Composed during the same period of early creative energy, innovation, and experimentation of 1910–11 that produced The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” and “Preludes,” with which it was later collected in his first major collection in 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations, Portrait of a Lady, published in Others in September 1915, shares with those other early creations Eliot’s fascination with the use of a dramatized voice, disjunctive associations, and unusual observations that shock or surprise the reader with their tonal imbalances and unexpected shifts of emotional focus.
The Epigraph For his own part, Eliot may have learned his tactics for discombobulating his readers’ expectations from the French symbolists, but in “Portrait,” which is perhaps the most original, in the sense of its being the least derivative of Eliot’s work from this time, the skill at keeping readers off their guard seems to be all Eliot’s. By the same token, however, “Portrait” may not achieve the same level of poetic intensity as “Prufrock” does and therefore is not overall as successful or memorable a poem. Nevertheless, Eliot’s merely playing “Portrait” ’s title off against the epigraph from Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama, The Jew of Malta, tells readers that the poetry to come will be neither an ordinary poem nor a typical poetic experience.
On the one hand, the reader is presented with the idea that this is somehow to be a portrait of a lady. The trope of a poem as portrait contrasts, of course, with the other poems of his from this period, whose titles most often contain musical analogies: “love song,” “rhapsody,” “prelude.” The reader’s imagination is automatically set up not only for a visual as opposed to an aural experience but also for the further cultural connotations that a portrait brings to mind, with its overtones of a formal and studied sitting; a measure of graciousness and beauty, not to mention wealth and prestige, in the subject; and, last but not least, cultivated tastes.
The reader is compelled by the title to see in the mind’s eye all of life’s finer things, in no set order surely, but the point is maintained that a lady is not just anyone. And then the very first words that the reader encounters call up the immediate and vulgar image, from Christopher Marlowe’s verses, of a fornicating wench. The contrast is a startling one, to say the least, and no doubt intended that way. The reader is already puzzling out what sort of a lady is about to be encountered, but then has to deal with the fact that entry into the poetry seems to be an intrusion into private intimacies.
A voice is speaking, but it is addressing the lady of the title apparently, “you,” and not the reader, in which case the speaker would have referred to the lady in the third person, “she.” With any modernist poem, but especially one by Eliot and particularly at this point in his development, it is best not to imagine that the poet, rather than some invented mask à la Jules Laforgue, is the speaker. (In the case of “Portrait,” there is not even good reason to imagine that the speaker is a male.) Surely approaching “Portrait” as if it is not veiled autobiography but a character study with two characters—the speaker as he is revealed through his friendship with and unspoken attitudes toward the lady, whom the reader meets as well through her quoted conversation—will allow the reader more latitude in coming to terms with the poem’s otherwise enigmatic content.
Coming upon this text as if there is a key to it to be found in some information outside the text—the “real” identity of the lady in question, for example, or Eliot’s relationship with her (assuming that there was a real lady)—all too often results in false confidence and falser readings. Approaching the text instead as a self-enclosed world, while limiting the information base to the text alone, nevertheless expands the range of defensible readings. What a reader approaching “Portrait” in this manner, having survived the blow to the sensibilities that is struck by the double-edged sword of the contrast between the genteel title and vulgarity of the epigraph, discovers very quickly, then, is that the speaker is engaged in a one-sided conversation, a device that Eliot picked up from Laforgue and would use to great effect in the opening gambit in “A Game of Chess,” part 2 of The Waste Land.
In “Portrait,” the words of the lady, enclosed in quotation marks, are apparently being spoken in some context or another; the words of the speaker, on the other hand, are his unspoken reflections on her and her utterances, either at the moment that she is speaking them or later when, in private, they recur to him. Surely there is a hint in the “let us say” that, as much as she may have let the “scene arrange itself,” the speaker, too, is arranging a future scene, or rearranging a past scene, either of which will expose the lady’s true nature (which is what a successful portraitist always aims to do). For if one thing is certain, it is that “Portrait” is not is a love poem. If anything, the speaker seems to be a bit put out and put off by the lady—her conversation, her tastes, her habits.
They apparently attend social functions together; she speaks of a Chopin concert. But they are otherwise rather like characters in a tale by Henry James, the then-reigning serious American fiction writer, one of whose major works is also entitled “Portrait of a Lady,” although that is an entirely different story from Eliot’s. The personages of Eliot’s “Portrait” are more reminiscent of May Bartram and John Marcher from James’s 1901 short story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Those two keep company for many years, but the reader is encouraged to imagine that they shared little more than each other’s social company through all their years together, although they may have shared that intimately enough, a secret between themselves. While James gives the reader both sides of the story—as Eliot does, sort of—the tragedy of the James tale is built around Marcher’s being so self-absorbed in his own destiny that he never takes the time to notice that May has become an integral part of it. The tale ends poignantly with Marcher suddenly coming upon the discovery, a year after May’s death, that she had been in love with him all along.
In his defense, Eliot’s speaker lacks Marcher’s density and does not to appear to be in any danger of becoming sentimental. If anything, Eliot’s speaker seems to know all too well what is going on, and he does not, on balance, like it. The temptation to link the speaker with the poet is always a strong one, of course, and since Eliot was still a young man of 22 at the time of the poem’s composition in March 1911, there is also a strong temptation to imagine that this may be a May–December sort of pairing, a younger man with a much older or at least not quite as callow woman.
That might explain the none-too-thinly veiled eroticism of the epigraph—wishful thinking, or just plain old frustration. Surely there is little doubt that the speaker is dissatisfied with the kinds of activities in which he and the lady engage during their time together and seems to be wishing, or at least delights in imagining, that they might let their hair down, as it were. Still, the reader should be looking for evidence of this in the text, not making the speaker a stand-in for a youthful Eliot.
As the poem opens, the speaker recounts a day, an afternoon, an evening, perhaps all three, that he and the lady have just recently spent or will shortly spend in each other’s company. He recounts the events with a sort of begrudging deference that borders or an insolent and mocking cruelty. If she seems overly polite and cordial, he seems to be reacting to her cautiously familiar formalities with a secret desire that she were less of a stuffed shirt. If, then, she is in a “darkened room” that reminds him of Juliet’s tomb, the implication is assuredly not that he is regarding himself as a young swain on a dangerously erotic adventure, but that she is past her prime and conceals time’s fabled ravages by keeping the lights low.
As they converse, she seems to be always making elaborate excuses for this or for that, excuses that he, on reflection, resents but that he apparently otherwise suffers gladly as she makes them. And so, as part I ends, he can speak of “a dull tomtom . . . / Absurdly hammering” and of a “Capricious monotone” as he then suggests, rather wryly, and certainly not to the lady’s face, that they would do better to go out for cigarettes and beer. It should go without saying that that would not be the kind of activity that any self-respecting lady of the time in which Eliot is writing would be caught doing, no matter who was her escort.
The other two parts of the poem continue in this same vein, and if “Portrait” has a flaw that makes it far less successful an achievement, finally, than the contemporaneous masterpiece “Prufrock,” it is that “Portrait” strikes a note but then never much develops or varies it. Once the parameters of their relationship are defined in the first part of the poem, the lady continues to patter on about her lost youth, his youthfulness, and their friendship. The speaker continues to listen in what must be a respectful silence that she takes for acquiescence but that is actually a colossally petulant boredom that he nevertheless is polite enough to conceal.
With their pity-me honesty, his reflections do take on a tone and style that equal some of the best urban sophisticate poetry that Eliot was at the same time turning into poems such as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and the “Preludes”: “I mount the stairs . . . / And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.” There are great turns of thought and speech as well: “(But our beginnings never know our ends!)” is a concept that, with only slight modification, will serve Eliot well as one of the themes in one of his greatest poetic achievements, Four Quartets. Otherwise, however, the lady’s selfdeception and the speaker’s self-serving deception must become as tiresome for the reader, after a while, as they do for the speaker. Very likely, however, that is the very effect that Eliot wishes to achieve, and the reason why reading the poem as if it were semiautobiographical rather than a fictive construct diminishes both Eliot’s efforts and the poetry’s effectiveness.
Like “Prufrock,” to which “Portrait” is in many ways a companion piece that also has as one of its aims exposing the limits of social interaction in polite society, “Portrait” comments tragically on the dilemmas that human communication, which ought to be a means toward self-revelation and interpersonal fulfillment, can create when the process is turned inward. The lady is talking to hear herself talk; the speaker is talking about her, but not to her. Both are missing the point of what human conversation is all about, which is to talk to each other.
Toward the poem’s end, as the lady expresses her belated, perhaps, realization that they will never now be friends, since he is leaving, his language reaches its greatest capacity at expressing the frustrations that their strained relationship has caused for him. He imagines himself “a dancing bear . . . a parrot . . . an ape.” He goes to extremes trying to characterize his frustrations, granted. The problem remains that he never speaks them and never has spoken them, not, at least, to her.
So it is proper that the speaker is left to ponder, at poem’s end, the imponderable: “Well, and what if she should die. . . . / . . . should I have the right to smile?” If the musing sounds cold-heartedly detached, it should nevertheless not strike any reader as surprisingly so. The portrait that the speaker has “painted” is as much a portrait of himself as of the lady, perhaps even more so. By poem’s end, then, even that sort of a prospect, that she may die, sounds like a minor bump in the speaker’s obligatory sense of attachment to the lady, not to mention his social calendar.
If Gaston Leroux’s popular early 20th-century novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910) had any powerfully mythic energy at its core, it was that the great and fragile beauty that one expected of high art emerged from sources that were all too often horrifying and terrible to behold in their original form. The idea that the insane jealousy of the disfigured “phantom” underpinned the beautiful musical talent of the young heroine merely mimicked, even if only unintentionally, what modernist art of the time, particularly in poetry, was attempting to do, to abandon the commonplace notion that art had to be beautiful. This it replaced with the manifesto that it only had to be truthful. “Truthful,” however, all too frequently came to mean a reality that was sordid and ugly. The French poet Charles Baudelaire had already led the way with his volume of poetry, first published in 1857 and tellingly titled Les fleurs du mal, or The Flowers of Evil, and younger French poets had followed by continuing to rewrite the book on what sort of language and themes properly constituted that increasingly vague literary category, the poetic. Among them was Eliot’s own youthful idol, the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue. That same devotion to an unflinching truthfulness, however, often manifested in a more than usual emphasis on life’s more turgid, torrid, or sordid aspects, also seemed to require heavy doses of subtle ironies and inverted logic as well, all to keep readers on their toes and off their game of second-guessing, generally wrongly, a poet’s intentions. If the older poetry had somehow allowed readers to feel easy, comfortable, and familiar, the new poetry aimed to keep them ill at ease in order to confuse them into discovering a meaning all on their own or missing it entirely.
In “Portrait,” this sort of intentional ambiguity is illustrated vividly in the speaker’s own dilemma: He cannot come to honest terms with his relationship with the lady whom he is portraying precisely because he cannot speak honestly to her. Whether she fascinates him or repulses him is impossible to determine for the very reason that he cannot determine as much himself. The self-absorbed selfimportance of her one-sided conversations leaves him wishing not to be gone but to be daring, yet he confesses to having to drag himself to their assignations, as if it were a chore, and to finding the prospect of her death a mildly pleasant one.
This otherwise inexplicable love/hate relationship of the speaker’s with the lady makes sense only if the reader imagines that Eliot is using the same Laforguean doubling ploy in “Portrait” as in “Prufrock,” but in a context that makes it more realistic. Whereas in “Prufrock” a single characterization runs the gamut from pathetic fool to tragic agon, sometimes from one line of verse to the next (“I grow old. . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”), in order to create the extremes of dramatic tension that give the poetry its particularly unsettling effect, in “Portrait” Eliot eschews the same sort of Laforguean doubling of the mask that enables him to make the poetry, without warning, now tragic, now comic.
By now these techniques may have become commonplaces of poetic composition, at least as far as the influences of modernist poetry still remain, but in their time, just after the close of the first decade of the last century, they were liable both to confuse and to put off readers with their unabashedly frank and intentionally difficult approach toward subjects that had formerly been treated by artists in any medium—music, literature, painting, sculpture— with respect, delicacy, and clarity, even if that last quality often depended on a strict adherence to formulaic conventions of poetry writing. In essence, the reader knew what to expect from poetry, and the poet’s job, by and large, was to satisfy those expectations without necessarily catering to them. The self-appointed task of the new, young poets like Eliot, in contrast, was to discombobulate their readership, overturning those ingrained expectations by playing off against them.
In “Portrait” Eliot divides the disparities of personality required for maintaining a dramatic tension— or at least makes those disparities more plausible—by creating two entirely distinct personages in the speaker and the lady. Doing so, Eliot permits them to play out their ying/yang, chatterbox/ silent commentator, frigid socialite/closet debauch relationship, a relationship that in “Prufrock” must be manifested in the conflicts between his private aspirations and public frustrations. Either way, the thematic thrust of both poems is the same. The poetry exposes our ability to hurt without being hurt, to be hurt without hurting back. The unutterable painfulness of adult relationships that lack communication is palpable in the poetry of “Portrait,” so palpable, in fact, that it and the poetry are inseparable. The reader sees emerge from the poet’s words one enduring image of humans engaged in discourse but saying absolutely nothing, whether it is Prufrock expressing for the reader’s benefit but otherwise harboring his innermost feelings for fear of being rejected or the speaker of “Portrait” resenting the lady for her obtuseness but failing to call it to her attention or to let her go. As Eliot will say in another of his poems, written decades later, “Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.”</p