(Poem #248) Sweeney Among the Nightingales
'omoi peplegmai kairian plegen eso' Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees Letting his arms hang down to laugh, The zebra stripes along his jaw Swelling to maculate giraffe. The circles of the stormy moon Slide westward toward the River Plate, Death and the Raven drift above And Sweeney guards the horned gate. Gloomy Orion and the Dog Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas; The person in the Spanish cape Tries to sit on Sweeney's knees Slips and pulls the table cloth Overturns a coffee-cup, Reorganised upon the floor She yawns and draws a stocking up; The silent man in mocha brown Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes; The waiter brings in oranges Bananas figs and hothouse grapes; The silent vertebrate in brown Contracts and concentrates, withdraws; Rachel nee Rabinovitch Tears at the grapes with murderous paws; 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, Leaves the room and reappears Outside the window, leaning in, Branches of wistaria Circumscribe a golden grin; The host with someone indistinct Converses at the door apart, The nightingales are singing near The Convent of the Sacred Heart, And sang within the bloody wood When Agamemnon cried aloud, And let their liquid siftings fall To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
[Overview] The place to start is Eliot's essay "Ulysses, Order, and Myth" (1923), in which he floats the idea of a "mythical method" in modern literature whereby the author sets up a parallel between mythical and modern events which adds a dimension of meaning (often ironic) to the latter. In [today's poem], the basic parallel is suggested by the epigraph: Sweeney is juxtaposed with Agamemnon, or rather the moment of history represented by Agamemnon's murder (leading, in the plays of Aeschylus, to the replacement of a "savage" conception of blood justice with a civilized, divinely-ordained court system when Orestes is acquitted of the murder of his mother and her lover, who had murdered his father, Agamemnon) with that represented by the meaningless intrigues against Sweeney in the cafe (in which civilization's tawdry representatives are the bestial and violent -- if you look at the other poems and the play in which he appears -- Sweeney and his low-life companions). -- Greg Foster, TSE mailing list owner. [Notes] This being Eliot, there's a wealth of classical and not-so-classical allusions. Rather than go into minute detail (that would take forever) (but do follow the link below if you're interested in that sort of stuff), I'll just cover a few of the more central ones: - The epigraph is taken from Agamemnon's dying words as his wife Clytemnestra kills him: "Alas, I am struck deeply with a deadly blow." (from Aeschylus' eponymous tragedy) - The 'horned gate': dreams in classical mythology are sometimes said to emerge from the underworld through this gate. - The 'bloody wood' could be the grove of the classical Furies, in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, a place where there are singing nightingales and where bloody tragedies such as Agamemnon's death would have been spawned. It could also be the wood where Tereus raped and mutilated Philomela, who was later turned into a nightingale (a story Ovid tells in his Metamorphoses). [Links] The T. S. Eliot mailing list is a forum for a _lot_ of discussion and commentary, much of it very well-informed. The archives are available at [broken link] http://web.missouri.edu/~tselist/ ; there's also a neat concordance and search engine. A most comprehensive introductory essay on today's poem can be found at [broken link] http://web.missouri.edu/~tselist/mharc/tse/1998-07/msg00150.html Previous Eliot poems to have featured on the Minstrels include La Figlia Che Piange at poem #9, the first of the Preludes at poem #107, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock at poem #193 . And of course, you can read all our previous poems at http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/ [Glossary] maculate: marked, literally, as the giraffe is spotted. But this rare word also carried overtones of 'foul' or 'polluted'; its antonym immaculate, means virgin, sexually innocent.