Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is about the depraved coldness, callousness, and cowardice of modern life as embodied in Sweeney’s uneventful encounter with two call girls in a sleazy café setting. Sweeney’s evasion of an assignation is ironically compared to mighty Agamemnon’s tragic confrontation with a wife of legendary infamy.

The poem demonstrates Eliot’s characteristic method of presenting his meaning through multiple parallels and contrasts. There are complex ironies and analogies generated between the comically inconclusive seduction of Sweeney in a nonheroic present and the tragic but regenerative violence against Agamemnon, mythological Philomela and Procne, and Christ, the crucified redeemer of humankind. In heroic times, lust, betrayal, and violence sprang from passions of love or hate and became embodied in meaningful myths of sacrifice and redemptive transformation. The shabby animality of Sweeney, however, eluding the conspiratorial advances of tipsy call girls in a café-brothel, is unrelieved by any such epic significance, sacrifice, or regeneration.

Despite the multiplicity of mythic allusions in the poem, Eliot’s ironic conception of Sweeney (a Celtic surname in keeping with Eliot’s condescending view of a slovenly, sensual Irishman) depends principally upon two conflated classical descriptions of Agamemnon in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. According to the Odyssey, Ulysses in his descent to Hades meets Agamemnon, who recounts his slaying at a banquet table: “You have seen many die in single combat or in battle, but never one who died as we did, by the wine bowl and the loaded tables in a hall where the floor flowed with blood. Cassandra’s death-shriek rang in my ears as she fell. Clytemnestra slew her over my body. I tried to lift up my hands for her, but they fell back. I was...

(The entire section is 790 words.)