Poetry as a genre is distinct from other genres of writing in that, although it has the ability to tell stories, poetry uses form as well as plot to illustrate a particular theme. In his poetry, T.S. Eliot uses words not only for exposition of characters and situations, but also to instill form in a poem. This is evident in his poem “Portrait of a Lady,” in which words not only create the personas’ characters, but also create order in a poem that in many ways goes against formulaic convention.
"Portrait of a Lady” tells an intricate story condensed into three sections, and mainly concerns interactions between two characters: the narrator and a lady. In the first section of the poem, the narrator is one of a group of people visiting the lady, but in subsequent sections they are alone, as the action centers on them. The two characters are exposed through the poem’s story by how they react to their current situations: the narrator voices his reactions in thoughts and the lady does the same through dialogue. In both cases the characters and situation develop as the poem itself progresses.
In the first stanza of the poem, the atmosphere is described as one like “Juliet’s tomb / Prepared for all things to be said, or left unsaid” (I.7-8). This suggests that the lady is dying or in some other situation which would require her acquaintances to reach some sort of closure in their relations with her. However, the narrator describes the environment not of one facilitating candor, but rather forcing artifice “among velleities and carefully caught regrets” (I.15).
The second stanza is set in April (Eliot seems to have an issue with April elsewhere), and the lady has a renewed appreciation for life, having found the world “to be wonderful and youthful, after all” (II.15). In the span of time between stanzas, she has also come to feel that the narrator persona is omniscient and understanding towards her. Yet, the narrator doesn’t share her confidence in his abilities, and the second stanza ends with the narrator’s poise threatened with self-doubt:
I remain self-possessed
Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired,
Reiterates some worn-out song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong? (II.44-49)
The concluding stanza features the narrator visiting the lady one last time before he goes abroad. The doubt that was foreshadowed in the second section is fulfilled as the narrator focuses on the state of his self-possession—one minute it “flares up” (735 III.13), the next moment it “gutters; we are really in the dark” (735 III.20). Meanwhile, the lady seems oblivious to the narrator’s inner predicament, and makes small talk until the end of the visit. The poem concludes with the narrator realizing the lady’s impact on his life, overwhelmed with questions, and uncertain of whether he understands anything at all.
“Portrait of a Lady” does not share any commonplace pattern of rhythm or rhyme. Instead, Eliot relies on words to function not only in the sense of their literal definitions, but also as “objective correlatives” giving the poem structure without having a set meter or rhyme scheme. These words are used in a deliberate manner to elicit a specific emotional or intellectual reaction. Since Eliot is relying on words to create order in the case of “Portrait of a Lady,” it is important to single out recurring words or types of words, phrases, and other formal properties in order to understand the tone and themes of the poem. Some such recurring words and phrases can be put into three main categories: the passage of time, superficial appearances, and friendship. Each of these categories allows the reader to understand better the thematic complexities of the poem.
Time’s passage as a recurring aspect is significant through marking the change of seasons. The first stanza of each of the three sections of the poem note the month in which the action transpires, and the month progresses from December to April and then August, before concluding in October. Marking the time emphasizes the lady’s waning life, as well as exhibiting the character’s relationship in different stages of its evolution.
Superficiality is denoted through the use of “smile” and musical terms as a way for the narrator to mask his feelings. Smiling is an obvious mask, but musical terms also add to the artificiality in denoting performance through words such as “one definite ‘false note’” (I.36). Although it is in the first section that these words are most prevalent, they echo in the second section’s metaphor of a “broken violin on an August afternoon” (II.19) and a street piano that “reiterates some worn-out common song” (II. 45-46). The third section only mentions music at its end, saying “this music is successful with a ‘dying fall’” (III.42), as if the narrator’s façade of apathy has failed.
Also recurring is the word “friend,” especially prominent in the dialogue of the lady persona. To the lady, friendship is a significant part of life, and without them life is a nightmare (I.30). After befriending the narrator, life holds renewed meaning for the lady. Friendship alone may not be substantial enough, however, since the lady fears that she can only offer the narrator “the friendship and the sympathy / Of one about to reach her journey’s end” (II.29-30).
Taking these recurring phrases, and combining it with the information derived from a thematic reading makes it possible to better understand the relationship between the two personas. At first the narrator seems easily able to maintain apathy towards the lady, but he becomes progressively more influenced by her, until at the end he feels guilt at the prospect of continuing to live after she has died. Thus, by creating such objective correlatives with music terminology, time phrases and ideas of friendship, T.S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” shows how even the simplest interactions with another person can have drastic repercussions on another individual.