In “ Portrait d’une Femme,” Ezra Pound examines the fragmented nature of the modern woman; cluttered with culture and accumulated intellect, her character exhibits mere parts of a whole that is both inscrutable and alluringly fascinating. Contrasting one feminine archetype, the radiant goddess, the mystifying siren, Pound’s urban lady struggles to configure her identity within the swirling exoticism of art, beauty, knowledge, and elegance. Through brilliant use of extended metaphor, Pound presents the reader with the lady’s ephemeral character; as his femme figuratively embodies the intellectual bric-a-brac of civilization, she thus personifies a static basin for the social currents of the modern world. Pound’s poem thematically sustains one conclusive identification of this modern woman as “ our Sargasso Sea” (Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, page 16 [line 1]). The author taints conventional imagery; in an ironic contrast to the ocean’s typical life-giving symbolism, this female’s stationary lifelessness parallels a select depository of the North Atlantic. Dense with floating, brown seaweed, she is a sterile collection of life’s acquisitions. Pound openly defines his leading lady as a person made of parts; at the onset, he points to the disparity between the woman’s intellect and her individuality: “ Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea” (1). As the speaker addresses the lady primarily with regard to her supposed intelligence, the opening line introduces the thematic impenetrability of the woman whose inner self remains ambiguous beneath the superficial luster of her mind’s assorted possessions. Ironically, Pound subsequently lessens the status of both the lady’s knowledge and her internal character, as each remains sedentary in a fast-paced, evolving environment. Pound’s setting relegates his femme to inertia, as her urban surroundings display actions typically associated with nature: “ London has swept about you this score years” (2). She, with a full mind, remains nonetheless inactive, embodying the still backwaters of civilization. A lifeless “ Sargasso Sea,” she becomes the dense residue of the commercial world: “ And bright ships left you this or that in fee” (3). In totality, the lady’s only visible unity lies in her tangible and intangible acquisitions; she reflects plainly “ ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things” (4). “ Strange spars of knowledge” (5) are only fleetingly articulated and Pound’s femme leads a life lacking profundity, in perpetual debt to the “ fees” of a fragmented existence. Pound’s vignette of the cultured woman presents her uncertain existence in its entirety, diagnosing the inevitability of her incomplete and secondary significance. The murky waters of the woman’s mind glimmer temporarily as society’s “ bright ships” come and go, yet her dim reality deeply entrenches itself in her bleak subservience to greater and lesser minds. The speaker puts forth, “ Great minds have sought you lacking someone else. / You have been second always” (6-7). Despite her sophisticated alliances, the lady is nevertheless unfulfilled. However, a certain aspect of her intrinsic subordination is resolved: “ Tragical? / No” (7-8). Although Pound’s femme falls short of intellectual glory, the fragments of her life make up her saving grace from “ the usual thing” (8); as Pound’s modern setting guarantees no spiritual fulfillment for its inhabitants, this cultured environment of art and sensibilities offers a makeshift escape from the dullness of mediocrity. The femme fears a man not only “ dulling” (9) but “ average…with one thought less each year” (10), such that Pound foreshadows his lady’s own deterioration through her misdirected association between intellect and worth. While the woman castigates the average man’s deficient thought, her own accumulation provides nothing for her sense of self. Not only does she “ richly pay” (13) for her external acquisitions, but what endures are merely dregs of her identity, “ strange woods half sodden” (26). As sweeping oceans and “ bright ships” on the horizon invite the modern notion of travel and commerce, so does the author invite the reader to examine the resulting lifestyle beyond its foremost material gains. Strewn with “ dimmed wares of price” (5), the lady remains perpetually lacking, for one interest gained “ takes strange gain away” (15). Pound’s woman floats at the surface of “ a sea-hoard of deciduous things” (25), with fleeting thoughts leaving her head just as new thoughts form. Her internal composition is so utterly varying and overly complex that she “ never fits a corner or shows use” (20). In full, her world is “ the slow float of differing light and deep” (27). The temporary promise of “ new brighter stuff” (26) serves the lady no lasting purpose, nor gives her any interior momentum with which to live. The lady’s attraction to “ strange spars of knowledge” parallels her own admittedly alluring qualities to onlookers and those expectedly participating in her way of life; the material and intellectual acquisitions of Pound’s femme may be “ tarnished” (22) and “ gaudy” (22), but prove to be consistently intriguing to human nature in their rarity. Pound’s satirical choice to title his depiction of the Londoner in French implies the seemingly cosmopolitan nature of the femme herself. The social benefit of her “ great store” (24) of riches is the alluring faade it provides. While internally impoverished in the eyes of Pound’s speaker, the lady still possesses the glitter of “ trophies fished up” (16) and all are drawn to the “ wonderful old work” (22) that she appears to be. Yet this meager advantage proves to be another “ fact that leads nowhere” (17), and her breadth of knowledge and sophistication leave her no trajectory from murky containment in the “ Sargasso Sea.” London sweeps about this femme; ships come and go, leaving her behind. Her gaudy findings and imported material goods suggest her internal deficiencies, for her refined modernity masks an individual lacking the fulfillment of experience. No current moves Pound’s lady, and this femme is doomed to a stagnant existence amidst flickering surface lights, in a “ slow float” above uncharted depth. With a portrait of one woman, Pound presents a paradox of modern society: with the quickening pace of urbanization, his femme remains bogged down “ upon the loom of days” (21), stalemate between the strangeness of new innovations and the “ tarnished” remnants of an antiquated time. Thirsty for a sense of belonging in a shifting world, she waits “ hours, where something might have floated up” (12), and yet obtains “ nothing that’s quite [her] own” (29). Pound characterizes the woman as a projection of modern society; just as the time has passed for a poem’s female to encompass purity and grace, Pound’s leading lady simultaneously seeks to extricate her meaning between the luster of the imminent age and the quaint memory of a simpler time. The extended metaphor of the “ Sargasso Sea” in “ Portrait d’une Femme” wholly unifies Pound’s overarching examination of the changing world. His lady’s association with the lethargic waters of the Sargasso Sea is but a point of comparison for the contemporary situation. Beneath the transitory flashes of “ differing light,” Pound cautions the common person to look before he leaps into the deep abyss of individuality: “ No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, / Nothing that’s quite your own. / Yet this is you” (28-30). Pound’s poetic assessment of one muddled female spirit fully evades misogyny in that his deliberate stray from literary archetypes expands his message to all modern individuals. As this femme strains to determine her position in the world, so do all who suffer ennui, anxiety, and identity crises inside the fragile framework of today’s chaotic acceleration. Nevertheless, as Pound’s lady moves to construct her identity with collective tidbits of new and old, the speaker directs her away from fleeting acquisitions and focuses on an instinctively ignored truth: “ Yet this is you.”
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