In Les Fenêtres and L’Azur, Stéphane Mallarmé tries to describe a vision of the sublime through the sight of the sky’s deep azure. In the first stanza of Les Fenêtres, an old and dying man (moribond) sees delicate wisps of fetid smoke (encens fétide) arising along the windows’ curtains (rideaux). The smoke drew the moribund’s attention to the sunbeams passing through the windows (second stanza). The third stanza has a feminine “it” (elle) for subject (translated “it” in Hubert Creekmore’s translation). The identity of this elle remains veiled until the eighth stanzas: “she” refers of course to Beauty, which the poet caught a glimpse of through the windows: “–Let the window be art, be mystic state” [–Que la vitre soit l’art, soit la mysticité–]. The drunkenness (l’ivresse) and the euphoria of the fourth stanza (Ivre, il vit, oubliant l’horreur des saintes huiles / Les tisanes, l’horloge et le lit infligé, / La toux; et quand le soir saigne parmi les tuiles, / Son œil, à l’horizon de lumière gorgée) in which the dying man forgets everything: his ills, his desperate conditions and even the notion of time itself, is promptly interrupted by the unfortunate man’s nausea (ninth stanza). The poet’s headlong rush (la fuite) to infinity and beauty (Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté) stops in a disturbing impression of disgust and nausea (écœurement). The foolishness (la Bêtise) of the poet who tried to put words on the ineffable is making him sick. The poet is forced to “hold his nose” (boucher son nez). Yet the verb boucher also contains the word bouche (mouth). The poet is forced (la Bêtise / Me force à me boucher le nez devant l’azur) to buckle it up when he is before the infinity of the blue-azure horizon. Whereof the poet cannot speak, thereof the poet must remain silent. In the last stanza, the poem ends with a question: Can the poet take his flight (a flight towards a poetical beyond, the call of blue water/sky cf. Mallarmé’s famous poem Brise Marine) without the risk of falling forever in a temporal void (tomber pendant l’éternité)?
In L’Azur, one finds again the theme of the flight toward a poetical beyond (second stanza) along with the sublime beauty of the blue horizon (eighth stanza). Fogs and wisps of smoke are arising as they structurally echo a vertical ascension and elevation of the poet’s mind. Perhaps echoing the beginning of industrialization in pre-modern Europe, in the fifth stanza the fog transforms into a polluted and corrupted smog (Encor ! que sans répit les tristes cheminées / fument, […] Le soleil se mourrant jaunâtre à l’horizon). Here, as opposed to Les Fenêtres, the sunlight cannot traverse the opacity of the fetid smoke. In L’Azur, the sky is dead (Le Ciel est mort) because it is masked by a thick smog. Yet behind the opaque veil the azure remains still (l’Azure triomphe). The suffering poet feels haunted by the blue azure: he mourns its vanishing and cries over his incapacity to honor its memory: […] ma cervelle, vidée / […] N’as plus l’art d’attifer la sanglotante idée […] at last my mind, drained […] No longer has the art to garnish the tearful idea]. -R.C.