The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The title of the poem is drawn from two sources: Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and Ezra Pound’s poem “Portrait D’une Femme” (1912). The lady in question in this poem and in Pound’s is based upon Adeleine Moffatt, who lived in Boston and invited T. S. Eliot and other selected undergraduates to tea and conversation. She was described in Conrad Aiken’s fictionalized autobiography, Ushant: An Essay (1952), as “the précieuse ridicule to end all preciosity, serving tea so exquisitely among her bric-a-brac.”
The epigraph is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta (published 1633) and is important for setting a mood of betrayal, though, by comparison, the persona in Eliot’s poem appears to be much less culpable than the character in Marlowe’s play. This character, Barabas, accuses himself of certain lesser crimes in order to disguise his poisoning of a convent of nuns.
The poem, in three sections of approximately forty lines each, follows for a year the relationship between the male persona and the lady. In free verse, the young man (clearly much younger than the lady) quotes his hostess, at least as he remembers her words, and offers his highly judgmental, apparently detached, introspective reaction.
In the first section, situated in midwinter, the two are returning from a concert of Frédéric Chopin’s piano music. In this very brief space, the lady refers to friendship five times. Friendship seems a bit of a letdown, though,...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Eliot claimed that the form of expression in this poem and in much of his early writing drew upon the conversational style of later Elizabethan drama and upon the French Symbolist, Jules Laforgue. The latter’s influence on him is evident especially in “Portrait of a Lady,” which marks the development in Eliot’s style from that of a romantic to a postromantic. There is in the diction and tone of the language, in other words, a sense of greater detachment and irony, a tentativeness and a general sense of disillusionment.
Rhyme is scattered throughout the verses, and the rhythm is frequently close to iambic pentameter, but both rhyme and rhythm follow no set pattern. Instead, they are used to establish a languid and even haltingly self-conscious tone, close enough to ordinary speech to convey the scene and characters convincingly, but musical enough to render these few chosen moments of memory as special and unusually significant in the mind of the persona.
Music is, in fact, the principal metaphor in the poem, representing the fluid movement of emotions between the older woman and the younger man. Beginning with a reference to a Chopin prelude, identified with the lady, the poem is interrupted by the “false note” of the young man’s own prelude, beating in his head in rebellious counterpoint. As the relationship fails to develop and harmonize, the jarring music from the two players leads inevitably to a “dying fall” and an early, disastrous collapse of their concert. In the concluding stanza of the first section, for example, the movement from the delicacy of violins, through the harshness of cornets and drums and on to the dubious “music” of clocks in watchtowers, demonstrates the young man’s insistence on getting away from the highly strung world of the lady’s tea parties and back to his pedestrian world of beer and pretzels. Along with an emphasis on music, the poem makes insistent reference to the passage of time, with careful allusion to the specific season in each section, as well as an indication of various timepieces.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.
Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.