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On "Portrait d'une Femme"

Jeanne Heuving

In Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme," the partial and secondary nature of this "femme" made of parts is openly declared:

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. 

The poem concludes: 

                                                 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. (Personae 61) 

Pound may not be projecting his bodily parts onto his beloved, but his femme is certainly a projection of partial and somewhat worthless knowledges.

from "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." SAGETRIEB 6.3


Walter Sutton

The blank verse "Portrait d'une Femme," a Browningesque yet modern vignette, depicts the emptiness and sterility of the life of a cultured woman, surrounded by an exotic assortment of objects of art: "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. . . ." Despite her acquisitions, often the "fee" of casual alliances with cultured lovers, the lady is without a sense of identity or fulfillment: "No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, / Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you." This subject and theme, anticipatory of Eliot's hollow men and women.

From American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry. Copyright © 1973 by Walter Sutton.

Christine Froula

The title recalls Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881), much admired by Pound. Pound later spoke of Mauberley (1920) as "an attempt to condense the James novel," and this poem is an early exercise in that vein, a character sketch recalling the descriptive vignettes of the Jamesian novel of manners. Pound first met "the Master" in a London drawing room in February 1912, and after James's death he composed a lengthy essay honoring him for "book after early book against oppression, against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression, the domination of modern life."

Pound uses a prosaic and flexible blank verse and portrays the "lady" by means of the extended metaphor of the "Sargasso Sea," a relatively static area of the North Atlantic stretching between the West Indies and the Azores, where the currents deposit masses of seaweed (or "sargasso"). As the Sargasso collects seaweed, so this woman has, after twenty years of backwash from London's social currents, accumulated the flotsam and jetsam which makes her, paradoxically, both a "richly paying" institution in the eyes of the young and an impoverished self whose only interest is as repository of this "sea-hoard."

From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Hugh Witemeyer

Kenner has noted that the women in Pound's poetry tend to merge into two basic archetypes: the goddess, radiant with a virtú which organizes the world about her; and the fragmented woman, lacking identity and organized by her environment. . . .

The subject of "Portrait" is a modern woman without identity or virtú. She is but "a sort of nodal point in the flux," defined by her environment. Whereas the lady of "Apparuit" is organically inseparable from her setting ("Green the ways, the breath of the fields is thine there"), the London femme gains no identity from her oddments ("No! There is nothing ... that's quite your own"). She is the cultural "Sargasso Sea" of London, and her "spars of knowledge" are lifeless and stationary in that backwater. The light in her world is not self-generated, but reflected from above, shifting and uncertain: "the slow float of differing light and deep." Yet despite her lack of unity, the lady is not nothing. The poem is a study of the second-rate qualified by the poet's implied awareness of third, fourth, and fifth rates. If we say that this fragmented lady is the prototype of the figures satirized in Lustra, we must add that the perspective and balance of the "Portrait" are missing from most of Pound's later sketches. It was probably this poem that Eliot had most in mind when he spoke of "the effect of London" and said that Pound had become "more mature."

From The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewals, 1908-1920. Copyright © 1969 by Hugh Witemeyer.

Michael Alexander

'Portrait d'une Femme' is an essay in something new, but the comparison with Eliot's 'Portrait of a Lady' is to Pound's disadvantage. Like Masefield's 'Quinquireme', the woman is interesting chiefly for her cargo; she is a Sargasso Sea of quaint wrecks, of cultural trophies and memories. Like other ladies in early Pound, Eliot, or Lewis, she is and has long been a hostess in the salon world, the object of ambiguous feeling on the part of the iconoclasts who drink her tea. The lady is a collection of curiosities, not a person; her identity is defined by her trophies. Very good; but Pound is too interested in the cultural rarities, too much the museum visitor. And the pot-hunter is not saved by his irony. His 'brilliant' dismissal of the dear old relic at the end 'falls heavily among the bric-à-brac'; but, unlike Mr. Eliot's young visitor, he doesn't notice.

from The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by Michael Alexander.

Cary Nelson

For some poets an attack on women became a kind of set piece of their early careers, almost a necessary apprentice undertaking, one of the decorously validated component of an appropriately marketed literary career. The two most famous instances are no doubt Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (1911) and Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912), poems that embody attitudes quite characteristic of their authors' work at that time. In both cases the poets have apparently come to believe that Western civilization, in a period of decline, has erroneously given over to women the authority to maintain its threatened traditions. Yet women's essential being itself either threatens or diminishes everyone who becomes entangled with them. For Eliot, women's precious triviality makes for a life of empty, gestural anxiety. Pound admits these creatures have their allure; one alas repeatedly turns to them in fascination to see glittering "trophies fished up," bright riches that distract but have no substance. Indeed that is the core of female being -- gaudy found objects masking an inner emptiness: "In the whole and all," the speaker in Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" concludes, there is "Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you."

Yet neither of these two poems is quite uniformly or simplistically misogynistic. Eliot's is a historically specific engagement with the early twentieth-century culture of female patronage, salons, and hostessing and thus partly a class- rather than gender-based critique. Nevertheless, its picture of a certain time and class is clearly gender differentiated, and the structural maintenance of this fragile world of empty forms seems to fall distinctly to women. What Eliot implies in his style of partly self-reflexive revulsion Pound explicitly projects and personifies. Thus the two poems are written in quite divergent voices. Eliot, whose quintessential male protagonist at this time was Prufrock, adopts the voice of self-incriminating critique; he returns to sample the very social world he savages. Pound, on the other hand, casts out and castigates the alluring if vacant sirens whose voices would drown him. Pound's prototypical male figure at the time was Mauberley, and unlike Eliot he saw himself as a man of action. Eliot to some degree shows us both men and women implicated in the world of fallen social relations women have come to oversee; Pound here is Odysseus trying to get past the sirens. Both, however, can be seen as revising and reversing James's map of gender relations in Portrait of a Lady (1881), which offers us a woman who in some ways is the one uncorrupted, if assimilated, figure in a corrupted world. Thus Eliot in his much looser, more meditative and dialogic "Portrait of a Lady" and Pound in his rhetorically focused and almost univocal "Portrait d'une Femme" both show us women of baubles and bric-a-brac who lead men and their civilization to its collective doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing to admire in these poems. Eliot presents a world in which no position external to social life exists from which we might securely critique it, a stance many contemporary theorists would endorse. And there is unquestionably pleasure to be had in the layering and counterpointing of elegance, exhaustion, and wit in his rhetoric. Pound on the other hand offers a bravura performance that elevates complex metaphoricity to something approaching declamatory public speech: "For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff." Yet both poems are also instances, whether deliberate or not, of the backlash discourses that swept across America in the wake of nineteenth-century feminism's gains and that would intensify in response to early twentieth-century feminism. It is not anachronistic, then, to question what sort of cultural work these poems do; there would have been good reason for a reader sensitized to feminism to have found them offensive when they were first published in journals or later reprinted in books by Eliot and Pound. In tracking grounds for both approval and disapproval, in recognizing that both textual and socio-historical complexities are at stake in any full evaluation of the poems, I am of course undermining and purely aesthetic response to them. Marketed for decades by academic readers as unproblematically aesthetic objects, the poems in their own time were arguably efforts to reach out to audiences troubled by women's changing roles and identities. Indeed, the poems are clear enough in their distaste for women that some readers of this essay have found anything other than their unqualified rejection unacceptable. On the other hand, a more conservative reader thought my criticism of them seriously misguided. Such are the politics of contemporary criticism; it may be that I can please neither of these camps. It is the conservative reader, however, whose position seems to me to be the least defensible.

In case such a reader were inclined to underread the attitudes toward women unhesitatingly put forward in these and other poems, or to find some exculpatory explanation for them -- note, for example, Pound's "Canto II" and his gendered offer to breathe a soul into New York ("a maid with no breasts") in his poem "N.Y." -- one could turn to Pound's most remarkable programmatic statement of his misogyny, his substantially more than half mad introduction to his translation of Remy de Gourmount's The Natural Philosophy of Love. In putting forth the notion that the human brain is basically "a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve (p. vii)," Pound allows that this is so obvious and reasonable a hypothesis that it needs little proof. In human creativity and on the evolutionary scale, of course, men predominate. The brain is, after all, essentially male seminal fluid. Insects, on the other hand, are inherently female: "the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e., a sort of negation of action (p. ix)." Men act, "the phallus or spermatozoid charging, head-on, the female chaos . . . . Even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London (p. viii)." It takes Pound eleven pages to lay all this out in detail and by the end it is quite impossible to take it as Swiftian satire. By now, of course, the effect is partly comic, at least in part because Pound mixes his overwrought paeans to phallic creativity with a clubby, chatty style that implies he is casually gathering representative anecdotes from the limitless evidence available to all of us. But make no mistake about the bottom line: Pound believes all of this, and the arguments here underwrite his poetry.

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