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...

(The entire section is 751 words.)