Mallarmé’s two poems set in the symbolist style, L’Azur and La Fenêtre, explore the artist’s relationship between the mundane and the ideal.
La Fenêtre begins describing an old man in a hospital, near death. The opening stanza ties in the oppressive smell of the hospital and outside environment with religious imagery, as the “fetid incense arising like the banal whiteness of veils To the great bored crucifix on the empty wall, The crafty dying man his back sets straight.” The fumes that move toward the crucifix may indicate the inability of religion to create an ideal for the dead man. Instead the crucifix is “bored on the empty wall,” neglected and barren.
The window, which the old man hungers for, represents the threshold between the ideal, or “beautiful” and the mundane reality of his death. He longs to “see the sunshine on the stones,” perhaps indicating his search for truth in the sun. His mouth is even described as being as avid as a younger person, connecting to the obsession with youth and dying which consumes many authors of decadent literature.
The ideal on the other side of the window is filled with images of beauty, “golden galleys, beautiful as swans, On a ruddy, perfumed river, cradling to sleep The tawny, rich light of their echelons.” These images are also ‘in vast nonchalance charged with memories,” which connects the ideal with a kind of nostalgia, the beauty that ignores present circumstances and instead remembers a sweeter past.
The poet then attempts to reach outside of the window and attain the ideal himself by being reborn through art or mysticism. The poet gambles that he may reach this state by breaking the glass of the window and flinging himself into the unknown void of the ideal. However, the ability of the poet to reach this state is questioned by Mallarmé, as he says that there is a “risk of falling through eternal skies.” This fall both indicates the tenuous position of the artist, but may also question the existence of the ideal at all. There is a possibility in Mallarmé’s poem that all that is on the other side of the mundane is the void. A similar question is brought up in Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony as the gods are one by one cast unto the void.
The second of Mallarmé’s two poems, “L’Azur,” shows a much more pessimistic take on the relationship between the artist and the ideal. In this poem, written several months after the first, Mallarmé is filled with the fog that besets an artist struggling to reach beyond mundane reality. In this poem, the “eternal Sky” that the poet formerly wanted to leap into, now “depresses” and the “the powerless poet who damns his superiority Across a sterile wilderness of aching Despair. This passage encapsulates the struggle of the artist to combat ennui and the terrible realization of his lack of power. Here the poet asks, “Where can I flee?” The ideal no longer is just through the window. Now the poet is beset by the fog and “ashen haze” which clouds his vision, as he says “Unceasing let the dismal chimney-flues Exude their smoke, and let the soot’s nomadic prison Extinguish in the horror of its blackened queues The sun now fading yellow away on the horizon!” The fading yellow sun contrasts to the direct ray of light which is prominent in “La Fenêtre.” Now the artist “no longer has the art of decking tearful plaints, To yawn lugubrious toward a humble death…” The blue color of the azure sky now takes over. It “penetrates Like an unerring blade your native agony.” Now the poet asks “Where flee in my revolt so useless and depraved?” and the horror now takes the shape of “The Sky! the Sky! the Sky! the Sky!”
At the end of L’Azur, the artist has given up hope for his ability to fly into the ideal. The poet is now left in the empty void, as all that is on the metaphoric other side of the window is the mundane fumes of the everyday. These two poems explore the power of the artist, and show a progression in Mallarmé’s poetry as he questioned the role of the poet.
Word Count: 707