In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by Eliot, why does Prufrock keep saying "the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo?"

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The couplet in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" really doesn't make any sense.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

Imagine a whole roomful of women talking about Michelangelo, most probably in twos and threes, some of them exiting together in couples still talking about Michelangelo and then returning while still talking about Michelangelo as others exit in couples and threesomes talking about Michelangelo and then returning still talking about Michelangelo in order to join others who are talking about Michelangelo. What do they "go" for? If they have to find a restroom, do they continue talking about Michelangelo in the ladies' room and then in the hallway on the way back to the main room to talk about Michelangelo some more? Or do they stop talking about Michelangelo when they leave the room and resume talking about him when they return? If they stop talking about him outside the room, what do they talk about?

How can women come and go in a room? They can come into a room and go out of a room, but they can't do both, can they? And why so much coming and going?

The couplet sounds impressive--and it sounds like T. S. Eliot.

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One really important piece of information to understand when reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is that Eliot really loves to incorporate all sorts of allusions and references into his poetry: mythology, literature, philosophy, religion, history, art.  So when Eliot writes:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (Stanza II, lines 13-14.)

he is referring to the famous Renaissance painter and sculptor from Italy, Michelangelo.  Prufrock seems fixated on these women and their preference for Italian artists, but this line actually has very little impact to the overall meaning of the poem or Prufrock's question.  Eliot may have included these lines in the poem for several reasons.  Prufrock may be impressed by these women and their preference for high-brow art; perhaps he even feels intimidated by their culture and sophistication.  As the poem progresses, the reader begins to understand that Prufrock does seem to have a pretty low self-esteem when it comes to the opposite gender. 

Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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