[The Symbolism of Sweeney: T.S. Eliot’s Elevation of the Vulgar] [9.17.07]

In his collection of essays written about early twentieth century authors, Axel’s Castle[1], Edmund Wilson takes as a point of reference, if not origin, the Symbolist movement begun in the mid-nineteenth century. By and large a French movement conceived and propagated by French writers, Symbolism describes a practice of self-conscious and severely individualized expression in which authors insert symbols of seemingly arbitrary distinction to explicate sensations, visions, feelings, and meanings. Where previous symbolic usage relied on traditional iconography rife with common meaning across a broad cross-section of a given constituency – the Stars and Stripes suffice as an example of a pair of symbols recognizable as American – these writers desired a more idiosyncratic representation. The proponents of Symbolism sought to express individual experiences, but in ways less direct and naturalistic than those of the writers of the Parnassian school, for example. Wilson’s goal, in writing about Stein, Eliot, and Joyce, among others, is not to align them with the Symbolists, but to show the route by which that movement came to arrive on the doorsteps of the group now referred to as the Modernists.

Wilson, in an introductory essay titled “Symbolism,” quotes Stéphane Mallarmé, a leader of the Symbolists:

The Parnassians, for their part, take the thing just as it is and put it before us – and consequently they are deficient in mystery: they deprive the mind of the delicious joy of believing that it is creating. To name an object is to do away with the three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little: to suggest it, to evoke it – that is what charms the imagination. (18)

Wilson earlier makes reference to a piece by the poet Leconte de Lisle of that Parnassian group, in which elephants cross a desert: “The elephants appear and disappear with a certain classical dignity and grandeur, and the poet leaves it at that.” (7) This typifies the distant and precise description against which Mallarmé argues; it is not against defined meaning but for a flexibility of imagination that he advocates. As in the psychoanalysis that would so influence the Modernist movement, symbols serve as objects or sentiments seemingly “detached from their subjects…[so that] one has to guess what the images are being applied to.” (18-19)

Now, notwithstanding his professed stance on the ideal relationship of the artist to his works of art, T.S. Eliot certainly allowed his own tastes and sensibilities to speak through his own poetry. Wilson begins his essay on Eliot by way of introduction to two French poets who influenced Eliot, and who represent a branch of Symbolism of a different tone than that of Mallarmé’s work. Tristan Corbière and Jules Laforgue – both dead by thirty years of age – represented a voice more ironic than grand, more conversational than classical, a voice through which Eliot himself would portray the post-World War I era.

Compare this, from Laforgue’s “Little Prayer Without Pretensions”[2]:

What dost Thou take us for then? Piddling infants
from whom Thou must keep hidden the Serious Stuff?
Yes, and Thy Will be done…by sycophants
on Earth as it is in Heaven. How oppressive.

with this, from “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”[3]:

The sable presbyters approach
The avenue of penitence;
The young are red and pustular
Clutching piaculative pence.

In both examples one determines a boundary between the old and the young, between a caste of the righteous and a generation subordinate to the dictates of that which has formerly gone unchallenged. Laforgue displays a more direct challenge to the will of some unseen Thou, and belittles the sycophantic nature of those who obey without question. He asks, in the end, to be left:

…in peace, dead to that better life,
to graze [my] swatch of earth, to fuck, to laugh….

This sentiment represents an ecclesiastical version of the rock ‘n’ roll directive: “Take this job and shove it!” While Eliot’s piece is not as strongly profane, it does indeed offer a criticism of the arbiters of religious matters. The “piaculative pence” is Eliot’s phrasing for the payment of a tithe in order to obtain official pardon for one’s sins – the epigraph, “Look, look, master, here comes two religious caterpillars,” from Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” is meant to demean a pair of friars as parasitic, correlative to those who benefit by the shame of the “red and pustular.”

Eliot’s critique extends beyond purely religious matters, though, and the bulk of his most important work seeks to render a depiction of a world he sees as base, ignoble, more brutish and boorish than the past. This, of course, remains debatable as a matter of fact, as any given artist might have a certain tendency to cultivate nostalgia for a bygone age of supposedly purer intentions and grander accomplishments. As a challenge to Eliot’s sense of an inferior present as compared to a superior past, one might point to the advances of modern medicine or the availability of at least an elementary education among all classes as proofs of progress; or point to the dastardly conduct of those in the histories and myths of all cultures as proofs of ancient deficiencies. In any case, there are numerous examples of both the best and worst of human nature present in all places, at all times.

An exemplar of the brutish and uncivilized segment of Eliot’s world is the character called Apeneck Sweeney, who plays a starring role in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.”[4] Without much explication, Eliot manages to describe a character of intellectual inferiority, beastly physicality, and vulgar comportment:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh….

In just the first two lines one sees that Sweeney displays characteristics consistent with those of a beast related to humans, but removed by a few links of the evolutionary chain: he has a neck like an ape; he is vulgar in his posture, legs spread; and his arms hang low, reminiscent of humanity’s knuckle-dragging ancestors. Eliot does not intend his reader to sympathize with this man, but rather to look upon him with contempt; he means to evince some recognition of an all too common representation of a debased modernity. The association, here, of Sweeney with an ape speaks not only to Eliot’s disdain for the perceived intellectual inferiority of his age, but also to his fearful apprehension of its vulgarity and the threat of violence. To show a bumbling dunce would suffice to prove the former, but it takes an epithet like “Apeneck” – which displays flawless execution of the symbolism Wilson describes in his essay – to accommodate both the former as well as the latter denigrations.

Sweeney, however, is not the only target for Eliot’s supercilious contempt. The nightingales of the poem’s title refer to, in an ironic sense, two women conspiring in the bar where Sweeney loafs. One, likely drunk, attempts to seduce the hero, and proceeds to try to sit on his lap, only to fall to the floor with the tablecloth and the table’s contents. This is certainly no romance for the ages. The two women then appear to conspire against Sweeney, or another hapless man in the dive, perhaps to bilk him of money, perhaps just for another drink. At the poem’s close, the nightingales, now as actual birds “singing near / The convent of the Sacred Heart,” serve to draw an unflattering comparison between the flappers and the nightingales that “sang within the bloody wood…and let their liquid siftings fall / To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud” of Agamemnon, murdered by his wife and her lover. Through this image, the last of the poem, Eliot has incorporated the myth of a murdered hero and that of Procne, who fed her son, Itys, to her husband, Tereus, as penance for the rape of her sister, Philomela. Described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses[5] the transformation of Procne into a nightingale allows her to escape after enacting her revenge. The “liquid siftings” represent the disgust with which Procne came to view her husband, and Agamemnon’s “dishonoured shroud” represents the baseness of his death. The link, the bridge for Eliot’s elision of two unconnected narratives, is that the two tales center on violence brought on men by women.

Not content to describe the debaucheries of a woman with the colloquialisms of his day, Eliot opts to couch the scene of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” in settings of that vaunted past so full of heroism and devastating sacrifice. Because he sees his peers and their situations as so morally bankrupt, intellectually vapid, and emotionally stultified, Eliot cannot help but refer to times and personalities he takes as fundamentally and invariably more robust and therefore more meaningful. By weaving tragedies from classical mythology into a poem about a night in a bar, and by comparing the distress of Procne to the pettiness of a drunk looking for another drink, Eliot elevates the ironies of his Symbolist forbears, Corbière and Laforgue, from the vulgarity of a profane statement into the grandiosity of a true epic.

[1] Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle. 1931. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004.
[2] Laforgue, Jules. Trans. Browning Porter. “Poems of Jules Laforgue”. Blue Penny Quarterly. September 17, 2007 http://ebbs.english.vt.edu/olp/bpq/6/poems.html.
[3] Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1971.
[4] Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1971.
[5] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

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