Otherworldliness in Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Windows”

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In “The Windows,” Mallarmé presents an affinity for a world apart from that of the material, the common man, and the surface meaning of objects. The man in the poem is devoted to a life beyond that of his dying body and nauseating, stupid world. In the opening stanza we see a disregard for and inversion of one of mankind’s favored symbols, the Catholic crucifix: “To the great bored crucifix on the empty wall,/ The crafty dying man his back sets straight” (Mallarmé 3-4). The “crafty dying man” could be the male subject of the poem, the old man in the hospital, or it could be referring to the aforementioned crucifix, and, thus, Christ. It makes sense that the crucifix shows up in a Symbolist poem because it is a powerful religious symbol that stands for an overlap between man and divine, the material and spiritual worlds. The subject of the poem’s salvation into another world, however, does not come from religion but rather the beauty of his own artistic and intellectual vision: “Sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans,/ On a ruddy, perfumed river, cradling to sleep/ The tawny, rich light of their echelons/ In vast nonchalance charged with memories!” (17-20). The ability of the man to see beyond the confines of the ugly, dying hospital and into the beauty of the other world is what justifies his existence. Symbolism is not just a style of poetry, but also the lifestyle of the subject, and, one can imagine, the artist. “The Windows” seems a manifesto of otherworldliness, not without a tirade against those who choose to live more materialistically: “So, filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous,/ Sprawled in comforts where his hungering/ Is fed…” (21-23). In these lines, the author derides those who exist solely to satisfy the needs of their bodies, rather than their minds. The “soul,” here, is a stand in for the aesthetic sensibilities that the poet so highly values in himself. To me, the anger and bitterness function in an ironic way. While the subject of the poem would claim to live largely in the other world, the world of beauty and forms and the meaning behinds objects and symbols, he spends a good deal of time and emotional energy in the “lower world,” hating and making fun of the people around him. Indeed, the dying man’s disregard for his fellow man and the world that his body inhabits reaches an almost absurd level by the end of the poem. In the second to last stanza, he admits that he is not safe from the influences (such as stupidity and stink) of the world below him, even from an elevated position of tremendous artistic sensibility and appreciation for beauty: “But oh! the World Below is lord: its spell/ Still nauseates me in this safe retreat,/ And the reeking spew of Stupidity compels/ Me to hold my nose…” (33-36). One can not help but feel sorry for the old man, who is tied to the world he hates through that very hatred.

–SVZ

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