Portrait of a Lady: Music and Words

Article first published as Portrait of a Lady: Music and Words on Blogcritics.

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 […]

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