Virginia Woolf did not use Pompatus of Love

No, Virginia Woolf did not use the English phrase “pompatus of love.” Rather, that “pompatus” phrase is one we’ll come back to. When Woolf did write of a song of love, however, she did use this phrasing:

ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo—

What I’m wanting us to do is to listen to words. Are they ours? What’s a reader of Mrs. Dalloway to do with these words? What’s a translator of this novel to do with them?

By analogy, what’s a Bible translator to do with old-sounding Hebrew “original” words that may hearken back somehow to someone else from some time back? What’s a Bible translator to do with some new-fangled Greek neologism in the New Testament? Oh, I could give you examples. I’d love for you to give me some examples. Is the communicated meaning really always a message we much somehow apply? Is Revelance Theory (i.e., communication science applied to missionary Bible translation) really relevant?

Does it always help us to know exactly with some accurate precision what a writer is doing? Does a footnote help you read? Or, if you’re reading in translation without footnotes, does some translator’s give-away-the-meaning translation really help you?

Oh well, why not? Let me just give you the skinny on Woolf’s phrase. Remember? It’s “ee um fah um so / foo swee too eem oo—.” (After that, then, you can read it for yourself.) What follows here is the detailed commentary from a couple of experts, from page 150 of Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs, who is one of the experts. Briggs makes sure we all understand that the singer of the lines noted here is a “beggar woman” who belongs to the present, the distant past, and the distant future; Briggs continues:

Her song consists of a series of meaningless syllables – ‘ee um fah um so/ foo swee too eem oo –‘, noises that mean nothing to her listeners (or readers), yet they are also, and antithetically, given a specific point of reference, for as Hillis Miller has pointed out, they are a rough translation of a German poem Allerseelen (‘All Souls’ Day’), by Hebert von Gilm. It was set to music by Richard Strauss, and also by a Belgian composer, Eduard Lassen (1830-1940).
Concerned with the past, lost love and the return of the dead, his melancholy version was popular in its day (1894), and was apparently part of Leonard’s repertoire (he [Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband] was impressively well versed in German poetry and music). In January 1931, [Virginia] Woolf reported to her nephew Quentin that Leonard had sung it at a family party (though whether seriously or as a joke is unclear). The English version (written by Mrs. Malcolm Lawson) runs thus:

Lay by my side your bunch of purple heather,
The last red asters of an autumn day,
And let us sit and talk of love together,
As one in May, as once in May.

Give me your hand, that I may press it gently,
And if the others see, what matter they?
Look in mine eyes with your sweet eyes intently,
As one in May, as once in May.

What is fascinating is that Woolf, according to the experts, is offering us readers and listeners some neologistic sounds for a love song. It’s supposed to sound old, and foreign, and ancient perhaps. To Woolf, the experts suggest, this is a loose translation of some English translation of some German, the English once sung by her husband, perhaps in jest, perhaps not. At any rate, the explanation is fairly recent (relative to Bible commentaries) and extremely precise and accurate (compared, again, to what Bible commentary writers can offer us).

With that bit of information, then, a Spanish translator might (and does) do the following. The translator of La Señora Dalloway might just render the song from English (which of course is from German from English from German, and old and female and nonsense sounding) into English thusly:

i am fa am so
fu sui tu im u

So what does that sound like in Spanish?

But I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway again, hearing again, in English. It’s not “original” English that I’m hearing, even though it’s Virginia Woolf’s original English writing. She is its author. She has her own meaning, her own intent. The Revelance Theory Bible translator wants us to get in our heads what was surely in Virginia Woolf’s head. We must get this accurately, in context, with precision.

So let’s do it in English. Again, here’s that perplexed Peter Walsh and what he hears upon remembering reading Daisy Simmons’s infuriating letter to him, upon walking into Regent’s Park. Listen for the song, like the “pompatus of love.” Oh yeah, we’ve said nothing yet of that original English. So stay tuned. Here’s just Virginia Woolf:

That was what tortured him, that was what came over him when he saw Clarissa so calm, so cold, so intent on her dress or whatever it was; realising what she might have spared him, what she had reduced him to — a whimpering, snivelling old ass. But women, he thought, shutting his pocket-knife, don’t know what passion is. They don’t know the meaning of it to men. Clarissa was as cold as an icicle. There she would sit on the sofa by his side, let him take her hand, give him one kiss–Here he was at the crossing.
A sound interrupted him; a frail quivering sound, a voice bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning into

ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo—

the voice of no age or sex, the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth; which issued, just opposite Regent’s Park Tube station from a tall quivering shape, like a funnel, like a rusty pump, like a wind-beaten tree for ever barren of leaves which lets the wind run up and down its branches singing

ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo

and rocks and creaks and moans in the eternal breeze.
Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, the battered woman—for she wore a skirt—with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love—love which has lasted a million years, she sang, love which prevails, and millions of years ago, her lover, who had been dead these centuries, had walked, she crooned, with her in May; but in the course of ages, long as summer days, and flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters, he had gone; death’s enormous sickle had swept those tremendous hills, and when at last she laid her hoary and immensely aged head on the earth, now become a mere cinder of ice, she implored the Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple-heather, there on her high burial place which the last rays of the last sun caressed; for then the pageant of the universe would be over.

Now you understand Mrs. Dalloway or at least Mrs. Dalloway. The words make so much more meaning now that we know what they mean, what the commentator knows that Woolf meant by them. But what about the “pompatus of love” that Virginia Woolf did not sing and could not have meant? What’s pompatus?

Well, that’s easy. We just find that it’s in an old sounding real Latin song, a Gregorian chant:

“Beatus martir domini pompatus vitae meritis a servis caesus gladiis martitium promeruit”

You tell me what that means. You read it with me in Einführung in die Gregorianische Melodien: ein Handbuch der Choralwissenschaft by Peter Wagner. Or you can read with me what an Urban Dictionary lexicographer says pompatus comes from: from “‘puppetutes’, a combination of ‘puppets’ and ‘prostitutes’. A puppetute was a woman of your fantasies who would do anything you wanted.” Or we can go to other experts, to Cecil Adams and his assistant J.K. Fabian. They give us the Straight Dope:

“Some people call me the space cowboy. / Yeah! Some call me the gangster of love. / Some people call me Maurice, / Cause I speak of the Pompatus of love.” — that’s the original authored by Steve Miller

“My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in your ear and speak to you of the pompitous of love.” — that’s Steve Miller’s original source [himself as original writer of these lyrics you just read now, the pompitous ones, also authored by Miller one year earlier]

Now, actually, according to yet another expert, Brent Mann, these words come from Vernon Green’s original words:

“Let me whisper sweet words of pismotology / And discuss the puppetutes of love”

And Fabian says that Jon Cryer says that Green says that comes from this:

“Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved…. [and puppetutes is a] term I coined to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [thus puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children.”

Mann says “pizmatology” was Green’s “more or less translating into sweet nothings.”

All that makes me just wonder if

ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo—

isn’t English for the original Latin


What I am sure of is that these are words of songs, of love.  How do you want to read and to translate that?


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