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This poem has puzzled me for a bit and so I wanted to think it through.

The Portrait of a Lady - Wikipedia

Portrait of a Lady

By T.S. Eliot

 Thou hast committed —Fornication: but that was in another country,And besides, the wench is dead. 
(
The Jew of Malta

The poem begins with ambiguity: The title apparently comes from the novel by Henry James. But it could also be the generic idea of a portrait in painting or word. And if the reference is to the novel, then what aspect of the novel? The ambiguity increases when we consider the motto and the title: The portrait is of a “lady”. The quotation of a fornicating “wench.”  The effect of the original (from Christopher Marlowe) is bit different between it came in conversation:

            FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—

           BARABAS. Fornication:  but that was in another country;

     And besides, the wench is dead.

Without getting too deep into the play, the statement by Barabas is an ironic “confession” of sin. 

From these two quotations, we could assume that the poem will be a portrait of a woman with whom someone commits fornication and that woman is now dead. Perhaps we can also anticipate a confession.

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon 

You have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do— 

With “I have saved this afternoon for you”; 

And four wax candles in the darkened room, 

Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead, 

An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb 

Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid. 

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole 

Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips. 

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul 

Should be resurrected only among friends 

Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom 

That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.” 

—And so the conversation slips 

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets 

Through attenuated tones of violins 

Mingled with remote cornets 

And begins. 

This first stanza leaves us still unoriented: who is narrating this event? Someone is speaking to us about a scene in the past. The “smoke and fog of a Dececember afternoon” are distinctly “unromantic”. The tone is quite in line with the more famous Prufrock (done to the discussions of music and the fog. This is perhaps the room where women come and go.)

Who has “saved this afternoon”? We are we intruding into this private event? Who has invited us to intrude.

That it is Juliette’s tomb and what has not been said (or said) is rather gruesome, and recalls the motto “she is dead.” There is a romantic meeting implied, but it is a deathly meeting. The relationship has begun where Juliette’s ended.

Who is the “we” have been: Is the narrator a participant? Later that will become clear, but here we cannot tell. The world is private and privileged (these are not working class). They speak with the sort of dilettante voice of those who repeat cliches about art without being profound. 

The conversation masks what is actually happening and the people are like the people of the Wasteland whom death has not undone. Everyone is a sort ghost, a not-quite person with weak desires and regrets. The violins are attenuated, the coronets are remote.

We open in the most unreal, spectral locations: “And begins”.

“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends, 

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 knew? you are not blind! 

How keen you are!) 

To find a friend who has these qualities, 

Who has, and gives 

Those qualities upon which friendship lives. 

How much it means that I say this to you — 

Without these friendships — life, what cauchemar!” 

Someone – not the narrator – has begun to speak. We assume this is the lady from the diction and from the title.  The logic is circular “a friend has the quality of being a friend and without friends, what a nightmare”. The life of this woman is “composed” of “odds and ends.” She praises the other as “how keen you are.” 

It is also interesting that the event is narrated in such a detached manner. It is spoken to you, the one who heard these words does not seem attached to it. We learn in the second half of the stanza that our narrator is not a third person, but this is his life “inside my brain”.

The imagery of music, which has been an affectation – and a “pretty” one at that – becomes rather base and painful for him: “dull tom-tom … absurdly hammering … monotone … false note”.

Among the winding of the violins 

And the ariettes 

Of cracked cornets 

Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins 

Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own, 

Capricious monotone 

That is at least one definite “false note.” 

— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance, 

Admire the monuments, 

Discuss the late events, 

Correct our watches by the public clocks. 

Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks. 

They are the midst of art – which had promised so much in the prior generation: The “art for arts sake” of Wilde has not performed the redemptive services promised. Poetry and sculpture and music did not elevate life sufficiently and make a substitute for music. They will “admire monuments” after they hear the music. They will keep time (for what reason?). They will sit “half an hour” and drink beer. But even in this there is a distance “our bocks”. They are killing time. 

II 

Now that lilacs are in bloom 

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room 

And twists one in her fingers while she talks. 

“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know 

What life is, you who hold it in your hands”; 

(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks) 

“You let it flow from you, you let it flow, 

And youth is cruel, and has no remorse 

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.” 

We are transported somewhere into the future: It was foggy December. Now the lilacs are in bloom. This being Eliot, we can’t overlook the (possible) allusion to Whitman’s great poem, When the Lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed. There is a brilliant use of the flowers: the flowers are in bloom, and she has brought some inside. When coupled with the description of how she “twists” the lilacs (mentioned twice), the image of cut flowers being brought inside and slowly twisted sounds sinister. 

What life is when you hold it in your hands: In the previous scene the two were outside, but now they are inside – in her space. I would suggest that the narrator is now the cut flower, inside. His life is in her hands and she is slowly twisting him. 

This is the first indication that there is an age difference: youth. He is apparently the youth, she the elder. She is the victim: youth is cruel, without remorse: you don’t know what you’re doing to me. And so while she is strangling him, it is “really” her who is being twisted. She is not twisting him, but rather she is the one being twisted up. The imagery works in both directions.

I smile, of course, 

And go on drinking tea. 

“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall 

My buried life, and Paris in the Spring, 

I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world 

To be wonderful and youthful, after all.” 

I smile, of course: this is brilliant. Is he hiding from her? Does he understand? Is he maliciously agreeing? That he goes on drinking tea has the effect of keeping her emotionally at a difference. This creates an ironic note when compared to the intimacy of Chopin and the talk of friendship: here there is no friendship, not even passion. 

There is April and Paris, but it is a “buried life” and “sunsets.” She is at peace: which sounds like “in the grave”. How then is the world “wonderful and youth”? 

He is the artist, Joyce’s Portrait, paring his nails at a distance from his creation. 

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune 

Of a broken violin on an August afternoon: 

“I am always sure that you understand 

My feelings, always sure that you feel, 

Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand. 

Here we seem to be at another distance: the now of the poem. This lilac day is in the past: “the voice returns”. It is also unpleasant at this distance. It is not merely “out-of-tune” but it is an “insistent” status “of a broken violin”. It is not an April in Paris, but it is “an August afternoon”

She is “insistenting” something about him which is not true. She pathetically thinks of him as one who understands and sympathizes: but he “smiles, of course” and just “drinks tea.”

You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel. 

You will go on, and when you have prevailed 

You can say: at this point many a one has failed. 

Then she switches her perspective, he is not quite the understanding friend. Instead, he is “invulnerable”. He has “prevailed”  but it is over her? Has he prevailed by not becoming involved. How has he been different than other who did “fail”? Fail at what? 

Let’s go back to meeting her in Juliette’s tomb: is the death hers, or is the death something she brings upon others? Is she a trap: we have the same ambiguity of the twisted cut flower: who is destroying whom?

But what have I, but what have I, my friend, 

To give you, what can you receive from me? 

Only the friendship and the sympathy 

Of one about to reach her journey’s end. 

They only have friendship and sympathy: which is precisely what they do not have. They are in close connection but they are utterly without intimacy. 

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….” 

The tea has returned: the drinking becomes a pose to keep one close and distant I the same move. There is a connection with drinking and eating with one-another: this also becomes a mask and means to keep a distance. She is going to stay “sit here” and she will continue as she has done “serving tea to friends”.

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends 

For what she has said to me? 

He is leaving. All he has there is a “hat”. Any visitor would have a hat to bring and leave. He has left nothing behind and has brought nothing with him.

Another irony: she has called him the greatest of all heroes, Achilles: he sees himself as a coward. He then paints a pathetic picture of himself as Profrock:

You will see me any morning in the park 

Reading the comics and the sporting page. 

Particularly I remark. 

Even though the trivialities come from the paper and not the internet, there is not a lick of difference: petty, irrelevant gossip:

An English countess goes upon the stage. 

A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance, 

Another bank defaulter has confessed. 

He is not quite an invulnerable as she thought him to be:

I keep my countenance, 

I remain self-possessed 

Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired 

Reiterates some worn-out common song 

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden 

Recalling things that other people have desired. 

Are these ideas right or wrong? 

Now we understand the music: it is the life passion and reality (perhaps). Although the music he now finds is “mechanical and tired”. Must smells of hyacinths in a garden; but more importantly, music is filled with “things that other people have desired.” He is a man seemingly without any desires of his own. 

He is so nothing that cannot even his own mind: “Are these ideas right or wrong?” Neither his thoughts nor his feelings are his own. 

We then move to yet another time: October. Is this in the past, or is this now the present of the poem?

III 

The October night comes down; returning as before 

Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease 

I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door 

And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees. 

It is October: the night is returning – but is he? Whose steps is he mounting? It is the “lady’s” because she is the only one who speaks out loud in the poem. So is he returning to her house? When he comes to the door of her home it feels like a supplicant begging. He is anything but a hero.

“And so you are going abroad; and when do you return? 

But that’s a useless question. 

You hardly know when you are coming back, 

You will find so much to learn.” 

My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac. 

He is taking his leave.  He needs to learn something. Is she being dismissive: you’re a child? Is she protecting herself? No one rightly discloses nor knows themself. 

His smile becomes one her possessions: and a trivial one at that: it takes is place among her things. 

“Perhaps you can write to me.” 

My self-possession flares up for a second; 

This is as I had reckoned. 

What does this mean psychologically? Does this mean that he would have some control? Is their relationship a matter of control. And if it is something he had reckoned, does that does that mean he finally understood something about her? But it will immediately be lost, his self-possession “gutters”, it flows out like melted wax:

“I have been wondering frequently of late 

(But our beginnings never know our ends!) 

Why we have not developed into friends.” 

I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark 

Suddenly, his expression in a glass. 

My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark. 

 He almost speaks – but then in weakness he fails. She says why we never became friends (despite whatever other intimacy)? He rises to speak and then stops. “We are relaly in the dark.”

“For everybody said so, all our friends, 

They all were sure our feelings would relate 

So closely! I myself can hardly understand. 

We must leave it now to fate. 

You will write, at any rate. 

Perhaps it is not too late. 

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.” 

Everyone thought it would be otherwise: And that tea again. There was the possibility that the two could actually “relate” – but it did not happen. Why?

And I must borrow every changing shape 

To find expression … dance, dance 

Like a dancing bear, 

Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape. 

He is now utterly weakened: He is a dancing bear, who “borrows every changing shape.”

He ends with an utter weakness and tentativeness: If she should die, what would be left for him? He does not even know what to feel or think (understand). He does not if he is wise or foolish, early or late. And then in death, “Would she not have the advantage after all?”

If she were to die, would he have the right to smile.

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance— 

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon, 

Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose; 

Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand 

With the smoke coming down above the housetops; 

Doubtful, for quite a while 

Not knowing what to feel or if I understand 

Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon … 

Would she not have the advantage, after all? 

This music is successful with a “dying fall” 

Now that we talk of dying— 

And should I have the right to smile? 

If we give this a sort of Jungian read, and the lady is the aspect of his life which is missing: a real soul; then, has he failed to obtain this? Was it offered to him? Or is she a “dominating queen” (like Someone Saved my Life Tonight)? Has he been captured by her?

This is a poem describing some sort relationship, but he seems unable to enter into it or to escape it. He is in the end a cypher, not even a completed man.