"Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper,
unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves” (Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations 2447). This quote from Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot, gives one great insight into the mind of Eliot and his literature. Eliot was an author heavily influenced by several literary and philosophical movements of the Victorian Age. Not only is this quote representative of the influence of Eliot’s time, but also it is crucial to understanding one of Eliot’s greatest poems, Portrait of a Lady. Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888, in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Eliot was influenced early in his life through his religious, conservative family. This may have molded him into a boy who kept his feelings about love and life private from an early age. This characteristic can be seen in the poetic works of his adulthood. Eliot’s exposure to British culture and philosophy can be cited early in his life as well. Irish nurse Anne Dunn cared for Eliot in his early years. It is documented that Eliot had his first discussions about God and life with this woman (Grierson and Smith 500). From this point on, Eliot received a formal, private education in the United States. Even though he received poor grades as a teenager, he was admitted to Harvard University. At Harvard, Eliot studied classical Greek and British literature, from Plato to Shakespeare. Eliot also studied several European languages, including German and French. Eliot studied Latin in addition to these languages, which let him understand the works of Greek and French philosophers.
Despite Eliot’s efforts at Harvard, he was placed on academic probation for a period of one year. During this time, he studied at Copeland and read Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature. This book, among several others, sparked Eliot’s interest in Symbolism and French philosophy. Symbolism later played an important role in Eliot’s poems. After deepening his understanding of the role of symbolism in literature and furthering his understanding of philosophical influences in Victorian era works, Eliot returned to Harvard and received his bachelors and masters degree in English Literature. It was during this time that Eliot wrote several poems for The Harvard Advocate, a campus literary magazine. Through this magazine, Eliot was introduced to several scholars. Irving Babbitt and George Santayana became mentors for Eliot, and encouraged his more philosophical works (Avanarum). Eliot published The First Debate between the Body and Soul for The Harvard Advocate after receiving guidance from his mentors. This poem possesses many characteristics that are commonly associated with romantic and metaphysical poets. Following the publication of The First Debate between the Body and Soul, Eliot moved to France, where he was exposed to romanticism and Victorian literature. In 1911 Eliot wrote Portrait of a Lady, a poem that borrowed its name from a Henry James novel. Eliot then returned to the United States to study philosophy at Harvard, only to sail to England. Eliot was drawn back to England after becoming deeply interested in the Victorian age and the literature that it produced. Eliot was so moved by British society, he became a British subject in 1927 (Priestley 748). All of these events in Eliot’s life influenced his writing style. It was in Britain that Eliot experienced the last days of the Victorian age, and all of the influences of that time.
Portrait of a Lady is a poem greatly influenced by the Victorian age, and shows many of the characteristics of Victorian literature. The Victorian age was fading when Eliot arrived in Britain, but many of the works of that period were still in circulation. Victorian literature reflected many of the political and social issues of the time. The Victorian era was also a time of love and prosperity. Within this era, several literary trends emerged. Romanticism and Metaphysical ideas were all expressed in literary works of that time, but more importantly in Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady. Romanticism was the expression of creativity, the rejection of order, the appreciation of senses over intellect, and a love of nature. Romanticism also examined human emotion, more importantly with love. T.S. Eliot uses these influences in his poems, but combines these properties with Metaphysical ideas. This combination was influenced by Eliot’s time, because romanticism was beginning to show more philosophical characteristics towards the end of the Victorian age. Metaphysical poetry deals more with the whole experience of man, relationship with God, and the complexities of love and sexuality. Metaphysical ideas also give romanticism a deeper meaning. This means that romantic ideals, such as love over rationale, are subject to moral consequences. (Gillie)
Portrait of a Lady is a poem that combines the ideas of romanticism with metaphysical influences. The poem is set within British “Drawing Room Society.” This society was a world of ladies and gentlemen enjoying an aristocratic lifestyle. During this time, this level of society was enjoying great economic prosperity with the introduction of industrial machinery. People were enjoying more free time, and society as a whole was becoming more prosperous. The setting of the poem reflects this time period, as the woman in the poem sits drinking tea, thinking of friendship, while twirling flowers in her hand. There is a dark side to this romantic setting, where Eliot expresses his metaphysical and melancholy self. The poem begins with “Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon, you have the scene arrange itself…” (ln.1-2) This imagery sets the mood for the entire poem, and as the poem progresses one learns why.
Portrait of a Lady is a romantic poem, but one that involves deep feelings of doubt and remorse between two friends. There is a lady, who seems to be recovering from a great loss or possibly a period of depression. She is living within comfortable drawing room society, where ladies usually tend to their thoughts and entertain gentlemen as possible suitors. Even though she is recovering from some unspoken emotional distress, she seems to greet another potentially distressing situation with the understanding that life is full of uncertainty and melancholy events. A man is in love with her. This man has many feelings for this woman, but he is obsessed with the possibility that he may never be able to love this woman. The woman in the poem accepts that he may never be able to love her, but again, she accepts that as part of life. The man in the poem may not know how to accept ironic life, so his heart is full of doubt and fear. This storyline is romantic because it tells about love, emotions, and heart over rationale. It is metaphysical because it talks about the emotion of loss and the health of the man’s soul. Unseen tides and fears are working in his life. To understand this, one must take a closer look at the poem itself.
Eliot uses several allusions in this poem. The poem speaks of the months December, October, and August with some depressing images. These months are cold and dark in England, and that is the feeling Eliot is trying to make. December is “…full of smoke and fog” (ln.1-2) In August afternoons, a “…voice returns like the insistent out- of-tune of a broken violin” (ln.56-57). In October, “…night comes down; returning as before, except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease” (ln.84-85). All of these lines combine the feeling of a cold winter month with a dark and depressing detail to give the poem a gloomy atmosphere. This is typical for romanticism because it helps one feel emotions of depression and doubt. In the beginning of the poem, the man and woman are in a dark room, with only four wax candles. Eliot relates the feeling of the scene when he says the room has an atmosphere of “Juliet’s tomb” (ln.6). This line makes one feel that a love is dying needlessly, or that the woman in the story is loved by a man who feels his love is in vain, and so her love will die as a result. This is the feeling through the whole poem.
The man and the woman in the poem talk about Chopin too. This would be typical conversation of the time, since the society this poem is about is educated. Higher society in this time period was more concerned with the arts, including Chopin and other artists. This was only popular conversation though, “as the conversation slips away” (ln.14) and the two become bored with talking of Chopin. They know that they are ignoring their feelings by talking about Chopin, that there are things unsaid that need to be said. This says a lot about the Victorian age. People were enjoying the arts and conversation about fine things, but underneath, there were deep feelings and worries. The Victorian age focused on the positive, beautiful aspects of life, though, so it would be unacceptable to talk of depressing things during this era. That is why the man and the woman in the story never really speak directly to each other about their feelings. This was social custom.
Life for a lady in Victorian times was very proper and structured. The days were spent socializing and speaking about philosophy and art. Ladies in this time entertained people and had many friends. The woman in Portrait of a Lady had become tired of socializing. She is in search of a true friend, a friend “who has, and gives those qualities upon which a friendship lives” (ln.25-26) Without these friends, true friends, her life is so meaningless, so worldly. This shows one of the negative sides of Victorian life. Social circles were so big, but there was little true friendship involved. Socializing was a great part of the Victorian age for ladies, but this woman is rejecting that idea. Without true friends, her life seems mundane. “Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins, Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own” (ln.32). This line says that she may be on her way to living a boring meaningless life as a lady. All of these thoughts give way to “Admire the monuments, discuss the late events” (ln.37-38). Again, the woman’s inner thoughts are put aside so that she can go on with meaningless life.
The woman in the story seems to accept her life as it is. “Youth is cruel, and has no remorse, and smiles at situations it cannot see” (ln.48-49). This line shows the innocence of youth, and how one may hope for things, but never have them. The woman in the poem knows this is true as she says, “I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea” (ln.50-51). She seems to be so wise. This may be because she has learned from the past. The woman says she recalls her past life, a “buried life, and Paris in the Spring” (ln.53). This may mean that she was once happy in Paris, but that happiness is now buried and dead. She may now understand that life is a series of experiences with loss. She may have learned to focus more on the beautiful things in life, even if life does involve loss. This would explain why she says “I feel immeasurably at peace” (ln.54), and she finds the world to be “…wonderful and youthful after all” (ln.54-55). This shows one trait of romanticism. Even after enduring loss, she is able to see the beauty of things in life. The line is also metaphysical because she has learned about the bigger meaning of life and how to live it. She has gained a new perspective to keep her soul content. She has learned that even if you go through tragedy, there is still beauty, maybe terrible irony in life.
The woman in the story then talks about her feelings for the man who loves her, and one finds out why their love may be difficult. “I am always sure you understand…” (ln.58) and “I am always sure that you feel” (ln.59), all show that there are great feelings between the woman and the man. “Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand” (ln.60), may mean that the man is going to be far away from her in another land. This may be why the man in the poem has doubts about the future of his love for the woman. The woman accepts that he may have to love her from “across the gulf”, but the man doubts if he can do this. With this situation, Eliot creates stress between the man and the woman. This is metaphysical because it deals with such strong emotions and it is deep in the heart of the man. The man feels weak because he feels so unsure about his love, but knows that the woman he loves is more accepting of the situation they are in. “You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel” (ln.61), may mean that she is stronger than he is in accepting an uncertain future. She may handle the loss of their love better than he will. The man is in need of hope, and the woman says she can give “only the friendship and sympathy of one about to reach her journey’s end” (ln.66-67). This line offers hope, but also may mean that she expects this love to die. This creates a great deal of uncertainty for the rest of the poem. She also goes on to say “I shall sit here, serving tea to my friends…” (ln.68). This is very strange, but it shows how the woman is acting social while coping with her feelings. The woman is being proper, but a very emotional event is happening.
The man in the poem also continues on with the normal things in his life, but he keeps thinking about the doubt he has for his love. He sits in the park feeling vulnerable; he feels cowardly. He knows that the woman is giving him a chance to love her, but he doubts if he can do that. He must keep his composure, though, and act like a gentleman. Eliot is trying to show how people had dual lives, and how that is the nature of life. People have emotional lives and social lives, and there has to be a balance between the two. The man is sitting in the park, surrounded by normal life, but inside his heart he is troubled. This confuses him. The woman does not act confused, because she understands that she cannot control life. She accepts that the man is going away, and that their love is determined by fate.
“And you are going abroad; and when do you return?” (ln.88). The woman in the poem asks this to the man. Any answer he gives the woman will not change things and his “…smile falls heavy among the bric-a-brac” (ln.92). The man is smiling, but he is sadly accepting that he must go. He knows that he is going to a far land to learn more, but that it will be difficult to love her from far away. This brings in another metaphysical property in the poem. Metaphysical poems usually have a complicated theme, one that tests the strength of the soul and of love (Moore). With this man being so far from his love, there is a typical characteristic seen that metaphysical poets use. Again, there is doubt; there is stress underneath the social life.
The woman in the story understands the man’s fears. She seems to offer hope when she says, “Why have we not developed into friends?” (ln.98). This may show that the woman wants to deepen a relationship with him, that they should spend more time together. But, “self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark” (ln.101). The man is overcome by doubt again and realizes that his love for her is not real yet. He allows his doubts to overcome his confidence, and his doubts tell him that they have nothing in love. The woman then says that her friends said, “They all were so sure our feelings would relate so closely!” (ln.103). What her friends believe and what is reality are two different things, but she still thinks it is possible that there may be love between the two. She does not hope for it, she does not shun it, she simply accepts that whatever happens will happen. This is clear when she says, “We must leave it now to fate” (ln.105). She knows that the man will write her, and that a love between the two of them may be had, and she will wait “…serving tea to her friends” (ln.108). This line repeats itself several times, and each time in strengthens the fact that the woman has learned to accept fate. Following this line, the man falls again into confusion. He is torn; he is not as strong as the woman. He has not learned to accept fate.
“Would she not have the advantage, after all?” (ln.121). This is an extremely strong statement by the man. This line says that the man has not learned to accept loss and fate, but she has. Since she understands fate, she will cope better if nothing becomes of their feelings. If he loses her, he will lose his hope, his love that means everything to him. She will continue on “serving tea to her friends,” accepting his absence with a sigh, then going on to live life. She would also have the advantage because she would no longer have to worry about a love that stays far away. She has only to gain him, while to lose her would be to lose everything. Now that he is thinking of this, he asks, “…should I have the right to smile?” (ln.124). This may refer to earlier when it was said “youth is cruel, and has no remorse and smiles at situations it cannot see” (ln.48-49). The man cannot accept that he must smile at things he cannot see. He does not trust the future. If the future is so cruel, why should he smile? The woman he loves smiles at this future, with acceptance, but he cannot understand this. It may be assumed that in the future, this man will understand fate only after he suffers a great loss.
Portrait of a Lady is like many of Eliot’s poems because it talks about the melancholy aspects of life. Romanticism in the late nineteenth century was going through much change. There was a increase in science and reason that began to mix with the ideas of Victorian romanticism. Poems of love began to deal with moral issues and more private issues such as doubt and distrust. Typical Victorian poems of love described the surface of love. Art showed romantic images, images of nature and life. Eliot began to write about the inner heart of emotions that were expressed vividly with romanticism. He was heavily influenced by the themes of romanticism, but added a deeper theme to the poems by speaking more about melancholy emotions. The Victorian age was a time of great social change and emphasis on the positive. Eliot was able to write about the themes of love, but he was one of the first to write what many poets had not written about. He was able to write about all aspects of love, including fear and doubt. These are human emotions about love that have been with man for ages, but Victorian culture had not written much about it.
T.S. Eliot was a man greatly influenced by his studies of religion and philosophy and by Victorian culture. His philosophical side meant he was a metaphysical poet. Eliot combined Victorian themes with metaphysical issues to show both detached beauty in his poems, and the condition of the human soul when in relation to love. With this approach, Eliot started a new trend in poetry, and it is this type of poetry that made him famous. Eliot’s education and exposure to many writing techniques and literary tools let him help his readers better understand feelings that they may feel, but may not understand. Shakespeare may be credited with being able to write about vast emotions, but he did it with volumes of pages and in a language that many people in the twentieth century found difficult to understand. T.S. Eliot used his gift of language and his knowledge of society to make his readers feel and understand their emotions much like Shakespeare did. T.S. Eliot was a man who merged the spirit of writers past with the present social issues of modern times. Some emotions are timeless, and T.S. Eliot helped modern day readers feel those emotions that we have always hid from. T.S. Eliot was shaped by his time, and his poetry has taught us to understand our deepest emotions - emotions that will forever be within the heart of man.
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