In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle rereads T. S. Eliot’s classic poem about a Britain in decline
It’s nearly a century since T. S. Eliot, having just turned thirty, announced his intention to write a long poem about the contemporary world. Several letters he wrote in 1919 see him declaring this ambition to move beyond the dramatic monologues of his first volume (most famously ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but also ‘Portrait of a Lady’) and the witty quatrain poems of his second collection (of which ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is a notable example). But what form this new poem would take, Eliot did not know at the time. He just knew that it would be longer than anything he’d attempted before.
Now, in 2018, returning to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a strange experience which reinforces the sense I’ve had for a long while that phrases and images from Eliot’s poetry read like some sort of uncanny prophecy of a future world which he couldn’t know. In 2005, shortly after the terrible tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and in the immediate wake of the 7/7 London bombings, including the Edgware Road bombing which killed six people, I remember r Read the rest of this entry
A commentary on one of Eliot’s classic quatrain poems
‘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 Read the rest of this entry
A commentary on a classic Eliot poem
‘Gerontion’ is notable for being the only English poem in T. S. Eliot’s second volume of poetry (the collection also contained some French poems) which does not adopt the regular quatrain form found in ‘A Cooking Egg’, ‘Sweeney Erect’, ‘The Hippopotamus’, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, and ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’. (There was another non-quatrain English poem, about a honeymoon night gone terribly wrong and titled simply ‘Ode’, in the original printing of the volume but Eliot was not happy with it and removed it from later editions.) You can read ‘Gerontion’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
How to summarise ‘Gerontion’? Stylistically, ‘Gerontion’ is much indebted to the blank verse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. However, like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ from Eliot’s previous volume, ‘Gerontion’ is a dramatic monologue, spoken by an old man (‘Gerontion’ means ‘little old man’, and should be pronounced with a hard ‘G’) who, in a decaying rented house, sits and waits for rain. As he talks, we learn about his character and background: for instance, he tells us that he has not been in war service Read the rest of this entry