“The Windows” is a short poem of forty lines that are divided into ten four-line stanzas of Alexandrines. The poem divides exactly into two sections; in the first half of the poem, an old man makes his way slowly toward a window of the hospital in which he is dying. The second half of the poem presents a vision of the old man’s dreams that have been occasioned by the warm sunlight filtering through the panes of glass.
Stéphane Mallarmé used this poem, with its almost commonplace title, to introduce a series of poems in Le Parnasse contemporain (1863), one of the early collections in what has come to be recognized as the Symbolist style, which coalesced officially following a published manifesto in 1886. (Other poets who eventually produced poems in this style include Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud.) Mallarmé is designated as one of the masters of this style primarily for his extensive use of images that evoke a type of sensuous reverie; these images are, however, frequently difficult to decipher. This difficulty in decoding demonstrates one of the essential paradoxes of the movement: A symbol, by definition, calls attention to something else. When that “something else” is vague or difficult to discern, however, the symbol begins to take on more power in and of itself, not simply as a referential device.
“The Windows” demonstrates this technique initially in the apparent simplicity of the title. Hardly anything could be less unusual than a window; everyone is surrounded by dozens of them every day. In this poem, however, Mallarmé asks the reader, initially by means of a type of omniscient narration of the old man’s feelings, to consider windows in a new way. Mallarmé suggests that these windows are, rather than simply vehicles through which light and vision are transmitted, in fact gateways through which individuals might gain access to memories and desires thought to have passed away long ago. The narration of the poem shifts abruptly in line 25 from the third person to the first person in an effort to reinforce the power of the despair the narrator feels at having lost access to such a realm as the old man has dreamed of beyond the window.