Portrait of a Lady - T.S. Eliot

From Between the Desire and the Dream

Written in 1917. There is irony in much of "Portrait of a Lady". The many references to tea may allude to the first sentence of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady: "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." The man and woman in the poem are unable to communicatae in any meaningful way because of the stiffling conventions of society. She tries to reach out, but is afraid she has nothing to offer, while he escapes into habits and social conventions.

Read by Dennis Regan and Michelle Dumelle
Music composed by Steve O'Connor

Buy the CD or Download at Audible

Play a sample


        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 fingertips.	

“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	

And begins.	


“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 windings of the violins	

And the ariettes

Of cracked cornets	

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.”

—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 his 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 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?