Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

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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 physical frailty. As perverse and sad as it may appear to the younger man, readers who are observing both characters with a more objective eye may be able to view the woman’s ongoing interest in the relationship itself as far more positive than the younger man’s paralysis. It is not until the concluding stanza of the poem that the young man allows himself consciously to ponder his own advancing years, when he too will face the loneliness and regret that seem so important in the life of the woman. Where, he wonders, will his air of superiority have taken him by then?

Like the James novel to which Eliot’s title refers, this poem is about incompletion, attenuation, and half-sentences left hanging in midair. It is a poem of “what-ifs”: What if these two characters had been the same age? What if he had been more forthcoming, either in rejecting the woman outright or in revealing to her his own fears about mortality and individual isolation? What if, in later life, he were to learn of her death and become plagued by his youthful lack of response to another human being’s obvious pain? Like a melancholy musical prelude that is suddenly interrupted, the questions remain.