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Sweeney among the Nightingales by T.S. Eliot summary

About the poet

T.S. Eliot was a poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, literary critic and editor. Considered one of the 20th century’s major poets, he is a central figure in English-language Modernist poetry. Eliot first attracted widespread attention for his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915, which, at the time of its publication, was considered bizarre.

Read the poem


Sweeney is the main character of this poem, who looks like an Ape. He is filled with lust and vigor. He spends his life engaging himself in activities that gave him pleasure. He is sitting in a pub, because he desires both women and alcohol. He is an example of a spoilt urban human. However, he has no spiritual values inherited in his life. He has a spirit like that of an animal; and he loves violence and sex to the extreme.

The epigraph of the poem is taken from the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. It is about the last words of the dying king Agamemnon, who was a great warrior, but killed by his own wife Clytemnestra. Thus, we can get an idea of the type of poem it is going to be. It will include betrayal and treachery. The first stanza of the poem depicts the appearance of Sweeney, whose hands and neck looks just like that of an Ape. He is sitting in a pub, just like a giraffe spreading its neck to reach the highest leaves. His animal spirits are visible in this environment of the pub. When he laughs, his jaws look like that of a zebra. Sweeney resembles a wild animal, ready to have a feast. The poet creates an environment of disaster. The planets are situated in very awkward positions, and the moon is covered with dark clouds. This is an imagery of approaching calamity. Death is personified as a planet, which is moving with the Raven, i.e. a collection of stars that is associated with death. The ‘Horned Gate’ that Sweeney is guarding is another symbol of Agamemnon’s death. Thus, the line “Sweeney guards the horned gate” means that he is unaware of the calamity to come upon him and guarding the same cause of his destruction. The two other stars named Orion and Dog are covered with thick clouds. These stars are associated with positivity, and being covered with clouds signifies a disaster. All these imageries build up an atmosphere of suspense, gloom and disaster.

steve doogan: Sweeney Among The Nightingales

Then, a prostitute in a Spanish cape tries to seduce Sweeney in the pub. She tries to keep him busy in sexual activity. She tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees to arouse him sexually. However, Sweeney becomes suspicious of her intentions and pushes her away. She holds the table cloth to save herself from falling down. She then casually gets up and reorganizes herself. She is not humiliated at Sweeney’s action, because such incidents are faced by her daily. Then, we are told that Sweeney is a silent man wearing a brown suit. He looks out through the window, as he is not interested in the events happening in the pub. His gestures resemble him with an animal. The waiter enters the scene and brings fruits for Sweeney. The waiter might be one of the conspirators to murder Sweeney.

Rachel, another prostitute enters and sits near Sweeney while tearing grapes. Sweeney suspects that the two prostitutes have planned to seduce and kill him. He doesn’t eat the fruits. He fakes being fatigued and escapes from the room. He then stands outside the window and tries to decode the plan that the two prostitutes were trying to play with him. He tries to lean inside to get a view but his face is struck by the branches of wistaria tree. There is a significance of the wistaria here. The color of wistaria plant is purple, which is the same color of the cloth used by Clytemnestra to kill her husband Agamemnon. Sweeney smiles in a feeling of achieving victory. He feels that he successfully escaped his death by managing to control his sexual desires. As Sweeney peeps inside the pub, he sees that the owner is talking to someone. That man might be one of the conspirators. However, he cannot hear their words.

Just then he hears the sound of melodious nightingales grabs his attention. The sound is coming from The Convent of the Sacred Heart School. Thus, the nightingales might be a reference to young girls or nuns of the Convent. A Convents is a Christian community of priests, nuns, monks etc living in a building. However, nightingales might also signify prostitutes as well. In the last stanza, the poet deals with Agamemnon’s death once again. Sweeney’s unsuccessful murder attempt is being compared to the murder of the great hero. However, Sweeney’s death will have no such impact on the history. The poet uses ‘bloody wood’ as a reference from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus; where the bloody wood is a place of singing nightingales. Agamemnon’s death took place there. While he cried aloud in pain, nobody came forward to save him. The Nightingales flew over him and threw their droppings over his shroud, polluting it, which is an act of dishonour.

The reference of the nightingales in this poem is related to the two murders. Queen Clytemnestra’s successful plan of murdering her husband Agamemnon and the unsuccessful attempt of the prostitutes to murder Sweeney. However, the ‘nightingales’ do not care about the status of the person dead. They sang and excreted the same way on the murder of the great war hero Agamemnon, as they are now singing and excreting on the trees near the pub, even on the failed attempt at murder of our mock-hero Sweeney.

Structure of the poem:-

The poem is written in quatrains, a total of ten quatrains. The rhyming scheme is ABCB, where the second line of the quatrain rhymes with its last line. The poem is written in Iambic tetrameter. Eliot uses several literary devices like metaphor, allusion, personification etc to enhance the attractiveness of his poem. The poem is written as a mock-heroic poem, like Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. The word ‘Nightingales’ in the title stands for prostitutes, whose murder plot against Sweeney is given a heroic significance in this poem.

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