I've considered doing a post every once in a while responding to a piece of poetry. In this one I do not quote the lines I am talking about, so I would love for you to first read the poem and then read my post, and then, of course, respond.
"-- And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
At first read, "Portrait of a Lady" tears me up. The image of the lady, late in years, sitting near the lilacs and forever serving tea is heartwrenching especially since she knows. She knows youth, learning, and friendship, yet she sits removed from all of those. Worse still is the I, Eliot or the speaker or whomever, who is so "self-possessed" that he possess (holds, binds) all life from escaping (flowing from) him. He smiles patronizingly as the lady speaks of youth and has politely barred himself from developing a friendship with her. He goes through all the motions of gentlemen and ends up empty. He forms no attachments so his life must be a "cauchemar," a nightmare, as described in the first part.
Upon my second read, I find such a strong and lively figure in the lilac-twisting woman. She praises friendship and intimacy and warns the speaker of what will happen if he continually refuses to be vulnerable, to have an Achilles heel. Inside, he is broken by her words and ashamed of himself (see him crawling on hands and knees in his mind), yet he does not know what to do in response. He knows he is a coward, but that knowledge does not give him the will to change.
I really enjoy the imagery that moves the poem from its beginning to its end. He speaks often of music, flowers, months, light, and darkness. I enjoyed how these were woven into the poem like harmonizing dashes of color in a painting. They helped me to orient myself, to see the poetry, and referred me to other ideas, images, and experiences that I had.
In the quote that I referenced at the top, Eliot illustrates how conversations awkwardly start up again just as that last part, "and begin" awkwardly inserts itself into the silence of the lines preceding it. Last week I learned that his use of grammar to create an image is called syntactic symbolism. Neat!
Overall, the poem speaks deeply of the necessity of friendship. I like how the intimacy of friendship is descibed as if it alone is capable of holding up something special, Chopin's Preludes. It is also interesting that the one who has a life without friendship is the one with the good life, in spite of the line about a life without friendship is a nightmare. He has his youth. He has tea time invites. He goes abroad. He is self-possessed, knowing all the right things to do.
Yet, the lady who has known friendship sits within the tensions of existence, trying to understand mysteries like how it is that youth is cruel and how friendships sometimes fail to form. She has to struggle but he gets to act matter-of-factly. Why? Clearly, it is she who has the better life, meaning that tension is a characteristic of being fully alive.
Despairingly, the speaker does not wake up from his nightmare. He does not come to life. Rather, he envies the lady who perhaps dies. He has self-possessed himself right out of living in this reality, clinging instead to the one which involves even less tension and struggle-- death.