A Poem by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
......."T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is a modernist lyric poem that first appeared in a 1919 Eliot collection entitled Poems. The collection was published in England by Hogarth Press, operated by writers Leonard and Virginia Woolf. As a modernist work, the poem presents its characters as mundane and vulgar rather than as romantic or heroic, like the characters in many poems of the nineteenth century. Its attitude toward twentieth-century man is pessimistic rather than optimistic, cynical rather than idealistic. Like many other modernist poems, its language is difficult and richly allusive.
.......The poem is set in a dining room of a restaurant or a brothel in an unidentified localeperhaps Montevideo or another city along the southern coast of Uruguay, as suggested by lines 5 and 6: The circles of the stormy moon / Slide westward toward the River Plate. River Plate is the English name for Río de la Plata (River of Silver), between Uruguay and Argentina. The westward movement of the moon indicates that the observer is in Uruguay, since that country is northeast of the river. Additional hints at the location include the following:Spanish cape (line 11): This item of apparel suggests Spanish influence. Uruguay is a Spanish-speaking country, many of whose citizens are descendants of immigrants from Spain.
Convent of the Sacred Heart (line 36): Uruguay is a predominantly Roman Catholic country.Unlocking the Poem's Meaning
.......Interpreting Sweeney Among the Nightingales requires an understanding of the epigraph (quotation after the title) from Agamemnon, a tragedy by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (525-456 BC). T. S. Eliot placed the epigraph in its original Greek wording:
Sweeney's Link to Agamemnon
.......Let us now turn to Sweeney and his link to Agamemnon.
The Meaning and Theme
.......The poem uses the brutish Sweeney to convey the idea that modern man is little more than a crude version of Agamemnonjust as corrupt, just as reprehensible, and equally deserving of an ignominious fate. That Eliot updated Agamemnon as an apparently rough-hewn, uncultured boor may derive from his modernist view that everyday life is not a journey through the airy climes of romance and heroism. In fact, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" may have been a parody of a specific poem that depicted life that way: "Bianca Among the Nightingales," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here is the third stanza of that poem:We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, 'Sweet, above
God's Ever guarantees this Now.'
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales.Rhyme Scheme and Meter
.......The rhyme scheme of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is abcbthat is, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme.
The ZE..|..bra STRIPES..|..a LONG..|..his JAWThe poem also uses trochaic tetrameter having a final catalectic foot. In trochaic tetrameter, a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the second syllable of each pair. In trochaic tetrameter with a catalectic foot, the last foot is missing a syllable. Here is an example: .......1..................2....................3....................4
APE neck..|..SWEE ney..|..SPREADS his..|..KNEESIn addition, the poem contains irregular feet, as in the following tetrameter line beginning with a dactyl and continuing with trochees and a catalexis:.................1..................2...................3..............4
SPRAWLS..at the..|..WIN dow-..|..SILL and..|..GAPESPoint of View
.......The speaker, or narrator, presents the poem in third-person point of view. He is objectivemerely reporting what he seesexcept in the seventh stanza. Its first two lines say, "She and the lady in the cape / Are suspect, thought to be in league." Here, the speaker seems to know that someone in the room, probably Sweeney, thinks that the two women are conspiring.
.......The first nine stanzas of the poem are in present tense. The last stanza is in past tense.
.......The unflattering depiction of Rachel in the sixth stanza (as well depictions of Jews in other poems, such as "Gerontion" and "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar") has led some critics to accuse T. S. Eliot of anti-Semitism. One such critic is Anthony Julius, author of T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. The second edition of this book is now available. Click here.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem:Apeneck Sweeney (line 1): Metaphor comparing Sweeney to an ape.
zebra stripes (line 3): Metaphor comparing sideburns to zebra stripes.
guards the hornèd gate (line 8): Alliteration.
hushed the shrunken seas (line 10): Assonance, alliteration.
Sweeneys knees (line 12): Assonance.
yawns and draws (line 16): Assonance.
Contracts and concentrates (line 22): Alliteration.
paws (line 24): Metaphor comparing hands to animal paws.
liquid siftings (line 39): Metaphor comparing musical sounds to liquid. One may also regard liquid siftings as excrement.
By T. S. Eliot
With Stanza Summaries and Notes
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe..........................4
At a table in a public dining room is a brutish fellow with the neck of an ape and sideburns that extend to the jawline and cross toward his chin. His name is Sweeney. His sideburns resemble the stripes of a zebra. Spreading his knees and hanging his arms at his sides, he laughs. His zebra stripes enlarge so that they now resemble the shape of the
blotches on the fur of a giraffe. But they are stained, dirty blotches.
The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate............8
Sweeney's laughter belies the ominous mood of the evening. Outside, the moon trails westward in a stormy sky toward the River Plate (Spanish: Río de la Plata, meaning River of Silver.) Ravens gather and the air reeks of death. Inside, Sweeney is on the threshold of sleep, guarding an exit gate from Hades, one made of horn. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelopethe wife of Odysseus (Ulysses)says dreams arise from phantoms in Hades and pass through either of two gates. One is a gate of ivory; through it pass false dreams that confuse the dreamer. The other is a gate of polished horn; through it pass "images of truth . . . with visions manifest of future fate" (The Odyssey, Book XIX, "The Discovery of Ulysses to Euryclea." Alexander Pope, translator). Apparently, Sweeney does not wish to knowor does not care to knowwhat the future holds for him. He is probably unaware of the ominous portents of nature suggesting that his death may be near, although he seems to become aware later (Stanza 7) that he may be in danger.
Río de la Plata (River of Silver) could be a very oblique allusion to Agamemnon's bathtub, which had silver sides.
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeneys knees...................12
More portents appear in nature while a woman in a cape attempts to sit in Sweeney's lap.
Orion, Dog: Constellations.
Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;.............16
The womanperhaps drunkfalls, pulling at the tablecloth and overturning a coffee cup. On the floor, she gathers herself and yawns, drawing up a stocking.
The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;................20
A silent man observes at a window while a waiter brings in fruit.
The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;........24
The silent man withdraws while a woman named Rachel devours grapes. The word née indicates that Rachel was born into a Jewish family named Rabinovitch but now has a different last name, that of her husband. It is possible that her husband is in the room (the silent man?) and, with his wife and the woman mentioned in the next stanza, is plotting against Sweeney.
vertebrate: Category of animals that have a backbone and/or a spinal column.
She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,..................28
Ms. Rabinovitch and the lady in the cape are thought to be plotting against Sweeney. Sweeney, therefore, declines their attentions to him and exhibits fatigue.
Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;..............................32
Sweeney leaves the room, goes outside, and stands at the window. Twining vines with flowers form a frame around his face. His grin reveals gold fillings in his teethand perhaps a triumphant feeling that he has escaped the suspect ladies.
The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,......................36
The host of the establishment has what appears to be a sinister conversation with someone, perhaps the silent man, while nightingales sing near a convent housing Roman Catholic nuns.
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.................40
Nightingales also sang the day Agamemnon cried out that he had suffered a fatal wound. Later, the notes of their song (which can be interpreted as excrement) stain the burial cloth of the dead king.
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