The action of The Words upon the Window-Pane takes place in the parlor of a now-seedy Dublin boardinghouse that has an illustrious history. Built in the eighteenth century and originally owned by friends of Jonathan Swift, the house has had as its occupants two celebrated Irish patriots, as well as Esther Johnson (1681-1728), Swift’s “Stella.”
As the one-act play opens, guests are arriving for a séance, to be conducted by Mrs. Henderson, a medium who has journeyed from London at the invitation of the Dublin Spiritualists’ Association. The participants are greeted by Dr. Trench, the Association’s president, and Miss Mackenna, its secretary. The first arrival is John Corbet, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge who is writing a thesis on the relationship between Swift and Stella. Corbet declares his skepticism of spiritualism, and Dr. Trench responds by relating the story of his own early disbelief until his conversion during a séance much like that which is about to take place. Trench explains to Corbet that Mrs. Henderson will act as a medium for the voices of the dead; he cautions Corbet, however, that a “hostile influence” has disrupted Mrs. Henderson’s past séance.
Trench is interrupted by the arrival of Cornelius Patterson, a gambler, whose interest in spiritualism is chiefly to learn whether horse races are run in the life after death. Switching topics, Trench tells Corbet the history of the house and points out the lines from one of Stella’s poems, incised on the glass of the parlor’s window. While Corbet attempts to read the now faintly cut lines in the dim light, Abraham Johnson enters. Johnson, an itinerant preacher, is anxious to rid the séance of its hostile influence by reciting the rite of exorcism, but he is dissuaded by Dr. Trench.
Corbet now recognizes the poem cut into the glass—four lines written by Stella for Swift’s fifty-fourth birthday:
You taught how I might youth prolongBy knowing what is right and wrong,How from my heart to bring suppliesOf lustre to my fading eyes.
Trench and Corbet discuss Swift’s dual tragedy, his...
(The entire section is 940 words.)