Die Heuning Pot Literature Guide
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Themes

"Portrait d'une Femme" moves between two settings: the Sargasso Sea and London. It alternates between chaotic, natural sea imagery and depictions of civilized urban life. Interestingly, both the sea and the city seem to be filled with rubbish, whether this takes the form of "Strange woods half sodden" (26) or "tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work" (22). Somehow both the natural world and the manmade world associated with the woman become collection bins for debris and useless objects.

Questions About Man and the Natural World

  1. Does the use of French in the title emphasize that the speaker and the woman belong to a cultured and civilized world?
  2. If you didn't know the poem's title, would you think this poem was a description of a person or of a place?
  3. What does the speaker mean by "Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea" (1)? Why does he separate the woman's mind from the rest of her? What does "you" mean, if it doesn't include her mind?
  4. Robert Frost once sent Pound some comments on this poem, and one of his criticisms was that ambergris was not a "work" (22), but a natural product. Do you see ambergris as representing the manmade or the natural world in this poem? Does it matter?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The speaker's association of the woman with the sea is part of a sexist tradition that associates women with the physical and natural (e.g., "Mother Nature"), while men are the civilized thinkers.

Although we intuitively think of the sea as part of the natural world, the poem actually depicts the sea as a place for commerce and cargo. The poem therefore suggests that the contrast between London and the Sargasso Sea is not so large.

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