'Portrait of a Lady' by Thomas Stearns Eliot

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


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.

"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!"
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
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.


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 should 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."
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."

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.

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.

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.

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends...."

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me?
You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page.
Particularly I remark An English countess goes upon the stage.
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
Another bank defaulter has confessed.
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?


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.

"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.

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

"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.

"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."

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression ... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
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?

Editor 1 Interpretation

#Portrait of a Lady by T.S. Eliot

Are you looking for a poem that captures the complexity of a woman's persona? Look no further than T.S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady." This poem is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, exploring themes of identity, power, and the human condition through the lens of a woman's life.


Before we dive into the poem itself, it's important to understand a bit about T.S. Eliot's life and work. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888 and went on to become one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. He was a key figure in the modernist movement, which sought to break away from traditional forms and explore new ways of expressing the human experience.

"Portrait of a Lady" was published in Eliot's first collection of poetry, "Prufrock and Other Observations," in 1917. The poem was written during a time of great personal turmoil for Eliot; he was struggling with his own sense of identity and had recently undergone a spiritual crisis that led him to convert to Christianity.


Now, let's take a closer look at the poem itself. "Portrait of a Lady" is a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative that presents a series of images and impressions rather than a linear story. The poem is addressed to a woman, but it is not clear who this woman is or what relationship the speaker has to her. This ambiguity adds to the sense of mystery and intrigue that pervades the poem.

The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, introducing the central theme of identity:

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

The speaker is addressing the woman directly and accusing her of committing fornication, but he quickly dismisses this accusation as irrelevant. The phrase "that was in another country" suggests that the woman has undergone some kind of transformation or reinvention since the time of her supposed transgression.

The second stanza continues this theme of identity, with the speaker describing the woman's appearance:

And her hair was yellow as hay In the sun's shining, Her eyes were hard as porcelain, And cold to look upon...

The woman is presented as a symbol of beauty and power, with her yellow hair and porcelain eyes. However, there is also a sense of detachment and distance in the way the speaker describes her.

As the poem progresses, the speaker moves from describing the woman's appearance to exploring her inner life. He suggests that she is not content with her current situation:

And when she's spoken, she says a little of what she thinks; That's all. Her mind wanders; She says, How queer! It's really very odd! I wonder what will happen! I remember thinking once Of some vague thing that I might have done or said, And done or said it; and there she was, Furthest from me--'twas a mistake perhaps.

The woman's thoughts are presented as disjointed and fragmented, reflecting the sense of alienation and confusion that pervades modern life. She seems to be searching for something, but she is not sure what it is.

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most powerful, as the speaker acknowledges his own role in the woman's life:

I am not in love with her but I feel Somehow akin to her; Her dead body sleeps downstairs, The poet's words are upon her lips and their Madness has seized her.

The woman is presented as a tragic figure, caught between the demands of society and her own desires. The speaker, too, is implicated in this tragedy, as he acknowledges his own complicity in the woman's downfall. However, there is also a sense of redemption in the final lines of the poem, as the woman is transformed by the power of the poet's words.


"Portrait of a Lady" is a complex and haunting poem that explores the complex nature of human identity and the struggle to find meaning in a fragmented world. Through his use of fragmented narrative and symbolist imagery, Eliot creates a portrait of a woman who is both powerful and vulnerable, searching for something that she cannot name. The poem is a testament to the power of poetry to transform and redeem, even in the face of tragedy and despair.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Portrait of a Lady: A Masterpiece of Modernist Poetry

Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, is known for his profound and complex works that explore the human condition and the modern world. Among his many masterpieces, "Portrait of a Lady" stands out as a remarkable example of modernist poetry that captures the essence of Eliot's poetic vision. In this essay, we will delve into the intricacies of this poem and explore its themes, structure, and language.

The poem begins with a vivid description of a woman, who is the subject of the portrait. Eliot's language is rich and evocative, as he paints a picture of a woman who is both beautiful and enigmatic. He describes her as "a woman with a smooth white brow, / And a rose-red mouth, that asked for love." This opening stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it establishes the central theme of love and desire.

As the poem progresses, Eliot delves deeper into the psyche of the woman, exploring her thoughts and emotions. He portrays her as a complex and multifaceted character, who is both alluring and elusive. He writes, "She had a heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed." This line captures the woman's vulnerability and her tendency to fall in love too easily. Eliot's use of the word "impressed" is particularly significant, as it suggests that the woman is easily swayed by external factors and lacks a strong sense of self.

The poem also explores the woman's relationship with the speaker, who is presumably a lover or admirer. Eliot portrays the speaker as a detached and analytical observer, who is fascinated by the woman's beauty but also aware of her flaws. He writes, "She was the single artificer of the world / In which she sang." This line suggests that the woman is a creator of her own reality, and that the speaker is merely a spectator in her world.

One of the most striking aspects of "Portrait of a Lady" is its structure. The poem is divided into five stanzas, each of which contains four lines. The rhyme scheme is irregular, with some stanzas containing a strict ABAB pattern, while others have a looser AABB or ABBA pattern. This irregularity reflects the fragmented and disjointed nature of modernist poetry, which often eschews traditional forms and structures.

Another notable feature of the poem is its use of imagery and symbolism. Eliot employs a range of metaphors and allusions to create a rich and complex tapestry of meaning. For example, he writes, "She rode over Connecticut / In a glass coach." This image of a woman riding in a glass coach suggests both fragility and transparency, as well as a sense of detachment from the world around her. Similarly, the line "She was the phosphorus, the brimstone, / The hydrogen, the nitrogen" uses scientific terminology to describe the woman's essence, suggesting that she is both elemental and mysterious.

Throughout the poem, Eliot employs a range of literary techniques to create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. He uses enjambment to blur the boundaries between lines and stanzas, creating a sense of fluidity and movement. He also uses repetition and variation to create a sense of rhythm and musicality. For example, the repeated use of the phrase "how shall I say?" creates a sense of hesitation and uncertainty, as if the speaker is struggling to find the right words to describe the woman.

Ultimately, "Portrait of a Lady" is a complex and multi-layered poem that explores the themes of love, desire, and identity. Eliot's use of language, structure, and imagery creates a rich and evocative portrait of a woman who is both alluring and elusive. The poem is a testament to Eliot's mastery of modernist poetry, and it continues to captivate readers with its beauty and complexity.

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