A commentary on one of Eliot’s classic quatrain poems by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is one of a number of quatrain poems which T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) included in his second collection, Poems (1920). Eliot wrote several poems featuring ‘Sweeney’ – a fictional modern-day knuckle-dragger, a brutish but also smart and dapper man, the twentieth century’s answer to a Neanderthal (if that’s not being too hard on Neanderthals). In the other Sweeney poems, we’ve already seen him frequenting a brothel house and taking a bath. Now, he’s in another house of ill-repute, but it’s Sweeney ‘among the nightingales’. What nightingales? This poem takes even more unravelling and analysis than the other quatrain poems, so this is what we’re going to do now. You can read ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ here.
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. Eliot uses the character to explore life among the ‘low’ of society: people who work in, and frequent, brothels, dive bars, and the like.
In summary, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ describes Sweeney’s encounter with two women in a tearoom or dive bar. It is hinted that the women may be plotting with the owner of the establishment to kill or rob Sweeney (note how the women both appear to be working ‘in league’ with each other). The word ‘maculate’ in the first stanza means ‘spotted’: in other words, Sweeney, whose neck is like that of an ape’s, spreads his knees and drops his hands and laughs, and the zebra stripes on his jaw swell so that they resemble the spots on a giraffe’s neck.
The animal imagery used to describe Sweeney (‘Apeneck’, ‘maculate giraffe’) as well as that used in connection with the poem’s other characters (Rachel’s ‘murderous paws’) is almost comical in its dehumanising aspect, but once again, what is being described is hardly a Carry On film but something more disquieting. Despite the animal comparisons which seem like something out of an Edward Lear poem, the content of the poem is definitely not for children, not just because of its suggestions of sex but also because the vocabulary, imagery, and elisions – what the poem does not say – demand much of the reader. The reference to Agamemnon at the end of the poem – as well as the poem’s epigraph, from Aeschylus’ play about the Greek hero (which translates as ‘Alas, I have been struck deep by a mortal blow’) – also requires detailed knowledge and careful thought to decode it: Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra – just as Sweeney narrowly avoids being killed by the women.
The title of Eliot’s poem, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, calls up Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Bianca among the Nightingales’, although that is where the similarities really end. In Barrett Browning’s poem the nightingales are literal nightingales whose singing reminds the speaker of her pain and lost love; but ‘nightingales’ in Eliot’s poem, like the ‘nymphs’ in The Waste Land, are meant to suggest prostitutes as well as the birds of beautiful song. (Chambers Slang Dictionary records this sense of ‘nightingale’ as nineteenth-century slang.) We are a world away from the romantic (and Roman: Barrett Browning’s poem takes place in Italy) in ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’. We are among the lowest of the low. As is so often the case with T. S. Eliot’s allusions, he calls up an altogether grander and more ‘romantic’ poem in order to underscore the squalid nature of the modern setting – here, the dive-bar Sweeney inhabits.
T. S. Eliot probably wrote ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ in 1918. According to Eliot’s brother Henry Eliot, their mother didn’t approve of Eliot’s ‘Sweeney’ poems, as they made her wonder what sort of company he was keeping. Eliot himself described ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ as a sort of verbal representation of a painting – something also suggested in another of his Sweeney poems, ‘Sweeney Erect’, which even begins with a call for someone to paint the scene the poet is attempting to describe (in that case, an actual brothel). How we analysis and interpret the poem in light of this is open to debate: was Eliot trying to lend his poem about ‘low life’ a greater air of artistic credibility by drawing a comparison to the visual arts? And does that threaten to downplay the sordid reality that the poem is trying to confront, albeit in a highly elliptical and allusive way?
Continue to explore Eliot’s poetry with our analysis of his remarkable ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
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.