The Modern Portrait in Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


1 Historical Background: Modernism and Eliot’s Poetry

2 Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”

3 Portraits in Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”

4 The Modern Portrait in Eliot’s "Portrait of a Lady"
4.1 Different media of expression
4.2 Cubistic destruction
4.3 Perspectives
4.4 Incomprehensible image
4.5 Self-portrait
4.6 Flatness and Imitation


Works Cited


One of the dominant man’s urges - to have his image recorded, for a witness and as a memory for future generations, is the prime reason for the existence of portrait painting. Naturally, a portrait depicts the spiritual world of the person. The art of portrait paining continues through centuries and has its influence in all types of visual and performing art, especially in literature. The following paper focuses on the portraiture in the modern poetry and examines the aspects of the modern portraying by means of detailed descriptive analysis of the poem “Portrait of a Lady” written by T. S. Eliot, one of the prime founder of modernism in American literature. “Portrait of a Lady” is one of the most controversial and ambiguous poems of Eliot that has been still widely discussed in the literary criticism: Rees writes of “a dual portrait of the speaker and his lady” concerning Eliot’s poem; Southam emphasises the dramatic structure of the poem; Dickey compares it with a portrait Woman with a Parrot by Manet.

The term Modernism is used here in its widest sense to cover an art movement that “distinguishes many styles in the arts and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Artcyclopedia). In Latin, the words for portrait - imago, effigies and simulacrum - carry one of the meanings “image”. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “portrait” is defined as a “Likeness of person or animal made by drawing, painting, photography, etc.” This equation of portrait with likeness, however, is not satisfactory when we speak of modern portraits. As it will be shown in this paper, some portraits are not likenesses. For my argumentation concerning the principles of the modern portraits, I shall use the articles from The Archive on Modern Portrait Painting and from the book The Art of Portrait painting written by Gordon Aymar. The term “modern portrait” refers to the wide range of experimental trends in painting of the early 20th century, including impressionism, cubism, surrealism and expressionism. The following paper focuses mostly on impressionist and cubist portrait painting. Impressionism is a style in painting developed in France in the late 19th century that uses colour to show the effects of light on things and to suggest atmosphere rather than showing exact details. Cubism is a style of paining in early 20th century that was established by Pablo Picasso and his collaborator in this art form, Georges Braque 1907-1914.

The classical portrait suggests the viewer a detailed image of a person. The title of the poem could make us expect this classical portrait of the lady including description of her appearance, cloths, hair and eyes. But there is no any hint of the classical portraiture in Eliot’s poem because it is inspired by the modern painting: cubist and impressionist portraits.

“Portrait of a Lady” does not respond to the requirements of the traditional portrait and suggests innovative forms of depicting such as various perspectives, deconstruction and different media of expressing emotions. The poem requires that the reader of the observer should be an active interpreter.

1 Historical Background: Modernism and Eliot’s Poetry

The literary period of “Modernism” is thought to have ended in the late 1930s or early 1940s. The word was first widely used in Germany in the 1890s, the decade in which modernism is regarded to have appeared, and means a resistance to the past. Historians assume that modernism is appeared as a result of the transformation of society brought about by industrialism and technology in the nineteenth century. The arts of modernists were regarded as provocative and shocking. The often mentioned early American modernists are Henry James, Ezra Pound, T. S Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and others (Anderson 695).

The transition from Romantic and Victorian to “modern” modes of poetry is one of the significant changes in the history of the art. It is difficult to establish the precise time of the first appearance of the new mode in American poetry. The avant-garde of the nineties, Hardy, Frost, Robinson, the Georgians, and the poets of the First World War are equally important representatives in the development of the “modern” poetry in America. Perkins dates the initial development of the new epoch from 1912 to 1922, the year of the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land (294-295).

Since the publication of “J. Alfred Prufrock” critics recognise T. S. Eliot as a radical innovator in poetic style and regard his style as an integral component of the meanings of his poems. Eliot’s poetry can be characterised by the techniques of quotation and allusion, “musicality” and rhythm (see Rees14-15). Especially for the free-verse poets rhythm played a very important role in expressing and articulating emotions. The recurrent rhythm, assonance, alliteration and repetition of phrases were also typical for modern poetry. Eliot and other modernists manifested a European literary tradition, the roots of which, according to Eliot, lay in Virgil’s and Dante’s works, and strived to enrich it by giving it new forms of expression.

2 Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”

The poem "Portrait of a Lady" was written by T. S. Eliot between 1910 and 1911, and is “marked by freely cadenced verse that can be a vehicle for confession but is always controlled by a distancing irony” (Litz 957). The title of the poem, as Southam indicated, echoes that of the novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James and is remarkably written in the style typical for James: in its tones, ironies, dialogues and allusions (59). The epigraph of the poem includes a fragment of the dialogue from The Jew of Malta (iv, i) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Scofield’s interpretation of the epigraph is that it reflects on the narrator’s relationship and responsibility to the lady due to Marlowe’s context of double deception and charging with sin. The poem includes also a citation from “The Buried Life” (1852) by Mathew Arnold (l. 53). In Arnold, the “buried life” is “the mystery of this heart which beats / So wild, so deep in us” - the impulsive, passionate nature of human life that is often suppressed by people ( qtd. in Southam 60). In Eliot’s poem "Portrait of a Lady" Arnold’s serious dramatic monologue appears to be rewritten in a kind of modern commentary with tones of irony. Furthermore, the expression “Paris in the Spring” in the same line alludes to The Ambassadors (1903), a novel by Henry James. Another quotation can be defined in line 97 that refers to the line from Midsummer Night ’ s Dream “That is the true beginning of our end.” With reference to these various allusions, the motif of imitation and theatricality in Eliot’s “Portrait” will be discussed in paragraph 4.6.

It is also notable, that the poem is written in a form of the dramatic monologue and predominantly consists of pentameter and hexameter lines. The patterns of image-repetition, particularly in the musical images, seem to match the repetitive stream of the speaker’s thought. This aspect is explained in section 4.

3 Portraits in Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”

Portrait artists find their inspiration in real life and in persons around them painting simple folk or honour potentates, a stranger or a friend, a relative or themselves. The artists paint these people with understanding, compassion and, occasionally, with an overtone of humour. The inspiration for Eliot’s "Portrait of a Lady," as many critics presume, was Adelene Moffatt, who lived in Boston and often invited selected Harvard undergraduates to tea (see Roper 42). Conrad Aiken identified her as ‘our dear deplorable friend, Miss X, the pr é cieuse ridicule to end all preciosity, serving tea so exquisitely among her bric-à-brac.’ Eliot visited one or more of her evenings and received even a Christmas card from her in 1914. Roper agrees with the assumption that memories of Miss Moffatt influenced the image of the lady in Eliot’s poem. The poem, however, does not suggest any clue to the personality and appearance of the lady, who is portrayed in the poem rather ambiguously. The narrator of the poem is a young man who describes three intimate visits to an older lady who is making futile efforts to gain his friendship and has to admit in the end of the poem that their friendship has failed: “I have been wondering frequently of late / (But our beginnings never know our ends!) / Why we have not developed into friends.” (ll. 95-97).


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The Modern Portrait in Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”
University of Kassel
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Valentina Kluge (Author), 2009, The Modern Portrait in Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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