‘Portrait d’une Femme,’ or ‘Portrait of a Woman,’ is a poem about poetry. In it, Pound takes on one of the most important themes throughout the history of poetry, the female muse. He writes as many others have before him, about the beautiful features this metaphorical woman possess and her importance in his life and to his work. The poem was first published in Ripostes in 1912, amid the avant-garde Imagist movement. During this period, artists sought to recreate poetry in a new form, pushing the boundaries of what writing could be. Readers should keep this in mind when reading ‘Portrait d’une Femme’.
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Summary of Portrait d’une Femme
Throughout the lines of the poem, Pound uses figurative language to create a complex portrait of a woman. This woman is at the heart of all the good and mundane ideas the “great minds” and “bright ships” have asked her for. She is the source of inspiration that many a writer and artist has turned to throughout time when they were at a loss. Despite the fact that she is secondary to a larger, more abstract artistic goal, Pound’s speaker doesn’t think she minds.
She is the Sargasso Sea to writers and artists, everything is attracted to her, and she gives back bits and pieces, some of which come to fruition and others that do not. The poem concludes with the speaker noting that despite all the things she seems to own, and all the things that are given to her, she truly owns nothing. The intangible nature of ideas and concepts means that she is made of other people’s work.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Portrait d’une Femme
Pound uses a number of interesting themes in ‘Portrait d’une Femme’. Language/writing is at the heart of the poem, but identity and nature are also important elements. Throughout the poem, Pound’s speaker tries to define the woman’s identity through the objects that she’s given and what she gives back. But, in the end, he says that she owns none of these things, “Yet this is you”. She is characterized through interactions throughout time and what she has created or inspired in others. It is this inspiration that sometimes amounts to nothing and other times amounts to successful writing or art. Pound also uses a great deal of natural imagery throughout the poem. The entire piece is based around the sea, floating objects, and what comes to the surface or doesn’t. He also goes back and forth between London and the sea, juxtaposes urban life and the natural world.
Structure and Form
‘Portrait d’une Femme’ by Ezra Pound is a thirty-line poem that is contained within one single stanza of text. Rather than using free verse, as Pound often did, this poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, known as blank verse. There are a few moments where the iambic pentameter breaks, and the syllable stresses are changed. Pound likely chose to use this style in order to create a stronger connection between this poem and the subject matter he alludes to throughout.
In the lines of ‘Portrait d’une Femme,’ he is concerned with the broad history of writing about a female muse. This was done in traditional poetry, dating back to the beginnings of the written word. As a modernist poet, especially as an imagist poet, he was interested in throwing off tradition and trying something new. Here, he accomplishes that while also connecting his work back to that which has come before it. This connection suggests that he still finds some value in the past.
Pound makes use of several literary devices in ‘Portrait d’une Femme,’ these include but are not limited to alliteration, imagery, allusion, and enjambment. The later is one of the most important formal devices that poets use in their work. Although it does not appear in all poems, it does feature in a large number of them. It is concerned with the way in which one line transitions into the next. A line is enjambed if it is not conceded before the line break. For example, lines two and three, as well as lines eleven and twelve.
Alliteration is another common formal device. It is concerned with the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Sargasso Sea” in the first line and “Strange spars” in the fifth line. Imagery is one of the most important literary devices in ‘Portrait d’une Femme’. It can be seen throughout the poem, as one would expect considering Pound’s importance as an Imagist writer. One of the best examples of an image-rich line in this poem is line twenty-two. It reads: “The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work”.
Lastly, there is allusion. In ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ Pound creates allusions that refer to the historical precedent of the female muse and al that she has done and will do in poems. Some of these references are more stereotypical and recognizable than others.
Analysis of Portrait d’une Femme
Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
In the first lines of ‘Portrait d’une Femme,’ the speaker begins by referring to an unknown “you”. He tells this person that their “mind” and their entire self are “our Sargasso Sea”. From just this first line, it’s clear that the speaker is talking for a group, using third-person pronouns, and talking to a singular person, using second-person pronouns. It becomes clear quickly that “you” refers to the “femme,” or woman referenced in the title. This is the beginning of Pound’s portrait of her.
The first line is also an example of a metaphor. He compares this person to “Sargasso Sea”. This is a reference to a region of the Atlantic Ocean, located east of the Caribbean Islands. It is notable for the fact that its surface is covered with seaweed, due to the direction of the currents. It is also an area where a lot of debris collects. This seems like a strange metaphor, but it makes more sense in the next lines. He adds that she is surrounded by “London”. It as “swept about” her just like the Sargasso Sea is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.
The sea imagery continues into the next lines. Pound’s speaker describes all the debris, some valuable and some not, that have been left there by the “bright ships,” or people. These people have left behind “Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things”. These feel like payments of some kind, or devotions.
The next two lines add that there are also “Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price”. A “spar” is a part of a ship, a pole that’s usually used as a mast. Pound uses figurative language in this line to describe “strange” directional knowledge and “wares” that are worn down and perhaps lost much of their value. The next lines provide more information about the metaphorical scene Pound is constructing.
Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
One average mind — with one thought less, each year.
He adds, in line six of ‘Portrait d’une Femme,’ that “Great minds have sought” this woman. This makes sense with everything else he has described so far. The “bright ships” have sought out the Sargasso Sea, this central point around which the Atlantic circulates (at least in Pound’s imagery). He adds on, using an example of caesura, that they’ve done so because they “lack someone else”. The great minds, the poets and artists of previous ages, have always turned to this woman, the idealized female muse. This is likely the “our” to whom Pound’s speaker was referring in the first line. He counts himself among them.
There is also a judgment in these lines. The “great minds” or “bright ships” are unable to find anything else to create. She’s “second always” to some higher subject matter they can’t always reach. The “femme” is steadfast in a predicable, although much-loved, way. Despite this less than the complimentary situation, he doesn’t think she’ll care one way or another. It’s not “tragical” that this is the way things are. It’s better, he thinks, for her to be where she is and play the role she plays than to be stuck with “One dull man, dulling and uxorious”. The word “uxorious” refers to a submissive male partner in a heterosexual relationship. He is overly devoted to his female partner. She does rather not find herself married to “One average mind” as most women do.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And takes strange gain away:
The speaker picks back up his depiction of the female muse in the eleventh line. Here, he tells her that he has noticed how patient she is. How she sits and waits for hours (as the sea) waiting for something to float up through the water that interests her. The situation gets more complex in the thirteenth line. Pound adds that she “pay[s]” a fee as well. She isn’t just given things, she reciprocates something. In fact, he adds, she “richly” pays back to the great minds who are interested in writing about her.
He tells her that she is a “person of some interest” and that when’s someone comes to her, they leave with “strange gain[s]”. It’s not clearly stated what the great minds/bright ships get from her, but readers can imply that it is the inspiration they need to write/create.
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The next lines of the poem make it clearer what exactly occurs around these moments of payment. The woman pays up fished up “trophies’ and “curious suggestion[s]”. There are tales, “Pregnant with mandrakes” and things that may or may not prove useful. The use of “mandrakes” in this line is an interesting one. They are rumored to possess magical powers, which made them a topic of interest in Renaissance literature. By mentioning them in this context, the speaker is suggesting that the stories she inspires might be compelling. But, they might also be slightly old fashioned and worn out.
To add to the double-sided nature of the muse’s inspiration, the speaker says that many of the ideas she provides might never make it “upon the loom of days”. The words might never make their way onto paper and into the hands of readers. The idea might come to nothing. The loom imagery in this line is likely a reference to the Greek Fates who were said to hold the thread of life and therefore control everyone’s destiny.
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
The “something else” the woman provides might be “tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work”. It’s “wonderful” but also “old” and again, used. It has been seen before. The woman might also give out “Idols ambergris and rare inlays”. The second, ambergris, is a reference to an ingredient found in a whale’s digestive system that’s used in perfume. The things she has to give are old fashioned, well-used, and depended upon by generations of artists and writers. This is something that Pound’s speaker is well-aware of. He’s walking the line between respecting the tradition of the female muse to whom writers create and addressing her as something of the past. Part of him regards her as a valuable antique and the other as simply out of date.
The poem starts coming towards its conclusion in the next lines. He mentions “deciduous things,” likely wood floating in the water, perhaps from ships or other manmade creations that have fallen apart. It is “strange,” like the “spar” from earlier on in the poem, and also “half sodden”. The “new brighter stuff” in the second half of the phrase is also interesting. It could refer back to the “bright ships” in line three or to more important, newer work that artists like Pound were creating at the time. Perhaps there is the possibility that the female muse, the “femme” from the title, could exist in the new world of modernism and avant-garde writing and art-making.
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
Yet this is you.
Pound’s speaker zooms back from his detailed exploration of the individual objects/ideas that originate from this woman. Now, he describes the area around her. The “slow float of differing light and deep,” the seawater. He concludes by saying that of all the things that she has given out and that have been given to her, nothing truly belongs to her. The intangibility and ephemeral nature of the goods come back into play here. Her “sea-hoard” is abstract, it’s not something anyone can own. Despite this, everything he said “is” the woman. She is made up of all she has touched and inspired. She is the intangible and the worn down, the driftwood, and the mandrake root.
Readers who enjoyed Pound’s ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ should also consider reading some of his other best-known poems. For example, ‘The Garden’,‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’, and ‘In a Station at the Metro’. The latter is one of his most famous poems. It is often used to represent the entire Imagist movement in two short lines. It might also be of interest to read a few of the “female muse” genre poems that Pound was referencing in ‘Portrait d’une Femme’. For example, ‘Sonnet 130’ by William Shakespeare and ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne.