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On "Portrait of a Lady"


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Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, probably c. 1765.
Samuel H. Kress Collection
Copyright © 2000 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Online Source:


Thomas R. Whitaker

"Portrait of a Lady," which is really another paradoxical self-portrait, amusingly renders the descending movements of that fiber of swift attention with which Kora in Hell was primarily concerned. . . .

The descent, of course, is not merely visual. The poem moves, through interior dialogue, from an easy formalized tribute toward a more disturbing contact. The witty and sentimental style of Watteau or of Fragonard (whose "The Swing" does leave a slipper hanging in the sky) defines that delightful art which is yet a means of fending off immediacy. The sequence of initial composition and sardonic question or retort carries the speaker beneath such decorative surfaces toward an inarticulate contact from which he attempts (with half a mind) to defend himself: "Which shore?- / the sand clings to my lips-" And, in the poem's final line, the tribute has lost the simplicity of its formal distance: "I said petals from an appletree." As a whimsically protective mask, the tribute becomes an accurate figure of the speaker's relation to himself and to his lady.

Thomas R. Whitaker. From William Carlos Williams. Copyright ©1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Jeanne Heuving

Williams, in his portrait, like Moore, utilizes the Renaissance convention of the beauty depicted by her parts:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky . . . .

               Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow . . . .

        Ah yes—below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore . . . . (35)

In the quixotic last line of the poem—"I said petals from an appletree"—the speaker unequivocally asserts his presence over the parts, for it is he who "says" them (36).

from "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." Sagtrieb. Vol. 6, No. 3

Mordecai Marcus

Although commentators have recognized that the painting alluded to in William Carlos Williams' "Portrait of a Lady" is by Fragonard and not by Watteau, as far as I can determine no one has noted the particular nature and function of the overlapping references to these painters, nor, it seems, has anyone made an exact attribution of the poem's alternating voices. Both these clarifications are essential for interpreting the poem.

The poem presents a dialogue between a man and a woman or an imaginary dialogue within a man's mind reflecting the likely reactions of a woman to his elaborate and somewhat artificial but nevertheless delicate, tender, and mellifluous praise of her loveliness and sexual appeal. Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) were both French painters of the baroque or rococo style, much of whose work presents aristocratic people in elaborate poses. The painting which portrays a lady's slipper suspended in the air in front of the lady on a swing is incorrectly attributed to Watteau by one of Williams' speakers. The painting is "La Balancoire" ("The Swing") by Fragonard. The reference to Fragonard must, then, be a correction of the statement about Watteau. This makes it very likely that the sentence "The sky / where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper" is spoken not by the woman but by the man and is his answer to the question "Which sky?" The sentence, then, represents a complication of the interacting voices, for the man is capable of satirizing his own viewpoint, or at least of placing it in perspective as rather mannered. If the sentence about Watteau's supposed painting were spoken by the woman, it would almost certainly take a question mark as an implied continuation of "Which sky?"

After speaking this phrase, the man proceeds to call her knees a southern breeze. The immediately following "—or a gust of snow" is her deflating continuation of his description and a playful rebuff of the direction of his sexual advance. The question about Fragonardis asked by the woman as a correction of his remark about Watteau. Surely ''as if that answered anything" cannot be spoken by the same voice. Rather it is the man's acceptance of her factual correction and also an insistence that the mentality or artistry of Fragonard is not relevant to his own sincerity or accuracy, or even to his own right to an elaborate mode of expression. "Ah, yes" represents the man's attempt to recover his composure and his line of thought, and he proceeds to incorporate the woman's cooling of the description by sardonically accepting the fact that attention moves below rather than above the knees, though he recovers the note of praise by assigning delicate summer loveliness to the portion of her body below the knees. With "the sand clings to my lips—" the man accepts a tentative and self-mocking defeat, the sand representing her success at warding off his incipient physical gesture, and the "Agh, petals maybe" shows him trying to recover his stance by suggesting that the shore is made of fallen petals rather than of rebuffing sand. But with the woman's insistence on knowing "Which shore?" his pride in the genuineness of his expression and feeling surges up and he attempts to retrieve his position through assertion that by being made of petals the elevated world of her body does indeed defy the world of logic. This interpretation assigns passages with the exclamation "Agh!" to alternate speakers (though it has the exclamation mark only with the first occurrence), but awareness of how the man almost shares and partly conducts the woman's deflation of him should justify Williams' use of an identical expression of feigned disgust by both speakers.

from "Dialogue and Allusion in William Carlos Williams' 'Portrait of a Lady.'" Concerning Poetry 10:2 (Fall 1997).

R. Peter Stoicheff

Williams' desire to take words as they are found, "Without distortion which would mar their exact significance," for example, seems to assume that words have an "exact significance" and, further, that such precision can be kept intact through the inevitable process of interpretation that one's "perceptions and ardors" into "an intense expression" contains problems similar to those embedded in Ezra Pound's claim that his "In A Station of the Metro" records "the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." Each statement nonchalantly waves off the tremendous difficulties inherent in the act of translating the world into words.


Consider the flamboyant frustration that makes the poem "Portrait of a Lady"—it is born of the inability to find univocal words that do not confusingly point to a host of possible signifieds. Although it begins confidently enough:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.

by the third line the poem becomes a recognition of its own failure to differentiate its language and clarify its intention—". . . sky / Which sky?" How to distinguish for the reader or, indeed, for himself, the very "sky" Williams envisions from all other "skies"? And how thereby to focus this sky, which is touched by the blossoms of an appletree, for the reader? Ultimately, such a distinction can only be partially accomplished; it is not the sky, for instance, of a Reubens or a Rembrandt, but the sky "where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper." (This, as we know, is in itself a blurring of distinctions, for Watteau never hung a slipper in it—Fragonnard did.) But, by its own admission, that sky cannot exist for the reader in isolation from the slipper which places it in relief, nor from its artistic interpretation into paint. And so the problem of verbal clarity or differentiation multiplies exponentially,

the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which Shore?

until the poem sputters in frustration, stumbles between question and declaration, and stalls:

Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

The poem begins with a hyperbolic metaphor ("Your thighs are appletrees") in order to illuminate an error—that of attempting to create identity instead of difference. This error is an example of what Williams terms "an easy lateral sliding" in "Prologue to Kora in Hell" in 1920: "The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding." The quotation implies the imagistic characteristics of Williams' interests, and illuminates how keenly he perceived poetry in terms of focusing. Instead of the blurring of metaphor which identifies two things—the clarity of differentiating them. And instead or a "lateral sliding"—a focusing of perception. It is in this way that "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic indictment of T. S. Eliot’s symbolism which, Williams believed, created the blurred impressionism of his 1915 poem of the same title.

Williams "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic recognition of the failure of metafor to do what he wants a poem's language to do: create a verbal grid in which marring, blending, distortion do not occur.

from "Against 'An Easy Lateral Sliding': William Carlos Williams' Early Poetry of Differentiation." American Poetry 5:3 (Spring 1988): 14-23.

Barry Ahearn

One exception to the dearth of love lyrics is "Portrait of a Lady". . .from 1920. This poem anticipates what will become a major pattern in Paterson: the poet's monologue disrupted by a woman's comments. The lady Williams addresses in "Portrait" seems to inquire closely into his claims and assertions. We hear her voice secondhand, in Williams's increasingly irritated echoing of her questions. What Williams tries to do--at least ostensibly--is to address a poem of praise to the lady. His nettled response to her questions, however, suggests that he may be more interested in playing the poet than the lover. "Portrait of a Lady" indicates how the impulse behind the love lyric (to enumerate the beloved's attributes) can be rapidly divorced from the subject of praise. The poem becomes a mechanism subject to its own laws. Its operating principles, in other words, make it more closely related to other lyrics than to the beloved. This warping of the poem away from the person described may be reflected in the gap that opens between "Your" (the first word of the poem) and "I" (the first word of the last line). Other details in the poem indicate a tendency for love lyrics to turn self-referential: portions of the lady's anatomy are designated simply because they offer convenient rhymes ("knees" with "breeze"); the poem gradually shifts its focus away from her head (we proceed from "thighs" to "knees" to "ankles") and hence away from that part of her which speaks; the poem's diction lapses into the vernacular when Williams grows weary of her questions: "How / should I know?" The beloved in "Portrait of a Lady" refuses to be entombed by praise. She resists being effaced by the operations of the traditional love lyric. How does she accomplish this?

She inquires into the nature of his metaphors in such a way as to call them into question. She asks for a larger context for the metaphor; if her "thighs are appletrees," she wants to know where these trees are located. The lady commits poetic sabotage, because the metaphorical machinery of the love lyric requires a swift transition from one metaphor to the next. To ask the lyric to dwell on a detailed extrapolation of one metaphor is to ask it to relinquish the basis for its form. A virtuoso performance such as Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent," which sustains a single metaphor over fourteen lines, demonstrates how difficult it is to restrict a love lyric to a single metaphor.

In a way, "Portrait of a Lady" shows Williams being forced to choose between two loves: (1) the lady who is the subject of the poem and (2) the form memorialized and rededicated in the poem. Finally, the poem also demonstrates Williams's comprehension that the traditional love lyric had to acquire a new form to be viable in a world where some women were no longer content to receive the artist's ambiguous accolade in becoming silence.

Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Dilworth

Veiled by metaphors and changing tone, the eroticism of this poem has not been fully unappreciated. The poem works and partly disguises itself by means of contrasts between subject and imagery and by distraction, as the bumbling speaker progresses through interruptive rhetorical excursions and returns. Emotionally he rings the changes from erotic adulation through nonchalance to petulance. Having begun in a metaphorical vein, he feels obliged to continue inventing metaphors, and the obligation strains his patience. He makes "mistakes," which frustrate him and distract the reader from his subject, a woman's lower extremities. This is a "portrait" only from the waist down, and it begins, at least, as a love poem in the Renaissance mode of direct address, comparing body parts to aspects of nature.

The initial metaphor is appletrees for thighs. "Blossoms" above the trunks suggest lacy underwear or pubic hair, which, in turn, touches "the sky." The metaphorical sky must be the lady's bottom, a designation initially emphasized by the question "Which sky?" The erotically charged tactility of the word "touch" is canceled, however, by its metaphorical relationship to sky, which no one ever really touches. And the speaker short-circuits the logic by which the sky is her bottom when he identifies the sky as that in a picture, remembered as by Watteau, in which a young woman's slipper hangs in air.

Soft and warm, the "knees" of the speaker's lady are "a southern breeze." The silly rhyme may indicate an amateur (the speaker, not Williams) at work. Wishing to add the tactile to the visible, and because the knees are white, he says that they are also "a gust of snow." A poet might want to revise here, because the warm breeze and the snow are contradictory. (The warmth would melt the snow, or the snow cancel the warmth.) So when the speaker exclaims, "Agh!" the reader might assume that he has caught his mistake, but the speaker is thinking of an earlier, factual error. The painting in which "a lady's / slipper" hangs is not by Watteau but by Fragonard. Distracted by realizing his error - which he does not go back to correct, because the fictional pretext is that this is a transcript of thinking - he wonders "what / sort of man" Fragonard was. We shall see that this question has sexual implications. He quickly dismisses the question and recalls his purpose, "Ah, yes," and resumes his selection of metaphors, moving "below / the knees, since the tune / drops that way." This statement is risque, implying that the tune might just as easily have risen above the knee. Furthermore, the word below is ambiguous here, because in the painting by Fragonard the young woman raises her right leg so that "below" the knee might literally mean above it.(2) But here the ordinary convention applies - and unlike Fragonard's woman, this one will have her feet on the ground. The speaker feels obliged by having moved almost inadvertently from thigh to knee to continue in that direction to calves, "those white summer days," and ankles. The latter are flickering "tall grass," an image that decorporealizes and de-eroticizes. In fact, none of the metaphors, except possibly "blossoms," is erotic. Carried by momentum of descent, the speaker kisses not the ground but "the shore," a word connoting destination. According to the logic of anatomy, this "shore" is her feet. He asks, "Which shore?" (line 16), recalling his previous short question, "Which sky?" (3), with its initially erotic suggestion. Shore and sky are feet and bottom, at each of which legs terminate. These terminations may have affinity with one another, because feet is sometimes a euphemism for genitals.(3) The word feet is not mentioned, however, and the erotic suggestion is faint.

We saw that the first question, "Which sky?" leads to a reification of metaphor that transforms its effect. We shall see that the corresponding second question may signal another transformation. In answer to this second question, the speaker decides that his "shore" has a beach: "the sand clings to my lips." Because this image elicits discomfort ("Agh"), he tentatively revises: "petals maybe." Then, in a return to the opening metaphor of the poem, he makes the choice definite: not sand but "petals from an appletree." Passive now, he is petulant at having to make the choice: "How should I know?" Twice he asks, "Which shore?" to help him decide whether his lips will take away from the kiss sand or petals. But why, in the penultimate line, does he repeat the question? He has already exchanged sand for petals, albeit tentatively. The question now seems inappropriate, its third and fourth repetition excessive - unless another choice is being considered.

What other shore is there from which he might come away from a kiss with "petals from an appletree?" He may kiss the blossoms themselves. This possibility requires that her bottom also be a "shore" and, implicitly, a destination - which is how a man might regard the female genital area. If her groin is now his shore, the "blossoms" must be pubic hair. (Whether dropped onto feet or still in place, "blossoms" are unlikely to be lacy underwear, because the notion of underwear clinging to his lips after a kiss is ludicrous.) The reasons a reader might suspect the exchange of feet for pudendum are: the choice of the word "shore," with its connotation of destination; the excessive repetition of "Which shore?": the suggestiveness of "feet"; the ambiguity (in the context of the painting) of "below"; the suggestion that movement from thigh to knee might have gone in the other direction; and the return to the opening metaphor, which may be a reversal in direction.

The allusion to Fragonard's The Swing emphasizes interest above the knee. In that painting, a young woman exposes her open legs to the enraptured gaze of a voyeur hidden in a bush directly in front of her. Few modern viewers realize what the painter knew and what Williams may have known, that eighteenth-century women did not wear underpants. These, in the shape of bloomers, were inventions of the nineteenth century. When the speakers asks, "what / sort of man was Fragonard" (7-8), he implies an interest in the Frenchman's sexual preferences and may wonder whether Fragonard was a voyeur. Because the title of the poem identifies the speaker as a metaphorical painter, an analogous question would be, "What sort of man is he?" There is a hint, at least, of interest in cunnilingus. As the few commentators who have thought it requires analysis agree, this poem is much more a portrait of the speaker than of the lady. If he is revealed to be whimsical, lackadaisical, petulant, and not a very good poet, something about his erotic inclinations is also at least implied. He is not, however, a voyeur like the youth in the painting. That role is reserved for the reader, the viewer of this "portrait."

from The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998)

Linda A. Kinnahan

. . . "Portrait of a Lady," written in 1920 though not included in Sour Grapes, consciously parodies the catalogue convention and calls into question poetic inscriptions of the feminine. In an image linking it to "A Cold Night, " the poem begins: "Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky" (129). Proceeding, as is customary within the catalogue structure, to comment (gaze) upon the lady's knees and ankles, the poem interrupts itself in a fashion uncustomary of its genre. With each image of a body part, questions break the sequence, until the syntax disintegrates into uncertainty:

        it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which shore?—
the sand clings to my lips—
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

Through suffering a disruption of the catalogue convention, the poem has undergone a process of revision on numerous levels. It comments upon the genre (and, by extension, a whole tradition of love poetry) and its reliance upon the male gaze as an objectifying, controlling authority of vision, for the gaze no longer commands the poem once the questions unsettle the eye's directive control. Based on a painting by Watteau, the poem reconsiders the representation of women by male artists. Repeatedly interrogating both the selection and creation of images, it rejects the extended metaphor of the catalogue: "Which sky?"; "What I sort of man was Fragonard?"; "Which shore?" The poem also revises its verbal construction; the opening metaphor evolves into the direct statement ending the poem, suggesting that the woman's body escapes metaphorical dismemberment. Line by line, the poem derails the direction it initially established until it implicitly questions its own authority as a cultural inscription.

from Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge UP.

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