Portrait of A Lady: by T.S Eliot || Summary and Analysis

Also Read

      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 famous novels of 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 of 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 is seen here. "I shall sit here serving tea to friends". (L. 108).

Summary and Analysis

      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. At the end, the affair, so to say, ends in smoke.

      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 thoughts recoiled from the situation of an unholy alliance.

      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 express 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 express 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.

      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), 'thie 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, as 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 embrassment 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.

Previous Post Next Post

Google Search