Sweeney Erect: Poem by T. S. Eliot Summary and Analysis

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Sweeney Erect

And the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks
Groan with continual surges; and behind me,
Make all a desolation. Look, look, wenches!
Paint me a cavernous waste shore
  Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
  Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.
Display me Aeolus above
  Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
  And swell with haste the perjured sails.
Morning stirs the feet and hands
  (Nausicaa and Polypheme),
Gesture of orang-outang
  Rises from the sheets in steam.
This withered root of knots of hair
  Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:
  The sickle motion from the thighs
Jackknifes upward at the knees
  Then straightens out from heel to hip
Pushing the framework of the bed
  And clawing at the pillow slip.
Sweeney addressed full length to shave
  Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,
Knows the female temperament
  And wipes the suds around his face.
(The lengthened shadow of a man
  Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
  Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).
Tests the razor on his leg
  Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed
  Curves backward, clutching at her sides.
The ladies of the corridor
  Find themselves involved, disgraced,
Call witness to their principles
  And deprecate the lack of taste
Observing that hysteria
  Might easily be misunderstood;
Mrs. Turner intimates
  It does the house no sort of good.
But Doris, towelled from the bath,
  Enters padding on broad feet,
Bringing sal volatile
  And a glass of brandy neat.

Paint me a cavernous waste shore   Cast in the unstilled Cyclades, Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks   Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.
Sweeney Erect

Summary and Analysis

      Introduction: Sweeney Erect is one of the quatrain poems in the volume Poems 1920. The title of the poem has obvious sexual implications. There is also a joke on Sweeney as a human animal which walks upright in contrast to the stooping stance of an ape. There is also a reference to Emerson's essay 'Self Reliance' in which he says that man 'stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles'. Eliot's poem is an ironic comment on Emerson's view.

      Summary: From a description of the Grecian islands we are led to Greek mythology through the link of Aeolus, whose winds blow upon the seas and Ariadne's hair. Ariadne, the symbol of fertility, is the first key to the theme of the poem. It offers a contrast with the mating of Sweeney and the woman in the bed which is a sterile coupling devoid of the aim of reproduction. Ariadne further suggests the theme of betrayal, for she was abandoned by Theseus. This was love betrayed, and Sweeney too betrays love, in a way; the perjured sails' also recall the theme of betrayal. But in the modern situation, betrayal and death have no further hope to offer of regeneration. The contemporary world accepts living death, and the only remedies offered by Doris are 'sal volatile' and 'brandy neat'. The epileptic in the poem evokes different responses from the characters. For Sweeney it is the 'female temperament,' to the ladies of the corridor it is hysteria that might be misunderstood. Ms. Turner feels that it might damage her establishment. Doris considers it as a physical condition which could be set right with stimulants.

      Critical Appreciation: The picture is of sordidness, the brutally limited almost apish world of Sweeney and the epileptic-fit. The maid's tragedy is transformed into an epileptic fit. The picture of horror is the meaning of history when seen as the 'silhoutte of Sweeney.' Sweeney shaves indifferently while the woman in his bed has an epileptic fit. The image, by implications, judges the mode of life.

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