Sweeney Among the Nightingales
A Poem by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Unlocking the Meaning
Rhyme Scheme, Meter
Point of View
Figures of Speech
Text, Stanza Summaries
Question, Writing Topics
Biography of Eliot
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009

Type of Work and Year of Publication

......."T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is a modernist lyric poem that first appeared in a 1919 Eliot collection entitled Poems. The collection was published in England by Hogarth Press, operated by writers Leonard and Virginia Woolf. As a modernist work, the poem presents its characters as mundane and vulgar rather than as romantic or heroic, like the characters in many poems of the nineteenth century. Its attitude toward twentieth-century man is pessimistic rather than optimistic, cynical rather than idealistic. Like many other modernist poems, its language is difficult and richly allusive. 


.......The poem is set in a dining room of a restaurant or a brothel in an unidentified localeperhaps Montevideo or another city along the southern coast of Uruguay, as suggested by lines 5 and 6: The circles of the stormy moon / Slide westward toward the River Plate. River Plate is the English name for Río de la Plata (River of Silver), between Uruguay and Argentina. The westward movement of the moon indicates that the observer is in Uruguay, since that country is northeast of the river. Additional hints at the location include the following:

Spanish cape (line 11): This item of apparel suggests Spanish influence. Uruguay is a Spanish-speaking country, many of whose citizens are descendants of immigrants from Spain. 
Oranges, bananas, figs, grapes (lines 19-20): These are all warm-climate fruits that thrive in Central and South American countries (as well as in other countries with warm climates).
Convent of the Sacred Heart (line 36): Uruguay is a predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Unlocking the Poem's Meaning

The Epigraph

.......Interpreting “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” requires an understanding of the epigraph (quotation after the title) from Agamemnon, a tragedy by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (525-456 BC). T. S. Eliot placed the epigraph in its original Greek wording:
In modern English, the quotation says, “Alas, I am struck deep with a mortal blow.” In the play of Aeschylus, a Greek king named Agamemnon speaks the words a moment before he dies. Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greek armies during the Trojan War. Following are the events leading up to his death, as recounted in the legends and myths of ancient Greece and in the play of Aeschylus.
.......Before going off to the Trojan War, Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis by killing a stag sacred to her. In retaliation, the gods withhold the winds necessary to propel Agamemnon's ships to Troy. To appease the deities, he sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, gagging her to prevent her from cursing him at the moment of her death. The gods then loose the winds, and the Greek fleet sails to Troy. Agamemnon's brutal act has enraged his wife, Clytemnestra, envenoming her with a desire for vengeance.
.......During the war, Agamemnon takes two Trojan women as his playthings—first, one named Chryseis, then another named Briseis. When the Greeks conquer Troy, Agamemnon captures another Trojan woman, Cassandra, and takes her with him as his mistress when he returns to Greece. Meanwhile, Clytemnestra has taken a lover of her own and, with him, plots the murder of Agamemnon. 
.......After Agamemnon arrives with Cassandra, his wife greets him as a conquering hero, rolling out a carpet of purple for him to walk on as he enters his home. Then, while he is bathing, she murders him. She and her lover also kill Cassandra. Clytemnestra tells citizens that she killed Agamemnon to avenge the death of Iphigenia and to vent her anger at his unfaithfulness. (In another play of Aeschylus, the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra avenge the death of their father by killing their mother, but that story has no bearing on the subject at hand.)
.......Agamemnon's murder was in part a result of a curse on his father, Atreus, and all his descendants. Atreus's brother, Thyestes, had pronounced the curse after Atreus  murdered Thyestes' sons in a long-standing family quarrel. 
.......So it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, inherited the sin and guilt of his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt of Adam and Eve. The curse eventually catches up with Agamemnon. 

Sweeney's Link to Agamemnon

.......Let us now turn to Sweeney and his link to Agamemnon. 
.......The narrator, or speaker, of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" describes the title character as a brute, comparing him to an ape, a zebra, and a giraffe. He then suggests that the two women in the poem are conspiring against this brute, implying that Sweeney has mistreated them. In this respect—the abuse of women—he is like Agamemnon. 
.......In the second and third stanzas, the narrator also suggests that an ominous cloud, or curse, hangs over Sweeney—like the inherited curse on Agamemnon. Furthermore, he draws a parallel—or seems to—between the carpet on which Agamemnon walked and the grapes and wistaria (wisteria) mentioned in the poem. The carpet was purple; grapes and wisteria are usually purple. 
.......Since ancient times, purple has been the color of royalty –of kings' capes, of emperors' robes, and of other trappings surrounding a monarch, including carpets. Now then, notice this development: After the waiter brings in fruit, Ms. Rabinovitz “Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.” Is she another Clytemnestra, ready to strike out at the royal purple that is the symbol of kingly power? At this point in the poem, Sweeney leaves his chair (or shall we call it a throne?) and goes outside. There, he looks in through a window, his face framed by wisteria.
.......Nightingales begin singing at a convent. What do nightingales have to do with this tale? Another name for a nightingale is philomel, a term derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus (like the two women in the poem who appear to be conspiring against Sweeney) and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovered what they did, he chased them with an axe. The gods then turned Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow. In later literature, the song of the nightingale became associated with tattling on promiscuous behavior, as in line 463 of Shakespeare's King Edward III: "The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong." 
.......The nightingales singing at the convent of the Sacred Heart appear to represent all the Philomelas whom “King Sweeney” has wronged. The poem ends before the reader learns what happens to Sweeney.

The Meaning and Theme

.......The poem uses the brutish Sweeney to convey the idea that modern man is little more than a crude version of Agamemnon—just as corrupt, just as reprehensible, and equally deserving of an ignominious fate. That Eliot updated Agamemnon as an apparently rough-hewn, uncultured boor may derive from his modernist view that everyday life is not a journey through the airy climes of romance and heroism. In fact, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" may have been a parody of a specific poem that depicted life that way: "Bianca Among the Nightingales," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here is the third stanza of that poem:

We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, 'Sweet, above
God's Ever guarantees this Now.'
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales.
Rhyme Scheme and Meter

.......The rhyme scheme of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is abcbthat is, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. 
.......The meter varies. The predominant format is iambic tetrameter. In this format, a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the first syllable in each pair. Here is an example:

The ZE..|..bra STRIPES..|..a LONG..|..his JAW
The poem also uses trochaic tetrameter having a final catalectic foot. In trochaic tetrameter, a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the second syllable of each pair. In trochaic tetrameter with a catalectic foot, the last foot is missing a syllable. Here is an example: 
APE neck..|..SWEE ney..|..SPREADS his..|..KNEES
In addition, the poem contains irregular feet, as in the following tetrameter line beginning with a dactyl and continuing with trochees and a catalexis:
SPRAWLS..at the..|..WIN dow-..|..SILL and..|..GAPES
Point of View

.......The speaker, or narrator, presents the poem in third-person point of view. He is objectivemerely reporting what he seesexcept in the seventh stanza. Its first two lines say, "She and the lady in the cape / Are suspect, thought to be in league." Here, the speaker seems to know that someone in the room, probably Sweeney, thinks that the two women are conspiring. 


.......The first nine stanzas of the poem are in present tense. The last stanza is in past tense. 

Eliot and Anti-Semitism

.......The unflattering depiction of Rachel in the sixth stanza (as well depictions of Jews in other poems, such as "Gerontion" and "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar") has led some critics to accuse T. S. Eliot of anti-Semitism. One such critic is Anthony Julius, author of T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. The second edition of this book is now available. Click here.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem:

Apeneck Sweeney (line 1): Metaphor comparing Sweeney to an ape.
zebra stripes (line 3): Metaphor comparing sideburns to zebra stripes.
guards the hornèd gate (line 8): Alliteration.
hushed the shrunken seas (line 10): Assonance, alliteration.
Sweeney’s knees (line 12): Assonance.
yawns and draws (line 16): Assonance.
Contracts and concentrates (line 22): Alliteration.
paws (line 24): Metaphor comparing hands to animal paws.
liquid siftings (line 39): Metaphor comparing musical sounds to liquid. One may also regard liquid siftings as excrement. 

Sweeney Among the Nightingales
By T. S. Eliot
With Stanza Summaries and Notes
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees 
Letting his arms hang down to laugh, 
The zebra stripes along his jaw 
Swelling to maculate giraffe..........................4

At a table in a public dining room is a brutish fellow with the neck of an ape and sideburns that extend to the jawline and cross toward his chin. His name is Sweeney. His sideburns resemble the stripes of a zebra. Spreading his knees and hanging his arms at his sides, he laughs. His zebra stripes enlarge so that they now resemble the shape of the blotches on the fur of a giraffe. But they are stained, dirty blotches.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate, 
Death and the Raven drift above 
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate............8

Sweeney's laughter belies the ominous mood of the evening. Outside, the moon trails westward in a stormy sky toward the River Plate (Spanish: Río de la Plata, meaning River of Silver.) Ravens gather and the air reeks of death. Inside, Sweeney is on the threshold of sleep, guarding an exit gate from Hades, one made of horn. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelopethe wife of Odysseus (Ulysses)says dreams arise from phantoms in Hades and pass through either of two gates. One is a gate of ivory; through it pass false dreams that confuse the dreamer. The other is a gate of polished horn; through it pass "images of truth . . . with visions manifest of future fate" (The Odyssey, Book XIX, "The Discovery of Ulysses to Euryclea." Alexander Pope, translator). Apparently, Sweeney does not wish to knowor does not care to knowwhat the future holds for him. He is probably unaware of the ominous portents of nature suggesting that his death may be near, although he seems to become aware later (Stanza 7) that he may be in danger. 

Río de la Plata (River of Silver) could be a very oblique allusion to Agamemnon's bathtub, which had silver sides. 

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...................12

More portents appear in nature while a woman in a cape attempts to sit in Sweeney's lap.

Orion, Dog: Constellations.

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup, 
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;.............16

The woman—perhaps drunk—falls, pulling at the tablecloth and overturning a coffee cup. On the floor, she gathers herself and yawns, drawing up a stocking. 

The silent man in mocha brown 
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes; 
The waiter brings in oranges 
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;................20

A silent man observes at a window while a waiter brings in fruit. 

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws; 
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;........24

The silent man withdraws while a woman named Rachel devours grapes. The word née indicates that Rachel was born into a Jewish family named Rabinovitch but now has a different last name, that of her husband. It is possible that her husband is in the room (the silent man?) and, with his wife and the woman mentioned in the next stanza, is plotting against Sweeney. 

vertebrate: Category of animals that have a backbone and/or a spinal column. 

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,..................28

Ms. Rabinovitch and the lady in the cape are thought to be plotting against Sweeney. Sweeney, therefore, declines their attentions to him and exhibits fatigue.

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;..............................32

Sweeney leaves the room, goes outside, and stands at the window. Twining vines with flowers form a frame around his face. His grin reveals gold fillings in his teethand perhaps a triumphant feeling that he has escaped the suspect ladies.

The host with someone indistinct 
Converses at the door apart, 
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,......................36

The host of the establishment has what appears to be a sinister conversation with someone, perhaps the silent man, while nightingales sing near a convent housing Roman Catholic nuns. 

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud, 
And let their liquid siftings fall 
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.................40

Nightingales also sang the day Agamemnon cried out that he had suffered a fatal wound. Later, the notes of their song (which can be interpreted as excrement) stain the burial cloth of the dead king. 


Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • In a short essay, compare and contrast the point of view of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" with the point of view in Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
  • Do you believe Eliot goes too far with his difficult language and obscure allusions? Explain your answer.
  • "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" has been interpreted in ways other than the interpretation presented here. Read several other interpretations. Then, in an essay, defend the interpretation that you believe to be the most valid.
  • What is the meaning of gambit in line 28?
  • With whom is the host conversing in the ninth stanza?