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The Renaissance

Symbol Analysis

As we discuss in "Form and Meter," the majority of this poem is written in blank verse, which immediately recalls Shakespeare, the undeniable great master of the form. As literary critic Rachel Blau du Plessis suggests in her essay "Propounding a Modernist Maleness: How Pound Managed a Muse," Pound may be referencing Shakespeare so he can place his poem within a long tradition of poems inspired by female muses. Shakespeare's "Dark Lady," who inspired many of his best-known sonnets, is the female muse of all female muses. For many English-language poets, Shakespeare's model is the one to match or beat. Du Plessis points out that allusions to Renaissance poetry occur in a number of ways throughout this poem.

  • Lines 17-18: Mandrakes appear notably in a number of Shakespeare's plays, including Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. But they were fascinating to other Renaissance writers as well, including John Webster and John Donne. Sometimes shaped like human bodies, mandrakes were thought to have magical qualities and were often used in spells and potions. Legend also claimed that mandrakes, when dug up, screamed so horribly that they could kill everyone around them with the sound. So when the speaker of "Portrait d'une Femme" describes a tale "pregnant with mandrakes," he is calling up a whole tradition of this plant's association with human qualities. The mandrake is personified, symbolizing mystery and magic.
  • Line 23: Ambergris is another one of those things, like mandrakes, that people were obsessed with around the 17th century. We discuss earlier how ambergris can represent both the sea and civilization, but here it is also an allusion to an earlier historical period.

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