Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This early poem already sounds themes that were to obsess Eliot throughout his career, reaching its fullest expression in his late Four Quartets (1943). The passage of time, its effects on the body and human emotions, the individual’s consequent search for some sense of permanence, history, and personal significance—all are present even in an early poem such as “Portrait of a Lady.” One sees their expression principally in the older woman’s quiet but somewhat desperate attempt to craft a meaningful relationship with this younger man, finding in his relative youth the energy and hope that seem to be slipping from her grasp.

The poem, however, seems finally to focus attention not on the lady but on the youth. The reader is made quite aware that the woman is being viewed through the youth’s rather haughty eyes, and one gradually recognizes the speaker’s own discomfort not only with the lady’s “advances” but also with his own timorous retreats. He is resentful of her attempt to treat him as an equal, as simply one who, were it not for their arbitrary differences in age, shares personal needs and fears.

Ultimately, his retreat from the woman is not a sexual rejection. To the extent that there may be a sexual overtone to their “friendship,” it suggests simply another manifestation of the limitations placed on the human condition by time: a literal embodiment of the yearning for completion that continues on even into...

(The entire section is 452 words.)