Portrait of a Lady

by T. S. Eliot

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The Poem

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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, since the young man has begun his account by describing the room as looking like Juliet’s tomb. This allusion to the romantic double suicide that concludes William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595-1596), like the violent and repulsive epigraph from Marlowe, makes this harping upon “friendship” seem unattractively bland. The young man’s response is proud rejection of the lady’s interest—though he says nothing of the sort to her. The section ends with his escape from her parlor to the male habitat of a bar, where he can remain untouched by her emotions and, in conversation, can dissect her with his comrades.

The second section is set in spring, but the only thing blooming (apart from the mention of lilacs) appears to be the young man’s increasing discomfort in the lady’s presence. The lady recognizes in the lilacs an example of the fleeting beauty of youth and alludes to her earlier life and to her present comparative old age and fragility. She describes the young man as embodying, like the lilacs, the perfection, beauty, and strength of burgeoning life, to which, she confesses, she can add little. The last stanza of this section offers the youth’s embarrassed reaction to the lady’s observations and his confused reflection upon this embarrassment. Why, he wonders, should this woman’s problems upset him more than the tragedies he reads about in the newspaper—and why should he still be upset when a particular melody or the fragrance of flowers reminds him of her?

The third section takes place in autumn, a time of dying. The young man’s emotional discomfort in visiting the lady is now felt in his whole body—it is as though he is walking, perhaps like an animal, on his hands and knees when he mounts the stairs. The two discuss his going away on a permanent basis to Europe, and she recognizes that he has remained as distant emotionally as he soon will be physically. Her clear insight forces the youth to even greater attempts at deception: He does not want to lose “control” of the situation by letting her understand how disturbed he is. In the last stanza, he imagines her...

(This entire section contains 635 words.)

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death and frames the questions that will plague him even after she is gone.

Forms and Devices

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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.


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