Sweeney among the Nightingales by T. S. Eliot: Summary and Analysis

Sweeney among the Nightingales is a short lyric poem composed by TS Eliot in 1918. The epigraph of this poem is taken from the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. The epigraph is all about the cry of the dying king who was betrayed and killed by his own wife Clytemnestra. It gives hints to the forthcoming plot in the life of Sweeney in the poem.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Sweeney is described as a sexy ape whose life is full of love, lust and laughter. He is given animal characteristics and his animal instinct is revived in the environment of the pub. After suggesting the animal character of Sweeney the poem uses astronomical symbols to suggest the time, place and portent of the situation. The constellations have ominous mythological associations, particularly of disaster at the hands of women. Sweeney seems to be under the threat of murder. The whole atmosphere is created as that of doom and disaster. He is projected as the representative of modern amoral dehumanized human being. The drunken prostitute who tries to sit on Sweeney's knees clashes with Sweeney only to pull the table-cloth, overturns a coffee cup and sprawls on the floor to yawn and draws up a tight-fitting covering of wool or cotton. The two ladies in the poem try to seduce Sweeney. Sweeney feels there is something wrong with the intentions of the girls, a sort of plot against his life.

The 'silent man' is a modern hero returning at the end of the 1914-18 war. Mocha brown could be a shade of khaki. Among all the persons present in the cafe only a certain ‘silent man in mocha brown' smells out a conspiracy. He sits at the window-sill, sprawls and gapes and then withdraws. It has a reference to "Egyptian ritual, according to which images of Adonis and Aphrodite were displayed on couches, and beside them were placed ripe fruits of all kinds. A debased version of this is represented by the fortuitous offering of Oranges, Bananas, figs and hothouse grapes by the waiter."

The figures that appear on the scene are mere shadows and have no vitality of their own. They do not have violent passions; their murderous paws tear only grapes. The two ladies hatch a plot against the man with heavy eyes. The man, instead of making a move shows signs of fatigue. His refusal to take this sacrificial pawn (‘declines the gambit') reveals the change in his state of mind. The actions of the two ladies spell out his danger. This is in keeping with the feeling of foreboding aroused in the opening verses. The man leaves the room and reappears outside the window opening on to a garden full of flowers

It was written in May- June 1918 and published in Little Review (Chicago) in September 1918. It presented a slice of city-life, viewed as a foil to the mythological background, a remote epoch when culture derived its vitality from ritual and religion, piety and faith. In this poem Eliot has contrasted the spiritually heroic past with the gross materialism, the decayed and vulgar present, and the actual dreary ugliness of contemporary existence. It is a criticism of the sordid, mean, and contemporary world. The poet describes a modern cafe with all its details, but the seven figures that move on the scene are mere shadows, having no vitality of their own.

Sweeney is a typical character of this sordid world. He is more adapted to his world than Prufrock or Gerontion, which may be one reason why he is associated with animals. Sweeney — the full-blooded individual who leads a life on the animal level and who is contrasted with the over- intellectualized and frustrated life of Prufrock. Here is another slice of city-life presented before us and it is given as a foil to the Agamemnon myth. A modern brothel scene is described with all its details, but the figures that appear on the scene are mere shadows; we have glimpses of them as gestures and simulated actions; they have no vitality of their own. In contrast to the heroic action of Agamemnon, their attempts at deeds are vague and inconclusive — 'the person in the Spanish cape' 'tries to sit on Sweeney's knees', the silent man in mocha brown 'sprawls at the windowsill and gapes' and the man with heavy eyes 'declines the gambit, shows fatigue'. The sense of uprootedness, both from tradition anti reality, is conveyed by these images. Sweeney guards the 'horned gate' stands for the compensation of modern life from the 'shades' or ancient tradition. The Agamemnon myth is that tradition seen in the form of myth and the nightingales are the only connecting link between that world of myth and the sordid world of Sweeney.

The references to classical stories and myths provide a poignant contrast to the contemporary scene. The murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegesthus is linked with the ritual murder of the old priest by a younger one in the wood of Nemi in Frazer's The Golden Bough and the rape of Philomela by her sister's husband. There may be a contrast between the nightingales singing near 'the Convent of the Sacred Heart' symbolizing Christ's sexless love for man and their singing when 'Agamemnon cried aloud' or, when he was betrayed. The close relationship between brothel, convent, and the death of Agamemnon implies that convent also represents a distortion of values, for there also fertility is denied. It is this factor which link the poem with ‘The Waste Land’.

In the present poem Sweeney is set against his female counterparts; "The person in the Spanish cape" and "Rachel”. They are, really speaking "Nightingales", cheap and vulgar prostitutes, from whose clutches Sweeney manages to free himself. Eliot is thus denouncing in this poem the evil of the purely fleshly basis of man-woman relationship which dries up the spring of emotional and spiritual currents of conjugal relationship.

Sweeney has been described as an ape-man: he spreads his knees and hangs down his arms and laughs like an ape. It all shows his overconfidence in his `Sweeneyness' in the midst of `nightingales' in a cafe. Sweeney is in a dilemma: with which woman should he start his sexual game? However, the woman wearing the Spanish cape is overpowered by her passion; she rushes to him and tries to sit on his knees; but he moves and she does all this in a fit of hysteria. Sweeney is silent all the time; smelling some danger ahead, he sprawls like a four-footed animal "at the window-sill and gapes". Eliot reinforces the sexual symbolism of the setting;

The waiter brings in oranges Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

 all suggestive of the genital organs of both, the sexes. Sweeney is repelled by them:

 The silent vertebrate in brown Contracts and concentrates, withdraws.

Even the animal in man has moments of grace; his animality itself drives him away from it, if he sees through its vulgarity. Now that the prey is out of her reach, Rachel satisfies her lust sadistically.

The poor Sweeney is fatigued; he leaves the room and reappears outside the window where he hears the nightingales sing near a convent of nuns. It reminds him of the mythical story of Philomel and of the singing of nightingales in the grove of the Furies at Colonus after the murder of Agamemnon by his wife. He thinks that there was a time when the nightingales echoed the pain and suffering of an innocent girl and stood for feminine virtue, and they also cried when there was an action of betrayal culminating in murder. But now that chastity and purity have gone, these birds have become symbols of sexual brutality and vulgarity.

Eliot once remarked that all he consciously set out to create in 'Sweeney among the Nightingales' was a sense of threatening - Sweeney is threatened by death. Since nobody murders Sweeney in this poem, the scene which is laid in South America, the foreboding is unrelieved save by the final imagery.

The Title has a condensed metaphysical conceit. It has a double meaning. In low slang "nightingales" stand for prostitutes and in this poem Sweeney is placed among them. Another meaning of "nightingales" is clear in the context of classical mythology: The story is narrated here in the words of Sir Paul Harvey, "Philomela and Procne, in Greek mythology, were daughters of Pandion, a legendary king of Athens. Procne was married to Tereus, king of Thrace. The latter became infatuated to Philomela, and after having seduced her, cut out her tongue and hid her in a lonely place that she might not reveal his ill-usage. But Philomela managed to depict her misfortunes on a piece of needlework and send it to Procne. Procne sought out her sister and to revenge her, killed her own son Itys and served up his flesh to her husband. Tereus drew his sword to slay the sisters, but was changed into a hoopoe, Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow". T. S. Eliot has used this Philomel legend in the poem because at the end of the Sweeney poem, it is the nightingales which connect the betrayal of Agamemnon with Sweeney’s activities are apparently of the convent too. Moreover, the nightingales are only connecting link between the world of myth and the sordid world of Sweeney. They have been singing since ancient days, but their song is not properly understood by the materialistic people of the modern world.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Sweeney among the Nightingales by T. S. Eliot: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 7 Sep. 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/sweeney-among-the-nightingales.html.