A few remarks on Mallarmé’s poems “Les fenêtres” (“The Windows”) and “L’Azur” (“The Azure”)

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun

The two poems “Les fenêtres” (1863) and “L’Azur” (1864) were both published in the journal Le Parnasse Contemporain. In “Les fenêtres,” an old man longingly looks out from the death- and sickness-ridden world of a hospital at the youthful, joyful world outside that he cannot forget, but from which he is forever separated by the closed window. Concurrently, in “L’Azur,” we hear a powerless poet (“Le poète impuissant”) lamenting the torturing vision of such an ideal world, which he knows must be an illusion.  Paul de Man closely analyzed these two poems in his 1960 unpublished dissertation The Post-Romantic Predicament, pointing to the importance of the hymenic trope (the alluring yet painful barrier, or hymen) in Mallarmé’s work, a topic also taken up by Derrida in his famous rumination of Mallarmé in “La double séance” (a chapter in Dissemination).  (For a biographical perspective on Paul de Man’s continuous interest in Mallarmé’s oeuvre throughout his career, see Rei Terada, “De Man and Mallarmé ‘Between the Two Deaths’,” in Meetings with Mallarmé in Contemporary French Culture, ed. Michael Temple [Exeter: Univ. of Exeter Press, 1998], 107-25.)

In both of these poems, De Man argues, Mallarmé employs the metaphors of a windowpane and a thick fog to designate art and poetic language as a hymen, encompassing the maddening double movement of knowledge and forgetfulness.  De Man explains that in “Les fenêtres” the visually penetrable, yet insuperable barrier of the windowpane becomes an allegorical reflection of the old man’s ambiguous wish to turn away from life with scorn, and to be reborn in the “Beauty” of an imagined utopian past, now painfully distant:

Je fuis et je m’accroche à toutes les croisées

D’où l’on tourne l’épaule à la vie, et, béni,

Dans leur verre, lave d’éternelles rosées,

Que dore le matin chaste de l’Infini

Je me mire et je vois ange! et je meurs, et j’aime

–Que la vitre soit l’art, soit la mysticité—

A renaître, portant mon rêve au diadème,

Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté![i]

The poem suggests the window, the figure of separation and memory, as a metaphor for art: “Que la vitre soit l’art soit la mysticité”; art is a mysticism attempting to recapture a lost unity in a renaissance of the past.  The “heaven” of Beauty is already portrayed as anterior (“ciel antérieur”) that cannot innocently be reentered: “Rebirth in this ideal world can only be stated in the form of a temporal paradox (‘renaître au ciel antérieur . . . ‘), as a future which is primarily a return to the past, but neverable to exist in the present” (De Man, 8).  The window is an ambiguous symbol, like art itself: “on the one hand, it represents, in a rather conventional manner, the hope or even the assurance that a better world exists elsewhere, beyond reality—but, on the other hand, it also acts as the obstacle that keeps us separated from this ideal world” (6). Art produces either a temporarily soothing illusion—we might call this an anamnetic nostalgia—or the painful realization that such illusion is false, that there can never be an immediate “presence” in the past. In the poem, the old man seals his ambiguous anamnetic moment of separation and longing at the window with a kiss on the glass, momentarily immersing himself in a sea of blissful memories, drunk with emotion: “Et la bouche, fiévreuse et d’azur bleu vorace, / Telle, jeune, elle alla respirer son trésor, / Une peau virginale et de jadis! encrasse / D’un long baiser amer les tièdes carreaux d’or” (“And fevered, greedy for azure, the mouth / As, youthful, it would breathe its wealth away, / A virgin skin of long ago! befouls / With a long, bitter kiss the warm golden panes” (Mallarmé, Selected Poetry and Prose, 8 and 9).

In “L’Azur,” the open azure, the beautiful sky of old, mocks the poet’s inability to become one with it again (“De l’éternel azur la sereine ironie / Accable [. . .] / Le poète impuissant qui maudit son génie / A travers un désert stérile de Douleurs.”[ii]  The poet implores the fogs of “ennui” to rise, dust and smoke to cover himself over and to intercept the mocking scorn of the blue sky, and to block out the memory of “l’Idéal cruel.”  In “L’Azur,” the warmth and the serenity of the blue sky is but a cruel “conceit,” a “temptation […] founded on such false hopes and expectations that, to a lucid mind, it becomes a cause for torment” (De Man, 8f.). His inability to achieve forgetfulness of the ideal, which is unattainable but will not stop inducing desire, makes him cry out, in the last two lines of the poem, as it realizes its desperate situation:  “Où fuir dans la révolte inutile et perverse? / Je suis hanté.  L’Azur! L’Azur! L’Azur! L’Azur!”[iii]  For Paul de Man, “Les fenêtres” and “L’Azur” belonged together as antithetical expressions of the same problematic of language as a maddening window into, and a barrier against, unity with the Beyond: “In ‘Les fenêtres’, the unity from which one is separated is desperately longed for, but in ‘L’azur’ Mallarmé turns away from it in horror.  Art now appears as a substance one tries to interpose between the unbearable brightness of the sunlight and the divided soul of the poet” (9).

In such a disillusioned poetic universe, poetic language “becomes a purely formal entity, the tangible sign that remains of an intent which fails to succeed, but leaves behind this trace of its desire” (12). For Mallarmé and other Symbolist-Modernist writers, poetic language marks the desire, but also the impossibility, to forget and evade death’s inevitability, although—as in Symons and Yeats—figures of dream can help sublimate this desire, if only momentarily.  De Man is convinced that Mallarmé already realized that “[t]he future poetry must accept to know and to submit to death as it really is, without this time attempting a half-conscious ruse to escape from its power; it must be, in the full sense of the term, a poetry of death” (34).  De Man presents us with a radically modern Mallarmé.

in summary, Mallarmé saw art and language as intercepting the direct access of consciousness to reality, like a dividing screen or hymen that signifies the double desire for penetration on the one hand, and the impossibility of it on the other.  In other words, art produces a beautiful dream, which acts as a refuge from the cruelty of life and from death: like a protective blanket, it envelops the dreaming subject—in this case, the artist, but also the consumers of his art—in a warm and comfortable, seemingly timeless space, creating if not heaven, then at least a haven.

[i] Stéphane Mallarmé, “Les fenêtres”/”The Windows,” trans. Hubert Creekmore, in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Directions, 1982), 10 and 11; hereafter cited as Mallarmé, Mallarmé, Selected Poetry and Prose.  Trans.: “I flee and cling to all the window frames / Whence one can turn his back on life in scorn, / And, blest in their glass, by eternal dewdrops laved / And gilded by the Infinite’s chaste morn, // I peer and see myself an angel! I die, I long / –Let the window be art, be mystic state– / To be reborn, wearing my dream as a crown, / In the previous heaven where Beauty flowered great!”

[ii] Mallarmé, “L’Azur”/”The Azure,” trans. Hubert Creekmore: “The everlasting Azure’s tranquil irony / Depresses, like the flowers indolently fair, / The powerless poet who damns his superiority / Across a sterile wilderness of aching Despair” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 14 and 15).

[iii] Mallarmé, Selected Poetry and Prose,16 and 17:  “Where flee in my revolt so useless and depraved? / For I am haunted!  The Sky!  The Sky! The Sky!  The Sky!”

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Filed under Week 9 Reviews: Wilde's "Portrait of Mr. W.H," Mallarmé’s “The Windows" and "The Azure”

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