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The title of T. S. Eliot’s mock-heroic, modernist work “Sweeney among the Nightingales” may have been inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Bianca among the Nightingales.” The word “Nightingales” in the title really refers to prostitutes. The poem follows the pattern of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in which a trivial event is given heroic importance in a satiric way. The prostitutes’ “murderous” scheme against one of their clients or frequent visits, Sweeney, is dealt with in a ludicrous manner. The poem concludes with a tone of outrage and guilt, grieving Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his own wife Clytemnestra.
About the poet
Thomas Stearns Eliot was a prominent 20th-century poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, literary critic, and editor. He was a central figure in English-language Modernist poetry and revivified English poetry through language, writing style, and verse structure. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot moved to England in 1914 and became a British subject in 1927. He was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature for his pioneering contribution to present-day poetry.
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The epigraph provides a preview of the content that follows. Eliot presents Sweeney, a dehumanized “creature” of contemporary society, in this poem. The society in which the character lives is characterized by corruption, dishonesty, and moral degradation.
The epigraph is a quote from the Agamemnon Greek tragedy. It refers to the cries of the dying monarch who has been deceived and given a “mortal blow” by Clytemnestra, his own queen. The epigraph therefore suggests a scheme of deceit and treachery. The reference also explains much of “Sweeney among the Nightingales'”s central topic. The words “Alas! I am struck deep with a mortal blow,” which are King Agamemnon’s last words before being assassinated by his wife, are translated as the epigraph. This helpless remark foreshadows the atmosphere of sexuality and criminality in modern 20th-century society.
Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees Letting his arms hang down to laugh, The zebra stripes along his jaw Swelling to maculate giraffe.
In these lines, the speaker describes Apeneck Sweeney’s physical posture and appearance. Sweeney spreads his knees and lets his arms hang down as he laughs. The description also includes a metaphor comparing the stripes along Sweeney’s jaw to those of a zebra, which transform into a mottled or spotted pattern resembling that of a giraffe.
The poem by Eliot depicts Apeneck Sweeney’s physicality and demeanor in a surreal way. Sweeney’s relaxed posture and uninhibited laughter suggest a carefree, nonchalant demeanor. The comparison of his zebra stripes to his jaw’s stripes suggests his unique qualities. The transformation of Sweeney’s stripes into a maculate giraffe, a symbol of his identity and changing nature, suggests his identity is evolving. The poem’s vivid imagery adds depth and intrigue to the poem, highlighting the complexity and uniqueness of Sweeney’s character.
The circles of the stormy moon Slide westward toward the River Plate, Death and the Raven drift above And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate
In these lines, the speaker describes a scene where the circles of a stormy moon are moving westward toward the River Plate (a large estuary in South America). In this setting, there is a sense of impending darkness or foreboding as the imagery includes death, a raven, and Sweeney, who is guarding a gate with horns.
The poem’s tone and mood are influenced by the lines: “Circles of the Stormy Moon,” which symbolizes a turbulent night sky, and “Slide Westward toward the River Plate,” which represents the passage of time and the River Plate’s connection to South America. The poem also features death and the raven, symbolizing mortality and omens. The presence of Sweeney, a figure of authority, adds an enigmatic element to the scene. These lines create a vivid, atmospheric setting rich in symbolism, inviting readers to explore its complexities and meanings.
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
In these lines, the speaker describes a scene where the constellations Orion and the Dog (Canis Major) are obscured or veiled, and the seas have become calm and diminished in size. Additionally, a person in a Spanish cape is attempting to sit on Sweeney’s knees.
The poem’s atmospheric and symbolic elements are influenced by the constellations Orion and the Dog, which are described as gloomy and veiled, suggesting a decline in their brilliance. The “shrunken” seas, characterized by calm and stillness, contrast with the potential turbulence. The presence of an unidentified person in a Spanish cape adds mystery, suggesting an intimate or confrontational interaction. Sweeney’s knees, a recurring character in Eliot’s poetry, place him at the center of the scene, suggesting he plays a pivotal role in the unfolding of events.
Slips and pulls the table cloth Overturns a coffee-cup, Reorganised upon the floor She yawns and draws a stocking up;
In these lines, the speaker describes a scene where a woman (presumably the object of the speaker’s affection) accidentally pulls the tablecloth, causing a coffee cup to overturn. The woman then reorganizes items that have fallen to the floor, yawns, and pulls up a stocking.
The poem presents a scene of a woman in a casual setting, contrasting with the speaker’s introspective and anxious mindset. The woman’s accidental action, of reorganizing items after a mishap, suggests her practicality and ability to handle minor disruptions. Her yawn indicates comfort and ease in her surroundings. The act of drawing up a stocking, an intimate gesture, hints at personal care and vulnerability. These lines highlight the woman’s presence in the speaker’s life and serve as a reminder of the mundane aspects of human existence, contrasted with the speaker’s inner world of introspection and anxiety.
The silent man in mocha brown Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes; The waiter brings in oranges Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;
In these lines, the speaker describes a scene in a cafe or restaurant. A silent man wearing mocha brown clothing is lounging by the window, looking out in a vacant or uninterested manner. Meanwhile, a waiter enters and brings a selection of fruits, including oranges, bananas, figs, and hothouse grapes.
The poem explores the tension between introspection and external sensory experiences, as well as the contrast between the ordinary and potentially joyful aspects of life. The silent man in mocha brown clothing symbolizes disengagement from his surroundings, while the man’s sprawling at the window sill suggests a lack of formality. The arrival of a waiter with vibrant fruits adds a contrasting element, symbolizing vitality and sensuality. The poem highlights the speaker’s internal conflict and disconnection from the world of sensory pleasures. Overall, the poem highlights the importance of balance and contrast in life.
The silent vertebrate in brown Contracts and concentrates, withdraws; Rachel née Rabinovitch Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
In these lines, the speaker describes two contrasting individuals. The “silent vertebrate in brown” is withdrawing, contracting, and concentrating, while Rachel, formerly known as Rachel Rabinovitch, is tearing at grapes with intense and almost violent determination.
The poem explores human behavior and relationships through the stark contrast between two characters: the passive and introverted Silent Vertebrate in Brown and the assertive and intense Rachel née Rabinovitch. The passive character is portrayed as unresponsive and emotionally reserved, possibly due to shyness or discomfort. Rachel, on the other hand, is presented as an aggressive and intense character, tearing at grapes with “murderous paws” and using her full name to add specificity. The poem highlights the diversity of human responses and emotions in social settings, highlighting the complexity of interactions and the range of personalities and behaviors.
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,
In these lines, the speaker suggests suspicion surrounding two characters, “she” and the “lady in the cape.” They are believed to be collaborating or forming an alliance. In response to this suspicion, a man with heavy eyes decides to decline involvement and displays signs of weariness.
The poem explores social dynamics and the complexity of human relationships through the identities of “she” and “lady in the cape,” who are suspected of having an alliance. The enigmatic presence of the lady in the cape is highlighted by her distinctive attire. The poem’s lack of explicit details about their activities leaves readers to speculate about their association. The introduction of a character with “heavy eyes” adds intrigue, as he declines the “gambit” to distance himself from the complex dynamics. The sense of suspicion and hidden agendas among the characters adds depth to the narrative, inviting readers to contemplate the various dynamics at play.
Leaves the room and reappears Outside the window, leaning in, Branches of wistaria Circumscribe a golden grin;
In these lines, a character leaves the room and then reappears outside the window. This character leans in, and the scene outside is described, with branches of wisteria forming a frame around a “golden grin.”
The poem’s mystery and atmosphere are heightened by the character’s departure and reappearance, suggesting a shift in perspective or a desire to distance themselves. The leaning in action adds curiosity and interest to the scene. The wisteria branches, known for their purple or blue blossoms, encircle the natural frame, drawing attention to the center. The “golden grin” is a vivid and enigmatic image, suggesting joy or amusement but with a meaning that remains open to interpretation. The poem’s fragmented narrative invites readers to engage with its complexities, blending everyday and surreal elements. The poem’s narrative is open to multiple interpretations, inviting readers to engage with its complexities.
The host with someone indistinct Converses at the door apart, The nightingales are singing near The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
In these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” the host of the gathering is engaged in a conversation with an indistinct or unspecified person at the door, separate from the main group. Meanwhile, in the background, nightingales are singing near the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
The poem explores social interaction and natural imagery, highlighting the presence of a host and an indistinct person at the door, creating ambiguity and a sense of isolation. The use of the word “apart” emphasizes the conversation’s separation from the group, creating a sense of detachment. The mention of nightingales singing near the Convent of the Sacred Heart adds a tranquil element, contrasting with the potential tension in human interactions. The mention of the convent adds a religious dimension, suggesting a place of contemplation and devotion, contrasting with the social and potentially tumultuous gathering. These lines create a juxtaposition of human social interactions and the soothing presence of nature, inviting readers to reflect on the scene’s dimensions and themes.
And sang within the bloody wood When Agamemnon cried aloud And let their liquid siftings fall To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
In these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” the poem shifts its focus to a historical and mythological reference. It mentions nightingales singing in a “bloody wood” during a moment when Agamemnon, a figure from Greek mythology, cries out. The nightingale’s song is described as falling like liquid and staining a dishonored shroud.
The poem explores themes of human experience and the interplay between darkness and light through the use of mythology and symbolism. The “bloody wood” symbolizes violence and tragedy, referencing Agamemnon’s tragic fate in Greek mythology. Agamemnon’s cry adds to the turmoil and suffering, symbolizing his anguish. The nightingale’s song, often associated with beautiful melodies, contrasts with the violence of the “bloody wood” and Agamemnon’s cry. The nightingale’s song is said to stain a “stiff dishonoured shroud,” suggesting the power of art and beauty to transform or redeem tragic events. These lines add depth and complexity to the poem’s themes of human experience and the interplay between darkness and light.