Thomas Dilworth: On "Portrait of a Lady"

Veiled by metaphors and changing tone, the eroticism of this poem has not been fully unappreciated. The poem works and partly disguises itself by means of contrasts between subject and imagery and by distraction, as the bumbling speaker progresses through interruptive rhetorical excursions and returns. Emotionally he rings the changes from erotic adulation through nonchalance to petulance. Having begun in a metaphorical vein, he feels obliged to continue inventing metaphors, and the obligation strains his patience. He makes "mistakes," which frustrate him and distract the reader from his subject, a woman's lower extremities. This is a "portrait" only from the waist down, and it begins, at least, as a love poem in the Renaissance mode of direct address, comparing body parts to aspects of nature.

The initial metaphor is appletrees for thighs. "Blossoms" above the trunks suggest lacy underwear or pubic hair, which, in turn, touches "the sky." The metaphorical sky must be the lady's bottom, a designation initially emphasized by the question "Which sky?" The erotically charged tactility of the word "touch" is canceled, however, by its metaphorical relationship to sky, which no one ever really touches. And the speaker short-circuits the logic by which the sky is her bottom when he identifies the sky as that in a picture, remembered as by Watteau, in which a young woman's slipper hangs in air.

Soft and warm, the "knees" of the speaker's lady are "a southern breeze." The silly rhyme may indicate an amateur (the speaker, not Williams) at work. Wishing to add the tactile to the visible, and because the knees are white, he says that they are also "a gust of snow." A poet might want to revise here, because the warm breeze and the snow are contradictory. (The warmth would melt the snow, or the snow cancel the warmth.) So when the speaker exclaims, "Agh!" the reader might assume that he has caught his mistake, but the speaker is thinking of an earlier, factual error. The painting in which "a lady's / slipper" hangs is not by Watteau but by Fragonard. Distracted by realizing his error - which he does not go back to correct, because the fictional pretext is that this is a transcript of thinking - he wonders "what / sort of man" Fragonard was. We shall see that this question has sexual implications. He quickly dismisses the question and recalls his purpose, "Ah, yes," and resumes his selection of metaphors, moving "below / the knees, since the tune / drops that way." This statement is risque, implying that the tune might just as easily have risen above the knee. Furthermore, the word below is ambiguous here, because in the painting by Fragonard the young woman raises her right leg so that "below" the knee might literally mean above it.(2) But here the ordinary convention applies - and unlike Fragonard's woman, this one will have her feet on the ground. The speaker feels obliged by having moved almost inadvertently from thigh to knee to continue in that direction to calves, "those white summer days," and ankles. The latter are flickering "tall grass," an image that decorporealizes and de-eroticizes. In fact, none of the metaphors, except possibly "blossoms," is erotic. Carried by momentum of descent, the speaker kisses not the ground but "the shore," a word connoting destination. According to the logic of anatomy, this "shore" is her feet. He asks, "Which shore?" (line 16), recalling his previous short question, "Which sky?" (3), with its initially erotic suggestion. Shore and sky are feet and bottom, at each of which legs terminate. These terminations may have affinity with one another, because feet is sometimes a euphemism for genitals.(3) The word feet is not mentioned, however, and the erotic suggestion is faint.

We saw that the first question, "Which sky?" leads to a reification of metaphor that transforms its effect. We shall see that the corresponding second question may signal another transformation. In answer to this second question, the speaker decides that his "shore" has a beach: "the sand clings to my lips." Because this image elicits discomfort ("Agh"), he tentatively revises: "petals maybe." Then, in a return to the opening metaphor of the poem, he makes the choice definite: not sand but "petals from an appletree." Passive now, he is petulant at having to make the choice: "How should I know?" Twice he asks, "Which shore?" to help him decide whether his lips will take away from the kiss sand or petals. But why, in the penultimate line, does he repeat the question? He has already exchanged sand for petals, albeit tentatively. The question now seems inappropriate, its third and fourth repetition excessive - unless another choice is being considered.

What other shore is there from which he might come away from a kiss with "petals from an appletree?" He may kiss the blossoms themselves. This possibility requires that her bottom also be a "shore" and, implicitly, a destination - which is how a man might regard the female genital area. If her groin is now his shore, the "blossoms" must be pubic hair. (Whether dropped onto feet or still in place, "blossoms" are unlikely to be lacy underwear, because the notion of underwear clinging to his lips after a kiss is ludicrous.) The reasons a reader might suspect the exchange of feet for pudendum are: the choice of the word "shore," with its connotation of destination; the excessive repetition of "Which shore?": the suggestiveness of "feet"; the ambiguity (in the context of the painting) of "below"; the suggestion that movement from thigh to knee might have gone in the other direction; and the return to the opening metaphor, which may be a reversal in direction.

The allusion to Fragonard's The Swing emphasizes interest above the knee. In that painting, a young woman exposes her open legs to the enraptured gaze of a voyeur hidden in a bush directly in front of her. Few modern viewers realize what the painter knew and what Williams may have known, that eighteenth-century women did not wear underpants. These, in the shape of bloomers, were inventions of the nineteenth century. When the speakers asks, "what / sort of man was Fragonard" (7-8), he implies an interest in the Frenchman's sexual preferences and may wonder whether Fragonard was a voyeur. Because the title of the poem identifies the speaker as a metaphorical painter, an analogous question would be, "What sort of man is he?" There is a hint, at least, of interest in cunnilingus. As the few commentators who have thought it requires analysis agree, this poem is much more a portrait of the speaker than of the lady. If he is revealed to be whimsical, lackadaisical, petulant, and not a very good poet, something about his erotic inclinations is also at least implied. He is not, however, a voyeur like the youth in the painting. That role is reserved for the reader, the viewer of this "portrait."

From The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998)

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Criticism Overview
Title Thomas Dilworth: On "Portrait of a Lady" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas Dilworth Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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