‘A Lady’ by Amy Lowell is a two stanza poem which is separated into one set of thirteen lines and one of four. Lowell has not chosen to structure this piece with either a rhyme or rhythm scheme. The text is written in free verse with a variety of end words, line lengths, and two stanzas of very different lengths.
A reader should take note of the speaker and the intended listener of this piece. The speaker is a younger woman who uses the text to describe the appears of an older woman. The first stanza contains the young speaker’s impressions of the old listener and the second describes the actions the speaker would like to take after seeing this woman.
Additionally, the first stanza was written almost entirely without the speaker referring to herself. The final four lines are dedicated to the opposite, she freely uses first-person pronouns.
Summary of A Lady
The poem begins with the speaker telling her listener, an older woman, that she is both “beautiful and faded. “ She uses the next lines to compare the listener to an “old opera tune” and “sun-flooded silk.” The opera is out of date and suffering from a change in musical preference, but it is still lovely. This is emphasized by the fact it is played on a harpsichord.
The following lines are dedicated to how the woman smells. She carries on her person the scent of all her previous days. It is made real through a comparison to “sealed spice-jars.’
In the final quatrain, Lowell’s speaker explains how she will dedicate her “vigour” to the old woman. She refers to herself as a “new-minted penny” without intrinsic value or history. The speaker is willing to let her own naive, youthful “sparkle” entertain the older woman.
Analysis of A Lady
You are beautiful and faded
Like an old opera tune
Played upon a harpsichord;
Or like the sun-flooded silks
Of an eighteenth-century boudoir.
The first stanza of ‘A Lady’ contains thirteen lines and begins with the speaker addressing her intended listener. As stated above, the majority of the lines in this stanza do not refer to the speaker at all. They are solely used to describe the appearance of the old woman
In the first lines, the speaker tells the woman that she is “beautiful and faded.” These two things are not mutually exclusive. The speaker compares her appearance to the sound of “an old opera tune.” It is still as complex and melodic as when it was written, but it is out of date.
This is emphasized by the fact that the tune is “Played upon a harpsichord.” The harpsichord was popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music. Since then it has disappeared from common use. Nowadays, it is only played during performances of older music.
In the next two lines, the woman is described through a second metaphor. This time she is compared to “silks” which have been damaged by the sun in a woman’s private sitting room, or “boudoir.”
Lines 6- 13
In your eyes
Smoulder the fallen roses of out-lived minutes,
And the perfume of your soul
Is vague and suffusing,
With the pungence of sealed spice-jars.
Your half-tones delight me,
And I grow mad with gazing
At your blent colours.
When the speaker looks into the woman’s eyes she can see the imprint of memory. The old woman’s past is still there, appearing to the speaker like “fallen roses.” The innumerable experiences of her life have mostly passed. There is more in her eyes than in her future.
The second half of the stanza contains references to smell. There is the smell of roses, as well as that of “Sealed spice-jars.” Both the woman’s eyes and smell contain her history. It is all there for the speaker to interpret.
In conclusion, the speaker refers to herself for the first time. She is experiencing the two sides of the woman, her “half-tones,” and enjoying what she senses. The old woman is made of so many “colours” the younger feels like she will go mad.
A reader should take note of the fact that as this speaker is analyzing the woman she is not alarmed or at all bothered by the future she represents. The speaker is easily able to find beauty in age.
My vigour is a new-minted penny,
Which I cast at your feet.
Gather it up from the dust,
That its sparkle may amuse you.
In the second stanza, which is only four lines, the speaker brings the narrative around to herself. It was clear from the first stanza that she does not feel worried about aging. This is emphasized in these lines with the speaker describing how she wishes to dedicate herself to helping the older woman.
The help she is offering is not traditional in nature. She intends to “cast” herself at the woman’s “feet.” It is her “vigour” most of all she is helping to share. The younger woman realizes the benefit of her own position as, she states, “a new-minted penny.”
In the final two lines of A Lady, she asks that the older woman “Gather” the penny up from the “dust” and let its “sparkle amuse” her. Lowell chose this metaphor to show the lack of worth in youth. It is nothing but “sparkle” and no more valuable than a penny when compared to the complexities of age.
It is clear from these lines that the speaker deeply admires the older woman. She is looking at the person she might become one day and finding important meaning in all the experiences she will have.
One should also note the contrast this ‘A Lady’ represents. Within modern society older women are generally valued less than younger. It is the youth of a woman who is often the defining factor of her worth. Lowell has chosen to turn this feature of life on its head and highlight the glorious parts of the age.