T T.S. Eliot

Sweeney Among The Nightingales by T.S. Eliot

The poem, ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’, is a short poem in quatrains (rhymed four lines stanzas). 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 points to a plot and a betrayal. Here in this poem, the two ladies try to seduce Sweeney, and there seems to be some sort of plot against his life. Sweeney looks like a sexy ape full of life and laughter. He is sitting in a pub as he is fond of wine and women. His animal spirits are revived in the environment of the pub. The poet builds up the atmosphere of doom and disaster in his life. As a matter of fact, he has an abnormally 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 uprooted urban person. His life is marked by spiritual barrenness. He loves violence and sex to the extreme. He is representative of the dehumanized vagabond of modern society.

Sweeney Among The Nightingales by T.S. Eliot


Style and Technique

The poem, ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’, consists of ten quatrains in which the second line rhymes with the fourth. The poem comes very much near to the old English ballad in the diction and simplicity and rhythm. The poem abounds in myths and images of the past. It makes the poem highly suggestive and significant.

You can read the poem in full here.


Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees


Swelling to maculate giraffe.

Sweeney who looks like a spotted giraffe is sitting in a pub. His neck resembles that of an ape. When he laughs, the black and white strips on his jaws are quite visible. He is sitting in his relaxed mood, with knees apart and arms hanging down. He is fond of wine and women. His animal spirits are revived in the environment around him. He looks like a sexy ape.


Stanza Two

The circles of the stormy moon


And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.

The circle of the wind-swept moon moves westwards towards the River Plate in South America. It is an indication of impending danger. It indicates that the God of death and constellation of Raven move in the sky, spelling doom for someone. Sweeney becomes fully conscious of the danger to his life and is vigilant and watchful. He keeps a watch at the Horned Gate.


Stanza Three

Gloomy Orion and the Dog


Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

The stars Orion and Dog are covered with clouds. It gives an indication of the coming misfortune. The fertilizing waters of the floods are far away. The planets are clustered in an unusual position. Reference to Horn Gate relates to the murder of Agamemnon, an old priest. Thus, the poet builds up an atmosphere of doom and disaster. It is an indication of some impending misfortune and danger. There is no prostitute in the Spanish cape. She has been hired and deputed to keep Sweeney busy in sexual attractions. She approaches Sweeney and tries to sit on his knees. Sweeney becomes suspicious of her evil designs and pushes her away.


Stanza Four

Slips and pulls the table cloth


She yawns and draws a stocking up;

As Sweeney shifts his knees, the Spanish prostitute falls down on the ground. She clutches the table cloth in order to save herself from this fall. In this process, however, the coffee cups are overturned. The prostitute is least disturbed as it is her usual act of sex treachery and violence. When she regains her senses, she sits on the floor. She yawns and at the same time and pulls up her stockings.


Stanza Five

The silent man in mocha brown


Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

A silent man, dressed in a leather suit, is sitting on the window-projection. He is watching the whole inside scene: He is one of the conspirators to murder Sweeney. His gestures are like those of animals. He keeps his eyes and mouth open. Meanwhile, the waiter brings orange, bananas, figs, and grapes and places them on the table. These have been grown in an artificial environment in nurseries.


Stanza Six

The silent vertebrate in brown


Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

The silent man has the appearance of a strong animal. He looks all around, thinks for some time, and then leaves. There is another prostitute, Rachel, who was also called Rabinovitch and eats grapes like a wild animal with claws. She sits near the table of Sweeney. Sweeney is suspectful of her intentions as well. He fears that both the prostitutes want to seduce him and kill him. So he does not eat the fruit and leaves the place.


Stanza Seven

She and the lady in the cape


Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Both the ladies are part of the conspiracy. Sweeney is suspicious of foul play. He senses danger and tries to avoid the game of sex. He seems to be tired and bored.


Stanza Eight

Leaves the room and reappears


Circumscribe a golden grin;

Sweeney rushes out but stands outside. He thinks over the game the prostitutes wanted to play with him. He leans over the window to see what happens inside. He peeps through the window which is covered with the branches of the wisteria tree. Sweeney feels delighted at his escape from the clutches of conspirators. He laughs and his gold-filled teeth are visible.


Stanza Nine

The host with someone indistinct


The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

As Sweeney looks inside the room, the owner of the pub is talking to another conspirator in a whisper. Perhaps he is in league with all conspirators. He cannot recognize the conspirators. Meanwhile, the sound of the nightingale is heard coming from the convent of the Sacred Heart School nearby.


Stanza Ten

And sang within the bloody wood


To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

The nightingales also sang in the bloody when Agamemnon was murdered. He cried aloud but no one came to his rescue. The nightingales threw their dripping on him and polluted the winding sheets covering the dead body of the king.

Here, the reference to nightingales makes a contrast between the two situations. Sweeney’s attempted murder looks fruitless, murderous plot as compared to the meaningful murders in the past. Sweeney’s murder would have no such impact. But so far as the nightingales are concerned, murder of high or low 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 murder of Sweeney is planned and to be executed. It is on the pattern of a mock-heroic poem. Thus, the moral corruption, utter violence, and wastage of modern life is fully exposed in this poem.


Critical Appreciation

The title of the poem perhaps has been taken from the poem ‘Bianca Among the Nightingale’ written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ ends on a note of hatred and death lamenting the death of Agamemnon. As a matter of fact, the word ‘Nightingales’ stands for prostitutes. Moreover, the poem is written on a mock-heroic pattern following ‘Rape of the Lock’ written by Pope. A trivial incident is given heroic significance in a mock-heroic style. The murderous plot of the prostitutes against their lover is dealt with in a heroic way. The epigraph, too, throws much light on the theme of the play. The epigraph means, “Alas! I am struck deep with a mortal blow.” These words were spoken by King Agamemnon when he was killed by his wife, atmosphere of sex and crime in modern contemporary society. The epigraph gives an indication of what follows in the poem. Here is a picture of dehumanized vagabond of modern society where corruption, deceit, and moral degradation are in evidence everywhere.

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Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
  • You have repeated the stanzas ‘slips and pulls the table’ with a different translation.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you, We had inserted the wrong quote from the poem! I have amended this now.

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