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Portrait d'une Femme

Portrait d'une Femme

by Ezra Pound

Lines 16-21 Summary

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

Lines 16-18

Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else

  • Like the list of things left by the ships, this list of things the woman pays also sounds, well, not so spectacular. Sure there are trophies...but they are fished up. "Curious" suggestions? What exactly does "curious" mean here? Is it really something good? Facts that lead nowhere aren't much help. And a tale that's "pregnant with mandrakes" certainly makes for a striking image, but again, this might be a bomb.
  • Mandrakes are a type of root, and they appear often in literature, especially Renaissance drama and poetry (not to mention Harry Potter novels), because they are rumored to have magical powers. Legend also claims that mandrakes scream when they are pulled out of the ground, causing everyone around them to go deaf.
  • Sure, there's something fascinating and even charming about mandrakes, and a tale filled with them might be really great. On the other hand, the speaker might reference mandrakes here to say that the woman's stories are: 1) old-fashioned or archaic; 2) filled with unbelievable nonsense; or 3) so horrible that they make their listeners go deaf. Hmm.
  • This is just a small thing, but notice how the speaker uses a lot of semicolons here. In the previous list (Lines 4-5), he used commas. Is there any particular reason for him to start using semicolons?
  • For all the vivid sea imagery we get in this poem, the speaker also really loves using pretty vague or noncommittal words that annoy English teachers, such as "some" ("some curious suggestion") or "thing." Here, we get "something else."
  • "Something else" is presented as an alternative to the "mandrakes." We might have a better understanding of how the speaker is using mandrakes when we see what this "something else" is like.

Lines 19-21

That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:

  • So this "something else" is something that appears to be useful but actually isn't. The speaker demonstrates how useless this is by describing it as an object that never finds its proper place or shows any signs of use.
  • In this light, we could take the earlier reference to mandrakes to mean that the tales appear to be intriguing or magical but actually aren't. They are only pregnant with mandrakes – they don't actually give birth to them!
  • This "something else" almost sounds like a piece of furniture. You know how relatives sometimes give you a hand-me-down table or sofa, and it's always really big and ugly and doesn't quite fit the space you have for it?
  • "The loom of days" is probably a reference to the Fates from Greek mythology. These three ladies hold everyone's destinies in their hands because they spin, measure, and cut the thread of life belonging to each person. They are often represented with spindles, measuring rods, scissors, and, of course, thread.
  • To say that something "finds its hour upon the loom of days" either means that it is given life or that we find a place for it in our lives. Apparently whatever this is, it doesn't get either.
  • We should note that the poem moves away from sea imagery here and toward manmade objects that we might see or use in our everyday lives (furniture, thread, etc.).
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