‘Portrait of a Lady’ was first published in September of 1915 in Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. It appeared later in Eliot’s 1917 collection, Prufrock and Other Observations. The poem is generally considered to have originated, at least in the title, from Henry James’ best-known work, also titled ‘Portrait of a Lady’. In contrast to James’ novel, Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is focused on the young man, his character, and observations about the world. This is piece is also frequently paired with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Both poems are monologues and are devoted to satirizing Eliot’s contemporary world.
The poem takes the reader through three different meetings between the two. In each, the older woman makes statements about the young man’s character and her desire for real relationships while the young man mentally pushes back against her. He doesn’t say anything out loud, but through his narration, a reader understands him as unfeeling and uncaring.
‘Portrait of a Lady’ by T.S. Eliot is a three-part poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. The longest stretches out to twenty-three lines and the shortest is only one line. There is no single pattern of rhyme within the stanzas but rhyme is certainly present, often mimicking the moments of musicality within the next. There are examples of half, full and internal rhyme within the poem.
A reader should also take note of the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. It reads: “Thou hast committed — / Fornication: but that was in another country, / And besides, the wench is dead” and is attributed to “The Jew of Malta”.
Eliot makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Portrait of a Lady’. They include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “arrange” and “afternoon” in lines two and three of stanza one, part one. Or, “confessed” and “countenance” in stanza six, part two.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For instance, line ten in stanza two, part one. It reads: “Without these friendships — life, what cauchemar!”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance, the transition between lines three and four in stanza one, part three.
Eliot also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This can be seen most clearly in the third stanza of the second part of ‘Portrait of a Lady’.
Thou hast committed —
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
(The Jew of Malta)
Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoonYou have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do—With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;(…)Through attenuated tones of violinsMingled with remote cornetsAnd begins.
In the first stanza of ‘Portrait of a Lady’ the speaker, the young man, sets the scene. He recalls how he and his female companion were in a dark room that was lit only by “four wax candles”. Things had come together to create a dark atmosphere. It was emotionally stifling and compared through metaphor to “Juliet’s tomb”. There, she waited in a death-like state for Romeo.
The pair have just come back from a concert, one of Polish music. It’s a past time they both enjoy. The next moments are filled with conversation about the concert, particularly the performance of Chopin and how the music seemed to permeate the room.
Next, the speaker steps away from this conversation to narrate the scene as a whole. He states that this was how the conversation slipped and alluded to “velleities” or inclinations not acted upon and regrets. Their words mimic the sounds of the violins and cornets at a distance. There is a layer to their relationship that’s simmering beneath the surface.
“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,And how, how rare and strange it is, to findIn a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,(…)Discuss the late events,Correct our watches by the public clocks.Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.
The lady’s words are relayed in the next stanza of ‘Portrait of a Lady’. Here, she expresses her love and admiration for her friends. She tells the young man how much they mean to her and “how rare and strange it is” to find friends who are genuine and true. Life is complicated and filled with worthless trivialities and her friends lighten her burdens.
She stops speaking generally of friends and moves on to regard the speaker in the same way. He is one of these close and important friends. She feels lucky to have found a friendship such as his. The lady knows that her life would be a nightmare without people like him.
Juxtaposed against the lady’s kind words, is the speaker’s own opinion of the situation. He brings back the violins and says that he does not believe her words to be as genuine as they sounded. They do not resemble the sweetness of violins as she might like to think. They strike a “false note”. In the last lines of this stanza, he steps outside to clear his dead and shake off the trance of tobacco. He is looking for a way to forget his boredom with the world in general. This is something that he does repetitively.
Now that lilacs are in bloomShe has a bowl of lilacs in her roomAnd twists one in her fingers while she talks.(…)My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the worldTo be wonderful and youthful, after all.”
The second part of ‘Portrait of a Lady’ begins with a new scene, one that is quite different from that painted in the first part of the poem. “Now,” the speaker says, the “lilacs are in bloom”. His older female companion has some of these same flowers in her room and fiddles with them while she speaks. Next, just as in the first stanza, he relays her words. She addresses him as “my friend” and suggests that he does not understand the life that he holds in his hands. She continues to twist the “lilac stalks” as she speaks.
The woman tries to help the speaker understand what life is and how he’s treating it. She says that he just lets it “flow from [him]”. He doesn’t fully appreciate the youth that he has and needs to keep it in mind before it’s gone. The man smiles as she says this, continuing to drink his tea without response.
The woman adds at the end of this stanza that the new spring makes her think of her own youth in Paris in the spring. When there, she felt as she feels now, “immeasurably at peace” and all the world to be “wonderful and youthful, after all”.
Stanzas Two, Three, Four, and Five
The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tuneOf a broken violin on an August afternoon:“I am always sure that you understand(…)Only the friendship and the sympathyOf one about to reach her journey’s end.I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….”
The speaker’s attitude towards the woman is quite clear in these lines. He regards her voice as an “out-of-tune” broken violin. He takes no pleasure in it “on an August afternoon”. The speaker relays her words once more. She addresses his youth again, even more earnestly and entreatingly this time than she’d done before. The woman believes that the young man understands her and can feel the emotion behind her words. He should be able to reach “across the gulf” to see her clearly.
The third stanza makes use of anaphora in the repetition of “you” at the beginning of all three lines. The woman passionately wills the young man to understand the power he has. She believes that there is no “Achilles’ heel” in his heart or mind that could sabotage him. He hasn’t felt a loss as she has. The young man can continue on triumphantly.
The lady questions herself in the fourth stanza. She asks, rhetorically, what she has that she can give him. Immediately, she answers her own question saying that she can give him “the friendship and the sympathy” of someone who is much closer to the end than he.
I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amendsFor what she has said to me?You will see me any morning in the park(…)With the smell of hyacinths across the gardenRecalling things that other people have desired.Are these ideas right or wrong?
The young man does not have a proper response to his companion’s emotional and mental strife. Just as she determined, he is too young to understand what she’s saying. He proves it by describing his own activities in the park. He goes there to read comics and the sporting pages and is able to forget the emotions he might’ve felt while hearing the woman speak.
The next lines contain his description of one news story that was of interest to him. It was about a murder at a Polish dance to which a “bank defaulter has confessed”.
The young man takes pride in the fact that he is able to remain “self-possessed”. This is in contrast to the older woman. There is a moment though when his composure is in question. He hears the sounds of a street musician and at the same time smells the hyacinths in the garden. These images bring to mind the concept of love and that which “other people have desired”. He wonders if these “ideas” of love and companionship are “right or wrong” for him to consider.
The October night comes down; returning as beforeExcept for a slight sensation of being ill at ease(…)You will find so much to learn.”My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac.
The setting changes again in the third part of ‘Portrait of a Lady’. In these lines, it is fall. The season has come as it usually does, except, he feels a little less at ease. When he goes to speak to the woman he intends to take his leave and depart on a journey. She addresses him, asking when he’s going to return. Without waiting for an answer she knows that he will not have one for her. The woman realizes that he doesn’t know when he’s coming back and he will likely become much more interested in what he learns there.
“Perhaps you can write to me.”My self-possession flares up for a second;(…)Suddenly, his expression in a glass.My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
The second stanza contains the woman’s desire that he write to her while he’s gone. This does not surprise him, in fact, he “had reckoned” that she would ask. The woman wonders in the next lines why their friendship did not become something more than friendship. From her perspective, things had been going well.
With these comments, the man is again not sure how to respond. He feels like someone who has to check to see if he’s smiling. His calm of the first lines is disappearing and then leaves him in the dark.
“For everybody said so, all our friends,They all were sure our feelings would relateSo closely! I myself can hardly understand.(…)To find expression … dance, danceLike a dancing bear,Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
The speaker relays more of the woman’s speech in the third stanza of this part of ‘Portrait of a Lady’. Here, she tells the young man that “all our friends” thought that as a pair they would get on quite well. Their feelings, she adds, should’ve related to one another. It is clear that she feels regret about this. She had expectations that weren’t fulfilled. The woman admits that she can “hardly understand” why things are the way they are. Her self-pity is again capped off with the phrase “I shall sit here, serving tea to friends”.
The young man is again at a loss for words. He’s trying to find a way to transform himself, become a dancing bear or a chattering ape to find the right words.
Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance—Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;(…)This music is successful with a “dying fall”Now that we talk of dying—And should I have the right to smile?
The next lines are the most emotional the young man has spoken in the text. He is bothered by the thought of her dying, and surprised by his own concern. There is the possibility that she’s going to die and leave him “sitting pen in hand” because of her disappointment.
The young man is unsure what to do or say, or even how to consider his own thoughts. Despite the fact that he wasn’t what she wanted him to be in the end, she won. She has an advantage over him.
He returns to the music that’s been a running symbol throughout the poem. He considers how he normally reacts, in tune with the music, but isn’t sure if things are the same anymore. “Now” that death has come into the picture he wonders if he can brush her off as he had been. Does he, he wonders, have the “right to smile”?