Art, Gender, & “Portrait of a Lady”

©Jacqueline Pollard, 2005

The Young Men Come and Go: Art and Gender in “Portrait of a Lady”

T.S. Eliot’s 1911 “Portrait of a Lady” details the relationship between a young man and an indeterminately older woman. The couple’s sterile attempts at communication allegorize the struggle between feminine culture and masculine “kulchur” (to use Ezra Pound’s term). Whereas aestheticism had previously promised enlightenment, by the late-nineteenth century the female intrusion into art–evidenced by the popularity of women writers and middle-class women’s art collecting–was believed to have emasculated high art, rendering it transitory and specific rather than eternal and universal. Works of art, whether music, literature, or three-dimensional objects, were devalued into entertainments and bric-a-brac to be enjoyed purely for pleasure. Consequently, art lost its aura–it became conventional and lacked transcendent significance. Those who wished to maintain art’s unique role as an edifying tool were rendered impotent. The young man in “Portrait of a Lady” represents the modern artist’s dilemma: he is disdainful and smug towards conventional aesthetic expression, but he is cautious about breaking free from tradition, characterized by the lady. Disgusted and overwhelmed, he chooses to flee to “another country” rather than confront the issue directly.

The speaker’s conundrum results from the socio-political milieu at the turn of the century. Traditional religious and scientific beliefs were uprooted as the theories of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud redefined humanity’s role in nature and society. Added to these areas of uncertainty was “the woman question.” Women were entering numerous aspects of public life, previously a male domain. Whether by choice or from economic need, women took jobs as typists, telephone operators, factory-workers, and shop-clerks (Gilbert and Gubar 20). Additionally, the suffragette movement had generated a frenzied national debate.[1] For men, there was a threat of displacement as masses of women entered male economic and political territories. This tension was played out in culture as well. If we accept the contention that high art is “an expression and a reinforcement of society’s division and of the social hegemony of certain classes, races, and the male sex” (Shusterman 96), then the male artist’s discomfiture with women’s aesthetic pretensions may be understood: not only was woman invading work and politics, but she was presuming to be intellectually and aesthetically equal as well.

By the late-nineteenth century, women writers had “appropriated the audience” that had previously belonged, primarily, to male writers (Gilbert 195). Since women were considered “deficient in intellect” (Ostriker 48), critics declared that aesthetic standards had been reduced–most likely to account for their own audience‘s desertion. This was an issue confronted by Henry James, who equated women with children when he complained that the growing number of women as writers and readers as well as the development of public schools threatened literature with increasing deterioration and potential irrelevancy (Devoken 177-78). Eliot also complained of cultural deterioration due to women’s influence–especially that of “the dowagers”–in American literature (Letters 95). As a result, many male artists sought a means of escape from what they saw as a stagnant and weak tradition. In rejecting conventionality, these artists were also rejecting femininity; indeed, throughout the modernist period women were often equated with corrupt, middlebrow, and vacuous sensibilities.

Ezra Pound’s 1912 poem “Portrait d’une Femme” exemplifies such attitudes. This poem openly equates femininity with superficial and sterile aesthetics as the speaker condemns a bourgeois woman’s dilettante attitude towards the arts. The poem is a direct address, an accusation, in which the speaker identifies the subject as “our Sargasso sea,” in other words, the woman he is addressing chokes culture with her mindless collecting of both intellectuals and objects. She values “Great minds” only because they provide her with an alternative to her husband, “one dull man.” Similarly, she collects art, “the tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work,” as trophies rather than from a desire to enrich herself. Instead of profiting intellectually from engaging art, the woman remains sterile, “pregnant with mandrakes,” who offers nothing to society, and who is nothing more than a collection of odds and ends. Art is meant for entertainment, not for edification. In contrast, Eliot‘s “Portrait of a Lady” examines the fin de siècle culture war through the eyes of a static speaker. Whereas Pound’s poem is a defensive strike for male-defined culture, Eliot’s is uncertain about whether it’s worth the effort to fight at all because tradition, even a feminized tradition, will always win.

“Portrait of a Lady” is a dramatic monologue for two voices: the lady and the young man each speak, but there is no dialogue, and therefore no true interaction. The young man narrates all. The poem doesn’t disclose what the lady thinks or feels; instead, the speaker describes her as anxious and a bit desperate in her desire for intimacy with the speaker. She is older, “one about to reach her journey’s end” (67), who reflects on the cruelties and blindness of youth (48-49). The lady’s speech mimics late-nineteenth-century literary conventions: her words are forced and sentimental. Additionally, despite her age and experiences she is acting as a romantic heroine: her room is lit for effect with four candles. The young man compares the lady’s quarters to “Juliet’s tomb,” a romantic cliché, and accuses: “you have the scene arrange itself–as it would seem to do–”(2). Although the setting, as well as the lady’s speeches, is intended to appear spontaneous, it has been carefully choreographed. The lady’s disingenuousness “invites betrayal because [she] tries too hard to exclude the ‘false note’ that would shatter, however momentarily, the world of the drawing room” (Dorenski 11). The lady’s self-conscious aestheticism reflects the monotonous artifice of conventional literature that young poets, such as Eliot, were rebelling against. The young man is well aware of the lady’s superficiality, and he senses a trap, but he doesn’t resist her company. Although he despises both the lady and the conventional artistic norms she admires, the speaker lacks the vigor and motivation to break with the lady and her culture. The narrator’s unwillingness or inability to externalize or resolve his inner conflict renders him impotent. He cannot articulate his ideas to the lady, nor, once he escapes her room, does he interact with the outer world with any depth.

The poem’s conflation of the speaker’s and lady’s relationship with culture is presented in a number of ways. Perhaps most significantly is its form, which mirrors a musical composition of nine parts. “Portrait of a Lady” is divided into three major movements, which act as overture, major theme, and denouement. Each of the major thirds is further divided into thirds that detail the poem‘s action. Each section opens with the pair meeting in the lady‘s rooms. The young man, however, is unable to act within this sphere–he doesn’t reciprocate the lady’s feelings–we are well aware of his distaste for the lady–but the young man cannot vocalize his own wishes and desires; he can only smile and struggle for expression. His self-consciousness results in anxiety, and the young man escapes into the public and indifferent world of monuments, beer halls, and parks where he might find some relief. This situation is indicative of the nineteenth-century opposition between feminine and masculine spheres, but it has added significance when cast as representative of the artist’s struggle at the turn of the century: art’s feminization had decreased art’s value and relevance, thereby casting the artist’s role in doubt. Was the poet capable of prophesying aesthetic truth, or was he to be subjected to the trivial, temporary whims of the bourgeois female patron? The lady of Eliot’s poem is just such a figure: she has surrounded herself with “bric-à-brac,” and she has a sentimental appreciation for music. She appears to host salons at which music and tea are key components. Yet the lady’s “[d]rawing room art does not constitute any creative potential but simply one more static, decorative element which suits the general image of an upper class world” (Gruszewska-Wojtas qtd. in Doreski 10). Rather than create art, she can only present it in an artificial atmosphere where art lacks aura–its provenance decimated by frivolous collecting and bourgeois appreciation.

As an example, the speaker offers a conversation after having heard “the latest Pole / Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips” (8-9). A reference to contemporary sentimental musical tastes, the performer’s status as “most recent” also indicates superficiality, and that he “transmits” the music through is “hair and fingertips” indicates that the music, through the performer, becomes sensual and transitory rather than enlightening. The Pole has apparently been playing for a select group, as the lady prefers this “intimate” atmosphere, as public performances tarnish the music and leave it open to scrutiny. The speaker uses the musical motif to segue from the couple’s polite talk into more personal conversation. The speaker’s reference to “attenuated violins” and “remote cornets” adds to the impression of a fading score that has functioned to introduce the main theme. Acting much as a musical overture, the poem mimics the symphonic introduction to the key themes of the overall piece:

–And so the conversation slips

Among velleties and carefully caught regrets

Through attenuated tones of violins

Mingled with remote coronets

And begins. (14-18)

the conversation slides (or fumbles) from social small-talk and, channeled through inactionable desires and lost possibilities, into the lady’s own romantic overture. She declares the value of friendship and how precious it is to find such a one as the speaker in a life that is marked by dilettantism–“composed so much, so much of odds and ends” (21)[2]. She doesn‘t “love” this collected life, and she believes the speaker can see that: he is intelligent and sensitive enough to see beyond superficialities.[3]        Ironically, she comments on the young man’s ability to “give” when there is no indication of this ability in the poem. He remains silent, so other than his ear, he offers the lady nothing in return. Instead, the young man retreats into himself. The music turns from fading tones into discordant, violent throbs. This is emphasized by the juxtaposition of “ariettes” and “cracked cornets”: pleasant, sentimental songs played out on broken instruments. An antiphonal primitive drumbeat–a tom-tom–answers the lady’s conventional musicality.[4] The young man’s inner response is “capricious,” improvisational–he wants freedom from tradition and its mannered forms. At this point he invites the (presumably male) reader[5] to join him as he escapes into the masculine, public world:

–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 an hour and drink our bocks” (37-40).

Each of these activities–smoking, architecture, current events, and drinking beer–refers to a public sphere that remains ordered and organized by men. It’s not a clearly an artistic sphere, but its urbanity relieves him of feminine social mores and aesthetics. The escape into the urban world is typical of the flaneur, the Baudelairian figure who “translat[es] the chaotic and fragmentary city into an understandable and familiar space” which is free from the restraints of conventional, feminized art (Parsons 9). By collecting fragments of city life and setting them against conventional poetic themes, the artist is able to create something entirely unique in the “poetic possibilities [. . . .] of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic” (Eliot qtd. in Bergonzi 67). The young man seeks this alternative, but he isn’t able to maintain a presence there. He’s all too aware of time’s passage (the watches, clocks, and the half an hour for drinking), but he is not willing or able to choose between convention and modernity. Even at liberty, the young man is static.

The critical issue of time is developed in the second movement, thus bringing matters–the choice between traditional and mundane culture and creating something new and inspired–to a head. The speaker returns to the lady’s rooms in the spring; here the juxtaposition of spring, lilacs, and sterility–both poetic and romantic–anticipates The Waste Land. The lady persists in overly sentimental behavior as she twists a lilac while she speaks. The worried lilac represents the lady’s own youth as she laments her age in contrast to her visitor’s youth. Additionally, this intimates the lady’s resentment of her visitor’s age, as well as her frustration with his lack of response. The commentary on her “buried life” and memories of “Paris in the Spring” (53) hint at deeper, albeit romantic, wells of aesthetic passion, but she has resigned herself to the drawing room, and “serving tea to friends” (68). The lady’s speech illustrates an adherence to tradition, which has resulted in a stagnant, possibly wasted, life. Her recollections act on the visitor “like the insistent out-of-tune / Of a broken violin on an August afternoon” (56-57) as she becomes increasingly maudlin. However, she follows her melancholic romanticism with a confident assurance that the young man “will go on, and when you have prevailed / You can say: at this point, many a one has failed” (62-63). This is an exhortation, mired in sentimentalism, that the young man break from cultural expectations–he must succeed at something new and live life rather than burying it, but The lady’s faith in the young man’s success only triggers another internal conflict; because he misunderstands the lady’s speech, or because he regrets playing a romantic game with her that could only result in grief, the young man wonders “how can I make a cowardly amends / for what she has said to me?” (69-70). He cannot decide how to apologize for being indecisive. The old tradition, “one about to reach her journey’s end” (67), has given the young man the opportunity to develop, but desires to contribute something to him; in other words, not to be entirely deserted. The young man’s reaction is to seek the urban world. Again, he partakes in aesthetically shallow activities–reading the comics and sports sections of the newspaper and chatting about sensational news items[6]. In this scenario, he is without conflict until a “worn out street-piano, mechanical and tired / Reiterates some worn-out common song” (79-80) The street-piano’s song is indicative of the lady’s weary aestheticism; when it is juxtaposed against the public garden’s hyacinths, the speaker again grows anxious. Here, he thinks not of his own wishes, but of other people’s. The speaker is caught between two aesthetic spaces, and others’ expectations complicate the choice he would make. He needs to make his decision: accordingly, he is struck with paralysis.

The final movement begins in autumn. The young man has made the decision to depart from both his home and tradition, and this section deals with the aftermath: the tying up of loose ends and the beginning of a new existence. When he meets the lady, she obviously hopes he’ll return, but she realizes his choice is made and she’s to be rejected for fresh conquests. The young man’s reaction is to smile uncomfortably–he is, perhaps, disappointed that she doesn’t encourage him to stay; he is dissatisfied at being released so easily. His company is not as essential as he’d thought–despite her overtures, the lady doesn’t necessarily rely on his presence. When she asks for him to remain in contact, his “self-possession flares for a second / This is as I had reckoned” (94-95). Although he appears suspicious, even resentful, the overtures appease his disappointment: she wants him after all. The young man had thought the lady had changed her tune, but she remained consistent to the end. His machismo–evidenced in his condescension to the lady–is shattered when he catches sight of himself in a mirror. The speaker’s confidence “gutters”: the reality of his own indecisiveness under the mask of studied indifference renders him indistinct. He has grown used to donning so many masks that he is shocked to recognize himself in the glass.

With the passing of tradition, the young man, between the old and the new, is at a loss as to how he’ll present himself. In any situation, the young man “must borrow every changing shape / To find expression [. . .]” (109-10). If he mixes in bourgeois society, he must find a persona that will carry him through social events; however, the same holds true if he rejects bourgeois normalcy: if the speaker is creating something new, he must try on “every changing shape” until he finds an appropriate vehicle for self-expression. The realization that there may be no authentic expression, only that which suits a particular situation, sparks his anxiety. However, this time he doesn’t escape into the public world but into his own modern, aesthetic world. The denouement is anti-Romantic, and it describes an urban landscape with an “Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose” (115). Moreover, the young man’s become a poet, and while writing he imagines the lady’s death. Lyndall Gordon suggests that the young man’s daydream indicates “a mode of possession” (295). By metaphorically killing the lady, the young man might obtain power over what she represents, and therefore absorb and gain control over tradition.

Even in her death, however, the young man cannot claim victory. The speaker admits that he remains psychically impotent: “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?“ (119-21). Leaving the lady doesn’t remove the obstacles in his path; although he has rejected the drawing room and freed himself, he is liberated neither from the woman nor artistic convention. The lady and her conventional aestheticism have won because the speaker cannot completely eject them from his aesthetic life. Despite his self-imposed exile, he cannot break free, which only exacerbates his stasis. Nothing is resolved; instead, the conflict recedes into the background. The speaker leaves with a question: his wondering about having a “right to smile” refers not to relief, but to an inability to understand, for youth “smiles at situations which it cannot see” (49). The young man concludes his piece the way he began it: wreathed in indecision, he asks the reader if his smiling, his pleasure, is correct. It is, most likely, an ironic smile that signifies his inability, despite the mileage between himself, the lady, and the drawing room, to completely break free. He is, after all, still thinking of her, pen in hand, while watching the evening sky in another country.

In many ways, “Portrait of a Lady” foreshadows “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which describes the placement of the modern poet within the context of literary convention and history. The young man’s anxiety is the result not of authorial influence, but of the aesthetic strictures enforced by middle-class conventionality and his own fear of choosing to participate in life. He rejects a feminized and mundane bourgeois aestheticism, but he cannot give himself over to creating art that promises what it once had: truth and transcendence. The speaker is aware of the buried life‘s dangers, and his fear of it paralyses him. Certainly, the young man moves to widen his scope, but this may be a simple geographical relocation: the poem’s end gives no indication that a settlement has been reached or a conclusion earned. Instead, the speaker’s talent and intellect remain impotent, and he requires the audience to tell him how he should feel. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, he is so enamored of questions, and so frightened of living outside of center ground, that he can’t focus on the answers.

It’s really no surprise that Eliot chose an aging woman to represent a decaying culture. The lowering of artistic standards was regularly decried in America, and the fault was squarely leveled at women, be they writers, readers, or simply collectors. The concern that what was once a tool for enlightenment had become a simple entertainment that was devoid of value once the initial pleasure had passed. The lady’s attempt at seduction articulates the temptation of remaining with what is comfortable and acceptable while desiring something new, exciting, and relevant. Although the young man could choose to stay within the woman’s world and co-operate with prevailing artistic tastes, he realizes he will never be able to fully express himself from within those confines. In a sense, the young man would be another Pole, and as emasculated as the chamber music and bric-à-brac that he so resents.


[1] In 1911–the year Eliot wrote “Portrait of a Lady”–the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage was created. Ironically, the women behind this movement were society hostesses much like the poem’s lady (Barber and Natanson n.p.).

[2] This line is comparable to Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: like Pound’s woman, Eliot’s lady can be read as an assortment of “Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things / Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price” (4-5). Each woman’s intellectual life is superficial, and each woman is incapable of absorbing their knowledge and assembling it into something more than salon talk.

[3] In Eliot’s November 1910 draft of the poem, the lady believes the speaker to see not the superficiality of her life, but the superficiality of her relationships. In this draft, she rejects her role as hostess and claims “Indeed I am not social–you knew it? Ah, I knew you were not blind!” (22) (Inventions 327).

[4] There is some speculation that this is actually a pun on Eliot’s name.
The real significance of the primal tom-tom is its extreme opposition to the lady’s Pole. As defined by Robert Goldwater in 1930, the use of primitivism indicates a desire to be “sufficiently far removed from the kind or the style of the object which it seeks to avoid” (qtd. in Rado 283).

[5] Some readers believe the speaker’s invitation is directed at the lady: the young man “anxiously insists on polite, impersonal conversation” in an attempt divert her attention (Smithson 45). I believe the change in tone and the use of dashes indicates instead that the invitation is an apostrophe to the reader.

[6] Ezra Pound, in his “Guide to Culture,” reflects that “A civilization definitely runs down when for its best you go away from serious books to the comics, from the comics to the theatre, from the theatre to the cult of the

Works Cited

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—. “Portrait d’une Femme.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Vol.1. 3rd ed. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert         O’Clair. New York: Norton, 2003. 349.

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