The Dream-Interpretation and the Dark
Continent of Femininity: Circe's Palace
and On a Portrait

Paul Murphy


Freud's elaboration of the Tramdeutung, or dream-interpretation, was central to his investigation of the unconscious and of the workings of the mind. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud notes that the scientists of his age felt that the study of dreams was more suitable for astrologists than for scientists. Freud notes that in the ancient world dreams were felt to be of great significance, and were taken as portents of momentous events. In the modern world, however, they bore an occult significance.1 Freud's main consideration was the dream which occured in sleep, but he also stressed the importance of day-dreams.2 To Freud day-dreaming is not an innocent past-time, but a preoccupation which involves the rehearsal of ambitious and erotic desires, desires which involve the needs of egoistic domination. Jacques Lacan indicates that day-dreams are of secondary importance to Freud, but that their main function is that of wish-fulfillment (Wunscherfullung). In day-dreams the need for power and for erotic domination are made manifest. He adds that these dreams usually remain unconscious, but represent a powerful need for the things that they represent.3

This discussion of Eliot's poem On a Portrait will consider day-dreams as the unconscious rehearsal of the desire for egoistic domination and power, and will form a prelude to a fuller account of the dreams which occur in sleep, which Freud designated as being of primary importance.

The poems On a Portrait and Circe's Palace, are to be found among The Poems Written in Early Youth. Like the poem The Death of Saint Narcissus, these poems were not included among the Collected Poems. They were published while Eliot was still a student at Harvard, and while he was a member of the editorial staff of the Harvard Advocate. T.S.Matthews has this to say about Eliot's early attempts at publishing poetry,

In his seven years at Harvard, the Advocate published only eight of his poems. The Literary Digest, the most popular middlebrow magazine of the day, made a survey of American undergraduate verse, and the Advocate, asked to submit samples, naturally included some of Eliot's - none of which was chosen by the Digest.4

In Eliot's early poem On a Portrait a woman is depicted in static repose. At first the narrator of the poem portrays her as being purely ornamental, an imaginative response to the dull city streets,

Among a crowd of tenuous dreams, unknown

To us of restless brain and weary feet,

Forever hurrying, up and down the street,

She stands at evening in the room alone.

The lady is presented as a vision mingling with 'tenuous dreams', remote or 'unknown' to the everyday world of people, cabs and trams, cats and children. The vision may be a presentation of an adolescent's vivid sexual fantasy, a day-dream, perhaps, or the fulfillment of a wish, where the innermost desires of a young man are brought to life in a presentation of feminine perfection. The lady, as the title of the poem indicates, is a mere portrait. Perhaps the portrait depicts a family member, or perhaps it is a photographic study of sturdy Victorian womanhood. The vignette remains beyond the reach of the narrator, it is plainly visible, yet seemingly intangible and remote. Freud's account of day-dreams is especially appropriate to this poem, since the wishful fantasy that the narrator is relating to us is indicative of a desire for erotic fulfillment. However, it is clear that although the lady is present in the poem as the focus of desire, the person who desires her is absent. Thus, it might be said that the reader is the surrogate for the viewer of the painting. The painting's observer may be a young man, but the reader is also implicated as the lady's voyeur. The lady's portrait is transposed from its very artifice (the picture), to be present as an alluring image which beckons to the observer of the portrait, and which may betoken the reality of seduction. The lady is transposed into the young man's day-dream, though we are also aware that both day-dream and picture coalesce in the poem. The narrator may be conflated with the observer of the painting. Neither is present in the poem; there is merely the narrator's voice.

This wishful fantasy is presented to us in a number of ways. Firstly, the woman is presented in the room overlooking the crowded street. The scene then shifts, and she is depicted 'in some wood-retreat',

Not like a tranquil goddess carved of stone

But evanescent, as if one should meet

A pensive lamia in some wood-retreat,

An immaterial fancy of one's own.

There is a sudden shift from the city to the countryside and the lady is now depicted in a natural environment. The unknown dreams are both attractive and repulsive to man: the lamia, for instance, is depicted as a benignant and fundamentally alluring image, yet she is also a sorceress in fable.5 Not only is the image transposed from the painting to the dream, which figures and re-enacts the young man's desire, but it is also displaced from the city to the countryside. The image of the lady is then conflated with the image of the benignant and alluring lamia, a process which could be called 'condensation'. In dreams the instability of the signified and the signifier is revealed in the mental processes which Freud reveals to us in his depiction of the tramdeutung.

The young man's personal fantasy is divulged in a negative fashion - 'Not like a tranquil goddess carved of stone' - we are told. The language's negativity re-enacts the young man's desire, which is undeveloped, yet intimately repsonsive. The poem's narrator firmly contextualises the lady with his own thoughts and perceptions. The woman is neither as solid as stone, nor as substantial as flesh, she is simultaneously alluring and insubstantial, seductive and immaterial. Whereas in the first two stanzas of the poem the image of the woman is hazy and obscure, in the third stanza the narrator moves in much closer to depict her. This depiction is like a piece of cinematography, where the lady is initially captured in longshot, and then brought to our attention more intimately in a soft focus close-up, which registers her image, but fails to outline her innermost thoughts, which are both insubstantial and hidden to us,

No meditations glad or ominous

Disturb her lips, or move the slender hands;

Her dark eyes keep their secrets hid from us,

Beyond the circle of our thoughts she stands.

Again the poem proceeds by a negative path: 'No meditations glad or ominous/Disturb her lips'. The first line of the third stanza repeats the movement of the first line of the first stanza, and of the first line of the second stanza: it begins with an initial situation of negativity. In this stanza the woman seems to become like a marionette, trapped beneath the pronouncements of the masculine narrator, and perpetually 'Beyond the circle of our thoughts...'.

This poem may be seen as an adumbration in miniature of the later poem, the Portrait of a Lady. As we shall see, the world of the Portrait of a Lady is a cloistered and secluded bourgeois world, at times meaningless and trite, but permeated with an atmosphere of desire and denial, and related to us through a series of intimate digressions, or slips of the tongue (parapraxis), which unveils the sexually intriguing moment through the medium of a duplicitous narrator.

The poem is framed by the parrot, 'a silent spy', perched on his bar; 'The parrot on the bar, a silent spy,/Regards her with a patient curious eye.' After the narratorial ruminations have described the lady, it is the parrot who frames the sequence. The parrot, it seems, is the only observer actually present in the poem, but he is part of the painting and this accounts for his silence. The image of the living, substantial lady is merely insubstantial fantasy: yet the portrait is of perfected form, unaltered by time, or by the decay which threatens to adulterate the projection of the young man's desire.

In another poem from The Poems Written in Early Youth, Circe's Palace Eliot re-enacts a scene from The Odyssey, the transformation of Ulysses's companions into swine. Eliot's poem diverges from Homer's epic in that Ulysses's men are transformed into the peacocks which continually roam around Circe's palace. The poem deals with the desire for knowledge, and with the fear and terror which this knowledge engenders.

The poem's opening stanza begins with a description of the flowers which surround Circe's fountain, an 'objective correlative', perhaps, describing Circe's sexuality, which is rich, strange and unknown,

Around her fountain which flows

With the voice of men in pain,

Are flowers that no man knows.

Their petals are fanged and red

With hideous streak and stain.

The flowers, unknown to man, are exotic and tropical, dappled with the blood of Circe's victims. The flowers may also represent Circe's sexual organs, dappled with the blood of her menses, and with the water thrown from the fountain. The flowers are mysterious and attractive, but also vile and repulsive, 'fanged and red/With hideous streak and stain...' Not only do the flowers represent the unknown and erotic aspects of Circe's sexuality, but they are also risen from and fertilised by the bodies of Ulysses's dead companions, who have been unwittingly lured and seduced by Circe: 'They sprang from the limbs of the dead.-/We shall not come here again.' The bodies of the dead give life to Circe's carnivorous sexuality, while the dead souls are transmuted into the peacocks which wander around her palace,

The peacock's walk, stately and slow

And they look at us with the eyes

Of men whom we knew long ago.

The poem to be dealt with in the next chapter, The Death of Saint Narcissus, deals with themes of sado-masochism, narcissism, and homo-eroticism. Saint Narcissus's metamorphosis begins with a struggle against the forces which are considered normal, natural and good, and end with his death and martyrdom, in which his perverse desire for suffering gains its ultimate gratification and satisfaction. The poem is an investigation of male sexuality and the male personality's darkest recesses. In it Saint Narcissus seduces a young girl - this image may be compared with Circe, who devours dead men's blood and thereby gains revigoration. Like Saint Narcissus, Circe may then be seen to represent an aspect of the sado-masochistic drive. These separate figures are linked through their association with death and sexuality. Saint Narcissus knows 'the taste of his own whiteness', the taste of his own semen. Eventually both whiteness and redness intermingle: 'his white skin surrendered itself to/the redness of blood, and satisfied him.' Circe's blood overflows from the fountain and mingles with the tropical foliage at its base, which is, in its turn, fed with the blood of Ulysses's companions. Saint Narcissus's 'bloody cloth and limb' may be associated with the 'limbs of the dead' in Circe's Palace. Saint Narcissus is the victim of his own masochistic impulses, Ulysses's companions the victims of Circe's sadistic impulses. Circe, bloated with the blood and disembodied limbs of men, is like a figure in a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Indeed, Lacan cites the works of Hieronymous Bosch as 'an atlas of all the aggressive images that torment mankind'.6 Lacan describes:

'...the images of castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body, in short, the imagos that I have grouped together under the apparently structural term of imagos of the fragmented body.'7

Circe is perpetually attractive, yet vile and sordid, associated with death, cannibalism, and with carnivorous sexuality. She is a correlative of Saint Narcissus, and complements him as well. Saint Narcissus is a masochist, Circe is a sadist.

The two figures almost offer the possiblity of forming a hermaphroditic whole, demanding the taste of blood, or the taste of semen, demanding the life-blood of the other, or gaining the inexplicable pain and ecstasy of the climax attained through martyrdom. In The Waste Land the two sexes meet in the figure of the prophet Tiresias, but until this point Eliot continually depicts the two sexes as inextricably divided and fearful of each other. Whereas Circe and Saint Narcissus seem to be almost hermaphroditic, the prophet Tiresias is the two-in-one, he is a combination of both sexes: 'I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs/Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest -'. In his discussion of psychosis in Ecrits, Lacan follows Freud in pointing to a latent homosexuality, or to a latent fear of homosexuality, as being the cause of paranoia.8 He discusses the case of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, a member of the German judiciary and a schizophrenic who wrote a famous treatise entitled Memoirs of my Nervous Illness. Freud had analysed the writings of Judge Schreber, from which he had deduced his theory of the link between homosexuality and paranoia. Judge Schreber believed that he was a combination of both sexes, he believed that he was trans-sexual, and that he was constantly changing from a man into a woman.9 Jacques Lacan's discussion of the Schreber case-study helps to throw some light on Eliot's attitude to femininity. If Eliot is a misogynist, then his misogyny might be understood as a reaction against the idea of sexual division. Paradoxically, Tiresias and Judge Schreber monstrously confuse the two sexes, and demand a knowledge which is linked to a fear of the opposite sex, but which also seeks to reconcile man and woman. But this contradiction is also related to a religious idea, for in Indian religion Buddha was said to be able to accomplish the change from man to woman, and to be the reconciliation of all opposites.

Circe is erotic and foreign, associated with the tropics and with the animals of the jungle,

Panthers rise from their lairs

In the forest which thickens below,

Along the garden stairs

The sluggish python lies;

She may be compared to Grishkin in the quatrain poem Whispers of Immortality, who is associated with the Brazilian jaguar,

The sleek Brazilian jaguar

Does not in its arboreal gloom

Distil so rank a feline smell

As Grishkin in a drawing room.

Freud is particularly apposite at this point. His metaphor for femininity, the dark continent, is taken from the discourse of nineteenth-century colonialism, and equates femininity with Africa, a moist and uncharted continent, which is also amenable to penetration.10 As we have seen Circe is associated with the tropics, with the foreign, and with the unknown. The unwitting traveller who happens to enter her palace may be seen as the intrepid explorer or earnest scientist, mapping the unknown regions of Circe's libido, and of her primitive and emotive imagination. In the end the observer cannot return to this uncharted place - 'We shall not come here again'. The observer is like the analyst who introduces himself into the analysand's phantasy,

Here the very path by which he proceeds betrays him, when it is necessary for him to introduce himself into the phantasy by way of that path, and offer himself as an imaginary victim to fictions in which a besotted desire proliferates - an unexpected Ulysses giving himself as food so that Circe's pigs may grow fat.

The description of Circe's palace is permeated with the fear and terror of the knowledge which this endeavouring scientist has been given. Circe's palace is an isolated remnant of a lost civilisation, it is unkempt and unplundered, unique and unadulterated.

The encounter between the civilised and the primitive is one of Eliot's prime concerns - from the primitive beating a drum, the 'dull tom-tom' of A Portrait of a Lady, to the Cannibal Isle of Sweeney Agonistes - the primitive's world confronts civilisation and conjures up its most 'uncivilised' and latent taboos, fears and repressions. Circe is a figure from what might be seen as Classical Literature, but in Circe's Palace she is clearly associated with the tropics, and with Freud's account of femininity and the Dark Continent. The bent for anthropology in Eliot's work is apparent in Circe's Palace, but finds a fuller articulation in the later works, especially The Waste Land, where primitive terrors are depicted in the heart of the city.


1. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. By James Strachey, (Pelican, 1976), pp.114-115.

2. Freud, pp.127-128.

3. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits; A Selection, trans. by Alan Sheridan, (Tavistock/Routledge, 1989), pp.160.

4. T.S.Matthews, Great Tom; Notes Toward the Definition of T.S.Eliot, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974), pp.27.

5. John Keats, Complete Poems, (The Belknap Press, 1982), pp.346.

6. Lacan, pp.11.

7. Lacan, pp.179-225.

8. Lacan, pp.209-210.

9. David Macey, Lacan in Contexts, (Verso, 1988), pp.179.

10. Lacan, pp.273-274.