Sweeney Among the Nightingales Analysis

T. S. Eliot

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a modernist lyric poem of forty lines, divided into ten quatrains and focusing on Sweeney, a brutish modern man in the company of disreputable women (“nightingales”) in a café (also perhaps a brothel) at night. The poem ranks with the finest of T. S. Eliot’s early poetry, as the author himself wrote to his brother, Henry, when it was later included in Poems (1919): “Some of the new poems, the Sweeney ones, especially ‘Among the Nightingales’ and ‘Burbank’ are intensely serious, and I think these two are among the best that I have ever done. But even here I am considered by the ordinary Newspaper critic as a Wit or satirist, and in America I suppose I shall be thought merely disgusting.”

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is very much a serious commentary on the paltriness and insensitivity of modern humanity by comparison with the tragic grandeur and mighty passion of ancient heroes such as Agamemnon, who headed the Greek conquest of Troy and who returned home to die violently by his own wife’s hand. Elements of satire and comedy are present to teach, through muted ridicule, a genuine disgust for the coarseness and coldness of the modern sensibility as personified by Sweeney and the equally detached call girls and owner of the café.

In the title, the nightingales connote prostitutes around Sweeney but also refer to a Greek tale about the transformation of lust into mythic beauty: Philomela, who was ravished and had her tongue cut out by her sister’s husband, King Tereus, wove the story of the rape into a tapestry that she sent to her sister, Procne. In revenge, Queen Procne served her own son as a stew for the unsuspecting king to eat. Just as the enraged Tereus was about to kill the fleeing sisters, the pitying gods transmuted Philomela into...

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Sweeney Among the Nightingales Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The stylistic devices of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” are typical of Eliot’s best early poetry, culminating in The Waste Land (1922), and relate to modernist literary conventions that he popularized and developed from Metaphysical and Symbolist traditions of poetry in, respectively, the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries.

No simple label describes Eliot’s early poetry. He consciously rebelled against what he termed the “dissociation of sensibility”—the supposed breakdown of a fusion of intellect, emotion, and imagination in poetic creation—since John Milton’s time and especially under the flabby subjectivity of early Romantic authors. Eliot reacted with a demand for a Metaphysical wit (a sharp conceit or alert poetic consciousness apprehending the many-sidedness of anything), for dense allusiveness (embracing all cultural history as a backdrop for modernity), and for telling irony (contrasting past grandeur and present squalor, ancient myth and modern mediocrity).

Eliot saw in the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth century England a fusion of intellect and feeling and sought to capture this fusion in a conceit such as the image of a disgustingly lax modern Sweeney aping the tragic posture of dying Agamemnon as strength and life ebb from the king’s body (“Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees/ Letting his arms hang down to laugh”).

Eliot was drawn also to the ideas of Théophile Gautier...

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Sweeney Among the Nightingales Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.