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Sweeney Among the Nightingales -- T S Eliot

       
(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.
-- T S Eliot
[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.

10 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

the best poem i have ever read in my life. because it portrays the reality of modern man's life.

Anonymous said...

this is gnanasekaran doing my pg m.a. loyola college 2010. "the best poem i have ever read since it portrays the reality of modern men through sweeney". and the previous anonymous comment is mine.

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Anonymous said...

Sweeny definitely is a penis image. This is absolutely clear in
Eliot's sexually explicit "Sweeny Erect".

Anonymous said...

WHAT THE HELL???!!!!

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