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"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.