Portrait D’une Femme
1 Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea
2 London has swept about you this score years
3 And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
4 Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
5 Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
6 Great minds have sought you-lacking someone else.
7 You have been second always. Tragical?
8 No. you preferred it to the usual thing:
9 One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
10 One average mind-with one thought less, each year.
11 Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
12 Hours, where something might have floated up.
13 And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
14 You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
15 And takes strange gain away:
16 Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
17 Fact that leads nowhere; and a tail for two,
18 Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
19 That might prove useful and yet never proves,
20 That never fits a corner or shows use,
21 Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
22 The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
23 Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
24 These are your riches, your great store; and yet
25 For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
26 Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
27 In the slow float of differing light and deep,
28 No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
29 Nothing that’s quite your own.
30 Yet this is you.
Pound “played a significant role in the launching of literary modernism especially through his insistence that poets reject traditional modes of poetry and “make it new.”
“Portrait d’une Femme,” is the embodiment of modern poetry. The “prosaic and flexible blank verse” is about the portrait of a lady and her life in the society.
New Criticism is an approach for studying poetry as “self-contained entity, without regard to the historical context, the writer’s intent, or any other aspects beyond the internal elements found within a work.” This type of criticism helps us analyse effectively the metaphors, word choice, and imagery which we are going to encounter in this beautiful poem.
On the first line, the word “you” refers to the woman in the poem. Pound uses an extended metaphor to compare the woman to “our Sargasso Sea.” He writes, “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, / London has swept about you this score years.” (Line 1 and 2) According to Christine Froula, Pound “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 current deposit masses of seaweed (or “Sargasso”). She adds, “as the Sargasso collects seaweed, so this woman, after twenty years of backwash from London’s social currents.” (Froula 1983)
Ezra Pound is comparing the “mind” of the lady to “Sargasso Sea”. Her “mind” is motionless and calm but it is covered with seaweed which is represented in the poem by the “ideas and old gossips.” Walter Sutton believes that Pound is “depicting the emptiness and sterility of a cultured woman (“great minds have sought you”) (line 6) surrounded by an exotic assortment of objects of art.” (Sutton 1973)
Pound uses the words “you” to speak about the woman and he uses the word “ship” to refer to a real ship. The word “spar” (line 5) means the pole, which supports the sail. But the author writes, “Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.” ( line 5) The poet’s words, “spars of knowledge” are used to refer to the poles of knowledge that are reaching the woman. She is an intellectual lady. Therefore, a great amount of knowledge must reach her “mind.”
On line 17, Pound writes, “Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else.” The mandrake is a forked root human-shaped plant which has yellow and purple flowers. Pound used the word “mandrake” as a metaphor in his poem. It was believed that the plant has aphrodisiac powers and that it could increase the ability of women to fall pregnant. Therefore, Pound might be telling us that the woman needs the mandrake to become pregnant of more ideas since the seaweed of the “Sargasso Sea” is covering her “mind” and it is not letting it grow with intellectual knowledge.
On line 22 and 23, the poet writes, “The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work; / Idols and ambergris and rare inlays.” Pound is a modern poet who does not want to express his ideas clearly. He might be thinking that the woman’s “oddments” are “gaudy” and “tarnished” because they are surrounded by seawater. Therefore, the woman needs the “ambergris” to enrich her ideas. “Ambergris” is a gray substance secreted from the intestines of the sperm whale. It is used in perfume making. The poet infers that the mind of this woman needs to be inseminated with knowledge in order to make her pregnant with ideas which will help her become intellectually ready for the society where she lives.
Then, he writes, “In the slow float of differing light and deep.” (line 27) What we understand from the word ‘float’ in this line is that the poet is waiting for this new knowledge to float up to the surface. With the help of the ‘mandrake’ and the ‘ambergris’, the woman might become less superficial and sterile.
Then, he writes, “There is nothing! In the whole and all, / Nothing that’s quite your own. / Yet this is you.” The poet addresses the woman herself by emphasizing the last line with a deep indentation and he is telling us that he is not sure if she will change one day into a less superficial woman.
Pound had rejected traditional modes of poetry when he wrote “Portrait d’une Femme.” He used ambiguous words and he compared dissimilar things in order to confuse his readers.