Apeneck Sweeney's penitential path.
Names are critically important in the poetry of T. S. Eliot. The brilliant choice of J. Alfred Prufrock characterizes the protagonist of Eliot's great early poem in a single indelible stroke, while names such as Grishkin, Mr. Apollinax, and Rachel nee Rabinovitch are likewise famously memorable. Many readers have found similarly suggestive the name of Sweeney, the main character in three of the quatrain poems and the Sweeney Agonistes fragments as well as a bit player in The Waste Land, but there has been little consensus as to what the name might actually suggest. Some have heard in it a resemblance to swine, others to swans. (1) Most agree that the name denotes an Irishman, but what it connotes appears to range widely, from a stereotypically drunken Irish-Catholic brute to an appealingly unsophisticated "natural man." Confusion and conflict among the various interpretations of the Sweeney poems are evident in the essays collected in Kinley Roby's Critical Essays on T. S. Eliot: The Sweeney Motif, the most comprehensive treatment of the character to date.
In his introduction, Roby argues that Sweeney cannot simply be dismissed as "a decayed version of the classic hero, the modern world's disgraceful entry in the lists of mythical heroes, a man without culture, traditions, ideals, or moral vision" (1), but many of the essays in the volume go on to do precisely that. Elizabeth Drew, in a piece excerpted from her influential study T. S. Eliot. The Design of His Poetry, argues that the central point of the quatrain poems is the juxtaposition of a "uniformly stale and unsavory" present, of which Sweeney is the prime exemplar, with "the continuous reminder of times when it was not so," in the more glorious past captured in art and literature (41). Jonathan Morse asserts that "Sweeney is physically and morally repulsive," (137), while Nancy Hargrove finds in him a representation of "that element of humanity, and more specifically modern humanity, which is vulgar, physical, uneducated, and without human or spiritual values" (149). (2) In contrast, the collection includes several positive evaluations of Sweeney as well. Jerome Meckier notes that "Sweeney in his bath is closer to the baptized Christ than are the presbyters" in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," (192) and Robert DeGraaff sees Sweeney as "earthy but not unkind," (221) an exponent of an "innocent simplicity" (222). Strikingly, there seems to be little or no common ground between the two camps, as few of the essays give serious attention to the possibility of differing evaluations. The sharp divergence of opinion extends even to what would seem to be more straightforward matters of interpretation, such as, for instance, whether Sweeney and "the man with heavy eyes" in "Sweeney among the Nightingales" are identical, or if they are two different characters. (3)
It is by no means surprising that texts as subtle and allusive as Eliot's Sweeney poems should produce a diversity of interpretation. If meaning in literature were entirely transparent, after all, we would have no need for literary critics. What is striking, however, is the extreme polarization evident in criticism surrounding the figure of Sweeney. As Roby's essay collection demonstrates, conclusions tend to be stated with great confidence and little room for any sort of middle ground, despite the existence of multiple opposing interpretations. In this essay, I would like to suggest that Eliot's Sweeney might be better understood through reference to one of the possible sources for the character. While no definitive source has been identified, it has occasionally been suggested, most notably by Herbert Knust, that Eliot may have drawn on a character called Suibhne, the Middle Irish progenitor of the modern name Sweeney. Suibhne is the protagonist of the twelfth-century Irish text Buile Suibhne, in which he is depicted as a minor king who goes mad on the field of battle, abandons his kingdom and his role in society, and flies like a bird into the woods, where he becomes a poet of exceptional power and beauty. This tale languished in obscurity for many centuries, but following J.G. O'Keeffe's publication of a scholarly edition and English translation of Buile Suibhne in 1913, Suibhne has come to serve as an important figure for a number of modern writers, appearing in work by Austin Clark, Flann O'Brien, and Seamus Heaney, among others. Through all of these iterations, Suibhne is consistently portrayed as an inherently liminal and hybrid character, offering the possibility of reconciliation between competing readings. As such, he provides a useful lens through which to read Eliot's Sweeney texts.
The circumstantial case for Suibhne's relationship to Eliot's Sweeney is easily made. Eliot arrived in England in 1914, shortly after the London publication of O'Keeffe's translation of Buile Suibhne. There is no evidence for or against Eliot's having read O'Keeffe's text, but considering his interest in the use of mythical materials and, more generally, in the London publishing scene, it seems entirely likely that he would have. Superficial similarities between the two characters are numerous, as Knust indicates in his essay "Sweeney among the Birds and Brutes." "A general comparison," Knust explains, "reveals that both are fallen heroes, that both suffer a degeneration of their bodies, and that both are to some extent in a state of frenzy"' (198). Each character is associated with birds, Suibhne through his transformation into a bird-man and Sweeney through his explicit connection to nightingales in "Sweeney among the Nightingales" and The Waste Land as well as to women, possibly prostitutes, in "Sweeney Erect" and Sweeney Agonistes. (4) Each, Knust notes, is also connected with swine, Suibhne through his death at the hands of Mongan the swineherd, (5) and Sweeney as he '"shifts from ham to ham" in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" (202). Suibhne was once a great warrior, while Sweeney, according to Nevilt Coghill, was once "'a professional pugilist, mildly successful" (119). Further, the nakedness that forms the substance of many of Suibhne's laments is matched by Sweeney's nudity in two of the four poems in which he appears (Knust 202). To Knust's points, I would add the structural resemblance between the metrical form of the poems in Buile Suibhne and that of the seven quatrain poems in Eliot's Poems (1920). This volume, which so prominently features Sweeney, represents the only time that the poet employed the traditional quatrain form with its short line and regular rhyme scheme. Kenner notes that Eliot's use of quatrains reflects his interest in the poetry of Theophile Gautier, (84) as well as his desire to find "a vehicle for sudden juxtapositions" appropriate to the satiric intent of this volume (88). If Eliot did in fact know O'Keeffe's edition of Buile Suibhne, he may well have been struck by the exacting yet supple quatrains used in Middle Irish poetry, providing a further impetus for his use of what was, for him, an unusually strict metrical structure.
Of more significance and interest than these surface similarities, however, are the thematic and structural relationships between Buile Suibhne and Eliot's Sweeney texts. Eliot's poetry, of course, is strikingly allusive, to the extent that the charge of plagiarism was frequently leveled against him by his early critics. (6) As Jewel Spears Brooker argues in Mastery and Escape, allusion functions in Eliot's work not simply as an ornament or even as a shock tactic, but rather as a "fundamental structural dynamic." Exploiting the fact that "an allusion is by definition a self-transcendent fragment," he uses these fragments liberated from their context to create a poetic structure that "requires that readers be constantly shifting their vantage point--backwards, forwards, sideways--in dimensions sometimes temporal or spatial, sometimes logical, sometimes both ... if they are to collaborate with Eliot in the poem's multicontextual technique" (88). The textual history of Buile Suibhne raises similar issues, for this seeming paean to the individuality of the artist is itself the product of many hands, consisting of fragments of prose and poetry apparently composed over a period of several hundred years and eventually collected into one more-or-less coherent work by an unknown scribe or scribes. This anonymous, collective process of artistic production stands in direct contrast to the solitary poet that the work depicts, making Buile Suibhne a particularly suggestive text with which to interrogate and perhaps reformulate the idea of authorship. The medieval Suibhne comes to represent the very, figure of citation as artistic creation, detached from his own original context and capable of "engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable," (Derrida, Limited Inc, 12). In one of its aspects, this figure of the bird-poet represents the possibility of escape, perhaps the controlling motif of Eliot's Sweeney poems, through the release from and transcendence of context. Always though, when a figure is cited, "the very iterability which constituted [its] identity does not permit [it] ever to be a unity that is identical to itself' (Derrida, Limited Inc, 10). The figure of Suibhne, therefore, is perpetually haunted by inauthenticity, parasitical contamination, in short, the charge of plagiarism, whose sting Eliot too has felt.
Related to and perhaps emanating from this structural condition of iterability is Suibhne's status as an exile. The former king detaches from his context not only in linguistic terms but also on the narrative level. The essential condition of his emergence as a poet and a prophet is his separation from his relationships as king, warrior, husband, and comrade and his role within the community. "God has sundered me from my own shape," (Buile Suibhne 16) he declares, a lament that should be seen to encompass not only his physical form but also the social position that is deeply constitutive of his formulation of identity. Nevertheless, as Joseph Nagy insists, he remains "engaged," (7) interacting with members of his former community and negotiating among various competing forces such as church and state, as well as the oral and written traditions. The example of this penitential path, in which the birdking interacts with his old world but is no longer of it, transcends his circumstances through artistic/prophetic production but continues to feel the pain of separation from community as well as physical privation, seems relevant to Eliot, who wrestled, as Brooker demonstrates, with the question of how to shape into poetry the material drawn from his own contemporary history and personal life (145). Laurie MacDiarmid argues in T. S. Eliot's Civilized Savage. Religious Eroticism and Poetics, that Eliot's poet figure repeatedly "is caught between impulses of prophecy and madness, divine inspiration and damnation," (xx) the penitent's acceptance of "repeated religious punishment" eventually finding self-transcendence in "poetic ecstasy" (98). Suibhne's example of "engaged" separation from community as the initial step on the penitent's path may help to illumine this aspect of Eliot's work, especially in the case of Sweeney, whose assumption of a prophetic role in Sweeney Agonistes has proven a rich source of critical confusion.
On a more pragmatic level, reading Eliot with Suibhne in mind is useful simply because the bird-king provides a new perspective on a body of work that has been the subject of deeply entrenched critical opinion for many decades now. There are a number of assumptions about Sweeney and his milieu that are nowhere explicit in Eliot's texts but nevertheless have become received opinion in the critical literature. Sweeney is generally identified as not only Irish but Irish-American, Catholic, uneducated, and lower class. The women with whom he associates are widely assumed to be prostitutes, Mrs. Turner's house in "Sweeney Erect" is either a brothel or at best a seedy boarding house, and the cafe or restaurant that sets the scene in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is a "low-life cafe" (Davidson 82) or "low-class dive" (Hargrove 154). These responses to the Sweeney poems illustrate Christopher Ricks' observation in his important study, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, that Eliot's use of names is inherently prejudicial. Before one even begins to read the poem, the unforgettable title "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" invites, or perhaps incites, readers "to think and to feel our way through a prejudicial sequence" (2). Although intellectually we know that a man should not be blamed for his name, we nevertheless feel the comic possibilities in the sound of "Prufrock," assume frumpiness or pomposity in the insistence on "J. Alfred," and find the formality of the name "inimical to the thought of love's intimacy," (3) and thus quite incongruous with the first part of the title. Our initial reactions, formed by pre-judgment in the absence of further information, have begun already to shape our responses to the poem. Eliot's process, Ricks insists, is double, "a ministering to prejudice, but also an alerting to the fact that this, perilous yet not necessarily wrong, is what is working" (5). The workings of prejudice emerge again as a loaded name appears in the repeated lines, "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo." Critics have tended to assume that in the context of the great Renaissance artist, the women's speech must be tedious, ignorant, and trivial, (8) but as Ricks contends Eliot's phrasing is itself quite neutral, and thus this "sense of the lines is incited by prejudice--not therefore to be discounted but not to be counted upon.... For all we know, as against suspect (perhaps justifiably, but still), the women could be talking as invaluably as Kenneth Clark" (14). Eliot's own position in this is impossible to determine; he induces an endlessly recursive suspicion (of the women, of the reader's own reaction to the women, and of the poet's intent) without offering any resolution.
Eliot's manipulation of the dynamics of prejudice has provoked the most outrage when the names that he uses are distinctively Jewish. The special horror of twentieth century anti-Semitism, the apparent confluence of sentiment between the poetry and various insensitive statements in Eliot's prose writings, and the sheer ugliness of the prejudices expressed in poems like "Gerontion" and "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" combine to suggest that here is a type of prejudicial thinking quite different from Eliot's method in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." One clear distinction is that many of the Jewish allusions do not cagily invite speculation, like the reference to the women talking of Michelangelo, but rather encourage bigoted conclusions as in the following lines from "Burbank":
The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs. (24)
While Eliot's apologists have tended to insist that the anti-Semitic sentiments in his poems are felt and expressed by his characters, such as the bitter old man in "Gerontion," rather than by the poet himself, few readers today find much excuse for such lines. which stand as a serious blot on Eliot's body of work. (9) The most interesting, and the most provocative, of Christopher Ricks" insights is the possibility that Eliot's anti-Semitism is not merely an aberration in the record of an otherwise great poet, but rather may be constitutive of the same prejudicial process that, unrecognized, elsewhere contributes to the effectiveness of his work. (10)
The prejudicial technique that forms Ricks' subject is clearly at work in Eliot's Sweeney poems, although here it appears in its more neutral form, at least with respect to Sweeney's presumed Irishness, while the misogyny in the poems is sometimes quite overt. Jonathan Morse explores what he sees as the sociological and historical context for Eliot's use of Sweeney in his essay "Sweeney, the Sties of the Irish, and The Waste Land." He interprets the epithet "Apeneck Sweeney," the famous opening phrase of "Sweeney among the Nightingales," as a reference to and evocation of a specific strain of nineteenth-century New England anti-Irish sentiment epitomized by the political caricatures of Thomas Nast. According to Morse, Nast's stock Irishman "is always pug-nosed, beetle-browed, and unshaven, with tiny, deep-set eyes and a wide, lipless mouth full of pointed teeth. He is, in short, an ape" (138). Fueled by both anti-Catholic prejudice and class-based disdain, given that Irish-Americans in the nineteenth century tended to be laborers, this stereotype depicted the Irishman as morally as well as physically repulsive: "He represents all that is less than human in humanity," giving bodily form to the terrifying irruption of the id (Morse 138). Although Morse acknowledges that New England anti-Irish sentiment was in sharp decline by the end of the Civil War, he believes that "the phrase 'apeneck Sweeney' demonstrates that Nast's Irishman remains psychologically alive for Eliot" (140).
Perhaps so. But it quickly becomes clear that in Morse's own analysis the prejudicial aspect that remains alive and well has little to do with nationality and everything to do with class. He represents the difficulties that readers have had with the Sweeney poems as largely a function of difference in social class:
The differences go beyond manners to physiology itself: the insignia of the lower classes which are displayed in "Preludes" (the smells of steak, at that time the cheapest meat you could buy; the beer, the dirty feet, the short square fingers stuffing pipes) are images of a bodily life fundamentally alien to consciousness.... We readers of poetry are at home in Prufrock's world: we are uneasy tourists in Sweeney's. (135)
Having assumed, apparently, that all readers of poetry form a single social class, Morse goes on to argue that a phrase such as "short square fingers stuffing pipes," cited above from Eliot's "Preludes," "serves our class as a synecdoche for a complete image of a laborer, rich in connotations--say, the laborer described in Emerson's 'Fate': 'Let him value his hands and feet, he has but one pair. So he has but one future, and that is already predetermined in his lobes, and described in that little fatty face, pig-eye, and squat form'" (136: emphasis mine). While Morse expertly marshals evidence of one strain of prejudice frequently incited by Eliot's portrayal of Sweeney and other working-class characters, he seems blind to tile possibility that readers may bring an entirely different range of associations to the same images, especially considering that readers of poetry do not form the homogeneous social class that Morse imagines, and may in fact themselves be scions of the working classes. Failing to become suspicious, as Ricks insists readers of Eliot must be, of his own reactions to Sweeney's class status, Morse also seems to miss the fact that Eliot himself does not appear to agree with at least one important aspect of the prejudiced thinking that Morse delineates. Although Sweeney certainly participates in the bodily, lower class life that Morse describes as "fundamentally alien to consciousness," in Sweeney Agonistes he is also, as Nancy Hargrove acknowledges, "the sensitive, conscious character who realizes and tries to communicate to others the essential vacuity of a world and an existence without human or spiritual values as well as the sinful nature of man and his need for redemption" (167). The poet's willingness to give Sweeney a prophetic role seems to exceed his critics' willingness to credit it. Hargrove goes on to argue that Sweeney Agonistes was abandoned as a failure in part because a lower class character was not appropriate to this role: "In subsequent plays [Eliot] continues to set a conscious character against others, but these major figures are always upper class, intelligent and educated" (167).
I have quoted Morse and Hargrove at some length because their analyses both describe and exemplify a strain of thinking, very prominent in Eliot scholarship, that is nevertheless not sufficiently suspicious, in Ricks' terms, of its own response to the incitement to prejudice that Sweeney represents. Here the figure of the medieval Suibhne becomes a useful corrective, as it unleashes an entirely different range of associations. Perhaps most importantly, Suibhne provides a link between birds, madness or guilt, and poetry. Further, the bird-king casts a different light on the natural or physical life, which so many of Eliot's critics have found to be brutish or repulsive. Suibhne's experience of a life stripped to its bare essentials is not only productive of remarkably beautiful poetry, it is also part of a penitential path that leads him ultimately to a prophetic role with an analog in the portrayal of Sweeney in Sweeney Agonisles. Finally, as an exponent of the ancient Celtic lore that was eagerly revived and revisited in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Suibhne calls to mind another variety of potentially prejudicial thinking about the Irish famously formulated by Matthew Arnold in Cellic Literature. Given Eliot's interest in situating his poetry within a specifically literary tradition, it seems likely that Arnold's influential portrait of the sensual, passionate, melancholy Celt would have been as present an image in his mind as the nineteenth-century American formulation of the brutish Irishman. Certainly it is possible to see in Sweeney a satirical version of Arnold's Celt, stripped of sentimentalism and forced to abandon the misty woods for the stark landscape of the urban jungle.
In my analysis of Eliot's Sweeney texts, I have tried to read against the grain of the reflexively negative interpretations of the character that have carried so much weight in the critical literature, bearing in mind that the poet's incitements to prejudice invite multiple responses. Often these responses are conditioned by the carefully chosen epigraphs that are so central to Eliot's work. Nowhere is this truer than in the finest of Eliot's Sweeney poems, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." The epigraph, in this case taken from Aeschylus' Agamemnon, is a vital piece of the symbolic structure of the work. The lord of the house of Atreus, stricken dead in his bath by his adulterous wife, cries out in his agony: "I am struck with a mortal blow within" (Eliot 35). Thus the epigraph casts a shadow on the bath that Sweeney has so recently enjoyed, for the previous poem in the collection, "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," depicts Sweeney blissfully shifting "from ham to ham" in the warm waters of his bath. Further, the reference to Agamemnon's death establishes a background of betrayal rooted in familial relationships, for not only were both husband and wife guilty of adultery, but Clytemnestra struck down her husband largely to avenge the death of their daughter Iphigenia, coldly sacrificed by Agamemnon to speed the Greek ships on their way to Troy.
The epigraph places the poem, then, within a context of sexual and familial betrayal that immediately casts doubt on any romantic implications the title might suggest. The nightingales will not, one suspects, sing that "self-same song" that tempted Keats to contemplate "easeful Death" (281) in "Ode to a Nightingale," but the question of their identity and significance is held in abeyance as the opening stanza focuses on Sweeney himself. There "[a]peneck Sweeney spreads his knees" and lets "his arms hang down to laugh," all the while:
The zebra stripes along his jaw Swelling to maculate giraffe. (35)
This portrait is at once arresting and opaque; the words are memorable, but their description of Sweeney does not immediately produce a clear visual image. The eventual conclusion is that the stripes of stubble along his jaw shift to blotches as his face contorts in laughter, but for most readers this wilt not entirely dispel the initial impression that the man is a confusing welter of exotic animal parts. Eliot manipulates rhythm skillfully, the trochees of the first line drawing attention forcibly to Sweeney's ape neck and then relaxing into the iambs of the second line as Sweeney too relaxes, while the spondee that opens the fourth line again arrests attention on the word "swelling." There is a strong impression of virility and animalism, but the easy identification of Sweeney as a natural man with simple, brutish instincts is complicated by the strange choice of zebra and giraffe rather than more familiar animal comparisons. This surreal aspect of the scene is intensified by the absence of sound, as his preparation for laughter is meticulously described in visual terms, but we never hear the guffaw. Finally, Sweeney's flesh is maculate, spotted, in contrast to Christ's immaculate conception that merged spirit and body. This emphasizes Sweeney's intense connection to the physical, fleshly world, but in this poem that world becomes a very unfamiliar place.
Having described his strange protagonist, the poet moves on to set the uncanny scene, in which storm clouds "[s]lide westward toward the River Plate" and "Sweeney guards the horned gate" amidst references to "Death," "the Raven," "[g]loomy Orion," and "the Dog" (35). As mght be imagined, much critical attention has focused on the symbolism of these lines, which offer a rich harvest of allusion. For instance, D. E. S. Maxwell connects Orion and the Dog Star, Sirius, to Egyptian fertility, rituals (59), George Whiteside locates the setting in the town of Montevideo, Uruguay, on the north bank of the Rio Plata (63), and Knust emphasizes what he sees as Sweeney's close relationship to the moon goddess (204). In fact, these lines are so over-saturated with potentially symbolic content that their suggestiveness exceeds any' single interpretation, instead sending the reader's mind soaring beyond the particulars of this shadowy setting to encompass a broad range of association. It is striking that the poem's setting is described in terms simultaneously natural (the moon, stars, river, and sea) and mythological, indicating that the physical world Sweeney inhabits is also the world of myth and magic, at once familiar and strange. The portents are gloomy, the seas strangely' hushed, and Sweeney, guarding the legendary gate through which true dreams may pass, assumes an outsized significance, seeming almost to be one of the constellations drifting above.
Stanza three shifts dramatically in midcourse, turning from the expansive mythic landscape described above to the particularities of action in what seems to be a restaurant or card. There "[t]he person in the Spanish cape," in an apparent attempt to seduce Sweeney, makes a disaster of the effort by slipping off his knee:
Reorganized upon the floor She yawns and draws a stocking up; ... (35)
Here we meet the first of Sweeney's nightingales and find her both exotic (she wears a Spanish cape) and banal, as she attempts a lazy seduction. Although her actions are meticulously described, she is also curiously indistinct, her gender an open question until the last line. The enjambment between the third and fourth stanzas suggests a loosening of form consonant with the looseness of the action, but a solid spine of regular rhythm and masculine rhyme suggests an underlying pattern as well.
The cast of characters is further rounded out in stanzas five and six, where we are introduced to "[t] he silent man in mocha brown," later described as a "silent vertebrate," as well as to "Rachel ride Rabinovitch," who "[t]ears at the grapes with murderous paws" (35).
The curious hush that has thus far dominated the poem is emphasized by the adjective "silent" twice used to describe the brown-clad onlooker, whose description becomes progressively more vague as he slides from "man" into the broader category of "vertebrate." (11) (11) The hothouse fruits maintain the tension between naturalistic detail and exoticism, while the introduction of Rachel nee Rabinovitch simultaneously offers a potent incitement to prejudice and illuminates the nature of Sweeney's nightingales.
Christopher Ricks observes that the curious form in which Rachel's name is given has prompted much speculation, as it highlights the fact that her Jewish maiden name has been changed by marriage. "Clearly," Ricks suggests, "this invites or incites the possibility of a prejudiced disapproval of such marriages as cross the Christian/Jewish divide," as well as "the further suspicion that one devious motive for, or aspect of, such a marriage is that in changing one's name one will disguise one's Jewishness" (30). As Ricks points out, this suspicion is not confirmed in the poem (her married name may be Jewish as well) and in any case it is unclear whether the form of the name is to be ascribed to Eliot or to a dramatization of Sweeney's (possibly prejudiced) point of view (31). This later argument does not strike me as terribly convincing. There is no clear narrative persona, but the narration does not appear to follow Sweeney's perspective, as he would have no way of seeing, for instance, the swelling of the zebra stripes along his jaw. Curiously, Ricks does not address what may be the more dangerously antiSemitic aspect of this passage. Rachel "[t]ears at the grapes," which through their connection to wine may be associated with Christ's blood, "with murderous paws" (35), evoking the specter of the "blood libel" that has been used to justify countless persecutions of innocent Jews through many centuries and that, sadly, is not entirely dead today.
The justified furor over the anti-Semitic connotations of these lines has, however, overshadowed other significant aspects of the name Rachel nee Rabinovitch. First, the format of the name reflects the poem's tendency to give the appearance of precise detail, in this case by providing the woman's maiden name, while withholding crucial information, such as her legal name. More importantly, this specific omission has the force of emphasizing her status as a married woman, as "Rachel Rabinovitch" would not, but of emphasizing it only in the breach. She may or may not be a prostitute (the slang connotation of "nightingale" does not seem to me to be definitive here), but her behavior in this cafe is certainly not that of a faithful wife, as an attempt at a seduction does appear to be implied. The textual locus on her unwedded name ironically highlights, then, her disregard for her marriage vows, connecting Sweeney's nightingales to the themes of sexual infidelity and betrayal.
The next two stanzas introduce explicitly the suspicion of conspiracy that has been implicit throughout the poem. "She and the lady in the cape" are "thought to be in league." Shortly "the man with heavy eyes/ Declines the gambit," but then leaves the room only to reappear outside a window where "Branches of wistaria/Circumscribe [his] golden grin" (36).
These lines offer a momentary release of tension, as the vague foreboding of the earlier stanzas coalesces into an overt scheme that may be detected and avoided. They create, however, a great deal of uncertainty. Who suspects the ladies? Of what are they suspected? And who is the man with "heavy eyes"? Grover Smith identifies him as identical to the "silent man in mocha brown" (46), and a majority of critics seems to follow this reading, but others consider him a new character introduced in these stanzas, while a third camp believes that Sweeney is both the man in brown and the heavy-eyed man. James Davidson, for instance, has Sweeney departing the card and peering in through the window (84), while Roby makes much of the idea that "Sweeney declines the gambit, an indication of his escape, perhaps, from the fate of Agamemnon in the bloody wood" (17). Several critics have marshaled their energies to refute these later readings, including Hargrove, who argues that since Sweeney has a well-established name, Eliot would have used it if Sweeney were intended, instead, by employing the phrase "he silent man in mocha brown," he clearly means another person (160).
It is striking that as seemingly straightforward a matter as the number of characters in the poem has resisting nearly a century of exegesis and continues to produce multiple contradictory readings, each stated with utter conviction by its author. Rather than attempting to assign a fixed identity to the character or characters designated by "he silent man in mocha brown," "the silent vertebrate in brown," and "the man with heavy eyes," it may be more profitable to consider that the text quite deliberately sows the ambiguity reflected in the divergent interpretations. We simply cannot establish with certainty, based on the information given, whether there are three male customers in the cafe, or two, or only one (Sweeney), although every reader of the poem will have her own suspicions in the matter. It is generally assumed that Rachel nee Rabinovitch attempts to seduce Sweeney, despite the fact that her only described action is the ravenous consumption of grapes; she is suspected of attempted seduction through her association with the lady in the Spanish cape. Similarly, through the poem's conspiratorial logic of suspicion and prejudice, Sweeney is associated with the man in brown's withdrawal and the heavy-eyed man's decline of the (suspected) gambit, and thus with their impetus toward escape, though it cannot be proved that he has performed these actions. Likewise, Sweeney is associated with Agamemnon through the epigraph, though he is certainly not identical to the Greek king. The perspective from which such connections are made is deliberately shadowy, echoing the overcast and gloomy sky, as indicated by a narrative voice that observes that the ladies are "thought to be in league," without indicating who thinks so (Sweeney? the man in brown? the card's patrons in general?) or what they are suspected of. The resultant atmosphere, foreboding indeed, is one in which identity is shifting and tenuous, and guilt by association is conclusive.
In the final stanzas, what has been an exclusively visual poem explodes into song, as the nightingales of the title at last appear in their own shape. As "[the host with someone indistinct/Converses at the door apart," we are no sooner called upon to hear"[t]he nightingales ... singing near/The Convent of the Sacred Heart," then we are reminded of how these same nightingales "sang within the bloody wood/When Agamemnon cried aloud." Then they "let their liquid siftings fall// To stain [his] stiff dishonoured shroud" (36).
Yeats remarked that only in these two stanzas did Eliot's early work "speak in the grand manner," (xxi) and while it is doubtful that Eliot strove for Yeats' idea of a poetic "grand manner," the effect of these lines is indeed remarkable. Within the compressed form of the short quatrain poem, Eliot generates an enormous range of emotion, allusion, and significance, all of which coalesce in the beautiful and disturbing nightingale imagery that closes the poem. Because identity has throughout the text been slippery and "indistinct," Sweeney merges with Agamemnon, the "bloody wood" of the Furies at Colonus blends with the bath where Agamemnon suffered his mortal blow (and thus also with Sweeney's bath in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service"), and the nightingales associate Rachel nee Rabinovitch, the lady in the Spanish cape, and, mysteriously, the nuns of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, with Philomela's brutal violation and miraculous transformation. In his essay on Philip Massinger, Eliot asserts that the quality of a poet may be judged by how he or she borrows from other writers: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different" (Selected Essays 182). What lends Eliot's borrowing its force in this densely allusive poem is his recognition of what Derrida would later call the absolutely illimitable potential of citation to generate new contexts and unexpected resonances, coupled with his willingness to allow the poem's allusive content to stand on an equal footing, and therefore interact freely, with the surface narrative concerning Sweeney's night out at the cafe.
In addition to the death of Agamemnon, the crucial reference in the poem is to Philomela, daughter of King Pandion of Athens. In Ovid's version of the myth, Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus of Thrace, who subsequently imprisoned her and cut out her tongue so that she could not tell her sister, Procne, of his crime. Deprived of her voice, Philomela nevertheless was able to alert her sister by weaving a tapestry that depicted her suffering, and in revenge Procne killed Itys, her own son by Tereus, cooked him, and fed him to his father. When Tereus learned of the trick that had been played on him, he attempted to kill both sisters, but this horrifying family tale of betrayal, violent rape, and bitter revenge was brought to an end by the gods, who transformed all three into birds, Philomela becoming a nightingale, Procne a swallow, and Tereus a hoopoe. (12) In "Sweeney among the Nightingales," this tale merges with the Agamemnon of Aeschylus as the nightingales sing "within the bloody wood," the sacred grove of the Furies who drove Orestes mad after he slew his mother Clytemnestra to avenge Agamemnon's death, and sing again when Agamemnon cries out in pain (Eliot 36). In each of these tragic Greek tales, the human family is thoroughly perverted, as sexual, parental, and filial ties degenerate into horror and violence (13), but the image of the nightingale suggests the transcendence possible through art, which like the bird's song can find beauty in tragedy. The Greek sense that tragedy was the highest form of art reinforces this possibility' and confirms that much that is beautiful has its roots in suffering.
The challenge for Eliot's readers is to make sense of the relevance of this immensely suggestive backdrop of Greek tragedy to the lives and actions of Sweeney, Rachel nee Rabinovitch, and the other contemporary characters. A crucial hint, and perhaps an unexpected note of sympathy for the women in the poem, is to be found in their congruence with the nightingales. Critics often deride these characters as whores, or at best loose and trivial women, which on one level they appear to be, but while the nightingale image suggests the perversion of sexuality and love, it also implies that the women, in Philomela's role, are victims of this degeneration. Lower-class women, availing themselves of the only means of power available to them, their sexuality, can hardly be blamed for a comprehensive societal malaise. In these poems, Sweeney is clearly not their victimizer, though he is no savior either. Among the nightingales, he is largely passive, neither encouraging their advances nor rudely rejecting them. In "Sweeney Erect," he simply stands aside, leaving Mrs. Turner and the ladies of the hall to their hypocritical condemnation of the epileptic in the bed, while in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" he is again a man apart, untouched by the greed of the presbyters, the inflammation of the congregants, or the sterility of the "subtle schools." (14) He cannot, however, escape entirely the tragic degeneration of love and sexual relationships that grips his culture. In this, he shares Agamemnon's fate, not on the literal level that has led many readers, following Matthiesson, to conclude that Sweeney is murdered at the end of "Sweeney among the Nightingales," but rather in the sense that he, like the Greek king, occupies a brutalized milieu in which marital and familial relationships have been corrupted. The tragedy of the lives that Sweeney and Rachel lead may be less dramatic than the tales of Agamemnon and Philomela, but the poem strongly suggests that it is part of the same continuum of human sin and suffering.
In The Waste Land, Eliot continues his diagnosis of what he sees as the spiritually dry state of modern humanity, and Philomela and Sweeney each make brief appearances. The nightingale appears in the second section, "A Game of Chess," imprisoned in the stifling confines of a wealthy woman's chamber. There "[a] hove the antique mantel was displayed/... The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/So rudely forced; ...; In that classical context, however, the nightingale "[f]illed all the desert with inviolable voice/... and still the world pursues,/'Jug Jug' to dirty ears" (40).
The entire passage both deepens and complicates Eliot's use of the myth of Philomela. It confirms the continuity of female suffering, as "still" the nightingale cries, and "still the world pursues," thus linking Philomela's fate to that of the contemporary women in Eliot's poetry, and it emphasizes the transformation of brutal violation into the "inviolable voice" of the nightingale's song, and thus of poetry. It also, however, casts doubt upon artistic reproductions of that voice. The nightingale's song, repeated in verse throughout the years, has been given the ugly conventional form "jug jug," the painting of the scene is trapped in a decaying room, just one among many "withered stumps of time," and, ironically for a depiction of a wronged woman finding her voice, the painting joins the other "staring forms" that hush "the room enclosed." A similar function is filled by the "liquid siftings" of "Sweeney among the Nightingales," which expose the poetic conventions that would deny the sordid reality behind the nightingale's song. Eliot's texts insist that we cannot simply enjoy the "inviolable voice" of poetry while ignoring the suffering and violence from which it often springs. Further, any reproduction of that voice is inevitably contaminated by its derivative nature, just as Aspatia's complaint in the epigraph to "Sweeney Erect" represents a parasitical cooption of the tale of Ariadne's grief.
Here, the thematic similarities between Buile Suibhne and Eliot's Sweeney poems become useful aids to interpretation. In each of the redactions of the Suibhne story, the bird-king's poetry stems from his suffering and bespeaks an unnamed and pervasive guilt. In Buile Suibhne, that guilt seems related to a conflict within early Irish society, between pagan and oral culture on the one hand and the nascent written, Christian culture on the other. Suibhne fails to prevent the construction of a church in his territory; he fails also to lead his people in battle and to fulfill his patriarchal roles as husband, father, and king. His poetry, however, reckoned as a great gift to Ireland, would never have been composed had he continued in his wonted shape and role. In Eliot's Sweeney poems, guilt is primarily sexual, related to the degeneration of marriage and family, and general, shared by not only the members of modern society but also the figures of Greek tragedy. The nightingale sings of that guilt and pain, creating like Suibhne beauty out of suffering, but like him also subject to the citational and thus derivative nature of art. While Sweeney, vigorous, assured, aloof, represents the fantasized possibility of escape in the early poems, by The Waste Land he has lost that role, appearing only briefly and with the inevitability of the seasons and time itself:
But at my back from time to time I hear The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
Shortly thereafter, the nightingale's song reappears in fragmentary form:
Twit twit twit Jug jug jug jug jug jug So rudely forc'd. Tereu (43)
While Sweeney in previous poems refused Tereus' part, leaving the bed in "Sweeney Erect" and declining the gambit in "Sweeney among the Nightingales," in The Waste Landhe is entirely without agency, brought to Mrs. Porter for what the context implies are illicit sexual purposes. There is no reason to believe, however, that he will rape or brutalize Mrs. Porter. Rather, I take the nightingale's lament, reproduced here in its derivative, conventional (and unlovely) form, to be full of sorrow for Sweeney as well as Mrs. Porter, as each is "rudely forced" by a mechanistic and unfeeling culture to enact a rude parody of the genuine love that is denied to them as inhabitants of Eliot's wasteland.
Interestingly, in Eliot's Sweeney poems the bird-king's role as the creator of poetry is given not to Sweeney but instead, through the crucial metaphor of the nightingale's song, to Philomela. This raises the tantalizing possibility that the distinctly masculine Suibhne tradition might be open to a female poet as well. Resistance to this very possibility is also evident in Eliot's work, taking the form of a fear of sexual contamination, and thus of feminization. This fear emerges quite explicitly in the voracious sexuality of Rachel nee Rabinovitch and in the positive portrayal of Sweeney's capacity for escape from female entanglement. It is surprising, then, that Eliot should also be the writer who comes closest to depicting a female poet in the Suibhne tradition, singing of her own pain and in her own voice. This internal tension may well contribute to the remarkable heightening of feeling present in the final two stanzas of "Sweeney among the Nightingales."
The feminine aspect of poetry recedes as Eliot's Sweeney attains the prophetic mantle and comes to speak for the poet in the two fragments that make up Sweeney Agonistes. The unfinished play's relation to the Sweeney poems is emphasized by the first epigraph, from Aeschylus" Choephoroi: "ORESTES: You don't see them, you don't--but I see them: they are hunting me down, I must move on" (74). In this continuation of the trials of the house of Atreus, Orestes, having killed his mother to avenge his father Agamemnon's death, pays the price in guilt and suffering for his role in the family tragedy. The implication is that Sweeney too suffers for his part in the degeneration of his modern society', shown through his visit to Mrs. Porter and his association with the nightingales. The second epigraph, from the writings of St. John of the Cross, suggests a penitential and ascetic path as the solution to this suffering: "Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings" (74). That Sweeney becomes the penitent in the fragmentary play has troubled many critics, among them Matthiessen who complains: "The hero is so different a character from the 'apeneck Sweeney' of the poems that Eliot might better have given him a different name" (159). And yet, Eliot clearly intended him to be the same person, having remarked to Virginia Woolf as early as 1920 that he planned to write a play featuring the characters from his Sweeney poems (Woolf 114), and the works are connected through the Aeschylus epigraph.
Initially, the form and tone of Sweeney Agonistes seem to confirm Matthiessen's sense of discontinuity with the poems. Abandoning the tight formal constraints of the quatrains, Eliot employs a freer verse heavily influenced by the cadences of jazz, the music hall, and burlesque. David Chinitz skillfully explores the structure of Sweeney Agonistes, arguing that Eliot's embrace of popular influences was intended to "forge a new crossover genre that would alter the relationship between the fine artist and the community" (107). While the attempt cannot be judged a success, it was productive of a distinctively hypnotic verse form unlike anything else in Eliot's work. (15) The play presents Sweeney once again in the company of his nightingales, in this case Doris and her friend and roommate Dusty, as well as four former soldiers in search of a party. In the first fragment, Doris and Dusty read inconclusively their tarot cards, gossip about the men of their acquaintance, including Sweeney, and eventually are joined in a trivial conversation by the ex-servicemen with the ludicrous names of Wauchope, Horsfall, Klipstein, and Krumpacker. Sweeney appears in the second fragment and immediately cuts through the insipid banter by declaring to Doris: "I'll carry you off/To a cannibal isle" (80). Doris plays along, promising to be a missionary, and Sweeney describes life on the cannibal isle, where he will convert her into "a stew / A nice little, white little, missionary stew" (80). It soon becomes clear that Sweeney speaks not only of this imaginary isle, but also of the life they all are living in contemporary London:
Birth, and copulation, and death. That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks: Birth, and copulation, and death. I've been born, and once is enough. You don't remember, but I remember, Once is enough. (81)
Here, it is clear that Sweeney has been vouchsafed knowledge and awareness unavailable to the other characters, and we recall his position as the guardian of the horned gate through which true dreams pass in "Sweeney among the Nightingales." His true dream, though, is a nightmare, a realization that life as he and his friends have been living it is indistinguishable from death, and that even fertility is corrupted, the momentary ecstasies of copulation breeding only more death.
The others fail to grasp Sweeney's point, and he abandons his analogy of the cannibal isle, trying instead to convey his idea that "Life is death" (82) through tile story of a man who "once did a girl in" and then preserved her in Lysol in his bath (82). This death in a bathtub recalls the slaying of Agamemnon, once again reinforcing the play's connection to the sexually fraught themes of violence and betrayal that dominated "Sweeney among the Nightingales." That Sweeney's voice, rather than that of the nightingale, has become the poet's is emphasized by his repeated frustration at tile difficulty of conveying his message: "But I've gotta use words when I talk to you" (84). This assertion of male control over the tools of articulation is highlighted by the murder of a woman, coupled with Sweeney's contention that any man might commit this crime:
Any man might do a girl in Any' man has to, needs to, wants to Once in a lifetime, do a girl in. (83)
Sweeney's insistence on this point, so soon after his own assumption of the poetic role, suggests that what he is contemplating here is the slaying of the female poet and the silencing of the feminine voice that threatened to dominate the earlier poems. This implies, then, the forceful reassertion of male control over the poetic tradition.
Recourse to the figure of Suibhne can also help us to understand how and why Eliot's Sweeney progresses from the uncomplicated "natural man" of the poems to the prophetic penitent of the play. The bird-king's punishment is to live alone in nature, apart from society, shorn of the clothing that indicated his kingly role, and bereft of the company of women. The life of Eliot's Sweeney in the early poems may be seen as a modern analog. The city is the natural habitat of modern mare and Sweeney lives in his concrete jungle much as Suibhne does his woods, holding himself aloof from society, living by his own instinctive code, fleeing from women, and frequently appearing unclothed. Sweeney's rejection of the questionable mores of ladies like Mrs. Turner, his disinterest in the arid theology of an ineffectual church, and his refusal of meaningless sexual entanglements may represent his first steps toward the self-awareness and deeper knowledge that he attains in Sweeney Agonistes. With that knowledge comes also suffering, and here again the Sweeney of Eliot's play joins Suibhne in his torment and guilt. The second fragment of Sweeney Agonistes concludes with an ominous chorus singing of a nightmarish pursuit by a pack of "hoo-ha's," (84) antagonists reminiscent not only to the Furies of the first epigraph but also to the dog- and goat-headed demons that drive Suibhne back into madness in Buile Suibhne. Suibhne at the last achieves only a partial reconciliation between the secular and the sacred, dying at the threshold of a church, and Eliot's Sweeney, while he may not be attached to the "love of created beings" seems far from achieving "the divine union" promised in the citation of St. John of the Cross. If guilt and suffering are fundamental to the condition of the artist, as the Suibhne tradition suggests, such a union may not be accessible to the poet-figure, or if it is attained, he may cease to be a poet. Perhaps for this reason, Eliot abandoned Sweeney Agonistes after the title character's assumption of the poetic/prophetic role, and he wrote no more of Sweeney.
As we have seen, Eliot's Sweeney texts have confounded many critics, in part because they present a welter of contradictory impulses and images. The brutal misogyny of "Sweeney Erect" contrasts with the unexpected sympathy for women implicit in the nightingale imagery; the instinctive, animal-like Sweeney of the poems becomes the conscious man of the play; and the beauty of Aspatia's tapestry and of the nightingale's lament are rebuked by the derivative, citational aspects of their artistry. The liminal nature of the character Sweeney and of the symbolic structure that surrounds him ensures that these opposed pairs never resolve themselves on one side or the other, but rather hang suspended between possibilities. As Christopher Ricks reminds us, the Sweeney texts suggest far more than they state, and conclusive determinations usually rest on incitements to prejudice that readers would do well to question. Sweeney's oscillation between conflicting alternatives is characteristic of the Irish Suibhne as well. In Buile Suibhne, the bird-king's shifting and unstable shape, sometimes birdlike, at other times clearly human, figures the volatility of his role as he wavers between ascetic penitence and poetic richness and sufficiency. The doubled roles that Suibhne plays are related to his explicit engagement with the practices of citation and repetition. Buile Suibhne presents itself as the written record of the stories and verse of an oral poet, while Eliot's Sweeney poems are all deeply engaged in webs of literary reference that encompass a multitude of written works in addition to Buile Suibhne itself. Citation is only the most explicit form of the structural iterability that Derrida reminds us is characteristic of all language, creating both infinite possibilities and the troubling certainty that nothing we say or write can ever be truly "original." Likewise, human suffering, and the cycles of violence and betrayal from which it often springs, is never anything new, but rather the latest iteration of an ancient tragedy. In the Suibhne legend, suffering is the necessary precondition for artistic creation. Born of pain, the nightingale's lament resounds through the centuries, and its beauty still has the power to astound, though it has also become conventional, reduced to "jug jug" for "dirty ears." When her wordless song is rendered as language, it acquires the "structural possibility of being weaned from the referent or from the signified," which, Derrida suggests, makes of "every mark, including those which are oral, a grapheme in general; which is to say, as we have seen, the non-present remainder of a differential mark cut off from its putative 'production' or origin" ("Signature Event Context" 10). The same might be said of Suibhne. Cut off already in the twelfth-century text from his presumed origin in seventh-century events, the figure of the bird-man poet is a remainder or revenant of a lost tradition, never fully present, but nevertheless available through citation to a modern writer like Eliot, whose Sweeney poems insistently probe the endlessly iterable myth of artistic originality.
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Chinitz, David E. T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Coghill, Nevill. "Sweeney Agonistes (An Anecdote or Two)." Roby 115-119.
Davidson, James. "The End of Sweeney." Roby 81-85.
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DENNELL M. DOWNUM
(1.) For an explication of the first reaction see Jonathan Morse, "Sweeney, the Sties of the Irish, and The Waste Land"; for the second see Robert DeGraaff's "The Evolution of Sweeney in the Poetry of T. S Eliot." Herbert Knust hears both, arguing m "Sweeney among the Birds and Brutes" that Sweeney's split identity, deriving from a war between his soul and his body, is represented through contrasting swan and swine imagery (206).
(2.) Interestingly Hargrove opens her piece by noting that there are conflicting interpretations of Sweeney's character, some entirely negative and others more positive, and suggesting that as "Sweeney is a complex symbol with multiple meanings," (147) both interpretations need to be taken into account. "Apeneck Sweeney" evokes strong feelings of disgust in many readers, though, and in Hargrove's case these emotions seem to overwhelm her initial attempt to be even-handed, for her analysis of the character is relentlessly negative.
(3.) James Davidson is among those who see Sweeney as the heavy-eyed man who declines the prostitutes' gambit (84); Nancy Hargrove asserts that "there is no evidence that they are one and the same." insisting that Eliot "clearly means another person" (160).
(4.) "Birds," of course, is a slightly crass slang term for women in general, while "nightingales" referred more specifically to prostitutes in Eliot's day,.
(5.) Knust's knowledge of Buile Suibhne seems tenuous. He mistakes Mongan's name for his wife's, Muirghil, and suggests that Suibhne in his bird stage has transformed into a swan, which seems unlikely given the bird-king's penchant for roosting in trees (not a characteristic of swans). Nevertheless, many of the basic similarities that he indicates are sound.
(6.) Grover Smith, for instance, finds that in the poems written between 1010 and 1919, "Eliot was exploiting--abusing--the trick of literary allusion," (54) with the result that "his verse in quatrains is largely, an exhibition of functional plagiarism, a triumph of mystification" (39).
(7.) This point is elucidated in Nagy's introduction to the 1996 edition of Buile Suibhne.
(8.) Ricks cites Grover Smith: "And the women meanwhile are talking, no doubt tediously and ignorantly, of Michelangelo," Helen Gardner: "The absurdity of discussing his giant art, in high-pitched feminine voices, drifting through a drawing-room, adds merely extra irony to the underlying sense of the lines," John Crowe Ransom: "How could they have had any inkling of that glory which Michelangelo had put into his marbles and his paintings?" and Hugh Kenner: "The closed and open o's, the assonances of room, women, and come, the pointed caesura before the polysyllabic burst of 'Michelangelo', weave a context of grandeur within which our feeling about these trivial women determines itself" (Ricks 13).
(9.) The question is, however, by' no means settled among Eliot scholars. For a recent outbreak of the controversy, see the January 2003 issue of Modernism/modernity, (Volume 10, Number 1), which features a lively exchange of letters in a special section entitled "Eliot and Anti-Semitism: The Ongoing Debate."
(10.) Thus suggestion is picked up at greater length, and with much greater force, in Anthony Julius' 77 S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
(11.) Some critics have suggested that this character is wormlike or spineless; most amusingly, John Ower refers to him as a "fecal creature" characterized by "the slowness and shapelessness of an amoeba" (73). Of course, "vertebrate" means quite the opposite, as it refers to the class of animals possessing spinal columns. Devolution, the n, is not necessarily implied, but rather generalization, which is in keeping with the curiously precise yet unilluminating descriptions of character and setting in this poem.
(12.) This is the tale as it appears in Ovid, Metamorphosis VI, 424-674. In some other versions the shape-change of the sisters is reversed, with Philomela becoming the swallow and Procne the nightingale. Eliot seems to follow Ovid's account, as in The Waste Land Philomela is clearly connected with the nightingale. The hoopoe, significantly, is one of very few species of bird that will foul its own nest. This makes Tereus' transformation quite appropriate, as he destroyed his own family through his foul actions, and may have provided the hint that led Eliot to focus on the nightingales' droppings in the final stanza of his poem.
(13.) Interestingly, sisterhood is the only bond that remains intact, as Procne's devotion to her sister and Philomela's certainty that Procne will rescue and avenge her are unwavering. This devotion overrides all other ties, as Procne sacrifices even her own son in her desire to avenge the wrongs done to Philomela.
(14.) Significantly, "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" is the only Sweeney poem in which he is not surrounded by women. The absence of any females, with the exception of the infertile worker bees, emphasizes the sterility of the church, and perhaps also heightens Sweeney's aloofness in this poem.
(15.) The jazz influence on Sweeney Agonistes has been of great interest in several recent critiques. In addition to Chinitz's T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, an intriguing exploration of the subject can be found in Carol Smith's essay "Sweeney and the Jazz Age" (Roby 87-99).
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|Author:||Downum, Dennell M.|
|Publication:||Yeats Eliot Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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