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Portrait d'une Femme

Portrait d'une Femme


by Ezra Pound

Lines 1-5 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-3

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:

  • We're guessing that the "you" here is the "femme" herself. The title promises us a portrait of a woman, and the first line has the speaker telling the "you" who (or what) they are, so it seems likely that the speaker is addressing the woman. Whether he's actually saying this all out loud to her or just thinking it to himself is another question, and we'll have to look for more clues to figure that out.
  • If the "you" is the woman, then who is included in "our," aside from the speaker? Who else is the speaker bringing into this poem? The "our" suggests that this poem might not be just the speaker's perspective on the woman, but a larger group's. Or that the speaker's relationship with the woman is not unique – she has similar interactions with other people.
  • The speaker separates "your mind" from "you." Why do you think he does that? How can someone be separated from her mind? Or is he just trying to put the emphasis on the woman's intellect?
  • The poem begins straight off the bat with a metaphor: the speaker says that the woman and her mind are the Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is a region in the Atlantic Ocean, located to the east of the Caribbean Islands. Its surface is known for being covered with seaweed, and, because of its currents, it tends to collect large amounts of debris and waste. (Random brain snack: all American and European eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea to lay their eggs.)
  • Although the woman is the Sargasso Sea, her location seems to be somewhere within London. The Sargasso Sea is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps the speaker suggests that London surrounds the woman in the same way. He certainly gives London ocean-like qualities, saying that it "sweeps about" her.
  • "Score" years means twenty years, so we know that the woman has resided in London for at least two decades.
  • If the sea is a metaphor for the woman, then the "bright ships" are probably also a metaphor for something (or some people) the woman comes across in her London life. These ships offer some kind of payment to the woman; the colon after "fee" suggests that we'll find out what this payment is in the next line. Why are they leaving a fee? What goods or service does she provide?
  • There have been several well-known instances of sailing ships getting trapped in the Sargasso Sea. Maybe saying that these ships left a fee is a euphemistic way of saying that they got stuck?
  • Notice that all three lines are ten syllables long. Quickly checking out their unstressed/stressed pattern, we can see that the lines are in iambic pentameter. The first and third lines rhyme, but we'll have to see the rest of the poem to determine if there's actually a rhyme scheme at work.

Lines 4-5

Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.

  • So these lines show us the things the ships leave as their fee. Rather than money or treasures, they give the woman abstract and intangible things, like ideas and gossip.
  • "Oddments" is an strange but useful word. It refers to random scraps or leftovers – basically, odds and ends, like the weird stuff you might find in the back of your desk drawer (pennies, paperclips, thumbtacks, old notes, half-eaten candy bars...).
  • OK, now we're going to have to pull out some nautical knowledge. A spar is a part of a ship; it's a round pole used commonly as either a mast or a boom.
  • "Spars of knowledge" is clearly an instance of figurative language. Since spars provide support for a ship's sails, we could take the phrase to mean something that helps support or steer knowledge.
  • However, the adjective "strange" throws us off. Does this mean the spars don't really do their work? Or perhaps what the spars do doesn't even matter. Maybe they are mentioned here as just an isolated part of a ship – a miscellaneous piece of wreckage. This reading goes along with the mention of oddments, as well as other words, such as "old" and "dimmed," that give all of the objects here a rather worn-down appearance.
  • "Wares" are, by definition, commodities. In other words, they have a market and are worth a price. This makes the phrase "wares of price" a bit repetitive.
  • This type of small repetition has already occurred a number of times in the poem; Robert Frost, who offered some suggestions to Pound about how to tidy up this poem, commented that "your mind and you" (1) and "left you this or that in fee" (3) are especially redundant. (Check out Josephine Grieder's article, "Robert Frost on Ezra Pound, 1913: Manuscript Corrections of 'Portrait d'une Femme'" for more of Frost's comments.)
  • Would taking any of these repetitions out drastically change our reading or understanding of the poem? Do you think Pound includes them just to fill out his iambic pentameter lines, or can you see a more important reason for them?

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