Sweeney Among the Nightingales

"Alas, I am struck with a mortal blow within." -- Aeschylus, Agamemnon

APENECK Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornéd gate.

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

Slips and pulls the tablecloth
Overturns a coffee cup,
Reorganized upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

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,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonored shroud.

T.S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
Maculate literally means marked, as the giraffe is spotted. This unusual word sets the scene in the first verse and carries overtones of 'polluted' or 'foul' as opposed to its antonym immaculate, meaning virgin or sexually innocent.

One expert at The Wondering Mistrels comments that this being Eliot, there's a rich profusion of classical and not-so-classical allusions. Sweey is unexpectedly combined with Agamemnon, or more precisely the moment of history represented by Agamemnon's murder. The opening epigraph is taken from Agamemnon's dying words as his wife Clytemnestra kills him: "Alas, I am struck deeply with a deadly blow." (this from Aeschylus).

Eloit has created the merely brutal and contrasted it with the brutal transposed into art. Sweeney and his sluttish companions represent the first; Agamemnon, as depicted in both Homer and Aeschylus, the latter. Sweeney and his low-life companions are the meaningless intrigues against Sweeney in the cafe of tawdry civilization's bestial and violent juxtaposed against the moment of the "savage" conception of blood justice with a civilized, divinely-ordained court system when Orestes is acquitted of the murder of his mother and her lover, who had murdered his father, Agamemnon. So Sweeney is beastly and so is everybody and everything else.

There are many allusions to uncover but a few of the more central ones are :

  • The 'horned gate': dreams in classical mythology are sometimes said to emerge from the underworld through this gate.
  • The 'bloody wood' might be the grove of the classical Furies, in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, a place where there are singing nightingales and where bloody tragedies such as Agamemnon's death would have been spawned. It might also be the wood where Tereus raped and mutilated Philomela, who was later turned into a nightingale, the story Ovid tells in his Metamorphoses.
  • The nightingale is an particularly poignant illustration of the transformation, being itself the offspring of the metamorphosed Philomela who, in Greek mythology, was brutally treated.
  • If you have read the Aeschylus play you may recall that Agamemnon was not killed in "the bloody wood" as suggested in the last stanza, but in his bath. This is poetic license: Philomela was violated and maimed in the wood, and woods were the scene of many other secret and bloody acts.

By refusing to become analogy, Eliot says art cannot redeem Sweeney; move on to the next poem. Heavy handed and brutish Sweeny is one of T.S. Eliot' better known poems. First composed between May and June 1918, the original text appeared in T. S. Eliot's, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920) and in it he draws a parallel with an epigraph, using his unique "mythical method" of incorporating mythical and modern events which adds an unusual dimension of meaning to the second.

Sources:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/eliot02.html#6
accessed August 24, 2003.

Sweeney Among the Nightingales:
http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/248.html


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