A summary of T. S. Eliot’s ‘brothel poem’ by Dr Oliver Tearle
The figure of Sweeney features in several poems by T. S. Eliot: ‘Sweeney Erect’, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’ (where we find him in the bath in the final stanza), The Waste Land (where he gets a passing mention), and the play, Sweeney Agonistes, a sort of jazz-drama which Eliot sadly abandoned, though he reprinted two scenes from this experimental piece of modernist theatre in his Collected Poems.
But ‘Sweeney’ makes his debut in ‘Sweeney Erect’, a poem in quatrains which originally appeared in Eliot’s second volume, Poems, in 1919 (reprinted in 1920). You can read ‘Sweeney Erect’ here; what follows are some words by way of analysis about this elusive poem.
It has been speculated that his name may have been inspired by the demon barber of the nineteenth-century penny dreadful, Sweeney Todd, and since Sweeney appears holding a razor in this poem, this may well have been Eliot’s inspiration for the name. (There is also a strong suggestion in the name Sweeney that the character may be of Irish descent.) Eliot’s Sweeney is a primitive version of man, a little apelike in appearance, almost a throwback to an earlier species of man (this is suggested in this poem’s title, a pun on Homo erectus but also on the fact that this poem takes place in a brothel, with ‘erect’ being given a bawdy twist). As he is a caricature of vulgar modern man he carries comic potential, but the poems in which he appears are also sinister and dark: in this poem, for instance, while he is in a brothel, he stands by and shaves while the woman he spent the night with apparently has an epileptic seizure in the bed.
Even the speaker of the poem dehumanises the woman, portraying her as a ‘withered root of knots and hair’. The emphasis in this poem is on detached observation of a squalid urban scene: the speaker passes no comment on Sweeney’s behaviour.
And yet the poem is constructed so that we cannot be sure the woman is suffering an epileptic seizure. Although she is described as the ‘epileptic on the bed’, the critic Ronald Schuchard has argued (in his excellent study of Eliot, Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art) that we should read ‘epileptic’ metaphorically. The woman’s ‘hysteria’ (i.e. hysterical laughter) might be ‘easily misunderstood’ as shrieks of pain in response to violence or illness. Note in this connection that the unnamed woman on the bed is ‘clutching at her sides’ – is this a fit of laughter that is being pathologised by Eliot by being likened to an epileptic ‘fit’?
Beyond this, we might ask: how are we supposed to read the poem’s references, in its early stanzas, to Greek mythology and to Jacobean playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher (whose The Maid’s Tragedy provides the poem’s epigraph)? Is Eliot contrasting past with present here (suggesting that male-female relationships used to be epic and romantic, but in modern times are more likely to be a prostitute and her atavistic client horsing around in a brothel)? Or is he suggesting similarities between past and present (i.e. if the woman really is having an epileptic seizure and Sweeney ignores her, is this the modern-day equivalent of Theseus abandoning Ariadne)?
Is it, indeed, even possible for us to choose – could it not be a mixture of the two? William Empson, who admired Eliot’s poetry and acknowledged his influence on Empson’s generation, once said that ‘Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’. ‘Sweeney Erect’ arguably offers a prime example of this. Schuchard’s interpretation of the poem is convincing and at the very least highly plausible. Yet at the same time, everything in the poem seems to support a ‘face-value’ reading of the poem as being about a woman being ignored while she has an epileptic seizure. (Note how at the end of the poem Doris, presumably one of the other prostitutes, brings in a glass of neat brandy and sal volatile – smelling salts – to revive the woman on the bed, so she clearly labours under the same belief that the other woman has suffered a seizure.)
Perhaps the only way we can clear a way through the ambiguities of this poem is by proposing that the true meaning of ‘Sweeney Erect’ lies somewhere between these two interpretations: the woman on the bed is an epileptic, but on this occasion, it so happens, she was merely convulsed with laughter. This would explain why her ‘hysteria’ can be ‘misunderstood’, and why both Mrs Turner (the brothel-madam) and Doris both leap the conclusion that the woman was suffering a seizure when she wasn’t. Whilst not among his most very famous poems, ‘Sweeney Erect’ provides a clear example of why Eliot’s poetry proves so difficult, elusive, and – in the last analysis – rewarding as well as frustrating.
Continue to explore Eliot’s work with our short analysis of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and our introduction to Eliot’s life.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.