Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
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.
poem is set in a dining room of a restaurant or a brothel in an unidentified
locale—perhaps 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:
(line 11): This item of apparel suggests Spanish influence. Uruguay is
a Spanish-speaking country, many of whose citizens are descendants of immigrants
the Poem's Meaning
Oranges, bananas, figs,
grapes (lines 19-20): These are all warm-climate fruits that thrive
in Central and South American countries (as well as in other countries
with warm climates).
Convent of the Sacred
Heart (line 36): Uruguay is a predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“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:
In modern English, the quotation
says, “Alas, I am struck deep with a mortal blow.” In the play of Aeschylus,
a Greek king named Agamemnon speaks the words a moment before he dies.
Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greek armies during the Trojan
War. Following are the events leading up to his death, as recounted in
the legends and myths of ancient Greece and in the play of Aeschylus.
going off to the Trojan War, Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis by killing
a stag sacred to her. In retaliation, the gods withhold the winds necessary
to propel Agamemnon's ships to Troy. To appease the deities, he sacrifices
his own daughter, Iphigenia, gagging her to prevent her from cursing him
at the moment of her death. The gods then loose the winds, and the Greek
fleet sails to Troy. Agamemnon's brutal act has enraged his wife, Clytemnestra,
envenoming her with a desire for vengeance.
the war, Agamemnon takes two Trojan women as his playthings—first, one
named Chryseis, then another named Briseis. When the Greeks conquer Troy,
Agamemnon captures another Trojan woman, Cassandra, and takes her with
him as his mistress when he returns to Greece. Meanwhile, Clytemnestra
has taken a lover of her own and, with him, plots the murder of Agamemnon.
Agamemnon arrives with Cassandra, his wife greets him as a conquering hero,
rolling out a carpet of purple for him to walk on as he enters his home.
Then, while he is bathing, she murders him. She and her lover also kill
Cassandra. Clytemnestra tells citizens that she killed Agamemnon to avenge
the death of Iphigenia and to vent her anger at his unfaithfulness. (In
another play of Aeschylus, the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra avenge
the death of their father by killing their mother, but that story has no
bearing on the subject at hand.)
murder was in part a result of a curse on his father, Atreus, and all his
descendants. Atreus's brother, Thyestes, had pronounced the curse after
Atreus murdered Thyestes' sons in a long-standing family quarrel.
it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, inherited the sin and guilt of
his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt
of Adam and Eve. The curse eventually catches up with Agamemnon.
Link to Agamemnon
us now turn to Sweeney and his link to Agamemnon.
narrator, or speaker, of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" describes the
title character as a brute, comparing him to an ape, a zebra, and a giraffe.
He then suggests that the two women in the poem are conspiring against
this brute, implying that Sweeney has mistreated them. In this respect—the
abuse of women—he is like Agamemnon.
the second and third stanzas, the narrator also suggests that an ominous
cloud, or curse, hangs over Sweeney—like the inherited curse on Agamemnon.
Furthermore, he draws a parallel—or seems to—between the carpet on which
Agamemnon walked and the grapes and wistaria (wisteria) mentioned in the
poem. The carpet was purple; grapes and wisteria are usually purple.
ancient times, purple has been the color of royalty –of kings' capes, of
emperors' robes, and of other trappings surrounding a monarch, including
carpets. Now then, notice this development: After the waiter brings in
fruit, Ms. Rabinovitz “Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.” Is she
another Clytemnestra, ready to strike out at the royal purple that is the
symbol of kingly power? At this point in the poem, Sweeney leaves his chair
(or shall we call it a throne?) and goes outside. There, he looks in through
a window, his face framed by wisteria.
begin singing at a convent. What do nightingales have to do with this tale?
Another name for a nightingale is philomel, a term derived from
the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess
of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not
satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and
one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out
her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality
and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus
(like the two women in the poem who appear to be conspiring against Sweeney)
and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovered
what they did, he chased them with an axe. The gods then turned Philomela
into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow. In later literature, the
song of the nightingale became associated with tattling on promiscuous
behavior, as in line 463 of Shakespeare's King Edward III: "The
nightingale sings of adulterate wrong."
nightingales singing at the convent of the Sacred Heart appear to represent
all the Philomelas whom “King Sweeney” has wronged. The poem ends before
the reader learns what happens to Sweeney.
Meaning and Theme
poem uses the brutish Sweeney to convey the idea that modern man is little
more than a crude version of Agamemnon—just 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:
paled with love, we shook with love,
Scheme and Meter
kissed so close we could not vow;
Giulio whispered, 'Sweet, above
Ever guarantees this Now.'
through his words the nightingales
straight and full their long clear call,
arrows through heroic mails,
love was awful in it all.
nightingales, the nightingales.
rhyme scheme of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is abcb—that
is, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme.
meter varies. The predominant format is iambic tetrameter. In this format,
a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with the stress falling
on the first syllable in each pair. Here is an example:
The 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:
In addition, the poem contains
irregular feet, as in the following tetrameter line beginning with a dactyl
and continuing with trochees and a catalexis:
speaker, or narrator, presents the poem in third-person point of view.
He is objective—merely reporting what he sees—except
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
first nine stanzas of the poem are in present tense. The last stanza is
in past tense.
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
are examples of figures of speech in the poem:
(line 1): Metaphor comparing Sweeney to an ape.
zebra stripes (line 3):
Metaphor comparing sideburns to zebra stripes.
the hornèd gate (line 8): Alliteration.
seas (line 10): Assonance, alliteration.
knees (line 12): Assonance.
and draws (line 16): Assonance.
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.
Sweeney Among the
By T. S. Eliot
With Stanza Summaries and
Apeneck Sweeney spreads
Letting his arms hang down
The zebra stripes along
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,
The circles of the stormy
Slide westward toward the
Death and the Raven drift
And Sweeney guards the hornèd
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, Penelope—the
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 know—or does not care to
know—what 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
The person in the Spanish
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s
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
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking
The woman—perhaps drunk—falls,
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
Sprawls at the window-sill
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse
A silent man observes at
a window while a waiter brings in fruit.
The silent vertebrate in
Contracts and concentrates,
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with
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
Are suspect, thought to
be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy
Declines the gambit, shows
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
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 teeth—and
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
The Convent of the Sacred
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
And sang within the bloody
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings
To stain the stiff dishonoured
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.
Questions and Writing Topics
In a short essay, compare and
contrast the point of view of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" with the
point of view in Eliot's "The Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Do you believe Eliot goes too
far with his difficult language and obscure allusions? Explain your answer.
"Sweeney Among the Nightingales"
has been interpreted in ways other than the interpretation presented here.
Read several other interpretations. Then, in an essay, defend the interpretation
that you believe to be the most valid.
What is the meaning of gambit
in line 28?
With whom is the host conversing
in the ninth stanza?