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 finger tips. “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 her 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 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-a-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 quite 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?
“Portrait of a Lady” is a poem about the degenerating relationship between a man–the narrator–and an older lady of upper middle-class background. The poem divides itself into three parts that trace the trajectory of the friendship from winter (“Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon”) to spring (“Now that lilacs are in bloom”) and ending in autumn (“The October night comes down”). The two meet and discuss music, friendship, youth, and regret during these three seasons until the man decides to leave the country in the final section.
The melancholy woman survives her banal life, “a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,” through leisure activities, such as going to concerts and drinking tea. Nevertheless, she feels suffocated by her inane existence: “life, what cauchemar”. She admits to the man that without her friendships her life would be a nightmare, and it quickly becomes apparent that she desires the narrator to become one of her closest acquaintances. The lady, however, fails to engage the man in serious conversation and he drifts off into reverie by the end of each section.
Unlike the lady, the narrator seems satisfied with prosaic lifestyle:
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.
He keeps himself occupied with superficial matters, such as the latest happenings in theater and news, while avoiding the lady’s intimate questioning. The poem critique’s the narrator’s stiff self-possession and unwillingness to open himself up to any sort of deeper relationship with the woman. In section two, she reminisces on her youth and realizes that she’s doomed to a shallow life, “I shall sit here, serving tea to friends…”, but this only makes the narrator feel uncomfortable: “how can I make a cowardly amends/ For what she has said to me?” Then in section three, she has resigned herself to the fact that he is leaving and futilely hopes that he will stay in contact with her. The narrator cannot react sincerely to this departure. Instead, he relies on his poise and social programming, which amounts to animal mimicry: “And I must borrow every changing shape/ To find expression…dance, dance,/ Like a dancing bear,/ Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape”. In the end, however, he thinks on what he has done, apparently destroyed this woman’s last chance to find happiness in a friend, and feels a pang of guilt: “And should I have the right to smile?”
The most prominent leitmotif of the poem is that of music, which is used at various points to represent the lady’s attempt to emotionally connect to the narrator. After attending a piano concert together, she comments: “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”. The music brings people together through the shared experience of artistic beauty, but when they are in a room filled with others, the effect dissipates; she wants to listen to it alone with him. Music in the poem will become associated with intimacy, but also the voice of the lady: “–And so the conversation slips/ Among velleities and carefully caught regrets/ Through attenuated tones of violins/ Mingled with remote cornets/ And begins”. Violins and cornets reappear several lines down, as the poem enters the mind of the narrator:
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.”
The conversation brings about “dull” music “absurdly hammering” a “false note,” or note with no true pitch, in his head. The narrator reacts painfully to the lady’s earnest discussion, which he takes to be boring and monotonous. The tom-tom drum evokes an unsettling and interminable throbbing sensation, which contrasts Chopin’s melodious piano pieces. The drum is also indicative of a primative, rhythmic impulse, almost like a heartbeat or headache, that is well-suited to express his internal torment. Perhaps he simply lacks any interest in what she has to say, or maybe he realizes some truth in what she’s saying that he finds disagreeable. Either way, he reacts by desiring to change the subject to current news or to simply smoke and finish their drinks in silence. Thus any chance of having a deep conversation or the forming of an intimate relationship is avoided.
Music appears in the next section, as the narrator is broken from his morning paper by the sound of a piano. ” I keep my countenance,/ I remain self-possessed,” Eliot writes, “Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired/ Reiterates some worn-out common song…recalling things that other people have desired.” The sound of the piano perhaps reminds him of the Chopin concert and the lady’s desire for friendship.
Finally, a musical reference appears that is also an allusion to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “This music is successful with a “dying fall”/ Now that we talk of dying–” The “dying fall” is a musical reference to either a decrescendo or dropping to a lower note. For the narrator, however, it brings to mind the lady who may “die some afternoon” and her hopes of friendship that will die with her.
Portrait and Prufrock
“Portrait of a Lady” is characteristic of Eliot’s early secular poetry in that it is preoccupied with the bourgeois lifestyle of Eliot’s English environs and candidly presents the mind of a male in a perfunctory relationship with a sophisticated woman. Indeed, the poem is a complement to Eliot’s more famous poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which precedes “Portrait” in the 1915 publication Prufrock and Other Observations. The two pieces are remarkably similar in their resigned tone and language–they share words and phrases such as “fog” and “dying fall”–but they take different approaches to romance in 20th-century middle-class society. While “Prufrock” depicts the indecision of a male narrator as he ponders his ambiguous relationship with a woman whom he loves, “Portrait” takes the opposite approach and examines a nervous, despairing woman’s romantic advances from the perspective of an apathetic narrator. “Portrait of a Lady” could be seen as a model of what would happen to Prufrock if he confessed his feelings, but his worst fears came true. The lady has the courage to discuss her hopes of a deeper friendship with the narrator, but her sentiment is unrequited and she is ultimately hurt by her confession when the narrator goes abroad.