T. S. Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Published in Others
One hundred years ago this month, the third issue of Alfred Kreymborg’s little New York literary magazine Others appeared. The first issue, published in July, most notably contained Mina Loy’s first four ‘Love Songs’; the second, published in August, poems by Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, including Stevens’ first major poem, ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’. The September issue featured just four poets: T. S. Eliot, John Gould Fletcher, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Walter Conrad Arensberg.
It led with T. S. Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’. Somewhat overshadowed by ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which had emerged in the more established Poetry: A Magazine of Verse – founded in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe – in June, like ‘Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ inhabits Boston society, but more particularly the thoughts and impressions of the poem’s male narrator. Rather than the steady stream of consciousness of ‘Prufrock’ however, here the narrator provides a sort of commentary around lines of reported speech, recounting in three parts the course of an acquaintance with an older lady who at first seems to be drawing the young man into an intimate friendship. But in the final part, she remarks, ‘I have been wondering frequently of late […] Why we have not developed into friends’, cutting the relationship cold as the man intends to travel abroad.
The lady intended by the depiction, described by Conrad Aiken as ‘Our dear deplorable friend, Miss X, the précieuse ridicule to end all preciosity, serving tea so exquisitely among her bric-à-brac’, was later revealed by Valerie Eliot as Adeleine Moffatt, who ‘lived behind the State House in Boston and invited selected Harvard undergraduates to tea’.
Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ draws its title from the novel of the same name by Henry James, published in 1881. Its epigraph is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, written about 1590. The poem shows the marked influence of the French Symbolist Jules Laforgue, with the lines of Laforgue’s ‘Another Complaint of Lord Pierrot’ from ‘Finally, if one evening she dies amid my books, / Quiet; feigning not yet to trust my sight’ resembled in Eliot’s ‘Well! and what if she should die some afternoon, / Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose’. The theme of Pierrot would reappear in the October issue of Others, in the form of John Rodker’s ‘The Dutch Dolls’ series of poems.
‘Portrait of a Lady’ (1915), by T. S. Eliot
Thou hast committed —
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
(The Jew of Malta)
Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
You have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do—
With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;
And four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.
We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips.
“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”
—And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
(For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind!
How keen you are!)
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
How much it means that I say this to you —
Without these friendships — life, what cauchemar!”
Among the winding of the violins
And the ariettes
Of cracked cornets
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
That is at least one definite “false note.”
— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”
The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
“I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.
You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel.
You will go on, and when you have prevailed
You can say: at this point many a one has failed.
But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
To give you, what can you receive from me?
Only the friendship and the sympathy
Of one about to reach her journey’s end.
I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….”
I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me?
You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page.
Particularly I remark.
An English countess goes upon the stage.
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
Another bank defaulter has confessed.
I keep my countenance,
I remain self-possessed
Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong?
The October night comes down; returning as before
Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease
I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
“And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
But that’s a useless question.
You hardly know when you are coming back,
You will find so much to learn.”
My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac.
“Perhaps you can write to me.”
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned.
“I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.”
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
“For everybody said so, all our friends,
They all were sure our feelings would relate
So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
We must leave it now to fate.
You will write, at any rate.
Perhaps it is not too late.
I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.”
And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression … dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance—
Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for quite a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon …
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
This music is successful with a “dying fall”
Now that we talk of dying—
And should I have the right to smile?
* * *
2015 Supermoon Lunar Eclipse
Tonight the sky turned a hazy red according to a rare phenomenon which has variously been dubbed simply a total lunar eclipse, a ‘supermoon eclipse’, a ‘super blood moon’, and all accretions and terms in between.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth comes directly between a full Moon and the Sun, with the Moon therefore passing within the Earth’s shadow. At the beginning of a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow darkens the Moon only slightly. But as the shadow begins to cover the Moon, the scattering of sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere causes the Moon to take on a reddish-brown glow. This is most pronounced during a total lunar eclipse, when the Moon is fully covered.
Tonight saw not only a total lunar eclipse, but also a ‘supermoon’: a colloquial term for the coincidence of a full Moon with the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth on its elliptical orbit. The closeness of the moon makes it appear larger, often by up to 14% in diameter.
The joint phenomenon of a total lunar eclipse with a ‘supermoon’ was last observed in 1982, and won’t be repeated until 2033. While it was possible to view a partial eclipse over several hours tonight, totality lasted little more than an hour. The event was visible on Sunday evening in the Americas, and early on Monday morning in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Photographs from around the world are already appearing via The Guardian, The Telegraph, Gizmodo, and less excitedly the Los Angeles Times.
* * *
Brian Eno Delivers 2015 Peel Lecture on the Ecology of Culture
BBC Radio 6 Music inaugurated the John Peel Lecture back in 2011 to commemorate the former disc jockey. An annual discussion on the state of music, lectures have previously been given by Pete Townshend, Billy Bragg, and Charlotte Church; last year’s came courtesy of Iggy Pop, who spoke eloquently on the topic of Free Music in a Capitalist Society; and this year proved the turn of Brian Eno.
Setting the scene for the lecture, which can be listened to now in full, the BBC wrote:
This year’s John Peel Lecture will examine the ecology of culture. Brian Eno will seek to demonstrate how the whole complex of individuals and institutions engaged in culture – artists, broadcasters, gallerists, promoters, DJs, managers, lawyers, fans – are symbiotically connected parts of a single huge organism which we call Culture. He will outline some of his thinking on this very unpredictable ecology and explore the interconnective relationships between the elements and components that combine to create our culture, and show how cultural processes confer essential and important benefits on society.
Ahead of the lecture, Eno visited Peel Acres to spend a day trawling through Peel’s record collection, which he describes as ‘probably one of the greatest music archives in the world’. He selected some of his favourite albums, including works by The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, The Fugs, and Neu!, talking about and playing from them on air, and also writing up his ‘Record Box’.
* * *
Run the Jewels Release Meow the Jewels
Finally, on Friday Killer Mike and El-P of Run the Jewels made Meow the Jewels available: the cat-centred collection of remixes of last year’s Run the Jewels 2. Considered the first ever cat remix album, replete with meows and purrs, remixes have been provided by Just Blaze, Zola Jesus, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Boots, Blood Diamonds, the Alchemist, Dan the Automator, and Massive Attack’s 3D.
The project was funded on Kickstarter, raising a total of $65,783. The finished album is available to stream and to download for free from the Run the Jewels website, with a double LP with faux fur hands to ship in November. All proceeds are going to charities that support victims of police brutality.