The literal translation of Pound’s title “Portrait d’une Femme” is “portrait of a lady,” which has inevitable associations with the novel The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, published in 1881. Pound greatly admired James’s book, especially for its keen psychological insights, and in this poem he attempts to re-create the same sort of description, outlining the character of a person by detailing her surroundings.
The woman is a London literary hostess who rules over a conventional, if slightly boring, salon where writers and artists have come for “this score years,” amusing the lady and themselves with clever but, it would seem, inconsequential conversation. Nothing really important is said here, possibly because it would be wasted: “Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else,” Pound writes.
The woman is compared to the Sargasso Sea, that area in the North Atlantic where floating seaweed from the Gulf Stream gathers and where tradition says that wrecked ships, lost hulks, and vanished vessels are mired forever. In much the same way, the lady of the title has gathered cast-off ideas, second-rate notions, and “fact that leads nowhere.” In this respect the poem is in keeping with Pound’s satirical verse on the English literary scene, a view that he expressed more forcibly and much more bitterly in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Thus, by extension, the woman in “Portrait d’une Femme” becomes an...
(The entire section is 432 words.)