On the surface, the observations that Eliot and Larkin make about women in their poems suggests that they are predominantly disinterested towards them, shown in their cynicism, cruel language and the objectification of women personas. But this is only the view if you are looking at the women as literal representations of themselves. In many of the poems the women are used symbolically as a way of communicating larger messages more easily, and allowing them to be portrayed in a way which is understandable and relatable to the reader, such as directly using the voice and thoughts of a persona, or the setting in which they stand.
Eliot and Larkin both explore the theme of the degradation of sex and the corruption of relationships that exist between human beings. In doing this, both poets portray women as objects that are victims of society’s exploitation, used purely for lustful and seedy encounters. Eliot’s Wasteland is amongst other things a critique on sexuality, exploring this corruption of sex, introduced first in A Game of Chess, and extending to The Fire Sermon.
In A Game of Chess, Eliot parodies Cleopatra in the opening, to use as a contrast between the erotic, natural and regal Cleopatra and the “synthetic” and oppressive nature of the woman persona, illustrating the corruption of sex and romance. This is reflected in Eliot’s vivid descriptions; the nightingales “inviolable” voice falls on “dirty ears” whilst the “world pursues” showing the attempt to corrupt something that was once pure; real love and relationships.
“Withered stumps” suggests a transformation from vitality to stasis, reflecting the change of sex from meaningful to meaningless. Cleopatra is a symbol of true love; she committed suicide after her love died, but Eliot’s female persona is surrounded by the corruption of sex, with a picture on the wall depicting the rape of Philomel, and her loveless relationship with the man, who centres on indifference.
In this The Wasteland reflects Eliot’s relationship with his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, for whom it appeared Eliot had no real love for; “Under Pounds influence, Eliot was persuaded that the marriage would help him burn his boats and commit himself to poetry by staying in England. ” This suggests that the marriage was not built on love, as relationships should have been, but rather for a practical reason, corrupting the traditional, meaningful marriage, to something worth very little, paralleling the degradation of relationships explored in The Wasteland.
It was a very difficult marriage for them both; Vivienne’s health was poor; she suffered from extremely heavy and irregular menstruations which affected her mental health also, leaving them unable to sustain an intimate and sexual relationship, culminating in their separation in 1932. In the Fire sermon, the omniscient Tiresius witnesses a sexual encounter between a lecherous young man and a “bored and tired” typist. The young man leaves immediately following their entanglement, leaving the women alone and unsatisfied; “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.
” There is no romance between the couple, it is described in rape-like terms, with the use of violent language; “he assaults at once,” and “gropes”, and finally “bestows one final patronising kiss,”. Another example of Eliot’s observation on sexual degradation is in the first stanza of Prufrock. “Restless nights” “one-night cheap hotels” suggests unsatisfactory encounters; a corrupted view of sex and women, to whom Eliot shows his contempt through all of these poems.