Mythical elements found in the poem "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" by T. S. EliotPlease explain the Mythical elements in the poem "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" by T.S. Eliot

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lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sweeny is a representation of a Greek Hero named Agamemnon. Agamemnon fought in the Trojan-Greek War. After the walls of Troy fell, Agamemnon left Troy and went home to Greece. He brought along a mistress from the war named Cassandra. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra pretended to be happy to see him. She laid before him a purple carpet (rug)….(the grapes and wisteria in the poem are purple like the rug…)

While Agamemnon bathed, Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon…Clytemnestra had a lover herself while Agamemnon was at war…

Before the war, Agamemnon could not sail his ship to war because he had offended one of the goddesses (Artemis). He had killed an animal of the forest. To please the goddess, he had to sacrifice his virgin daughter Iphigenia. Clytemnestra never forgave Agamemnon for killing their daughter. That is one reason she murdered Agamemnon. Also, he had mistresses (women outside of their marriage).

Sweeny is symbolic for Agamemnon. He has mistresses as well. He mistreats his mistresses. His mistresses are plotting to tear at him like Ms. Rachel Rabinovitch tears at the fruit in the poem.

The Nightingale is a bird that alerts others to those who are adulterous (those who have mistresses outside of their marriage).

Nightingales begin singing at a convent. What do nightingales have to do with this tale?

Another name for a nightingale (a bird) is philomel. Philomel is a term derived from the name Philomela:

In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew.

The two women in the poem appear to be conspiring against Sweeney like the mythological Philomela and Procne conspired against Tereus.

Tereus discovers that his son has been cooked in a stew and he chased them with an axe. To protect Philomela, the gods then turn her into a nightingale (a bird). They turn Procne into a swallow (a bird). The nightingale became a bird that "tattled" on promiscuous (sexual affairs) behavior:

In later literature, the song of the nightingale became associated with “tattling” on promiscuous behavior, as in line 463 of Shakespeare's King Edward III: "The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong."

Back to the poem. The nightingales singing at the convent of the Sacred Heart appear to represent all the Philomelas whom “King Sweeney” has wronged. The poem ends before the reader learns what happens to Sweeney.

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