Ah, the female muse. We read about her raven black eyes in William Shakespeare's sonnets; Scottish poet Robert Burns describes his lover as a red, red rose; and for William Wordsworth, she's...his sister.
Yes, the female muse comes in all shapes and sizes, but she's graced the lines of poetry for about as long as poetry has been around. We can even think of her as a poetic convention – in other words, a motif or theme that occurs again and again throughout the history of poetry. We have poems celebrating marriages, elegies mourning someone's death, coming-of-age poems, epic adventures, and then a whole category of verse devoted to the female muse.
In "Portrait d'une Femme," Ezra Pound doesn't just try to give us a picture of some woman he knows – he tackles this poetic convention head-on. He writes a type of poem that he knows Shakespeare, Burns, Wordsworth, and company have all written before him. We could say that this poem is as much about writing about a woman as it is about the woman herself.
Check out the title. "Portrait d'une Femme" (French for "Portrait of a Woman") not only tells us that the object of this poem is a woman, it also refers back to Henry James's novel The Portrait of a Lady, and it links this poem to others with the same title, such as those written by poets T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams (who both opt for the English version, "Portrait of a Lady"). A whole library of literature comes tumbling into this poem through its title.
It's also important to remember that "Portrait d'une Femme" was first published in 1912, in Pound's poetry collection Ripostes. The 1910s mark the rise of avant-garde modernism, a period when artists and writers tried to make work that was shocking, strange, and totally unlike anything from the past. Pound is, after all, the guy who famously declared, "MAKE IT NEW." So while we're reading the poem, we have to think: how does Pound surprise or upset expectations of what a typical portrait should be like? How is this woman described differently than the descriptions of female muses we've seen before? What kinds of new insights or possibilities does Pound give to this poetic convention?
And if we learn something cool and interesting about this particular woman too, that's even better. Some literary scholars have suggested that Pound's muse was Florence Farr, an actress and writer who was good friends with poet William Butler Yeats and romantically involved with playwright George Bernard Shaw. Many who knew Farr, including Shaw, saw her as the epitome of the "New Woman," a feminist ideal that defies conventional gender roles and, above all, pursues her own liberty. Think of Nora at the end of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In fact, Farr starred in a number of Ibsen's plays. As an empowered modern writer, Farr would have been one of Pound's peers – which is a "shape and size" for the female muse we haven't yet encountered in poetry. How well does Pound handle this? Well, that's left for us to see....
When you look at someone's Facebook, you look briefly at the "About Me," "Political Views," and "Favorite Music" sections, and then you check out what schools they've gone to or where they work. But let's be honest here: the really interesting stuff is on their wall, where you eavesdrop on their conversations with friends and see what they go around doing all day. So many people say that their favorite movie is The Big Lebowski that it doesn't really tell us anything about their personality. But if you see that this person's been trading chickens on Farmville all day? Ding ding ding! (Or maybe we should mimic emergency sirens here...)
We find that people's interactions and actions are much more interesting indicators of their personalities than what they say their personalities are like. And in "Portrait d'une Femme," Ezra Pound shows that he already figured that out almost 100 years before Facebook or MySpace became part of our daily lives.
In his book Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound writes:
In the "search for oneself," in the "search for sincere self-expression," one gropes, and one finds, some seeming verity. One says, "I am" this, that, or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.
"Verity" is a fancy word for "truth," and here Pound is saying that we all try to say, truthfully, who we are, but as soon as we say it, it's no longer true. Is anything you could write under "About Me" truly who you are? Do any of us really even know who we are?
Yeah, whoa, deep questions...so let's go back to the woman in "Portrait d'une Femme." Maybe the fact that we don't get descriptions like, "The woman has black eyes," "The woman is my lover," or "The woman is a kickbutt feminist," in Pound's poem can be really frustrating. But on the other hand, avoiding these statements may be the only way Pound can sustain our interest in the woman. How long can we really care about a bunch of definite, blanket statements that we already suspect won't give us a true picture of who this woman is?