Portrait of A Lady: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction: This poem was written in 1910-11 and was published in the volume entitled Prufrock and other Observations 1917. According to Conrad Aiken, a friend of Eliot, the lady of the poem is "our dear deplorable friend, Miss X serving tea so exquisitely among her bric-a brac". So, the lady's character is taken from real life and she represents the frustrated and the bored woman of the modern age. The theme is the man-woman relationship and its failure. During the earlier period of his career, Eliot was under the influence of Laforgue and other French Symbolists. This poem reveals the Laforguian method- a picture of an intelligent young man with his inner conflicts, fears and uncertainties, dodging an elderly woman trying to exercise her charms on him for an illicit and unequal love relationship. The poet wishes to satirize his own milieu and urban society through the story of the old woman and the young man. Moreover, there is the problem of communication- between a man and a woman and its uncertainty and failure.

Portrait of a Lady is also the title of one of the famous novels of Henry James. It shows the similarity of the themes of the novel of James and Eliot's poem.
Portrait of a Lady

      Portrait of a Lady is also the title of one of the novels by Henry James. It shows the similarity of the themes of the novel of James and Eliot's poem. Both the writers present a genteel society, hollow from within but keeping up its appearances with confidence and self-consciousness. There is also the problem of human isolation-the isolation of the individual from other people and from the world. The young man in the poem has a kind of 'self-possession' and at the same time, he is prone to nervous tension and does not know how to hide his feelings. In fact, he runs out into the open air to escape from the lady's entanglements and her appeals to his sense of sympathy and pity In fact, it is in poems like Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady that we find the poet in his workshop and sharpening his tools for getting the totality of the frustrated, indecisive, rudderless modern world in the later poems like The Waste Land and The Hollow Men.

      The poem is a blending of Latorguian symbolism with Jamesian technique. The earlier poems in the 'Prufrock' volume represent a society interested in trivial refinement, in unnecessary action and total spiritual oblivion. The total inclination of their life is represented in "I keep my countenance, I remain self-possessed"(L. 77-78). The clever dissimulation, the trivial hypocrisy, the boring routine of life are seen here. "I shall sit here serving tea to friends". (L. 108).


      Juliet's Tomb: The first scene is laid in the lady's room on a December afternoon. The lady has invited the young man for an intimate talk. However, the entire environment is bleak and dreary and cannot afford a suitable background for a lover-relationship. The poet compares the room to Juliet's tomb. This is very appropriate comparison. The lady is half-alive and half-dead like Juliet. The atmosphere is stifling and unhealthy. So, failure appears to be a foregone conclusion. The lady refers the musical concert of Chopin which both had seen, and comments on the art of the musician. Then, she talks of her personal life, her likes and dislikes and the things she has missed. She wants to win the sympathy of the young man, but the man is blank and unresponsive. She then expresses herself directly. She is lucky in having this young man as her friend. It is such friendship which makes life worth living. The young man expresses his response indirectly in an aside. Her conversation is jarring and harsh to him; he feels bored. In order to avoid further embarrassment, he goes out of the room, breathes fresh air and relaxes himself with a smoke and a draught of beer.

      No Achilles' Heel: The second scene is again laid in the lady's room. It is the spring season and the lilacs are in bloom. The lady is now hopeful; playfully she twists the lilac stalks and tells the young man to enjoy his youth. He must use his time in love and merriment. She refers to memories, her golden past in Paris and how they bring her new joy. The young man finds her talk jarring like the sound of a broken violin. She continues her talk in the same strain that both should get closer and their relationship should mature into love. This young man has no weak spot like Achilles' heel and so all the overtures of the lady fall on deaf ears. The young man does not know what to do. It is not in his nature to deceive the lady with a false declaration of love for her. The only way to get out of the situation, is to run away and drown oneself in some other activity like reading comics and sports activities. The young man is mentally disturbed; he does not know whether he has done the right thing in rejecting the love so spontaneously offered and with sentiment.

      Irresistible fate: The third scene is laid in the lady's chamber on an October night. It is autumn and there is a sensation of everything being ill at ease. The young man has decided to go abroad and has come to bid farewell to the lady. She tells him to write a letter to her and blames fate for not fulfilling her desire. It was so ordained that the two should not become friends. The young man feels embarrassed; he does not know how to react to her failure in love. As he had done earlier, he rushed out of the room and tried to forget the incident. But somehow his mind could not disengage itself from the lady. Perhaps the lady would die some afternoon and enjoy the peace of death. The young man's troubled soul is distracted by the thought of death. He does not know why he has taken the matter so much to his heart. For what sin, does he suffer? He does not know the answer.

Critical Analysis

      Theme: The theme of the poem is man-woman relationship. The old lady tries her best to woo the young man; she expresses her feelings but the man does not reciprocate. There are three parts of the poem which describe the meaning of the pair in three different seasons-winter, spring autumn. The lady speaks out her mind, but the young man expresses his reactions indirectly. In the end, the affair, so to say, ends in smoke.

      Epigraph: The epigraph contains three lines from Marlowe's Jew of Malta. It has little relevance to his theme of the poem. While Marlowe's story refers to a fornication with a woman who died later on, there is no such thing in the poem. The lady tries to entangle the young man and reveals her mind but with no ultimate success. Perhaps, in the beginning, the young man showed some interest in the lady, but on second thought recoiled from the situation of an unholy alliance.

      Style: The poem has scenic beauty and a lot of images and symbols. lt belongs to Eliot's early period and as such, it has a musical rhythm and flowery images. The images of Juliet's Tomb', Tobacco trance, 'Achilles' heel' are quite impressive. Eliot has borrowed quite a few phrases from musicology and its different notes as for instance, attenuated tones of violins' (L.16), the 'ariettes of cracked cornets' (L.31) 'the tom-tom inside the brain', (L.32), 'the false note'(L.35), 'the out-of-tune of a broken violin' (L.37), the worn-out common song of a street piano, 'mechanical and tired' (L.79). The images from nature echoing the different scenes are quite vivid, for instance 'the smoke and fog of a December afternoon' (L.1), 'the April sunsets' (L.52) the August afternoon' (L.57), 'the October night' (L.84), 'the afternoon grey and smoky evening yellow and rose' (L.115), 'the smoke coming down above the house-tops' (L.117). The uncertainties of the young man's feelings and his embarrassment evoke fanciful images. The young man felt that he should "dance like a dancing bear, cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape" (L.112).

The poet secures his stylistic effects through repetition. The bore dum and futility in life is echoed in lines such as:

"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 know? You are not blind!

How keen you are!

To find a friend who has these qualities."

      The poem has a conversational rhythm and a realism of tone and feeling which comes directly from the core of the lady's heart:

"I have been wondering frequently of late

Why we have not developed into friends."

      The twisting of the lilacs by the lady is suggestive of the ultimate failure of her infatuation, and the final note of registration is echoed in the lines:

"We must leave it now to fate....

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends."

      The impression of gloom, of frustration and failure, is conveyed through the scenery of nature and the vivid setting of urban life. This technique of allusion analogy and symbol was adopted by Eliot from the French Symbolists.

Line by Line Explanation with Critical Comments

Part I

      The scene pertains to a December afternoon in London with its smoke and fog; you can very well imagine this scene as it seems to arrange itself. As the lover enters the lady's chamber, she says "I have reserved this afternoon for meeting you." The room is rather dark; it is lighted with four wax candles and they cast four circles of light on the ceiling above The scene in the room is similar to the atmosphere of Juliet's tomb, when Juliet lay half-alive and half-dead. The scene is tense. One could say a lot about it or it is better to leave it unsaid.

      Earlier they pertain (the man and the lady) had been to a concert by a polish musician (Fredrick Chopin). They heard his interpretation of the Preludes (a piece of music) and felt that his hair and fingertips thrilled with music. Chopin is a great artist, but he is at his best when he plays to a small group of two or three friends. Then his music is intimate and superb. He is not at his best at a public performance where he is not sure of the audience's response. Their conversation then shifts to the lady's wishes and desires and her requests for things missed in life. Her talk sounds like the weak notes of violins mixed up with the distant notes of trumpets. The lady tells the lover: "You do not know how much my friends mean to me; they make my life joyful. How rare and strange it is to find a friend who has pleasant qualities. Life is full of trivialities of small bits here and there. I do not know love life. I believe you are not blind to my feelings. I know you are quite alert. I appreciate a friend who has these qualities of head and heart—which sustain friendship. I value your friendship. Without such friends life would be unbearable and meaningless."

      (The reaction of the young man to the lady's offer of friendship is given in an aside.) The words of the lady sounded to the young man like the tunes of violin and the melodies of broken trumpets. The conversation was not pleasant or sweet. It was like the harsh sound of a drum. There was an inharmonious and false note in the lady's words. The man went out into the open air and found some relaxation of mind in smoking tobacco. He would like to forget this incident by admiring the monuments or discussing recent events or by correcting the time of his watch by the time shown by the public clocks. He would seek some shelter in gossip or drink dark beer.

Part II

      The second part of the poem opens in the spring season when the lilacs are in bloom. The lady brings a bowl of lilacs in the room and talks to the young man. She twists a lilac between her fingers and tells her lover: "My friend, you do not know the joy of life, you are young and you should enjoy your life. Let the beauty and bloom of youth flow from your life. As a young man you are cruel and do not realize love. You have no regrets: you only smile at the situation which you cannot understand". (The lady hints at her own love and scolds the youth for his lack of response). The young man is not impressed by her words and keeps on drinking beer. The lady continues her conversation: "I am reminded of my past life and the memories of my stay in Paris during a spring. I remember my golden past, I feel young and beautiful." These words appear jarring and discordant like the notes of a broken violin played on an August afternoon. The lady continues her talk in the same tone. She tells the lover, "I am quite sure you understand my feelings; the gulf between us can be bridged if you extend to me your hand of friendship. You cannot be conquered. You have no weakness. You will go on in your own way. You will say that many such relationships have not led to intimacy. This may mean nothing to you, but love means such a lot to me. You are young and I have nothing but friendship to offer as I am old. My life is coming to an end. Perhaps I will have nothing else to do but to serve tea to friends." (The lady was' according to Conrad Aikan, "Harvard hostess, serving tea so exquisitely among her bric-a-brac.")

       The young man takes his hat and moves out. It would be unbecoming on his part to respond to her love. Perhaps he would like to forget her by a morning walk in the park or by reading the newspaper; particularly the comics page and the sports page. He would read that an English countess has become an actress or a Greek has been murdered at a dance performance or the confessions of some bank defaulter. He keeps himself calm and confident. Perhaps this calm is disturbed when the notes of a street piano playing some old familiar tune fall upon his ears and the smell of hyacinth flowers come to him across the garden and remind him of love and woman that others have desired and which he has rejected. He does not know if he is right or wrong in running away from the love of that old woman.

Part III

      The third meeting of the old woman and the young man takes place in Autumn. It is a night in October and the young man rather unwillingly goes to the place of the woman. He feels some discomfort in mounting the stairs and when he turns the handle of the door, he sees the lady. (He has come to tell her that he is going abroad and will not be able to see her again.) The lady anticipates this and tells the young man, "So you are going abroad; when will you return?" But this is a futile question. (She has resigned herself to the situation and therefore does not grumble). "In fact, even you cannot say when you will come back. Perhaps you will, during your stay abroad, come across some interesting person from whom you will learn a good deal." The young man does not know what to say and so he smiles. His smile appears awkward amidst the various articles of decoration in the room. The lady continues: "You can write to me." The young man expected these words from the lady and felt quite confident for a moment. The lady becomes serious and asks, "I have been wondering—the beginning can never tell about the ends—why we have not developed an intimacy." (She is hinting at the beginning of their relationship which appeared to be promising, but turned out differently.) The young man tries to smile but feels awkward like a person who looks into the mirror and is surprised at his own (sad) appearance. His self-confidence flickers like a candle and he does not know what to say or do. He is non-plussed. The lady continues her conversation and says: "Everybody including all our friends felt that our friendship would grow and we would become intimate. I can hardly explain why our acquaintance has not grown into love. Perhaps it is destined that our relationship should not mature into love. Perhaps it is too late for the young man to love. At any rate, please write to me. Perhaps I must stay here serving tea to friends." The pathetic words of the lady un-nerved the young man. He was unable to face the situation anymore. He would like to escape from the scene, by being transformed into a "dancing bear' or 'a crying parrot' or a 'chattering ape'. He must go out and seek some relaxation by smoking tobacco.

      The young man's is full of thoughts about the lady. (He has physically run away, but mentally he is pre-occupied with her.) Perhaps the old lady may die of a broken heart some afternoon when it is grey and smoky and the evening is yellow and pink. Perhaps he would continue sitting at home with a pen in his hand as he watched the smoke descending over the house tops. Perhaps his feelings would be complex—really doubtful as to what they would be. He would not know what to feel about her death-whether he was wise or foolish in rejecting her love, whether he was rather quick or slow in his response. Perhaps she had one advantage over him that she died earlier and gained peace. The sound of the 'dying fall' of music echoes his inner feelings. Now that the subject in hand is death, how should he express the feelings of his troubled soul. Has he the right to smile? Can he get over his confusion and frustration?


L.6. Juliet's tomb: In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the tomb is the vault in which Juliet's body is placed; her family supposes her to be dead. Actually, she is only in a coma, drugged in an attempt to escape an arranged marriage and save herself for Romeo. But the plan goes tragically wrong. Romeo is killed and Juliet commits suicide over his body.

L.9. Preludes: A group of piano pieces by the Polish composer Frederick Chopin (1810-49).

L.15. Velleities: Light inclinations.

L.17. Cornets: Trumpets.

L.28. Cauchemar: French for nightmare.

L.30. Ariettee: Small air or melodies.

L.32. Tom-tom: Drum.

L.36. Tobacco-trance: The relaxation of mind brought about by smoking of tobacco.

L.53. Buried Life: The Buried Life by Matthew Arnold (1822-88) seems to be the source of this phrase. In Arnold, the 'buried life' is 'the mystery of this heart which beats so wild, so deep in us' - the impulsive, passionate side of human nature that we so often try to ignore or suppress. Throughout the Portrait Eliot seems to suppose the reader's acquaintance with The Buried Life, on which he provides a kind of modern commentary, a re-writing of Arnold's serious dramatic monologue as conversation galante, a complex statement, with shifting tones of irony, quite different from the relative simplicity of Arnold's singleness of tone and feeling.

L.61. Invulnerable: Unconquerable.

L.61. Achilles' heel: Achilles was killed by a shot in the heel, though he was extremely brave. So it means some weak point or weak spot which makes one the target of the enemy.

L.67. Journey's end: Death.

L.81. Hyacinths: Bell-shaped flowers.

L.92. Bric-a-brac: Various articles of decoration.

L.101. Glitters: Breaks down or gets extinguished like a candle.

L.121. Advantage: Here it means the benefit of peace after death.

L.122. 'Dying fall': A melody which becomes gentler and fainter till it dies out.

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