Poem of the Day: ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ 

Ezra Pound’s poem is a relatively minor note in a long career that encompassed Imagism, dodgy but beautiful translations from the Chinese, and the wide-ranging and thicket-dense allusiveness of the Pisan Cantos.

Walter Mori via Wikimedia Commons
Ezra Pound at Venice in 1963. Walter Mori via Wikimedia Commons

The title of today’s Poem of the Day, first published in 1912, inevitably recalls “Portrait of a Lady,” the 1881 novel by Henry James (1843–1916). The archetypal Jamesian female protagonist, Isabel Archer, seeks independence and self-determination, but finds herself instead “ground in the very mill of the conventional.” 

Meanwhile, T.S. Eliot’s 1915 “Portrait of a Lady,” a companion piece to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” offers a soliloquy in three acts detailing a woman’s search for meaning in an “atmosphere,” as the poem’s first movement has it, “of Juliet’s tomb.” “Ah my friend,” she tells her companion in the following section, as she twists the life out of a lilac stalk, “you do not know / what life is, you who hold it in your hands.” 

Both these literary works, the novel and the poem, give us restless women in a mode we recognize, possibly in our own mirrors and possibly of our own sex. These are discontented people who locate their discontent in externals: those “mills of the conventional,” chiefly marriages well made, that supposedly stifle the naked leaping flame of the self. And both these literary works give us this figure as a muse. She is interesting — the whole process of her disintegration is interesting — as an artist’s model is interesting.

She, and the process in which she is caught, are spectacles that we are invited to witness. Of course, as readers, we’re aware simultaneously that we are witnessing this spectacle, and that in Eliot’s case, especially, his speaker too is witnessing it even as he participates in it, and bears witness as much to that participation as to anything else. We’re caught up in all this tangle, and that, friends, is how we know we’ve arrived at Modernism.

Between these two larger works of literature enters today’s poem by Ezra Pound (1885–1972). It’s a relatively minor note in a long career that encompassed Imagism, dodgy but beautiful translations from the Chinese, and the wide-ranging and thicket-dense allusiveness of the Pisan Cantos. This career, of course, also encompassed antisemitism, collaboration with Mussolini during the Second World War, and eventual incarceration in St. Elizabeths Hospital, after Pound was declared unfit by reason of insanity to stand trial for treason.

In 1912, the same year Pound went to work as foreign correspondent for the new Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, he published his own response to the discontented Jamesian heroine-muse. Where Eliot’s poem of three years later would (characteristically for Eliot) imagine a series of conversations as scenes witnessed and re-narrated by one of the participants, Pound’s speaker addresses his muse-model directly, sparing himself (and us, too) the burden of self-scrutiny.

In loose blank-verse lines, Pound sketches his subject as a woman containing multitudes. She is, first, the four-current gyre of the Sargasso Sea, then a laden treasure ship sailing upstream against the lone, inexorable current of convention: “one man, dulling and uxorious.” With a list of particulars he amasses her, this dimensional figure, a “person of some interest,” who in the end has held everything but possesses nothing that is her own. Having built her, he demolishes her with the stroke of a concluding trimeter line: “Yet this is you.”

Portrait d’une Femme 
by Ezra Pound 
Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, 
London has swept about you this score years 
And bright ships left you this or that in fee: 
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things, 
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price. 
Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else. 
You have been second always. Tragical? 
No. You preferred it to the usual thing: 
One dull man, dulling and uxorious, 
One average mind — with one thought less, each year. 
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit 
Hours, where something might have floated up. 
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay. 
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you 
And takes strange gain away: 
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion: 
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two, 
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else 
That might prove useful and yet never proves, 
That never fits a corner or shows use, 
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days: 
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work; 
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays, 
These are your riches, your great store; and yet 
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, 
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff: 
In the slow float of differing light and deep, 
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, 
Nothing that’s quite your own. 
                     Yet this is you.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

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