the tour of the world has gathered speed—allowing the reader to see ever further, ever more distinctly—the train brings the reader back to Paris, back to the first line.

Yet the reader has not simply gone round in circles. The poem began with a death, a sunset, and it continued, with a “shock” and with tears, into the pale colors of night and winter; now the train brings the reader into spring, and the repeated first line seems to suggest a new dawn, the orange implying a bright new day, the word “fruit” a new birth. A flat window, a lifeless palette, metamorphoses into a three-dimensional object of nature. The poem thus ends on a triumphant note of unity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

“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 context into which to fit them. In some ways, that does not so much imitate cubism as anticipate Surrealism; indeed, Apollinaire invented the term, and the most famous Surrealist image, “the earth is blue like an orange,” may owe something to this poem.

What is typically cubist in the poem is the juxtaposition of different perspectives. Just as a cubist portrait might show a nose in profile next to the front view of an eye, so in “Windows” the towers are viewed from the side, becoming “streets,” and the squares from above, gaining depth by comparison with the surrounding houses. This use of perspective, which may also derive from the then newly fashionable cinema, has two effects: It reproduces the “simultaneity” of modern life, the sensation of multiple impressions striking the viewer all at once, and it suggests that there are numerous ways of looking at the same thing.

There is no identifiable speaker in the poem, no “I” to give a single point of view; the closest the speaker comes to that is in a vague “we,” and in the French, an even vaguer on (“one,” “we,” “they”). The poet’s place is usurped by anonymous, disembodied voices and by colors and objects—like the window opening by itself—which have a life of their own. The individuality of the poet comes through only in the choice and combination of elements; although there is plenty of sensation, personal emotion seems rare. Keeping the poet out of the poem also means letting the reader in. The ambiguities—do wells look like squares, or do squares look like wells?—force readers to read actively, to add their own associations and attempt to find meanings in the carefully arranged elements of the poem.