How does T S Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” work?


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 opening line of the poem seems to be setting a scene in typical poetic fashion; the assonance that runs through it – the series of short and long “o” sounds – guides the reader into a soft and gentle rhythm which is building up to something already. It is a rather bleak scene that is just beginning to be sketched out, but we will get no more of it. All that the opening line seems to manage, if not give the reader a clear picture of the scene, is to set up an expectation of a poetic, possibly profound, portrait of a lady, and to establish a rather bleak atmosphere which is typical of Eliot’s early poetry. Then the reader stumbles across the second person pronoun that begins the second line and finds themselves either addressed or dropped into the middle of a dramatic monologue; but the meaning of the opening half of this line makes it clear that it is most likely not the reader who is being addressed: how could the reader have “the scene arrange itself”, unless they have taken the opening line and read into it a great deal which is not really there. And then the parenthetic clause “as it will seem to do” further punctures the poetic and lofty tone of the opening line as the reader finds himself overhearing a conversation; the intrusion of the poem’s voice in such a colloquial manner changes the tone as well as the direction of the poem, it’s a rather dismissive comment, qualifying what he has just said as though it was of no matter, or not even worthy of comment, though he has just included it in this poem. The following quotation shows us that we are now fully into a dramatic dialogue rather than monologue, with two speakers. But the quotation is being treated with more than a little irony: how could such an utterance have “arrange a scene”? Is the poem’s voice, that of a young man we later find out, implying that the other speaker, the lady of the title we might suppose, is playing games with him, or attempting to do so, and is manipulating him as much as she can, placing him as though she were pulling all the strings. If that is what she thinks, it is clear that the other speaker thinks otherwise. This poem will be, the reader now knows, about their contrasting perspectives on each other and the relationship between them. And if the speaker is meant to feel special by having such an afternoon “saved” for him, he appears anything but; his cynicism is already in play. It is also interesting what the speaker thinks about who is controlling the scene: she thinks she is, with her carefully chosen words and artfully expressed sentiments, trying to make him feel special, but in the phrase “as it will seem to do” it appears that the speaker attributes control not to her but to simply the way things happen. This is how things seem to turn out, how scenes arrange themselves, rather than are arranged by anyone in particular, or by those who think they are arranging them.

atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb

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.

The rhyming of “tomb” and “room” is so strong as to be almost harsh for the reader’s sensibilities: what is being flagged up here by the poet? There is also the word ending the first line – “afternoon” – still ringing in the reader’s ears: is Eliot setting up a rhythm for a particular reason? But the rhythm is unsteady at best, and never manages to assert itself with any force, certainly not enough to carry the reader along, as the opening two lines run on so long, and the succeeding lines vary in length too, never keeping a steady ten syllables, but running over the next line or falling short the line after: but the alternating rhythm scheme asserts a kind of rhythm, from which it would seem that we are being presented with something romantic and emotional. Or is he giving to a decidedly un-lyrical scene a lyrical gloss: because the reader will be unsure in these opening lines as to what Eliot’s tone is exactly. The conversational and dismissive “as it will seem to do” hints at an ironic distance between the poem’s voice and the scene described, such that this scene really doesn’t have anything like “an atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb”. Indeed, it seems to be an overblown comparison, and if the young man doesn’t think it applies, then who does? The lady of the title? So is she already being set up as the object of his ridicule? The “four wax candles”, “the darkened room”, “four rings of light” all seem to be setting up a somber atmosphere where important things will happen, or be said. But the reference to “Juliet’s tomb” punctures this atmosphere because it overreaches. The “unsaid” of the overlong seventh line, stands out awkwardly as well, especially on following on from the shortened one directly before it, making the what follows on from the word “said” where the line could finish and still carry the rhyme, feel tagged on, as though it were another throwaway comment of the speaker’s, or as though these are comments which he mutters behind his hand, sarcastic asides meant for the reader only, leaving the Lady of the title exposed to ridicule, left holding onto her overblown and romantic words as a rather pathetic and laughable figure. But has the young man gone too far? Can he retain the sympathy of the reader?


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.”

Again, the conversational aside of “let us say” puts the reader on their guard: why is the poem’s speaker qualifying what he is saying in this way? And why is he referring to himself in the first-person plural? Is this his own affectation? Or is he mimicking those of the lady? What he next says is so patently ridiculous – talking of transmitting music “through his hair and finger tips” – that the reader must now be aware that he is speaking tongue-in-cheek, most probably parodying the affected and pretentious manner in which the lady speaks of the concert, a sample of which we are next given, four lines which achieve the kind of lyrical rhythm which the poem’s main speaker undermines, both his cynicism and with the overly-long and conversational lines that he employs. Where the lady apes the romantic lyricism she aspires to and sees herself being a part of, the young man mocks it by breaking the rhythm with his own lines which are casual and arrhythmic, with the three syllables of “finger-tips” hanging off the end of the second line most precariously.


—And so the conversation slips           

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets

Through attenuated tones of violins           

Mingled with remote cornets           

And begins.

And once out of the steady rhythm of the lady’s pretentious musings on music and who should and could possibly appreciate it, the male speaker carries on as carelessly as he is wont to, with a casual “and so”, as though he cares little for what he himself is saying, let alone the choice nuggets that the lady comes out with. The strong rhyme scheme that he falls into is destroyed by the fact that the lines refuse to form any other pattern in terms of length or rhythm, though as they get smaller the line endings become more prominent, such that the final rhyme arrives at a prominence which sets up what follows as though it will be if infinite importance, words whose truth will be utterly profound. But, of course, by this point we know he is not sincere. Also the meaning of “velleities” – “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action” carries a lot of weight if we consider how this poem is progressing so far: whose wishes or inclinations are not sufficiently strong? It would seem that the young man means to criticize the lady and her carefully chosen words and softly expressed sentiments; but surely it is his wishes or inclinations that are weak, and we might think by the end of the poem, entirely lacking – is this the Prufrockian figure recreated, who not only doesn’t get what he wants, but doesn’t know what he wants, indeed, cannot know what he wants, because such is the world that he lives in, and such is the universe as drawn by Eliot: we are all in this young man’s situation, obliged to play along in a game you want no part of and feel utterly alienated from: such, Eliot is saying, is life.


“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!”

The run-on lines in this excerpt from the lady’s speech more than hint at the passion she feels, a passion wholly absent from the voice of the young man. The run-on line at “find…” and “gives” are so strong, coming as they do right in the middle of a syntactical unit, that the reader is fully caught up and dragged along in the feeling that also carries the lady. But to end on the word “cauchemar” reminds us of the lady’s pretentiousness, and the sardonic stance of the voice that frames her words is palpable, blatantly setting up what follows as mocking, cynical and almost cruel: does Eliot want this young man to retain our sympathies? Given its own line, the words “how keen you are” must make the reader feel distinctly uncomfortable, the heartfelt and sincere words of the lady so horribly mismatched to the manner in which they are taken, glibly mocked and dismissed by this young man.


Capricious monotone

Among the windings 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


The strong rhyme which sets up “capricious monotone” draws further attention to this ridiculous phrase. As well being a short line its internal rhythms positively ring out – the series of long o-sounds in the second long word are set up by one in the first, such that the line has a strong staccato rhythm which strikes the reader as dissonant, if not harsh, when compared to the soft, though careless rhythms of the conversational patter which precedes it. but such a brash and comedy rhythm has already been raised by the inclusion of the hyphenated word “tom-tom”, which will always have a whiff of the ridiculous about it, and coming where it does, in this young man’s spiel, yet another swipe at what he sees as the lady’s pretensions, those to do with refined music or those to do with refined sentiments. There is nothing refined about tom-toms or “capricious monotones”.



a tobacco trance

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.

That the phrase “false note” is in quotation marks not only makes it stand out, but marks it out as one of the lady’s pretentious phrases or as a parody of such, either way the young man is using her words against her more directly now, holding them up for open ridicule, and holding her up for ridicule too: what she referred to a false note, it is implied, certainly wasn’t, what has a false note is that what she said, that has the definite false note: her words ring hollow, are meaningless, and she does not have a grasp of the situation at all. The strong rhymes that follow are to harsh to be taken seriously: the young man is mocking her supposedly romantic and refined sensibilities. For him she is an absurd figure, but what does that make him, who feels he must play along with this absurd scene: have we again arrived at a pretty damning judgment by Eliot on the human condition circa 1910?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s