Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790

“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.

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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 dying then.” Eliot modernizes this Homeric account in an ironically mundane fashion by having Sweeney sit at a fruit-filled café table with a futile sprawling gesture of relaxed arms, letting a latter-day Cassandra fall to the floor.

Imposed on the Homeric account is the Aeschylean portrayal of the climactic death scene in Agamemnon, in which Cassandra, the captive Trojan prophetess and mistress of Agamemnon, prophesies the king’s murder and her own slaying, but to no avail: “Oh for the nightingale’s pure song and a fate like hers. With fashion of beating wings the gods clothed her about and a sweet life gave her and without lamentation. But mine is the sheer edge of the tearing dagger” (lines 1146-1149). Cassandra’s cry for a different destiny is the inspiration for Eliot’s own poem, which is the ironic inversion of the “nightingale’s pure song” and is similarly dependent on the Philomela legend for a contrasting mythic perspective on the action at hand.

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is compared to a lion, dies with rich robes thrown over him by his wife, and falls with legs buckling under him, as vengeful Clytemnestra calls him a philandering “plaything of all the golden girls of Ilium” worthy of lying beside his slain mistress Cassandra in bloody death. Eliot’s Sweeney is compared to odder animals; he, too, relaxes his body muscles—if not in death, then in an uneasy assignation with the woman who falls off his lap. Another woman harmlessly reen-acts Clytemnestra’s violent tearing motion, as the “liquid siftings” of Agamemnon’s torrential bloodletting “stain the stiff dishonored shroud” (lines 38-40) spread over him in the bath by Clytemnestra.

Thus, classical prototypes provide a rich and pervasive mythic texture for “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” down to the most minute details of Eliot’s description of characters, gestures, situations, and setting. Indeed, Sweeney’s innocuous café food of “oranges,/ Bananas figs and hothouse grapes” possibly reverberates with ironic overtones of the horrid cannibalistic fare served in the two principal myths underlying the poem. In the Philomela myth, Procne turned her son into a stew for tyrannical Tereus to consume. As part of the Agamemnon legend, the father Atreus had a brother dine on his own two sons in imitation of the crime of Tantalus, their ultimate ancestor. For Tantalus committed the sin of trying to trick the gods into eating his son and thereby cursed the entire family line down through Agamemnon.

Sweeney’s café fruit is a pale counterpart of the sumptuous repast denied Tantalus in Hades in retaliation for the horrible human meal offered the gods. Tantalus is doomed to eternal hunger in Hades by being deprived of “pears, and pomegranates, and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives above his head” (Odyssey, XI: 582-592). Sweeney is one of Eliot’s modern antiheroes who parody classical prototypes for an ironic portrayal of mediocrity and meaninglessness in the present.

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