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A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’

A reading of a classic early poem by Eliot

‘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? Read the rest of this entry


A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Mr Apollinax’

A summary of a surprisingly comic poem

‘Mr Apollinax’ is one of the twelve poems included in Prufrock and Other Observations, T. S. Eliot’s debut collection of poems from 1917. The collection is highly sought after now in a first edition, but the initial print run of 500 copies wouldn’t sell out for five years. Nevertheless, the poems contained in this volume are among the first great modernist poems written in English. ‘Mr Apollinax’ displays the arresting imagery and serio-comic vein that run through the whole of the collection, as we’ll try to demonstrate in our analysis and discussion of it. You can read ‘Mr Apollinax’ here.

Why ‘Mr Apollinax’? The title suggests the Greek god Apollo, but more specifically, ‘Apollinax’ might suggest Apollonis arx, which Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, in their recent co-edited 2-volume edition of Eliot’s poems, point out was, in Greek mythology, ‘a place at the entrance of the Sibyl’s cave where the Sibyl left her prophecies, written on leaves’. Eliot’s name ‘Apollinax’, then, may suggest that the titular subject of the poem is both godlike (as in the mighty Apollo) but also prophetic or vatic, someone whom people view as a sage. Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Cousin Nancy’

A reading of a short Eliot poem

‘Cousin Nancy’ appeared in T. S. Eliot’s first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. It is one of a series of poems included in the volume which satirise and analyse the stuffiness of New England society – in this case, by contrasting the thoroughly ‘modern’ Cousin Nancy with the more traditional attitudes of those around her. You can read ‘Cousin Nancy’ here.

‘Cousin Nancy’ describes the young woman of the title. There we come to our first problem. What evidence is there that she is young? Well, she is ‘Miss Nancy Ellicott’, but middle-aged and elderly women can be unmarried, too. Or is it the fact that her aunts are mentioned, thus making her seem younger? Or the fact that she is described doing very active things – striding across the New England hills, riding a horse across the hills, dancing the ‘modern dances’? A combination of these things, it would seem. Read the rest of this entry