Category Archives: Week 9 Reviews: Wilde’s “Portrait of Mr. W.H,” Mallarmé’s “The Windows” and “The Azure”

Mallarmé’s Flight Toward the Poetical Beyond

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.


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Literary Criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”


“ The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is a piece written by Oscar Wilde, told in his classic charismatic, half-witty-half-serious style. My first thought was that it was quite tough to pin a genre down on this work; one minute it seemed to be a fable, the next it seemed to be an example of literary criticism and basically how NOT to evaluate a source. Wilde skillfully injected paradox and wit into literary speculation, to the point where even the criticism of the characters that we feel as readers became unstable. As discussed in class, it became clear that many of us wanted the “Willie Hughes Theory” to be true, because it seemed to “fit” so nicely with our thinking. However, this was exactly what Wilde was telling us not to do; he exemplified this through the characters Erskine and the narrator, who are made to look somewhat idiotic in their quest to discover the validity of the theory. This is made clear through the characters’ erroneous methods of searching for truth: they started out with a very firm belief and only accepted evidence that fit in with that belief, discarding the rest. The narrator seems to realize this eventually, commenting: “But the proofs, the links – where were they?  Alas!  I could not find them.  It seemed to me that I was always on the brink of absolute verification, but that I could never really attain to it”. The narrator understands that the “Willie Hughes Theory” is no more than just a theory, and that he will just make himself crazy if he continues to search for evidence; he will still never be sure, and Shakespeare himself would probably be annoyed if someone was overthinking his work and trying to pinpoint the source of his affection. However, both Erskine and Cyril are not so lucky; they both die still harboring their obsessions with W.H.  In any case, this story still remains to be both a lively tale and an important lesson; it’s obviously a reflection of Wilde’s own beliefs and may possibly allude to a particular period in his own life. -MG

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A Decadent’s Personal Freedom

What I found most interesting in Gide’s Immoralist, was the notion of destroying the other to truly attain what you need most for yourself. Michel seems to be on a constant search not only towards understanding his homosexuality, but also for his personal freedom. He says “The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free is the task.” The concept of freedom, specifically the freedom of Michel’s soul is a constant one within in the book. Although unearthing his homosexuality, and feeling strong desire to want to live and thus to be free are also important themes, what is more interesting is the fact that Michel’s freedom is also Marceline’s undoing. There is yet another layer to be added to this mixture, that of what seems to be a true desire in Michel to help his wife get better. His affection for her is difficult to doubt because of how often, and with what innocence he praises her; we see this especially in the beginning of the book. Although some of this praise comes out of a sentiment of pity, Michel has no ill will towards his wife. Maybe it is specifically the fact that he appreciated his wife that makes her demise so difficult to grasp. This seems to be a recurring theme in the decadent vein—we saw it much more dramatically in Rachide’s Monsieur Vénus, but also in Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. The use of others, and eventual end of others for the purpose of this freedom Michel is so attached to, defines what decadence means to me. If I were to leave you with one quote from the Immoralist it would be: “Envying another man’s happiness is madness; you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you had it.” Michel doesn’t want anyone else’s happiness, or to have a freedom like anyone else’s, it is his own freedom he craves so intensely. There is some sort of constricting, contriving aspect of the 19th century that causes decadents that screams for a release, a release which causes the characters of our books to behave oddly, inappropriately, and at times even violently. For Wilde we know it had something to do with the utterly ultra-pure convictions of the Victorian times, but it seems to me there must be something more. This more is what we have been looking for all quarter. We have described decadence in many ways but if I were to describe it now, it would be the unquenchable thirst for freedom of one’s own mind, body, and soul, with no consideration for those around you. Not only this but, it also concerns the measures which our characters are willing to go to attain this personal freedom. -MCR

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Science in Decadent Literature


What is the role of science in Decadent literature? In a good number of the works we have read there has been at least one mention of science made. The anatomical venus is a nod to science in M. Venus and Anthony is tempted by science in the form of the Devil himself. Wilde also writes about science quite often. For example, in Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” he claims that past villains such as Nero and Tiberius, “have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval,” (1107).  In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Alan Campbell plays a small but prominent role and seems to be a tool with which Wilde can make statements about science. Campbell is always a dedicated scientist, but during his relationship with Dorian he develops an appreciation of art as well. Once the relationship ends badly though, Campbell seems to want to distance himself from art as much as possible. He stops playing the piano and violin and begins to dislike even hearing music. Wilde writes “he was so absorbed in science that he had no time left in which to practice,” (122). For Campbell, art has become associated with Dorian and it is too painful for him to deal with. He wants to get as far away from art as possible and the apparent opposite is science.

There are many other examples, but a pattern emerges. It seems to me that science is obviously different from art and in some ways its complete opposite. Wilde has pointed out some fallacies of science and seems to hold art above it. However, Wilde does not completely reject science. Art and science share some powerful similarities. They are not held to moral standards and allow us to get at the truth objectively. While very different, they seem to be held in a similar plane. There is a higher power to both and Wilde, as well as his contemporaries, seem to respect science at some level. But of course art will always win out over science in a Decadent world.  IPN

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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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Oscar Wilde’s Epigrams

Yesterday, on November 27, The Guardian published an infographic on Oscar Wilde and his most enduring epigrams. Enjoy!

Credit: Zhenia Vasiliev and Adam Frost, The Guardian


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