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Portrait of a Lady -- T S Eliot

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1683) Portrait of a Lady
                Thou hast committed --
        Fornication: but that was in another country,
        And besides, the wench is dead.
                        (The Jew of Malta)


 I

 Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
 You have the scene arrange itself -- as it will seem to do --
 With "I have saved this afternoon for you";
 And four wax candles in the darkened room,
 Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
 An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb
 Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.
 We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
 Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips.
 "So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
 Should be resurrected only among friends
 Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
 That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room."
 - And so the conversation slips
 Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
 Through attenuated tones of violins
 Mingled with remote cornets
 And begins.

 "You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
 And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
 In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
 [For indeed I do not love it ... you knew? you are not blind!
 How keen you are!]
 To find a friend who has these qualities,
 Who has, and gives
 Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
 How much it means that I say this to you --
 Without these friendships -- life, what cauchemar!"

 Among the windings of the violins
 And the ariettes
 Of cracked cornets
 Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
 Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
 Capricious monotone
 That is at least one definite "false note."
 - Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
 Admire the monuments,
 Discuss the late events,
 Correct our watches by the public clocks.
 Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.

 II

 Now that lilacs are in bloom
 She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
 And twists one in his fingers while she talks.
 "Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
 What life is, you who hold it in your hands";
 (Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
 "You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
 And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
 And smiles at situations which it cannot see."
 I smile, of course,
 And go on drinking tea.
 "Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
 My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
 I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
 To be wonderful and youthful, after all."

 The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
 Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
 "I am always sure that you understand
 My feelings, always sure that you feel,
 Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.

 You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles' heel.
 You will go on, and when you have prevailed
 You can say: at this point many a one has failed.

 But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
 To give you, what can you receive from me?
 Only the friendship and the sympathy
 Of one about to reach her journey's end.

 I shall sit here, serving tea to friends..."

 I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
 For what she has said to me?
 You will see me any morning in the park
 Reading the comics and the sporting page.
 Particularly I remark
 An English countess goes upon the stage.
 A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
 Another bank defaulter has confessed.
 I keep my countenance,
 I remain self-possessed
 Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired
 Reiterates some worn-out common song
 With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
 Recalling things that other people have desired.
 Are these ideas right or wrong?

 III

 The October night comes down; returning as before
 Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease
 I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
 And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
 "And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
 But that's a useless question.
 You hardly know when you are coming back,
 You will find so much to learn."
 My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac.

 "Perhaps you can write to me."
 My self-possession flares up for a second;
 This is as I had reckoned.
 "I have been wondering frequently of late
 (But our beginnings never know our ends!)
 Why we have not developed into friends."
 I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
 Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
 My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.

 "For everybody said so, all our friends,
 They all were sure our feelings would relate
 So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
 We must leave it now to fate.
 You will write, at any rate.
 Perhaps it is not too late.
 I shall sit here, serving tea to friends."

 And I must borrow every changing shape
 To find expression ... dance, dance
 Like a dancing bear,
 Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
 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;
 Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
 With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
 Doubtful, for a while
 Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
 Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon...
 Would she not have the advantage, after all?
 This music is successful with a "dying fall"
 Now that we talk of dying --
 And should I have the right to smile?
-- T S Eliot
When I was 16 I was in love with Prufrock [Poem #193 on the Minstrels].
Something about that poem's heady, singing combination of wit, imagery,
eloquence, insight, insecurity and despair spoke to me like nothing else in
my young life had ever done before. In those restless years, I identified
completely with Prufrock's confusion, with the delicate balance he tries to
strike between intellectual cynicism and deep-rooted yearning, with his
fundamentally adolescent struggle to force the self into a single, coherent
picture. As I wandered about muttering "No, I am not Prince Hamlet" under my
breath, the poem became for me a celebration of my own identity, a statement
of my own life more lucid than any I could have made myself.

At the time, I was relatively unimpressed with Portrait of a Lady. Oh, I
liked it well enough - but coming straight after Prufrock, I could not help
comparing the two, and Portrait seemed to pale in comparison.

As I have grown older, however, I have come to realise the true depth, the
incredible genius of the poem that follows Prufrock. The ten years that have
passed have made Prufrock seem a little too strident, a little too high
pitched while at the same time deepening my appreciation of Portrait. I
still love Prufrock, but love it as one loves the adventures of one's youth
- with an awe for its courage that is mingled with bemusement with its
ideas. In Prufrock, Eliot is still struggling with the demons of self-worth
- he is a young man who believes, but pretends to laugh at his own beliefs.
That struggle continues in Portrait, but by now Eliot has really learned to
laugh at himself in a way he never could in Prufrock. There is more
resignation in Portrait, but less despair; rather there is an profound
recognition of the fundamental ridiculousness of our lives and loves. Even
at its most frenzied ("And I must borrow every changing shape / to find
expression") Eliot cannot escape the knowledge that all our fine poetics are
little better than the circus tricks of animals, all our most heartfelt
feelings as trivial in the larger world as headlines from some distant land
("A greek was murdered at a Polish dance")

Where Prufrock is a landscape, Portrait is, precisely, a portrait. It is a
deeply intimate poem, one "that should be resurrected only among friends /
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom / that is rubbed and
questioned in the concert room". Where Prufrock is grand and symphonic,
Portrait is a delicate etude filled with the softest of touches - line after
memorable line, Eliot delivers the most exquisite images - fingers twisting
a lilac blossom, the smell of hyacinths across the garden, the bric a brac
on a dressing table. This is Eliot at his most musical - the perfection of
the rhythm, the easy, unobtrusive flow of the most intricate rhymes, the ebb
and stress of the words exactly what it should be. And, through it all, a
speaking voice that is extraordinarily true and clear.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the poem, however, is the essential
duality of the whole thing - the almost magical way that Eliot makes you see
(so simply, with such easy deftness) both the external world of manners and
the internal world of the narrator's consciousness - showing them to you not
as two seperate identities, but as two halves of the same continuum,
inextricably connected ("I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall
remark / suddenly, his expression in a glass"). This duality informs
Prufrock as well, but there is less irony in Prufrock, and the inner voice
is more a combatant than an amused, impartial observer.

In the end, I can praise this poem no higher than to say that of all the
poems in 'Prufrock and other observations' (a collection that includes The
Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock [Poem # 193], La Figlia Che Piange [Poem #
9], Preludes [Poem # 107] and Rhapsody on a Windy Night [Poem # 466] not to
mention the delightful Conversation Galante and the incredible imagery of
Morning at the Window) Portrait of a Lady is my
favourite.

Aseem.

P.S. It may seem strange to speak of one poem (this one) almost entirely in
terms of another (Prufrock), but I believe that the contrast between the two
(and the linkages between them) are key to understanding both.

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. The poem does seem somewhat nihilistic to me, also perhaps highlighting how ostentatious we can be. I feel that both the 'Lady' and the narrator are narcissistic in this - maybe we all are...

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Anonymous said...

I truly appreciated this approach to Portrait, as I feel you highlighted some very important points. There is, I feel, an element of existentialism evident in the poem, as there is a somewhat futile struggle for meaning spread throughout all T.S Eliot s work. I believe he meant to tell us that meaning can be created by the human, but it can also be destroyed by society. Meaning can no longer be found within our modern world, but must instead be created from within (ones interior), rather than trying to gain meaning from the exterior world.

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