Sweeney Among the Nightingales

by T. S. Eliot

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The Poem

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“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 a lovely swallow, Procne into a beautiful nightingale, and Tereus into an ugly hawk.

The poem’s Greek epigraph, from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.), “ah, I am struck a deadly blow and deep within,” is the first of two cries by King Agamemnon as his wife, Clytemnestra, stabs him to death in his bath while throwing robes over his dying body.

The animality of Sweeney and his tipsy female companions, frolicking distrustfully in a café, is unredeemed by any mythic transformation or tragic elevation. In myth or legend, lust-ridden violence was resolved in mythic beauty (as in the tale of Philomela and Procne) or by divine justice (at the end of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, 458 b.c.e.); here, it has degenerated to crude and trifling gestures of estrangement and indifference between the modern sexes. Apelike Sweeney’s facial features have a sinfully bestained (“maculate”) and bizarre animality that are even uglier than Tereus’s transformation into a hideous bird. Unlike the pitiful ebbing of Agamemnon’s strength and life from his wife’s dagger blows, Sweeney’s sprawling posture betrays only a careless eroticism (lines 1-4). Sweeney’s sexually inviting sprawl becomes a trap for a woman who falls from his lap to the floor; she falls with absolute indifference (line 11-16).

Sweeney, the modern man, is as benighted as the beclouded, moonlit sky that obscures his vision of great myths surrounding death, the constellations Orion (the hunter) and “the Dog” (the hunter’s dog), and the gates of horn in Hades, through which accurate dreams and prophecies ascended to mortals. He stands outside the gates of underworld prophecy, living in a becalmed sterility of “hushed” and “shrunken seas.”

There is an absence of connectedness among the café’s customers. Sprawling Sweeney, an effete low-life vertebrate, stiffens sexually but...

(This entire section contains 751 words.)

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musters only enough energy to decline the call girl’s “gambit,” or sexual overture, because he is distrustful of a conspiracy between two women, one of whom is a degenerate version of the biblical Rachel who apes Clytemnestra’s murderous gesture by tearing café fruit (lines 16-28). Instead, Sweeney walks outside and stands apart, loosking in with a stupid grin, as the host and another customer converse in indifference and detachment. All these people are estranged, aimless, and oblivious to the great myths of pagan transmutation (the singing nightingales), Christian resurrection (reverenced at the nearby “Convent of the Sacred Heart”), ritual regeneration (ancient sacrificial killings of old priests by their successors in the “bloody wood” of Nemi), and divine justice. All these myths revolve around a pattern of sacrifice and ultimate exaltation sorely missing in a feckless, mundane modernity.

Forms and Devices

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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 (1811-1872), who aspired to a poetry of highly wrought artifice and impersonality, devoted to artistic beauty for its own sake (l’art pour l’art) and devoid of bourgeois utilitarian didacticism. Most of these traits can be found in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” except that Eliot seeks less an aesthetic escapism for beauty’s sake and more a classical perspective on the mundane ugliness of modernity.

Coming later, the French Symbolists cultivated an aristocratic impersonality, intense craftsmanship, and a care for precise imagery and suggestiveness in a poem’s words as they combine to create new sensations and meanings not communicated by the individual words themselves. The combination of precision, symbolic suggestion, and ironic mockery found in a witty, urbane speaker in the poetry of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), for example, directly anticipated Eliot’s early style.

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a highly crafted work written in chiselled iambic tetrameter quatrains (end rhyming in the second and fourth lines), containing alliteration and assonance and some very compressed metaphors (such as an implicit comparison of Sweeney to a giraffe, an odd animal stained or “maculate” with sin). There are precise imagery and a compressed suggestiveness of meaning springing from repeated juxtapositions of words and phrases; the juxtapositions lend a descriptive vividness and a mythically rich range of allusion that embrace a broad cross-section of Western cultural experience as a backdrop for Sweeney, the modern swain (and swine), who is a dime-store degradation of the legendary King Agamemnon.

As Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), the modern poet must surround his subject matter with a revealing historical sense of past tradition: “[T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” for the modern chaos of the poet’s subject matter. With its Homeric-Aeschylean frame of reference, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” could have been written with this passage in Eliot’s mind.


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