The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

“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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

The dominant metaphor of the poem is simply a window; Mallarmé is asking the reader to consider a familiar object in a new light. He wishes to emphasize that even the simplest objects by which people are surrounded can take on an almost spiritual meaning when considered through the lens of poetic technique. As the old man of the first half of the poem “Shuffles, less to warm his rotting body/ Than to watch the sun on the stones, to press/ His ashen gaunt and skeletal face/ To the panes which a clear beautiful ray attempts to tinge,” the reader understands the window initially as a medium through which light, heat, and the old man’s vision are transmitted. The old man longs to be outside, away from “the rank fumes” of the hospital where he can hold his “eye on the horizon gorged with light.” The use of the word “gorged” (gorgé) indicates another use of the metaphor of the glass through which light, heat, and vision move. The old man certainly relishes what is on the other side of the window, but he is also definitely aware of the sensuous quality of the window itself. After he shuffles to the window, “his mouth, feverish and greedy for the azure,/ As when young, he breathed his prize,/ A virginal cheek! soils/ With a long bitter kiss the warm golden panes.” In other words, the old man’s kissing of the glass indicates an awareness of the sensual pleasure of the symbol, of the gateway through which his own perceptions, and those of the reader, are led back to an era that cannot, apparently, be recovered.

The metaphor of the window is far from exhausted in the old man’s lingering kiss that indicates that he is wallowing “in contentment, where only his appetites/ Devour him.” As soon as the reader has accepted the use that the dying old man is making of the window, Mallarmé introduces another dimension into the poem by entering in the first person. He notes, “I flee and I cling to all those windows/ From where one turns one’s back on life.” These windows, then, are not the personal gateway to the past dreams of the dying old man, but poetic gateways through which “I see myself and I brag I am an angel! and I die, and I long/—Let the glass be art, let it be mysticism—/ To be reborn, wearing my dream as a crown,/ In a past heaven where Beauty flourished!” These windows, which are the operation of poetry itself, promise to allow the poet access to a heaven of pure poetry “where Beauty flourishe[s].”

As the final two stanzas of the poem indicate, however, even though one’s passions, vision, and understanding can readily pass through such windows, one’s body cannot. The speaker of the poem realizes finally that “Here-below [Ici-bas] is master; its curse/ Sickens me . . ./ And the foul vomit of Stupidity/ Makes me stop up my nose in face of the azure.” That is, the pane of glass remains firmly fixed between the dying old man and his dreams, and between the poet and his. Poetry, like a crystalline pane of glass, presents the illusion of allowing access to another world, but that illusion ultimately shatters because the glass does not.

The speaker finally muses despondently, “Is there a way for Me who knows bitterness/ To shatter the crystal insulted by the monster/ and to escape with my two featherless wings/—Even at the risk of falling in eternity?” Having exhausted the poetic means available to help him escape the “Here-below,” the speaker wonders whether death itself, perhaps in suicide, might be a way to escape the reflection of his own image in the window, the monster of line 38.

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