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Portrait of a Lady: Music and Words

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The blend of music and literature is an interesting thing. The most prevalent mix of such can be seen in songs, where poems by people like Wordsworth or Shelley are set to music. But what of music in literature?

For instance, music features largely in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Portrait of a Lady.” In this picture of upper-class society, a young man has a friendship with a woman, whose age is unknown. The poem unfolds through conversations, visits, and a carefully selected set of musical metaphors. But why and how does he use the specific musical images he does, such as Chopin’s Preludes contrasted against the street piano, or the cracked trumpets and out-of-tune violins in his head? Eliot, as a Modernist writer, was concerned with themes of isolation: the little person living in the big city, the Prufrockian “do I dare” impulse. It was a problem that he saw, and a problem that perhaps still exists, especially in the digital age. What does one do with this often terrible isolation? 

The first example is the concert scene, where the man comes “to hear the latest Pole / Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips.” Chopin, the composer mentioned, is “intimate,” the type of composer whose music (or “soul”) is meant for the small “concert room” where friends will view this music with respect, and not insist on dissecting it through too many questions. Yet there is something mocking about the “transmission” of the music through the “hair” as well as the fingertips, as if the pianist is so preoccupied with an overdramatic representation of feeling that even his hair shows it. It would then seem that this feeling fails to touch the speaker. It would seem that here is a disconnect between the “old-time” Romantic age and the speaker’s sensibilities.

The careful conversation he has with the lady is compared to the “attenuated tones of violins / Mingled with remote cornets.” The word “attenuated” means a thinning out, as if this music is somehow far away and detached – almost as if the speaker is somewhat detached from what the lady is trying to communicate.

And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends, …
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.

She is talking about the necessity of friendships, yet there is a thread of isolation read into the fact that the speaker doesn’t seem to accept what she is saying. In the speaker’s brain, after hearing her talk about friendships, the cornets are not merely “remote.” They are “cracked.” “Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins / Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own, / Capricious monotone / That is at least one definite ‘false note.’” This prelude is in sharp contrast to the romanticism of Chopin’s Preludes. It hammers in a dull monotone reminiscent of a migraine. The “false note” is the only thing that disturbs this monotone, which could suggest that something may not be right with the speaker’s life – there is some discord or dissonant unexplained. Swiftly he turns back to social niceties, admiring monuments, discussing events, and checking the time. These instruments, as they appear, seem to signify the breakdown of communication, another sign of isolation between him and the woman. 

In the second section of the poem, the lady tells the young man how he doesn’t understand all that life has to offer him, and how she finds the world wonderful and youthful. Meanwhile, he hears her voice as an “insistent out-of-tune” broken violin. He seems impatient at what he may perceive as her hollow view of life. She offers him her friendship and sympathy. He doesn’t know how to respond, and here we as readers may feel a growing frustration at his inability to understand, to “unbury” himself from this little life. Meanwhile, the world spins madly on with its little tragedies – “An English countess goes upon the stage. / A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance.” He remains remote and detached, even from his friend, except when he hears a “street piano, mechanical and tired / Reiterat[ing] some worn-out common song.” Somehow the worn-out street piano with its “commonness” affects him in a way that Chopin and the high culture Chopin seems to represent doesn’t, perhaps a poignant reminder of his loneliness.

At the end of the poem, he wonders about his “friendship” with this woman. Even she by this point has realized that he is determined to keep her at arm’s length, wondering why they have never become friends. From this he thinks of death: what if she should die? He doesn’t know what he would feel, and makes yet another comparison to the playing of music. “This music is successful with a ‘dying fall’.” In terms of expression, Chopin was particularly successful in writing “dying falls” into his music – many endings are somewhat like a sort of fading away and fading out rather than a full stop. It is comparable to the quiet ending of this old woman’s life, in the sense that she fades out of the speaker’s life.

“Now that we talk of dying—
And should I have the right to smile?”

This question, reiterated in both words and music, could be about his perceived failure to break out of his isolation: the lady dies; he survives, alone. Similarly, we may ask ourselves the same questions. Do we have the right to smile? 

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About Valerie Norton

  • Kate

    This is amazing, thank you!