Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Prufrock Redux

T.S. Eliot's daring ladies

Since their publication in 1917, few lines of twentieth-century English poetry have been as closely associated with T. S. Eliot as his couplet “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” The lines occur twice in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” confirming that Eliot had a particular motif in mind. But questions remain. What and where was the room in which the women were strolling? Who were these women? What made Eliot decide on Michelangelo as the topic of their conversation? And does the phrase “come and go” have an underlying metaphorical significance?

Regarding the locale of “Prufrock,” Father Ambrosius O’Flaherty of Catholic University has argued that Eliot’s women strolled the Vatican, the repository of most of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. This claim can be dismissed out of hand since there is evidence in “Prufrock” (“fog,” “streets that follow like a tedious argument” and so on) that Eliot’s room is most likely20in London. A gallery in the British Museum where a collection of Michelangelo’s drawings was housed at the time has also been suggested. This is a more plausible speculation, but, again, there is no pertinent reference in the poem to support it. It would seem, then, that for some reason Eliot has purposefully not spelled out the precise location of the room in which Michelangelo generated such obligatory chitchat.

Concerning the identity of the women, we do know that at the time the poem was published, Eliot’s interest was focused on two women in particular: Vivien Haigh-Wood, whom he had married just two years earlier, and Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell’s lover, of whom the philosopher was tiring and whom he was in the process of discarding. At this time Eliot’s circle also included Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell and Katherine Mansfield. One might propose any one of these as the inspiration for his famous lines.

Yet another hypothetical option is that the promenade of women had its genesis in Parade, a ballet conceived by Jean Cocteau, with music by Erik Satie, choreography by Leonide Massine, and settings and costumes by Picasso. It is a matter of record that Eliot was in Paris that year on banking business. It can hardly be imagined that he could have attended a performance of the ballet, held in the very year “Prufrock” was published, without having been influenced, directly or subliminally, by the surreal parade of Chinese jugglers and acrobats entering and exiting the stage. The arbitrary sequence of melodies and the introduction of bizarre instruments (typewriter, sirens, lottery wheels, etc.) turn the participants into abstract objects designed to shake the audience free of preconceived notions of reality.

A similar dissociation from reality can be inferred from the image of Michelangelo and the perambulating women. The evidence mounts for a metaphorical affinity between Parade and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when we consider one of Eliot’s poetic strategies: the “objective correlative,” a device that metaphorically conjoins an image or object with a specific situation or idea so as to evoke in the reader a sensory response. It would be difficult to find anywhere in Eliot’s poetry an equally resonant example of the objective correlative. The image of nameless women flitting aimlessly across the stage of life, nattering about Michelangelo, can be correlated with one of Eliot’s seminal themes, the cultural wasteland of Western society. Eliot’s meandering women and the surreal Parade make for an elegant analogue.

But the question persists: why Michelangelo? There is no evidence that Eliot was particularly partial to the Renaissance artist’s work. It has been suggested that Eliot’s choice of Michelangelo was20nothing more than a rhyming convenience. There is without doubt a musical lilt in the juxtaposition of “Michelangelo” and “come and go,” but Eliot was surely aware of the work of any number of other artists with an equally felicitous “o” vowel at the end of their names:

In the room the women come and go

talking of Braque or Jean Cocteau

or Chirico or Joan Miró

or that old war horse Picasso

as they wander to and fro

through the landscapes of Utrillo.


Any of these names might have generated a more animated discussion among the strolling women, given the extraordinarily exciting productions by the surrealists, cubists and fauves that illuminated the contemporary landscape of London and Paris. At any rate, it seems best to agree that Michelangelo is just a red herring. After all, it is clear that “In the room the women come and go” is the operative part of the couplet, an image that seems to me more in line with Eliot’s troubled relations with Bertrand Russell at this juncture of his life.

The two had first met in Oxford and maintained a warm friendship ever since. After marrying Vivien, Eliot taught for a spell at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, about thirty miles from London. He resigned after only thirteen weeks, having found the commute extremely burdensome. He applied for a different teaching post in London and was accepted at a school in Highgate. The timing could not have been more felicitous for Tom and Vivien, who had recently been invited by Russell to share his apartment, which had an extra bedroom.

But it was not long before Tom tired of the discipline needed to become a successful schoolmaster. He resigned from Highgate even though he did not yet have another job. Needless to say, he was going through a particularly depressing period.

It was here, in Russell’s apartment, that Eliot first observed the philosopher’s indefatigable libido, focusing his attention on Russell’s succession of women. Mention has been made of Lady Ottoline Morrell, but by the time the Eliots moved into his flat, Russell’s affair with Ottoline had cooled to little more than a platonic handshake and he already had his eye on Lady Constance Malleson. However, there was a hiatus between Ottoline and Constance during which Russell’s attention was drawn to Vivien.

At the time, Vivien was going through some severe psychological dislocations. Her usual vivaciousness was inhibited by Eliot’s20dour and moralistic persona, and she soon found Russell to be a welcome alternative. It was not long before they became an item—on one occasion the two even went on holiday in Torquay while Tom waited alone in Russell’s flat—and found in each other a consummative companionship. The atmosphere in the apartment was becoming tense.

It was against this backdrop that Eliot was composing “Prufrock” as well as revising some of his earlier poems. One of these reworkings, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” dated 1916, illustrates his negative feelings toward women in general and Vivien in particular. Here is the poem in its entirety: 

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited

If you consider my merits are small

Etiolated, alembicated,

Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,

Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,

Impotent galimatias

Affected, possibly imitated,

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous

Awkward, insipid and horridly gauche

Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous

Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche

Floundering versicles feebly versiculous

Often attenuate, frequently crass

Attempts at emotions that turn out isiculous,

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous  

Amiable cabotin making a noise

People may cry “this stuff is too stiff for us”—

Ingenuous child with a box of new toys

Toy lions carniverous, cannons fumiferous

Engines vaporous—all this will pass;

Quite innocent—“he wants to make shiver us.”

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shall pass

Among the Theories scattered on the grass

Take up my good intentions with the rest

Then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.

Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Triumph of Bullshit” stresses Eliot’s ennui with life, especially his disillusionment with women (and presumably with Vivien). Given his distracted frame of mind, the fact that he was working on both poems at the same time suggests that the “women” of “Prufrock” and the “ladies” of “Bullshit” are one and the same, and that both sets of women are actually crystallized in the persona of Vivien, whose identity he was attempting to disguise lest the disclosure of his feelings toward her damage her tenuous hold on sanity.

Thus there seems to be an excellent chance, it seems to me, that the “room” in question and the phrase “come and go” refer to that part of Russell’s apartment from which Eliot observed the continual coming and going of the ladies with whom the philosopher was involved. The metaphor Eliot was striving to adumbrate can also be interpreted as referring to the evanescence of human relationships, an idea that fits in neatly with his theory of the objective correlative, as noted above.

All this of course is predicated on the hypothesis that the Prufrock of the poem is Eliot the man, a supposition based on what we know of Eliot during the time the poem was being written. Am I right? Well, as Alexander Pope wrote, “’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own.”