The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)