‘Sweeney Erect’ was written and published in 1919 in Eliot’s collection, Poems. It is where the character of Sweeney makes his debut. Eliot later used Sweeney in poems like ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ and ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning’. He is also mentioned briefly in ‘The Waste Land.’
The poem explores themes of desolation and emotional disconnection. The mood is consistently foreboding and dreary, with the poet taking a tone of disinterest towards the woman, the same as his main character.
The poem takes the reader through a turbulent mental and emotional landscape that leads to Sweeney’s room in a brothel. There, he is standing at a full-length mirror shaving while the woman he presumably slept with is writhing on the bed. He shows no interest in her suffering and goes about his business as calmly as he can. The poem concludes with other women intervening and trying to revive the woman with smelling salts.
‘Sweeney Erect’ by T.S. Eliot is a twelve stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
There are also examples of half-rhyme throughout the poem. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “dry” and “behind” in the first stanza and “Ariadne” and “me” in stanza three.
Scholars have suggested that the title ‘Sweeney Erect’ comes from the Penney Dreadful character “Sweeney Todd”. A suggestion that’s backed up by his use of a razor in this poem. The last name, “Erect” is an obvious play on words considering where the reader finds him in this poem. But, it also connects to “homo Erectus,” suggesting that Sweeney is somehow less than human today. He is less empathetic and less morally obliged.
Eliot makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sweeney Erect’ these include alliteration, personification, enjambment, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “sheets in steam” in stanza four and “heel to hip” in stanza six.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, the rocks in the first stanza and the seas in the second.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. There is a great example in stanza one. The fourth line reads: “Make all a desolation. Look, look, wenches!”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance, the transition between lines one, two, and three, in the third stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
And the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks
Groan with continual surges; and behind me
Make all a desolation. Look, look, wenches!
In the first stanza of Eliot’s complex poem ‘Sweeney Erect,’ the speaker begins by bringing the reader immediately into a scene. He describes the scene, or how he wants the scene to be. It appears he wishes ill on the flourishing trees, to be “dry and leafless”. He also wants the “rocks” to “Groan with continual surges”. There is a clear sexual connection in the personification of these rocks, it is paired with “desolation” in the last line. This is the kind of mental/physical landscape the speaker is interested in.
In the final phrase, separated by the use of caesura, the speaker tries to attract the attention of “wenches”. Eliot uses the word “wench” to refer to a young girl, or perhaps a serving girl as would make the most sense in the context of the poem.
PAINT me a cavernous waste shore
Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.
The directions continue in the second stanza with the speaker asking that someone paint him a “cavernous waste shore” that’s “cast in the unskilled Cyclades”. The word “Cyclades” refers to a group of islands in the Aegean sea. This reference makes more sense with the other elements of Greek mythology make their way into the poem.
It is clear that the speaker thinks that he can, or should, face something. He’s asking to be placed in amongst the “anfractuous,” or circuitous, “rocks” and face down the “snarl[ing] and “yelping seas”. The sea is “unstilled,” yelping and snarling like a wild animal. The scene is certainly not a peaceful one.
Display me Aeolus above
And swell with haste the perjured sails.
He asks in the third stanza to be displayed with the god of the wind, “Aeolus” above him. He will be “reviewing the insurgent,” or rebellious “gales,” or wind gusts. Despite the powerful imagery in these lines, the emotional landscape the speaker is describing is of the most interest. Who is this person who is wishing for this kind of life? Or more importantly, how is this speaker going to depict the actions of Sweeney in the coming stanzas?
The reference in the third line is to Ariadne, a character from Greek mythology who is connected with the myth of Theseus and the slaying of the minotaur. She fled Crete along with Theseus. He later abandoned her and Dionysus made her his wife. The scene in the poem appears to be that when she is sailing away from Crete, the wind tangling in her hair.
Morning stirs the feet and hands
Rises from the sheets in steam.
Now, the scene starts to come together. It’s morning, and someone is waking up. Their feet and hands are stirring, the first elements of the body to make any discernible movements. Line two brings in the concepts of “Polyphème” the cycles blinded by Odysseus in Homer’s epic Odyssey. Nausicaa is another character from the same story, the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. She helped Odysseus when he was shipwrecked.
The movements of the body are not graceful. This person “Rises from the sheets in steam”.
This withered root of knots of hair
The sickle motion from the thighs
The woman who is one of the main features of ‘Sweeney Erect’ is described in the fifth stanza as “This withered root of knots and hair”. She is “gashed with eyes” and her mouth is described as cave-life, “cropped out with teeth” as ifs they are disorganized. The speaker draws the reader’s attention to her thighs which move like a “sickle”.
Jackknifes upward at the knees
And clawing at the pillow slip.
Her movements are further described in the sixth stanza. Her legs are moving strangely, like “Jackknifes”. They bend and then straighten repetitively. The woman appears to be suffering. Her movements suggest pain and anguish. The last line especially describes her as “clawing at the pillow slip”.
Sweeney addressed full length to shave
And wipes the suds around his face.
Finally, Eliot introduces Sweeney into the poem. He’s standing at a full-length mirror shaving. He is “Broadbottomed” and his skin is pink. The man does not appear to be very attractive, nor does he act kindly towards the woman who is in the same room with him. He continues to shave, wiping the “suds around his face,” connecting back to the mention of the sea in earlier stanzas.
(The lengthened shadow of a man
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun.)
The eighth stanza includes a quote from Emerson. It appeared in Self-Reliance and was interference to institutions. In ‘Sweeney Erect’ it is used to describe Sweeney, but not pass judgment on him. The speaker is more on Sweeney’s side than the woman’s, as is made clear by his descriptions of her writhing on the bed.
Sweeney’s silhouette, despite its strangeness and size, appears powerfully silhouetted in the sun. He’s “straddled” there, focused on his face in the mirror. The imagery in this line is very clear and evocative. A reader should be able to picture Sweeney fairly accurately, along with the woman on the bed.
Tests the razor on his leg
Curves backward, clutching at her sides.
Sweeney tests the razor out to make sure it’s sharp before bringing it to his face. He also pauses until the woman’s shrieking dies down. The third line reveals that she is epileptic and it’s very likely that she is at that moment have a seizure. Sweeney obviously could not care less what’s going on around him and is entirely focused on shaving. Eliot uses alliteration in this stanza as well with “shriek subsides” and “Curves” and “clutching”. This benefits the overall rhythm of the poem.
The ladies of the corridor
And deprecate the lack of taste
It becomes clear in the tenth stanza that this woman is a prostitute and Sweeney is in a brothel. This could help to explain the disregard he has for the woman, although the overall tone of the poem suggests that it wouldn’t matter to Sweeney who the woman was, her suffering is only annoying as it disturbs his peace of mind.
There are women out in the “corridor,” other prostitutes or perhaps the madame of the house. They are suddenly involved in the scene even though they don’t want to be. The scene feels disgraceful as if the suffering woman on the bed is doing something very wrong, violating some principle of “taste”.
Observing that hysteria
It does the house no sort of good.
The women enter the room and see the “hysteria” playing out before them. The word “hysteria” is interesting here. It could be used to describe an epileptic’s movements, but it is also used to describe the more powerful emotions of women. In both senses it is derogatory, but the latter is most commonly used to dismiss women and describe them as overly emotional and out of control. Is the woman epileptic? And if she is, is she having seizures at that moment? The second line suggests that some part of the scene is “misunderstood”.
Mrs. Turner, the Madame of the house, thinks that this kind of behavior does not benefit the “house” or the brothel. It’s clear she has no sympathy for this woman, nor patience.
But Doris, towelled from the bath,
And a glass of brandy neat.
In the last stanza another prostitute, Doris, comes in from the bath. She brings with her “a glass of brandy neat” and smelling salts. This suggests that they are going to try to break this woman out of her hysteria and revive her back to her normal state.