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 embodiment of an entire culture, one which is incapable, or at least unwilling, to recognize and appreciate true originality in art. Perhaps it would be threatened by it; perhaps it is simply not interested.
On the other hand, there is a certain affection for the character, and Pound’s poem sounds wistful, almost elegiac, when it recounts the meager hoard the woman has gathered after twenty years of association with artists and writers. While she is compared to the Sargasso Sea, a stagnant backwash of the vital ocean, she is not explicitly condemned. Perhaps, the poem implies, she, like the artists of the time, has been a victim of the culture.
The style of the poem is notable for Pound’s use of blank verse, a poetic form that he seldom employed and seems to have thought the refuge of second-rate writers of his time. It has become a critical commonplace to remark on Pound’s ear for the music of English poetry, while at the same time maintaining that he could not discipline himself to write in conventional forms. “Portrait d’une Femme” shows that the first half of this commonplace is precisely right, the second half, decidedly wrong.