Portrait of a Lady

Original Text: 
T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (London: The Egoist, 1917): 17-23. E546 P784 1917 Fisher Rare Book Library.
     Thou hast committed --
     Fornication: but that was in another country,
     And besides, the wench is dead.
     (The Jew of Malta)
2You have the scene arrange itself -- as it will seem to do--
3With "I have saved this afternoon for you";
4And four wax candles in the darkened room,
5Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
7Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.
8We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
10"So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
11Should be resurrected only among friends
12Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
13That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room."
14--And so the conversation slips
16Through attenuated tones of violins
17Mingled with remote cornets
18And begins.
19"You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
20And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
21In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
22(For indeed I do not love it ... you knew? you are not blind!
23How keen you are!)
24To find a friend who has these qualities,
25Who has, and gives
26Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
27How much it means that I say this to you --
29Among the winding of the violins
31Of cracked cornets
33Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
34Capricious monotone
35That is at least one definite "false note."
36-- Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
37Admire the monuments,
38Discuss the late events,
39Correct our watches by the public clocks.
II
41Now that lilacs are in bloom
42She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
43And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
44"Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
45What life is, you who hold it in your hands";
46(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
47"You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
48And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
49And smiles at situations which it cannot see."
50I smile, of course,
51And go on drinking tea.
52"Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
54I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
55To be wonderful and youthful, after all."
56The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
57Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
58"I am always sure that you understand
59My feelings, always sure that you feel,
60Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.
62You will go on, and when you have prevailed
63You can say: at this point many a one has failed.
64But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
65To give you, what can you receive from me?
66Only the friendship and the sympathy
67Of one about to reach her journey's end.
68I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ...."
69I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
70For what she has said to me?
71You will see me any morning in the park
72Reading the comics and the sporting page.
73Particularly I remark.
74An English countess goes upon the stage.
75A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
76Another bank defaulter has confessed.
77I keep my countenance,
78I remain self-possessed
79Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired
80Reiterates some worn-out common song
81With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
82Recalling things that other people have desired.
83Are these ideas right or wrong?
III
84The October night comes down; returning as before
85Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease
86I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
87And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
88"And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
89But that's a useless question.
90You hardly know when you are coming back,
91You will find so much to learn."
93"Perhaps you can write to me."
94My self-possession flares up for a second;
95This is as I had reckoned.
96"I have been wondering frequently of late
97(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
98Why we have not developed into friends."
99I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
100Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
101My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
102"For everybody said so, all our friends,
103They all were sure our feelings would relate
104So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
105We must leave it now to fate.
106You will write, at any rate.
107Perhaps it is not too late.
108I shall sit here, serving tea to friends."
109And I must borrow every changing shape
110To find expression ... dance, dance
111Like a dancing bear,
112Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
113Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance--
115Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
116Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
117With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
118Doubtful, for quite a while
119Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
120Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon ...
121Would she not have the advantage, after all?
123Now that we talk of dying--
124And should I have the right to smile?

Notes

1] The epigraph is from Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, the last two lines of which are the mocking confession of Barabas, a murderer, to a friar's interrupted accusation in the first line.
In a letter to Ezra Pound on Feb. 2, 1915, Eliot refers to the lady as having sent him a Christmas card. Valerie Eliot notes: "Miss Adeleine Moffatt, the subject of the poem, lived behind the State House in Boston and invited selected Harvard undergraduates to tea" (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot, Vol. 1: 1898-1922 [London: Faber and Faber, 1988]: 86). Back to Line
6] William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet ends tragically when the plan hatched by the two lovers to escape their warring families misfires. Juliet uses drugs to fake her death but Romeo, who does not learn of the plot, kills himself in her tomb over her body. When she awakes and finds her lover, Juliet too commits suicide. Back to Line
9] the Preludes: the well-known pieces for piano by Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin (1810-49). Back to Line
15] velleities: barely-sensed wishes. Back to Line
28] cauchemar: nightmare (French). Back to Line
30] ariettes: little songs or arias. Back to Line
32] tom-tom: drum-beat, echoing Eliot's first and nick- name. Back to Line
40] bocks: dark and heavy beers, originally from Einbeck, Germany. Back to Line
53] my buried life: cf. Matthew Arnold's poem, "The Buried Life." Back to Line
61] Achilles' heel: weak spot, from the traditional weakness of one of the Greek classical heroes of the Trojan war, Achilles. Back to Line
92] bric-à-brac: small ornaments. Back to Line
114] Cf. symbolist poet's Jules Laforgue's "Autre Complainte de Lord Pierrot," perhaps a source for this poem. The last stanza reads:
Enfin, si, par un soir, elle meurt dans mes livres,
Douce; feignant de n'en pas croire encor mes yeux,
J'aurai un: "Ah ça, mais, nous avions De Quoi vivre!
C'était donc sérieux?"
See Poésies complètes, ed. Pascal Pia [Le Livre de Poche, 1970]: 85. Ezra Pound writes William Carlos Williams on Sept. 11, 1920, that "Eliot is perfectly conscious of having imitated Laforgue, has worked to get away from it, and there is very little Laforgue in his Sweeney, or his Bleistein Burbank, or his `Gerontion,' or his Bay State hymn book" (The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige [London: Faber and Faber, 1951]: 226). Back to Line
122] a "dying fall": love-sick Duke Orsino's opening line in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "That strain again! It had a dying fall" (I.i.1), referring to a piece of music. Cf. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," line 52. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1915
Publication Notes: 
First printed in Others 1.3 (Sept. 1915): 35-40. Donald Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (London: Faber and Faber, 1969): A1, C20.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.
Special Copyright: 

© T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber Ltd 1974