Sweeney Among The Nightingale: Summary & Analysis

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       Introduction: Sweeney has an abnormally high animal spirit. He is strong in sex like an ape. His life has been devoted to all the fun of sexual function for variety and pleasure. He is an example of modern, sexually degraded and uprooted urban person. He is spiritually barren man. He is fond of violence, extremely suspicious and secretive and given to mechanical sex. He is representative of the dehumanized vagabond of modern society.

Sweeney among the Nightingale


      The poem begins with the protagonist Sweeney, sitting in a pub. He is fond of wine and women. His animal spirits are revived in the environment of pub. He looks like a sexy ape full of life and laughter. The poet builds up an atmosphere of doom and disaster. The planets are clustered in an unusual positions. Such a situation is a foreboding of some great disaster or calamity. The moon is covered with dark clouds. Death is personified as a planet. It moves along with Raven which is a group of stars and is associated with fate and natural death. The Horn gate is also a symbol of the murder of Agamemnon. The Horn gate also refers to the myth of the murder of an old priest in the sacred wood of Diana at Nemi. The two other stars namely the Orion and the Dog which are associated with fertility myth, are covered with clouds. This foretells some impending disaster. All these points create an atmosphere of disaster, gloom, violence and murder.

      Eliot now deals with the persons sitting in the pub. There is the prostitute in the Spanish cape. She has been hired to seduce Sweeney and to keep him busy in sexual attraction, so that the plan of his murder may be executed. She tries to sit on Sweeney's knees to divert him to the sexual act. Fortunately, Sweeney understands the evil intentions and pushes her away with the result, that she falls on the floor. She is not in the least disturbed because this is one of her usual acts of sex treachery and violence.

      On the scene appears a silent man disguised in a brown dress. He is perhaps one of the conspirators. His gestures are like an animal. He keeps his eyes and mouth open. At this moment the waiter brings fruit and places them on the table of Sweeney.

      Rachel, another prostitute comes on the scene and sits near Sweeney. Sweeney suspects her intentions when he sees her devouring the grapes. He feels that the two prostitutes have made a plot to seduce him and to murder him. So he does not eat the fruit and leaves the place. After rushing out from the room, he stands at the window. He feels happy about his escape. His face is covered with the branches of wisteria trees over-hanging the window. There is a purpose in mentioning this tree. The color of the wisteria tree is purple which was also the color of the apron by which Clytemnestra stifled her husband Agamemnon to death. Besides this, the color of the tongue of Philomela cut by her seducer, King Tareus was also purple. The simile of Sweeney among the wistaria leaves shows his joy at having escaped the murderous trap. When Sweeney looks inside the room, the owner of the pub is talking with another conspirator in whispers. He is not able to recognize this conspirator.

      The poet makes a contrast between the fruitless murderous plot against Sweeney and the fruitful and meaningful murders in the past. The murder of Philomela after rape meant her resurrection as a nightingale to delight the world with her sound. Similarly, the murder of Christ was instrumental in saving the entire body of the faithful people from damnation.

      Sweeney's murder, however, has no such saving. grace and regenerating power. His death will lead to no result. Finally, the poet Compares the fruitless proposed murder of Sweeney with the murder of Agamemnon. History is full of such plots and murders on account of Sex. Both, the murder of Agamemnon and the proposed murder of Sweeney, are due to lust. There is, however, a difference. Agamemnon's murder led to a happy result because his son Orestes murdered his mother Clytemnestra. The son became an instrument of destroying evil. Similarly, the murder of Philomela and the crucification of Christ led to regeneration and resurrection. Sweeney's murder, however, would not lead to such results. It would have been just a futile murder for the sake of excitement. If Sweeney had died, his murder would not have produced any good results. The poet suggests that so far as the nightingales are concerned, murder of high or low makes no difference to them. They sang and excreted in the same fashion when Agamemnon was chocked to death by his wife, as they are singing and excreting now in the trees near the pub where Sweeney is to be killed. This is another example of mock-heroic element in the poem.

Critical Analysis

      The Epigraph: The epigraph gives a clue to what is to follow in the poem. The plot against Sweeney's life and the unusual combination of the constellation indicate the tragedy which awaits the protagonist. Fortunately, he smells the danger and runs away before the plot is executed. The epigraph means "Alas! I am struck deep with a mortal blow." This line is found in Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Those words were uttered by king Agamemnon when he was killed by his wife Clytemnestra. It is not proper to compare Sweeney the young lover to king Agamemnon.

      The Setting of the Poem: The scene of the poem is laid in some pub situated near the river Plate in South America. The pub is full of day revellers and prostitutes. The owner of the pub is also a low and degraded man. Sweeney is a protagonist. He is a visitor to the pub at the invitation of the owner of the pub. A plot has been hatched to murder Sweeney. The prostitutes entertain him and offer him fruit. The killing is to be done by a hired assassin. In this tense atmosphere of sex and crime, Sweeney has a foreboding of impending fate. He just escapes in the nick of time.

      The Characters of the Poem: Besides Sweeney, there are four other characters. The first is a woman in the Spanish cape. She is the common prostitute without a name. She tries to sit on Sweeney's knee and persuades him into a compromising situation so that the plan of murdering Sweeney may be executed. Somehow, Sweeney senses a danger and dodges her, with the result that she falls down. In the process, she catches a table cloth and overturns a coffee cup. She has been doing such acts of treachery and violence before. She is bored with such routine acts and yearns as he sits on the ground. The second character in the poem is Rachel; also known as Rabinovitch. She is another prostitute, who keeps on changing her names as the circumstances require. She is better in the proposed murder of Sweeney. Her murderous paws clearly indicate her violent tendency. The third character is the silent man in the leather dress. He is perhaps another conspirator in disguise. His gestures are those of animals. He opens his mouth wide, perhaps in suspicion. The fourth character is that of the owner of the pub. Perhaps the entire plot has been hatched by him. He has engaged the prostitutes and the murderer. When Sweeney runs away, the owner is disappointed. His plot has not been materialized. He talks with the conspirator at the door, perhaps to tell him that the victim has run away. The mock-heroic note in the poem. The mock-heroic note is evident in the plot against Sweeney and the conjunction of the planets which forebode disorder. The moon is shown as stormy. The Orion is gloomy and Dog star is veiled. All these forebode some great disaster. The proposed murder is not a disaster or any great invention. It is the planned murder of a wicked and sexy person. It has no great or universal significance. The various mythological associations like the Raven, the Horn gate and the reference to the myth of Philomela's rape, heighten the contrast between the trivial plot against Sweeney and the mighty forces at work. Eliot satirizes the sexual jealousy and trivialities of modern society which lead to crime and violence.

      Style and Technique: The poem consists of ten quatrains in which the second line rhymes with the fourth. It shows that Eliot is the master in handling the stanza form. Of course many other poems like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Gerontion are written in free verse. The poem comes very much near to the old English ballad, in its diction and simplicity and rhythm. Professor Pito regards it: "Perhaps the highest technical achievement of Eliot's early work." The poem contains a number of allusions from myths and images of past. This makes it highly suggestive and significant."

      Title: Perhaps Eliot has adopted the title Sweeney Among the Nightingales from a poem entitled Bianca Among the Nightingales written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poem concludes with a note of hatred and death echoing the death of Agamemnon. Eliot is confronted with an intrigue by the Nightingales. The word "Nightingale" stands for a prostitute. The poem is written on mock-heroic pattern suggested by Pope's The Rape of the Lock. The murderous plot of the prostitutes against their lover is given a heroic significance.

Line-by-Line Explanation

L. 1-4. Sweeney, whose neck resembles that of an ape keeps his knees apart and hangs down his arms. As he laughs, the black and white stripes on his jaws can be seen. They swell out to remind us of a spotted giraffe.

L. 5-8. The circles of the wind-swept moon move westward towards the River Plate in South America. The god of death and the Constellation of Raven move in the sky, thereby indicating misfortune. Sweeney senses danger and keeps a watch at the horned gate.

L. 9-12. The stars Orion and Dog are covered with clouds. The fertilizing waters of the floods are far distant. The sea remains gloomy and silent. The woman who wears a Spanish upper-coat approaches Sweeney and tries to sit on his knees.

L. 13-16. Sweeney shifts his knees with the result that the lady falls down on the ground. She tries to save herself by pulling the table cloth. In the process, coffee cups get overturned. After regaining her senses she sits on the floor. She yawns and at the same time she tries to pull up her stocking.

L. 17-20. The silent man who is dressed in a leather suit sits on the window-projection and looks all over. Meanwhile, the waiter brings oranges, bananas, figs and grapes grown artificially in nurseries.

L. 21-24. The silent man looks like a strong animal dressed in brown, looks here and there, thinks and then leaves. Rachel whose earlier name was Rabinovitch is another prostitute and eats grapes like an animal with claws.

L. 25-28. Both the ladies have conspired against Sweeney and as such they are suspected. The man (Sweeney) senses danger and therefore declines to fall into their game of sex. He is seemingly tired and bored.

L. 29-32. Sweeney leaves the room, but he wishes to know what is the game of the ladies. So he stands outside the window and then leans over the window to find out what is to happen. Branches of the wistaria tree which cover the window surround him as he peeps, and as he laughs, his gold-filled teeth can be seen.

L. 33-36. The host, who is also in league with the ladies talks to someone at the door standing apart. Sweeney is not able to recognize this man; meanwhile, the sound of the nightingales can be heard as it comes from Convent of the Sacred Heart, which is close to the restaurant.

L. 37-40. The nightingales also sang in the bloody woods when Agamemnon was murdered. He cried aloud but met no response. The nightingales threw their droppings on him and polluted the winding sheets which covered the dead body of the dishonored King.


L. 1. Apeneck Sweeney: One who has a neck like a monkey. Here it signifies sexual vigor.

L. 3. Zebra stripes: Black and white lines.

L. 4. Maculate: marked or spotted. The word also connotes pollution and foulness.

L. 5. (The poet now gives the time, place and situation of the scene in which the action takes place). According to astronomical symbols the circles or ring around the moon are an indication of an approaching storm. The words suggest that some disaster is about to occur.

L. 6. River Plate: This indicates the location of the place of action. River Plate flows through South America. This means that the action takes place near the bank of River Plate.

L. 7. Raven: It is a constellation of stars. The Raven reminds us of the word "Raven” mentioned in Macbeth which is a play of murder.

L. 8. Homed Gate: According to the classical myth the gate of horn is one through which two streams pass on their way from the underworld to the world of men. The horned gate also may refer to the sacred woods of Diana at Nemi, where the old priest was murdered and the new priest was installed. Sweeney's watching the gate indicates that he fears danger from the opposite side.

L. 9. Orion and the Dog. Orion is the brightest of stars but it looks dark as it is covered with clouds. Orion and Dog Stars form one constellation. In ancient legend the appearance of these two stars indicated the approach of the fertilizing floods in the Nile River.

L. 10. Veiled: Covered with clouds, shrunken seas: the seas without any floods or storms and hence inactive and gloomy.

L. 11. "The person" refers to the prostitute sitting in the restaurant and wearing a Spanish upper garment.

L. 12. The prostitute tries to seduce Sweeney by her over-tures. Realizing the danger from her side Sweeney tries to dodge her.

L. 13. Here the prostitute falls down. She tries to avoid an injury by pulling the table-cloth so as to reduce the impact of the fall.

L. 14. The coffee cups fall down when she pulls the table cloth.

L. 15. Reorganised, the prostitute tries to regain her balance and then sits on the floor.

L. 16. Yawns This is an indication of boredom, draw a stocking up: during the fall her stocking has slipped down so she draws it up.

L. 17. The silent man: He is a spectator sitting in the restaurant. mocha: a leather dress.

L. 18. Sprawls: Sits, window sill: sill is projection or ledge, gapes: looks.

L. 20. Hothouse grapes: Grapes which are grown in a nursery which has arrangements for growing fruits by maintaining suitable temperature, that is grapes grown artificially.

L. 21. The silent vertebrate: An animal with a back-bone. (It is not clear whether the silent man mentioned earlier in L. 17 is a spectator or Sweeney himself. We may however note that he is a man full of animal passion).

L. 22. Contracts and concentrates, withdraws: The silent man apprehends some danger and likes to leave the room.

L. 23. Rachel nee Rabinovitch: Rachel is the name of prostitute who was earlier known by her other name Rabinovitch.

L. 24. Tears at the grapes with murderous paws: She plucks the grapes with her violent hands; this indicates the beastly nature of the lady.

L. 25. She and the lady in the cape: Both the prostitutes have conspired to attack Sweeney.

L. 26. Suspect: Sweeney suspects some foul play at their hands, in league: in a planned conspiracy.

L. 28. gambit: The bait or the maneuvering of the ladies.

L. 29. Leaves the room and reappears: Sweeney suspects some foul play and therefore leaves the room. He however wants to know the game of the ladies what are they about.

L. 30. Outside the window, leaning in: Sweeney stands outside the room and watches from the window the actions of the prostitutes.

L. 31. Wistaria: a tree with purple or while flowers. As Sweeney Stands looking through the window, the branches of wistaria tree cover his face.

L. 32. Circumscribe: Surround (the branches of wistaria surround the face of Sweeney) Golden grin: This is indicative of the cheerfulness and sense of victory felt by Sweeney because he has escaped the plot against him by the prostitutes.

L. 33. The host with someone indistinct: It appears that the host is also in league with the ladies. The host is the owner of the restaurant. Finding that the victim has run away, the host talks to someone-perhaps some other conspirator-who is not recognized by Sweeney.

L. 34. Converses at the door apart: the owner of the hotel talks to someone at the wide open door of the room.

L. 35. The nightingales are singing near: this refers to the birds and not to the prostitutes.

L. 36. The Convent of the Sacred Heart: This refers to real convent of the Roman Catholic Nuns in south America. The singing of the nightingales near the Roman Catholic Convent situated beside the hotel offers a contrast to the stuffy and murderous atmosphere of the restaurant.

L. 37. the bloody wood: the scene in the wood at Nemi of the ritual murder of the old priest by the new priest; see L. 8.

L. 38. Wizen Agamemnon cried aloud: The scene now changes to the old wood where King Agamemnon was murdered by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra. The cry of Agamemnon is given in the epigraph of the poem.

L. 39. Liquid siftings: the droppings of the nightingales.

L. 40. To stain: to pollute. Dishonored shroud: the winding sheets of the dead body of the disgraced King. Here is a marked contrast between the murder of King Agamemnon and the plot against Sweeney's life. The first event belongs to the heroic past and Sweeney's escape belongs to the unheroic present.

      Conclusion: The poem is concerned with the fertility theme which has been elaborated in The Waste Land. There is contrast between the contemporary world and the ancient world. While in the ancient world, murders led to re-birth, in the world of today, the murders are done just for fun and excitement. They do not lead to any renewal of life. The moral corruption and utter violence and wastage of modern life is amply illustrated in this poem.

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