Dec '02 [Home]


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:  Eliot's "A Portait of a Lady"

by Paul Murphy

. . .

The opening prelude to "A Portrait of a Lady" places a tonal complex of duplicity beside an ambiguous invitation to construct, complete or even recreate the poetry which is to follow. Seduction is an intention (in the sense 'to lead astray' or 'to lead apart') which splits the reader's attention between forging an absolute impression of the events which are to take place, and sensing a duplicitous surface where events have a tendency to be not as they truly are.

The poem offers a more definite narrative thread than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", for instance, with an insistent temporal unfolding underlying the ambiguity of the surface. Temporal duration is, of course, outlined in the passage of winter months (reminding us, again, of endings), the growth of lilacs ('April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land'), 'April sunsets' and 'Paris in the Spring'. Through these temporal signposts, the paradox of imminent dissolution and temporal recurrence becomes crystallised in memory. In the poem, the compaction of events delays their extension in time so that the effect is of a continuous present.

It is possible to conceive of two very different tones of voice at work in the framing epigraph from "The Jew of Malta". The proclamatory 'Thou hast committed', with its firm syllabic roll is placed against the unmitigating, well-placed, 'Fornication', which gains effective prominence by its syllabic inversion. If the quotation were to be terminated at this point we should be left in no doubt that a moral crime had been committed. But the tone becomes almost desultory. Instead of the pursuit of retribution, explanations are doubly offered:  'but that was in another country,/And besides, the wench is dead.'

In "The Portrait of a Lady", we obviously encounter the possibilities of love, of a passage abroad (followed, perhaps, by the death of the woman), though social morality, retribution, or forgiveness, does not intrude, except in the form of the guilt-ridden masculine protagonist's final soliloquy. In a churlish manner, the epigraph maintains an offence and then explains that by force of circumstance alone, no moral crime has been committed. This opening upends the poem, and gives a future viewpoint to an act which may be considered, but which is never enacted.

This archaic moral stance, in itself uniterated throughout the poem, gives the poetry a satirical edge. Indeed, if this opening were not humorous, it would merely maintain in itself a recalcitrant confusion which would thereby be suspect. But the fact that it is or must be taken as satirical reinforces an unwillingness on the part of the reader to take the situation as a serious anecdote involving nefarious sexual intrigue, hesitancy and impotence, escape and death.

The first three lines of the poem create further ambiguity by insisting upon a part for the reader:

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';

The two hyphens of the second line create an atonal arch (of a 'cracked cornet'), a pons asinorum over which the sense stops, and a measured scenic unfolding begins. The reader may be tempted to distrust the narratorial presence, whose sniggering aside ('as it will seem to do') immediately changes the texture of the poem, especially as we have just been invited to create and recreate what is to follow. The framing 'as it will seem to do' gestures toward an opacifying colloquy of narratorial disarrangement which is pointed against the clarity of the lady's speech. It is a case of judiciously deciding between the offerings of the narratorial presence and the somewhat unclear hopes of the masculine protagonist, and then between the firm pronouncements of the lady.

The poem interactively enscribes a relationship between the lady and the young man, with the narratorial presence contextualising what is happening. But the narratorial presence also sends the poem askew, and directs us to question the validity of what is presented. The reader must pursue this narratorial presence, for he intimates the scene, contextualises the lady's ruminations, and prepares ineluctable crisis in the poem. The poem's progression necessitates a third party, the narratorial presence, whose purpose it is to orchestrate the segmented movements, set the overall tone, and introduce the protagonists as they ruminate or speak.

The lady's voice (interpolated in the third line) offers a considered and seductive invitation to the young man and to the reader. With this, the temporal boundaries are firmly fixed, one of the characters has spoken, the scene unfolds with the definition of a tenebrous place, 'four wax candles', 'four rings of light', 'an atmosphere of Juliet's tomb'. The heroine's death is immediately suggested by these lines, and the reader may suspect that a story of romantic love, division and intrigue (ending, perhaps, in a Liebestod) is about to be unravelled. The atmosphere, at first of Juliet's tomb, prepares a richness of association which here intrudes upon our reading, for it unites the first and last ideas of the poem, where Juliet's death and the postulated death of the lady unite in a fabric which underlies the actual temporal duration in front of which the characters pose.

It is the baroque quality of the verse, with its tightly organised allusive surface (an anticipation, perhaps, of the opening of "A Game of Chess"), which proceeds to burden us with indeterminate expectations. In this passage, the narrator may be playing with romantic expectations, heightening these to effect a strain of emotional sympathy for the lady. The narrator asserts that the atmosphere is 'Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid'. The narratorial presence thus indicates that the intimate digression, or slip of the tongue (parapraxis) may be a surer guide to what is happening in the poem than the actual events, which may, indeed, appear to be intrinsically mysterious and equivocal. The sense of a surface of deceit affirming an unconscious atmosphere of desire and denial is further iterated in the same passage:

—And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
And begins.

The 'conversation slips', or falls away into wishes and regrets, desire and its denial:  the intimate digression provides an altogether better guide to what is happening in the poem than the surface pronouncements of the two protagonists. The clarity of tone which the narrator utilises distinguishes him or her from the confused and distraught internal utterances of the young man, and, as in the above example, allows the narrator to depict the vagueness and inexactitude of the inarticulate, while also extending these emotions into the background music which is 'attenuated' and 'remote'.

The relevance of James and Browning to the "Portrait of a Lady" is depicted by A. D. Moody:

The significant relation of the "Portrait of a Lady" to the Browningesque monologue, and to the Jamesian novel, is in its following their method of 'expressive particularisation' — a phrase James used to distinguish Browning's incessantly discriminating intelligence from Tennyson's Bardic afflatus.1

In the poem there is little indication of 'Bardic afflatus', rather, a duplicitous narrator is utilised in order to deal with the sexually intriguing moment, which is depicted through a concatenation of accidental slips or intimate digressions (parapraxis).

'Expressive particularisation' reacts to these moments seismographically, vastly amplifying them, so that each discordance registers a suitable distortion of this experience and enacts, in its way, the excessive disruptions in consciousness which the male protagonist experiences. The consciousness of this quasi-Prufrock has been transposed into its surroundings—the violins and the cornets—but uniquely re-uses these as symbols of his own distraction.

The Symbolist concern with poetry as music is relevant here, for narrative in the traditional sense has been replaced by a musical construction of atonal discordance. If the exterior world has become internalised, the reverse is also true; the division between the objective world and the subjective consciousness of the masculine protagonist has been dissolved, so that they interpenetrate each other. Thus, the cornets become cracked and a 'dull tom-tom' begins. The mind perceives a sudden alienation, but rotates to the banality of 'clocks' and 'bocks'. As in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", the alternation of short and long lines allows for rhythmic compression and expansion to depict the voluble ruminations of the lady, and the soliloquies of the young man.

If in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" we have intimations of the Bradleyan Absolute (and the solipsism which it may also engender), the "Portrait of a Lady" only motions towards the possibilities of defeating the interminable flow of unmemorable trivia—the 'comics and the sporting page'. The conjunction of Eliot and Bergson indicates that the 'one definite false note' may be a tremor of that 'act of intuition' described by Moody:

. . . [Bergson] too thought the soul constituted of its memory-images; he characterised the passive state of the mind as one in which life was like a cine-film, a fixed sequence of flickering clichés; and he opposed to that the act of intuition, or the immediate consciousness of life-in-process which placed the mind within the absolute.2

The 'flickering clichés' are synonymous with the lady, whose static tribulations find a surer repose in the commonplace memory, which fails to penetrate the exactitude of a banal social scene. But it is the lady's memory that is overtly paradoxical, for it is the 'buried life' that instigates and activates a process of joyful remembrance:

'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.'

The slow erosion of the body and the senses is resolved in the pattern of time, where time is conquered through the consciousness of memory and the invocation of the past. It is the desire which cannot be activated, which remains embryonic and undeveloped which the poem pointedly refers to, and the desire neither enacted nor fulfilled, in both characters, which cannot release itself, but which passes into the death of the lady and the male protagonist's physical dispossession ("I must borrow every changing shape.…").

Unlike Prufrock, whose name is an emblem and insignia connecting a heap of fragments, the masculine protagonist is an unnamed entity whose proclaimed, yet uncertain self-sufficiency throws the lady into a state of anxiety and regret, remaining obscure and impenetrable to her.

The Eliot character feels that he needs to preserve the inviolacy of self, and simultaneously feels that he needs sympathy from others whom he cannot reach and who cannot decorously reach him.3

The obsessional becomes encysted in his too great self-adequacy, unable to liberate himself for a perpetual process of becoming.4

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.

The masculine protagonist, transformed into a godlike hero, is at once indomitable and unfractured, absolute, self-willed, perverse:  'I keep my countenance/I remain self-possessed'. Unlike the hysterical Prufrock, the obsessional is 'a hero in possession of his mother and feels himself to be irremediably guilty'.5 The masculine protagonist is an outwardly self-assured and unified personality, but Eliot exposes his inner self, in an attempt to delineate the workings of obsessional guilt and fear.

The confusions of the situation are so indefinite that there is the almost imperative requisite that they come to be defined through a combination of symbolism and characterisation which gains its impact through a direct appeal to the unconscious. The definite and the vague combine to depict an outward, objective world of social behaviour, and then the opacities transform this world by moving inwards to stencil a subjective world where the lady's motives and her suitor's are unclear.

The lady acts as both a possible lover and a possible mother to the male protagonist. She clears the obstacles away from his passage, rather than proceeding to allure, to charm, or, indeed, to seduce:  'You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles' heel.' This is hardly the behaviour of a would-be Juliet. In her speech there is, again, the intimation of death, but this time it is the death of a life-weary, perhaps aging, woman:

'But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
To give you, what can you receive from me?
Only the friendship and sympathy
Of one about to reach her journey's end.'

The situation plays out the Oedipal drama, where the young man imagines the woman to be his mother, and the lady engages with this role. Eliot gives no clear report of the lady's innermost thoughts:  instead, we see all too clearly the confusions of the young man. The two figures, however, merge:  she, a distorted reflection of his ego, an image of maternal care, imbued with infinite sympathy.

The young suitor feels that he must 'make a cowardly amends', thus indicating that it is a bad or guilt-ridden conscience which makes such a pronouncement intelligible. The masculine protagonist, so infinitely self-possessed, is, in fact, fractured with guilt and broken by the desire and denial which underlies this guilt. He sits in the park and rehearses his own feelings of alienation by pinpointing a variety of deracinated and distorted situations as symbols of his own plight:

Particularly I remark
An English countess goes upon the stage.
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
Another bank defaulter has confessed.

The situations are all related by their intimate dissonance and discord; they untie and unite the elements which he is rehearsing in his own mind. Perhaps the lady is metamorphosed into the 'English countess', perhaps he is the Greek 'murdered at a Polish dance'. But this speculation rests upon the last situation which he describes, that of confession.

In these images confession is the most important element, and it is a confession of guilt which perturbs him. How might his guilt be purged? The masculine protagonist's self-sufficiency has been overcome, but he applies a corrective by re-asserting himself:  'I keep my countenance/ I remain self-possessed'. The 'street piano' and the 'hyacinths' again shatter this 'countenance' and the entire episode finishes with a question, just as the poem itself ends with a question,

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?

The poem's third section begins with another temporal shift; it is October. There is no need for the narrator to set the scene; in fact, the narrator has disappeared. The masculine protagonist relates the action conversationally, the atmosphere of duplicity has evaporated. The image of the stairs, as many commentators have pointed out, is one of Eliot's most successful. It is the material of unconscious symbolic equation, steps, symbolising propositions perhaps, to be thrown away after they have been surmounted. The reader is now prepared for the dénouement. The masculine protagonist is preparing to leave, and the initial epigraph of the poem immediately comes to mind again:

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

Is he preparing himself for exile, a recurrence of the idea of Oedipus, doomed to wander homeless and blind, or is it an escape to a cosmopolitan existence of cafés and late nights in foreign cities? It perhaps encapsulates both ideas:  exegesis cannot reveal which. The lady, so omnipresent in the poem and yet so hidden, begins:

'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.'

The lady may be a depiction of the young man's feminine/maternal ideal. To reiterate an earlier point, the two figures merge as masculine and feminine principles. However, the underside of this relationship has also been unlocked, and the unconscious stands in stark relief, as revealed in the young man's supposedly impenetrable behaviour. The lady's questionings leave the masculine protagonist with a bad conscience, as gauged by, and equalised in, 'My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac'. It is obvious that he means to elude her, but she presses the point:

'Perhaps you can write to me.'
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned.

The italicised 'This' divulges the guilt which the young man feels at his departure; it is another intimate digression undraping the unconscious. Again, the lady presses the point:

'I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.'

The collocation of 'ends' and 'friends' gestures toward friendship and its end, rather than possible beginnings. The parenthesis disables the statement by throwing forth vague profundities in the midst of felt hopes. The masculine protagonist suddenly turns in upon himself for that moment of intimate self-recognition:  'I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark/ Suddenly, his expression in a glass.'

This is a moment both primitive and emotive. It is rather like Gabriel's moment of self-recognition in James Joyce's short story "The Dead":

A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.6

This moment of self-recognition also points towards Jacques Lacan's account of the mirror stage, the individual's discovery of self-identity when, in childhood, he suddenly perceives his reflection in the mirror.7 This discovery is a prelude to the Oedipal drama. The masculine protagonist experiences the shock of recognition which draws him back to the original discovery of selfhood which he made in infancy. The masculine protagonist's reserve has been broken down again. With utter, brooding finality, the young man says, 'My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.' The lady starts to push again, but her failing is noted in the falling triplet, 'fate'/'rate'/'late'. Finally, the lady leaves the poem with her perennial, trite, 'I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.'

In the soliloquy (or ariette) which begins, 'And I must borrow every changing shape', the masculine protagonist finds the complete disembodiment of self, without self and its attachments. Dance, usually associated with ritual expression, is here collocated with the idea of confusion. The masculine protagonist is metamorphosed, again, into a series of animalistic correlatives:  the bear, the ape, the parrot.

There follows a section of surer repose, wherein the masculine protagonist considers, not his own homeleaving, but the death of the lady. It contains, perhaps, some of Eliot's most beautiful lyrics. Its movement is steady and funereal, less innovative or technically audacious than the earlier sections of the poem, but readily paced to maintain the sense of 'falling'; music falling and consciousness slipping away. Rhyme has almost been abnegated, the lines are closer in lengthwise relation than before and the rhythm follows the natural patterns of speech:

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smokey, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for 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?

(This essay [footnotes below] is excerpted from Paul Murphy's book on Eliot and Jacques Lacan, from Post Pressed, Australia. Born in Belfast in 1965, Murphy studied at the University of Warwick, gaining a B.A. in Film and Literature. From there he went to Queen's University in Belfast to study for an M.A. He did a stint as writer-in-residence at the Albert-Ludwig Universität, Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Würtemburg, Germany. His poetry, criticism, reviews and travel writings have been published in English, Irish and American journals. He has published a chapbook and one previous book of poetry, and done readings in Paris, Cambridge, Galway, and Belfast. He is writing an oral history of the Black Forest and enjoys working on the interface between poetry and philosophy.)


[1] A.D.Moody, T.S. Eliot, Poet (Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 23.

[2] Moody, p. 27.

[3] Hugh Kenner, T.S. Eliot The Invisible Poet (Methuen & Co, 1979), p. 27.

[4] Luce Irigaray, Cahiers Pour L'Analyse, Communications Linguistique et Speculaire, p.52.

[5] James Joyce, Dubliners (Chatto & Windus, 1965), pp.187-188.