A reading of a classic early Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Portrait of a Lady’ first appeared in T. S. Eliot’s first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, which was published in 1917. The title is a nod to Henry James’s 1878 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, although this is a piece of misdirection on Eliot’s part, since the poem that follows will be much more about its young male speaker than it will about his older female companion. The poem is the other long monologue Eliot wrote satirising early twentieth-century society, alongside ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, the title poem of that debut collection. You can read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ here before proceeding to our short analysis of the poem below.
‘Portrait of a Lady’, in summary, charts the friendship between a man – though this time a younger man than J. Alfred Prufrock – and an older woman. In the first section, they attend a concert together; in the second, she talks regretfully of being old, and envies the young man his youth (he, meanwhile, busies himself reading comics and the sports pages of the newspaper); in the third, he tells her he is going abroad, and she makes him promise to write to her. After he leaves her, he reflects on how he has treated her. Does he have the right to smile? Has he treated her badly?
In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ we can see Jules Laforgue’s influence on the young Eliot (Eliot wrote ‘Portrait of a Lady’ around the time he wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, in 1910-11). The influence of the French-Uruguayan Laforgue (1860-87) is especially plain in the presentation of this ‘lady’ as almost annoyingly trivial but also, for all that, a ‘lady’, whom the speaker of the poem has perhaps mistreated in some unspecified way. The attitudes to women we find expressed in Eliot’s early poems, as well as being Eliot’s own, are also poetic masks that Eliot has borrowed from Laforgue, whose poetry often portrays women as trivial and ethereal simultaneously – angels in knickers, as Eliot’s biographer, Lyndall Gordon, puts it in The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. In other words, the male poet’s idealisation of women has to be reconciled with the altogether more banal realities of what women are actually like. Here we have one of the key preoccupations of all of Eliot’s poetry: the juxtaposition, and often contrast, of the poetic with the everyday, the sublime with the mundane. The chatty or conversational style of much of ‘Prufrock’, and of the male speaker of ‘Portrait of a Lady’, is also largely down to Laforgue’s influence. In the posthumously published notebook poems, Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917, there are a number of ‘clown’ poems, which are similarly drawn straight from the world of Laforgue.
The title of the poem, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, is significant because the poem itself shifts our focus from the lady to the young man who is speaking to us. As George Williamson puts it in his T.S.Eliot (Reader’s Guides), the poem ‘is not so much the portrait of a lady as the portrait of another uncertain Prufrock, adolescent rather than prematurely aged, suspended between feelings of attraction and repulsion’ (70-71). The woman seems to think that the speaker of the poem understands her, and has a ‘keen’ perception of human nature. But is she wrong on both counts? Unlike her, we get access to his thoughts, the ones he does not or cannot vouchsafe to her. The poem’s epigraph makes sense in hindsight: the lines from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta fit with Eliot’s poem because the ‘lady’ is older than the male speaker (and so destined, at least he presumes, to die first) and he is going abroad having misused her. ‘But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead’: the words from Marlowe’s play hover over Eliot’s poem because Eliot’s poem recalls the world of sexual transgression and the separation of countries which are suggested by the lines from The Jew of Malta. Yet the word ‘lady’ and the word ‘wench’, to say nothing of the implications of the word ‘fornication’, denoting a vulgar act of lust rather than something more ‘ladylike’, are at odds with each other in the poem’s title and epigraph – so what sort of ‘lady’, or woman, should we prepare ourselves for in the poem that follows? Another complication comes from the realisation that no ‘fornication’ is likely to have taken place between the speaker of Eliot’s poem and his ‘lady’ companion: their relationship, if it is viewed as sexual by either of them, is one of sexual frustration rather than sexual consummation.
Although far less celebrated – and less of a towering achievement – than ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ successfully draws on Laforgue’s poems about young men and their divided attitudes to women, and creates a minor masterpiece in the English language – one which also displays the influence of English verse drama (the metre is reminiscent of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and note the reference to ‘Juliet’s tomb’ to describe the lady’s room in the poem’s opening lines). Eliot had already learned his craft and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is a studied analysis of a male psyche, and of a young man trapped in the upper-middle-class world of early twentieth-century American society with aimlessness and sterility. As one of the female speakers in Eliot’s later The Waste Land will ask, ‘What shall we ever do?’
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.