The title of T. S. Eliot’s mock-heroic, modernist poem ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ perhaps has been taken from the poem ‘Bianca among the Nightingales’ written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. As a matter of fact, the word “Nightingales” in the title stands for prostitutes. The poem is written on a mock-epic pattern following The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope; a trivial incident is given heroic significance in a satiric style. The “murderous” plot of the prostitutes against one of their customers or frequent visitors, Sweeney, is dealt with in a ludicrous way. The poem ends on a note of indignation and shame, lamenting the death of Agamemnon at his own wife Clytemnestra’s hands.
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In ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ by T. S. Eliot, two ladies (prostitutes) try to seduce Sweeney, a man of high sensual spirit, and there seems to be some sort of “evil” plot against him.
In the poem, the central figure, Sweeney, looks like an ape (“Apeneck Sweeney”), and he is full of vigor and lust (“Swelling to maculate giraffe.”). He sits in a pub as he is fond of both wine and women. His animal instincts are revived in the pub’s addled environment. Eliot foreshadows an atmosphere of doom and disaster in Sweeney’s life. As a matter of fact, he has an oddly high animal spirit. His life is devoted to all the funs of sexual function for variety and pleasure. He represents a “modern man” who is a sexually degraded and culturally uprooted urban person. His life is marked by spiritual barrenness. On top of that, Sweeney loves violence and sex to the extreme. He is representative of the dehumanized vagabond of modern society.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is a short poem in quatrains (rhymed four-line stanzas). The poem consists of ten quatrains in which the second line rhymes with the fourth; it resembles the English ballad form in the diction, simplicity, and rhythm. Its rhyme scheme is ABCB. For instance, in the first quatrain, “laugh” in line 2 rhymes with “giraffe” in line 4. Eliot’s poem abounds in classical allusions; it makes the piece highly suggestive and significant.
Alongside that, Eliot wrote the overall poem in iambic tetrameter, each line consisting of four iambs and an occasional trochee/acephalous foot at the beginning; an iamb begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, and in a trochee, a stressed one is followed by an unstressed syllable. The scansion of the first stanza is given below:
Ape/-neck Swe/-eney spread/ his knees
Let-ting/ his arms/ hang down/ to laugh,
The zeb/-ra stripes/ a-long/ his jaw
Swel-ling/ to ma/-cu-late/ gi-raffe.
ῶμοι, πἐπληγμαι καιρίαν πληγὴν ἔσω.
(omoi peplegmai kairian plegen eso)
The epigraph is taken from the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. It refers to the cry of the dying king who is betrayed and struck a “mortal blow” by his own queen, Clytemnestra. Thus, the epigraph hints at a plot of mischief and betrayal. The allusion also throws much light on the theme of ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’. The epigraph translates, “Alas! I am struck deep with a mortal blow,” which are King Agamemnon’s last words when his wife killed him. This helpless remark foreshadows the atmosphere of sexuality and crime in modern 20th-century society.
The epigraph gives an indication of what follows in the text. In this poem, Eliot depicts a dehumanized “creature” of modern society, Sweeney. Corruption, deceit, and moral degradation are in evidence in the society where the character lives.
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
In the first stanza of this mock-heroic poem, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales,’ the hero, Sweeney, has an ape-ish appearance. His neck and hands resemble that of a neanderthal or an ape. This comparison is made from the way he spreads his knees and hangs down his arms as a gesture of open-to-get-aroused. He sits in a 20th-century English pub like a spotted giraffe swelling its neck to reach the far-off leaves of a branch – a gesture symbolizing Sweeney’s openness for a casual sexual encounter with women.
When Sweeney laughs, the strips on his jaws resembling that of a zebra are pretty prominent. He sits in his relaxed mood, with knees apart and arms hanging down. Besides, he is fond of both wine and women. From his description in the first stanza, it can be inferred that his animal spirits are revived in the environment around him. To sum up, Sweeney looks like an appealing wild animal ready to indulge in some fierce action.
The circles of the stormy moon
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.
The circles around the moon seem to be moving alongside the wind-swept story clouds. This apparent movement of the moon seems to be headed westwards towards the River Plate in South America that is indeed a use of hyperbole. Here, the lunar circle (referred to in the weather forecast) is an omen of impending danger.
In the next two lines, “Death and the Raven” indicates that the God of death and the constellation of Corvus (the Raven) move in the sky, spelling doom for Sweeney. Sweeney becomes fully conscious of the omens signaling a threat to his apparent morality, life, or money. So, he is vigilant and keeps a watch at the “horned gate,” another classical allusion to one of the “gates of shadowy dreams” from Homer’s Odyssey, Book 19. According to Homer, the dreams passing through the horned gate are genuine and can be “fulfilled.”
Therefore, “Sweeney guards the horned gate” means that the person is fully aware of what is coming for him. He guards the “horned gate” of his mind not to get aroused or go astray.
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees
The Orion constellation that includes the Dog Star, also known as Sirius, is covered heavily with clouds. It gives an indication of the coming misfortune in Sweeney’s life. It seems everything around Sweeney is trying to warn him: the “shrunken seas” are abruptly silenced, and the constellations are hidden behind doomed stormy clouds. The reference to the “horned gate” relates to the murder of Agamemnon. Thus, the poet builds up an atmosphere of doom and disaster. It is an indication of some impending misfortune and danger.
The “person” (Eliot uses this word in place of “woman” or “lady” for the sake of internal rhyming) in the Spanish cape tries to seduce Sweeney. She approaches him and “tries” to sit on his knees in order to trigger his libido. As a hero of this burlesque, naturally, Sweeney instinctively becomes suspicious of her designs. He pulls himself back, making it difficult for the lady in the Spanish cape to take a seat on his knees. Besides, there is no clear evidence of the woman actually sitting on his lap.
Slips and pulls the table cloth
She yawns and draws a stocking up;
As Sweeney shifts his knees, the “lady in the cape” slips down and clutches the table cloth in order to save her from falling. In this process, for heaven’s sake, nobody gets mortally wounded; only a coffee cup is overturned! The prostitute is least humiliated as it is her usual act of seducing. She reorganizes herself, “yawns” (as if she is bored at using the same tactic at every customer), and gets up, drawing her stocking up (another move in drawing Sweeney’s attention).
The silent man in mocha brown
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;
In the fifth stanza, Eliot describes Sweeney as a “silent man in mocha brown.” Firstly, the term “silent man” hints at Sweeney’s command over his senses. Like the prostitute, he is least disturbed by what just happened. On the other hand, the color “mocha brown” indicates the leather suit he is wearing. Interestingly, the color also makes him less distinguishable from an animal.
Sweeney lazily turns towards the window-sill and looks outside in order to show his disinterestedness. His gestures (“gapes”) resemble those of animals as he keeps his eyes and mouth wide open. Suddenly, like everything is pre-planned, the waiter enters the scene. He probably watches his fellow colleague’s act and waits for his part to play. The waiter is one of the conspirators to trick Sweeney. He brings oranges, bananas, figs, and hothouse grapes and places them on the table before Sweeney. These exotic fruits have been brought to please their customers.
The silent vertebrate in brown
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
In this section, Eliot uses “silent vertebrate in brown” in place of “silent man in mocha brown,” further dehumanizing and ridiculing the character’s appearance. In a ridiculous manner, this phrase glorifies Sweeney’s self-control even though he is animal-like (driven by bodily urges only). He “contracts” as if he is flexing the muscles, tries to concentrate on what is going on, and “withdraws” or holds himself back from going astray.
There is another prostitute named “Rachel née Rabinovitch,” for whom Eliot spends an entire line as if she is another heroic character of this burlesque take. The usage of a Jewish woman’s name is not a coincidence. Eliot probably tries to hint at the status of Jewish women during the First World War. This name is also used to create internal rhymings of the “r” and “n” sounds: “Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;/ Rachel née Rabinovitch.”
The woman is seen tearing at the grapes like an infuriated animal with claws. She sits near the table of Sweeney with probably “murderous” instincts. Sweeney becomes suspicious of her intentions as well. He fears that both the prostitutes want to seduce him and then rob and kill him. After seeing the grapes in the conspirator’s hands, he chooses not to eat the fruits.
She and the lady in the cape
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,
In this stanza, Eliot casts light on Sweeney’s presence of mind. As an epic hero, he can see beyond the veil of treacherous intent. Both the ladies are part of some conspiracy against him. Sweeney, with his “heavy eyes,” tries to decode their plot. Whether his eyes are heavy for drinking or they symbolize wisdom is not clear. He somehow senses danger and tries to avoid being played at their hands. He fakes being fatigued. Looking at his “heavy eyes,” none can sense otherwise.
Leaves the room and reappears
Circumscribe a golden grin;
Sweeney rushes out and waits outside the pub’s window. He thinks over the game the prostitutes wanted to play with him. Out of curiosity, he leans over the window to see what is happening inside. He peeps through the window, which is covered with the “branches of wistaria,” an ornamental flowering vine. Sweeney feels delighted at his “ingenious” escape from the clutches of the prostitutes. It is a moment of victory; he has successfully passed the test.
In order to ridicule him further, Eliot uses the phrase “golden grin.” The term “golden” is often used to describe an extremely precious and rare moment or experience. In Sweeney’s case, his “grin” is hued with the color of victory. He has won the battle against his libido though his physical features show the opposite. Thus, he laughs, exposing his teeth.
The host with someone indistinct
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
As Sweeney looks inside the pub, he finds the host of the place talking to “someone indistinct” standing at the other side of the door. Perhaps the host is plotting to hook another customer. Sweeney cannot recognize the other person.
Meanwhile, the melodious song of the nightingales grabs his attention. He pulls himself back from the scene and immerses in their sacred song. The song is coming from The Convent of the Sacred Heart School nearby. So, the “nightingales” could be a reference to the nuns or girls of the Convent. It can also be a reference to the prostitutes. Perhaps, Sweeney confuses the prostitutes’ song with the pious chant of the nuns?
And sang within the bloody wood
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
The last stanza of the poem, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales,’ tracks back to the point where it has started. This section clarifies why Eliot uses an allusion to Agamemnon’s dying remark. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the “bloody wood” is described as a place with singing nightingales. Bloody tragedies such as Agamemnon’s death would have occurred there. When Agamemnon was being murdered, he cried aloud, but no one came to his rescue. The nightingales threw their drooping on his shroud, dishonoring his death. It polluted the sheets covering the dead body of king Agamemnon.
The reference to “nightingales” contrasts two situations: the prostitutes’ failed gambit and Queen Clytemnestra’s successful attempt in murdering her husband, Agamemnon. But so far as the “nightingales” are concerned, the murder of a king or the misfortunes of a demoralized character has no meaning for them. They sang and excreted in the same way when Agamemnon, the King, was choked to death by his unfaithful wife, as they are singing and excreting now in the trees near the pub, where the plot against Sweeney is planned and to be executed.
The poem has a 20th-century setting that centers on a night scene in an English pub. Eliot’s story revolves around the character of Sweeney, who is seduced by two prostitutes, one probably of Spanish origin and the other is a Jewish woman.
Though Sweeney epitomizes 20th-century male vigor, he restrains from sexual indulgence with the prostitutes. He senses some plot behind their overt amorous play. Later, in the poem, Sweeney unplugs from the scene, goes out of the pub, and grins with a sense of apparent “moral” victory over his carnal impulses.
Eliot uses the following literary devices to make his mock-heroic poem ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ sound more ludicrous and humorous to readers.
- Metaphor: In the first stanza, Eliot dehumanizes Sweeney by comparing his neck and arms to that of an ape, jawline to the stripes of a zebra, and spots on his skin to that of a “maculate giraffe.” In “Sweeney guards the horned gate,” Sweeney is compared to a janitor of the horned gate. In classical mythology, dreams emerge through this gate. Through this line, the speaker means that Sweeney remains alert even though he is drunk.
- Allusion: The epigraph, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (part of the Oresteia trilogy), is an allusion to King Agamemnon’s dying words, “Alas, I am struck deeply with a deadly blow.” Eliot also refers to other Greek mythological accounts of the “horned gate,” “nightingales” (Philomela), the grove of the classical furies (“the bloody wood”), and Agamemnon’s death.
- Personification: Eliot invests inanimate objects and abstract ideas with human attributes in the following lines: “Death and the Raven drift above,” “Gloomy Orion and the Dog/ Are veiled and hushed the shrunken seas,” and “The nightingales are singing near.”
- Alliteration: It occurs in “Sweeney spreads,” “his arms hang,” “stormy moon/ Slide,” “the shrunken seas,” “Tries to,” “coffee-cup,” “man in mocha brown,” etc.
Eliot’s poem, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales,’ taps on a number of themes that include immorality, sexuality, violence, materialism, and dehumanization.
The poem is set in the modern context, specifically the timeline of the First World War. During this time, the degradation of both men and women is shown through the characters of this piece. For instance, Sweeney is a symbol of a modern man, spiritually devoid and sexually charged. His animal instincts drive his actions rather than conscience. In the case of the prostitutes, they are ready to “stoop” but for a price. They are open to plotting against any man entering into their territory, showing their violent nature. Their violence (in Sweeney’s case, hidden beneath his gentlemanly appearance) originates from materialism.
‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ contains a number of symbols that hint at some interesting ideas; for instance, the “zebra stripes” and the marks on giraffes, from an evolutionary perspective, help them to camouflage. In zebra’s case, the vivid black-and-white stripes make them appear more formidable to predators. So, the attributes applied to Sweeney show not only his animal instincts but also his chimeric personality.
Sweeney is not that gullible as he appears to be in the very beginning. Besides, Eliot uses another important symbol in the poem that is the “nightingales.” This classical symbol hints at the emotions of sorrow and desperation. In this poem, the nightingales symbolize the prostitutes, and their mythical “groove” stands for the pub where they ensnare men.
Eliot uses visual imagery to paint the scene of Sweeney sitting at a pub, making himself comfortable by showing off his animalistic features in the first stanza. The tactile spark is ignited through the images in “The person in the Spanish cape/ Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees” and “She yawns and draws a stocking up.” Eliot supplies the sense of smell accompanied with taste in “The waiter brings in oranges/ Bananas figs and hothouse grapes.” He also uses organic imagery to convey Sweeney’s feelings in these lines, “Branches of wistaria/ Circumscribe a golden grin” and that of Agamemnon in “When Agamemnon cried aloud.”
Written in June 1918, the poem ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ was first published along with ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’ in the September 1918 issue of the American magazine The Little Review. Later those were included in Poems (1920). This collection contains some of Eliot’s best-known poems, such as ‘Geronation,’ ‘Sweeney Erect,’ and ‘Whispers of Immortality.’ The character Sweeney, a representation of the immoral modern man, first appeared in ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ and was further developed in the verse drama Sweeney Agonistes (1932). This poem contains several classical allusions and an ironic commentary on modern “sensibilities” (to be specific, “insensibilities”) of humankind.
‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is written in the pattern of a mock-heroic poem. It exposes moral corruption, overt sexuality, and wastage of modern life through the characters of Sweeney and the prostitutes. Eliot heightens a trivial incident of an immoral person saving himself from the prostitutes’ plot and parallels the incident to the killing of Agamemnon, a tragic hero.
The epigraph, “omoi peplegmai kairian plegen eso” is King’s dying remark, “Alas, I am struck deeply with a deadly blow in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon. It is a bit tricky to connect this remark with Sweeney’s fate as he could “contract” himself back from the prostitutes by avoiding their “murderous paws,” a metaphorical reference to their plot. This exclamation is used to ridicule Sweeney’s apparent victory. Where the gallant and wise Agamemnon could not notice her wife’s true intentions, Eliot’s Sweeney, a drunken and sexually-charged lad, could decipher the plotting of two prostitutes quite easily and instinctively.
It is a modernist poem written in June 1918. Like other T. S. Eliot poems written around this period, this piece comments on the degradation of humankind, their values, morality, cultural taste, and spirituality. Eliot creates the character of Sweeney in order to charge his satirical diatribe at him that is actually meant for correcting humanity.
The main theme of this poem orbits around the modern insensibilities of humankind, their overt sexuality, materialism, and spiritual barrenness. It showcases how a man/woman gets transformed into an animal due to the lack of morality, values, cultural consciousness, and worldliness.
Eliot compares Sweeney to an ape in the very first line of the poem: “Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees.” Then, he goes on to find his similarity with other animals, such as zebras and giraffes. He is a dehumanized, morally hollow representation of modern man.
In this poem, Sweeney is shown as a highly instinctive person, driven chiefly by his sensual urges rather than conscience. The prostitutes easily sense his motives and try to lay their hands on him. However, Sweeney senses they are planning something else other than their business. So, he withdraws from the scene, like an epic hero coming out of the Labyrinth, with a victor’s smile on his face.
The title of the poem introduces a peculiar character Sweeney and some mythical “nightingales.” In this poem, the nightingales are the prostitutes who try to seduce him with their bodily gestures moves rather than vocal notes. The overall poem is about how Sweeney swerves after sensing the nightingales’ motive.
The following list contains a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’.
- ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ by Robert Graves — This poem addresses the urge to have unrestrained sexual relationships, “wanton,” and rebukes it.
- ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot — This piece contains a monologue of a city gentleman struck by feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and indecisiveness.
- ‘The Witnesses’ by W.H. Auden — This poem is about two vital forces inside the human body: Libido and Id.
- ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot — It’s one of the most important modernist texts of all time and features the characters of Sweeney as well.