Portrait of a Lady by T. S. Eliot: Summary and Critical Analysis

'Portrait of a Lady' is a descriptive monologue written in 1911 at Harvard by T. S. Eliot. The poor lady is the female counterpart of Prufrock, a miserable soul longing for the touch of friendship and love which she never gets. The lady makes cautious advances to a man younger than herself. The poem is recited within the memory of the man, who is the speaker of the poem and deals with the psychological impasse of a sensitive young man who visits a lady, but the lady knows that there is an air of uncertainty in their amorous relationship, and their love is not going to be blessed with maturity. The lady makes the proposal of friendship or love to the handsome young man, but he shows no enthusiasm for her gestures of love.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The lady lectures him on the meaning of life, tries to win him over, makes fervent appeals of friendship, but the young man is all the time concerned how to succeed in preventing himself from being emotionally involved with the lady. The young man does not remain entirely unaffected by her revelation of friendship, but he cannot love her and searches for an excuse for a break. At length, having the excuse of a projected foreign tour, he pays the lady a final call to take his leave. When, with placid understatement and only half in reproach, she deplores that they 'have not developed into friends,' he suffers the humiliation of seeming in the wrong and goes away shaken though not regretful. ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is concerned with the failure of a friendship to establish itself in any reality, to achieve any true meaning. The lady is a romantic to the core and it is largely her romanticism which alienates the man.

The first part opens 'among the smoke and fog of a December room'. The dark room is faintly lighted by four wax candles, which cast four rings of light on the ceiling overhead. The atmosphere of the room resembles that in the tomb of Juliet, where she was lying in a state of death-in-life. This is the condition of the Lady also, who is half dead and half alive, with the only difference that Juliet had willingly submitted to this state out of the passion of love, but the lady has been reduced to it through her emotional starvation. They have returned from a musical concert and the Lady has reserved the afternoon for a private talk with the young man, who has become her friend through a common taste in Polish music. The conversation starts with a comment upon the performance of Chopin, the player on piano, who seems to transmit the effect of his music through his hair and finger-tips. The Lady opines that Chopin can expose his soul in all its blood and beauty in the small company of intimate friends, while the crowd in a concert room suppresses and defaces his soul's natural beauty. This sets the ball rolling and the conversation slips among the subtle insinuations of light inclinations and delicate regrets which sound into the ears of the young man like the weak notes of violins, mingled with the notes of cornets at a great distance.

The Lady tells the young man that he can have no idea of the great value she attaches to her friends who relieve the monotony of a life composed of trivialities, which, as he must have seen, she does not like at all. It was, therefore, a rare fortune to have come across a friendly young man, possessed of qualities which are conducive to a lasting understanding. She wonders if he can grasp the full meaning of her words when she says that without such friendships her life would be a nightmare.

The young man expresses his reaction to the lady's appeal by saying in an aside that the words of the lady sounded to him as the insinuating and by no means sweet notes of violins and other instruments, to which a dull, monotonous throb in his own brain supplied a counterpoint, a note which was 'false' and inharmonious. So he goes out into the open air of freedom, to forget his boredom in the mild intoxication of tobacco and the indifferent recreations and diversions.

The second part opens in Spring when lilacs are blooming in nature and the Lady herself appears before the young man, with a bowl of lilacs in her room, and while her tongue is wagging, her fingers are busy twisting one of the flowers. The meaning is that the brightness of her mind is precarious and deceptive. The lady begins with a warm, anxious tone that he perhaps does not realize that the period of youth, granted to him, is a precious but short-lived possession, and he must ‘gather the rose buds' while it lasts. But he is simply wasting it, unmindful of the fact that youth has no mercy for lost opportunities.

But the arrival of spring has revived her happy youthful life in Paris in Spring, which now lies buried under the debris of years, and she feels once more happy, youthful and perfectly at peace with a world looking fresh and young.

The Lady resumes, with increased earnestness, that she has no doubt about power of understanding her intended meaning and the feeling of heart behind her words. He will certainly bridge a sympathetic reciprocation of her sentiment. She adds that he has an advantage over her, because he is heart- whole and emotion has made no weak spot in him. He can march on victoriously, dismissing the matter with the remark that many relations break off at the point which divides friendship from love. But in return for this jaunty indifference she can give him only her sympathy and friendship, knowing that her life is coming to a close. The breach of friendship will leave her tied to the dead routine of her empty life — 'sit here, serving tea to friends'.

As she stops the young man takes his hat, but is at a loss to find out a cowardly excuse in response to her sentimental self-pity. But he has his usual distractions to forget his momentary remorse—reading comics and sporting pages during his morning-stroll in the park. The news items, particularly interesting to him are the report about a countess who takes to acting, the murder of a Greek at a Polish dance, the confession of one more bank default. So the appeal of the lady has not disturbed the peace of his mind and the composure of his countenance. Yet a change is there, because when the sound of a street-piano, which repeats an old, familiar song, falls upon his ear and the smell of hyacinths across the garden assails his nose, he recalls that persons in such situations have longed for love. But it is only a momentary fancy, which he dismisses with his rational inquiry if such ideas are right or wrong.

In the third situation the young man has come to take his leave of the lady on the eve of his departure on a journey, which may be a mere pretext to get out of an awkward situation. It is October night, and the young man feels ill at ease and laboriously and with pain he mounts up the stairs, turns the handle and confronts the Lady. The words spoken by her indicate that she is now resigned to the inevitable. The young man is going away and may not return soon, he will find to learn so much. The hidden irony in the remark brings a dull smile on his face, which is out of tune with the gay toys in the room. The Lady, of course, hopes that he will write to her from abroad. This is quite re-assuring to the young man who had thought of such a request from her. But the lady resumes in a more serious tone, that she has been wondering of late frequently why their relationship which began so promisingly did not fructify into real friendship (love). But man proposes and fate disposes and what is well begun may not end well.

At this pathetic helplessness of the Lady the Youngman is abashed. He wants to smile but has to see in the mirror if the smile is there on his face or not. At any rate his self-possession flickers, like a dying candle and is gone and for a moment the stands in darkness, as it were, groping for a way to get out of his confusion.

The lady harps on the point in her sad, resigned tone, that all her friends were of the opinion that their feelings would bring about their final union and she herself is really at a loss to account that their separation. So she has to submit to the will of fate, hoping that it is not too late to mend the matter. He will at least write to her, and she will wait and continue to serve tea to friends.

The young man is, for a moment, demoralized and has no courage to face her calmly. He wishes to become a dancing bear or a noisy parrot or a chattering ape to get over his tobacco pipe. But his mind is haunted by the thought of her death as a consequence of this heart-breaking disappointment, and he tries to guess at his own condition after getting the report of the event, which will certainly leave him doubtful and puzzled about his own reaction to it. But sooner or later he will have to admit that the advantage was on her side. She has scored over him. Then his attention is diverted towards the music with a dying fall and he feels that it is perfectly in tune with his state of mind created by his meditation on the possibility of the lady's death. The diversion has hardened him a bit, yet he is still doubtful if he can smile and dismiss the matter once for all.

Superficially, the poem is about a young man, the narrator, and his visits to an older woman in the course of one year. The passage of time is carefully marked December, April, August, October. The woman exploits the hostess-guest situation in order to try and establish a damper relationship than the narrator is willing to permit. He feels threatened by her, but is also uncomfortable at his inability to respond to her proposals. The situation is not a new one in Eliot's poetry. 'Circe's' Palace' (1908), 'Conversation Galante' (1909), and Prufrock' dramatize a similar predicament in which the persona feels threatened by a woman with whom he is in some way involved. Much of the satirical humor aid comedy result from the fact that social conventions of politeness prevent the narrator and the lady from articulating their real thoughts and emotions - the lady, her need for an intimate friendship and the narrator, his hostility towards her. The poem reveals the cruelty and violence that lie beneath the restraints of polite drawing-room society.

The form of this verse was drawn from Laforgue and later Elizabethan drama, assimilating their conversational modes; its use of the half-line also reminds us of Spenser or Milton. It stretches, contracts, and distorts iambic pentameter and Alexandrine verse; uses rhyme freely, functionally, not according to any set patterns. It develops verse as speech rather than verse as song, but the lyric note becomes insistent at times. It has the loose, repetitive, emergent syntax of speech by which it becomes both restrained and crafty. These repetitive hesitations become part not only of the psychology but also of the speech as verse; they are imitations of speech that also function in the movement of the verse. And the verse usually quickens or beats more obvious when the youth is moved by the impulse to escape. The tonal quality of Eliot's verse is not less a part of the suppressed feeling of this poem, which is given a setting almost.

The poet's command both of his experience and his technique is perfect. The utterances of the lady are in the idiom and cadence of modern speech, and they go perfectly with the movement of the verse, which, for all its freedom and variety, is nevertheless very strict and precise. The poet is as close to the contemporary world as any novelist could be, and his formal verse medium makes possible a concentration and a directness, audacities of transition and psychological notation, such as are forbidden to the novelist. The epigraph from The Jew of Malta (IV, I) by Christopher Marlowe suggests that there is an element of moral uncertainty and deception in the relationship between the lady and the handsome young man whom the lady loves intensely.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Portrait of a Lady by T. S. Eliot: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 6 Oct. 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/portrait-of-a-lady-summary-analysis.html.