Notes and Observations on T. S. Eliot's Early Poems, by Patricia Sloane

10. Sweeney and Prufrock


Many of the male characters in Eliot's early poems seem to be variations on Sweeney or Prufrock. Eliot may have originally meant to introduce each of them in poems carrying similar titles. An early draft of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was parenthetically subtitled "(Prufrock among the Women)". As editor Christopher Ricks notes in T. S. Eliot / Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1996), p. 41, the title of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is "indebted to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Bianca Among the Nightingales." Each title sets the character in an environment ("among"). One mentions women. The other, in a more removed manner, adapts a title from a poem by a woman (Browning) that mentions a woman (Bianca).

The parenthetical "(Prufrock among the Women)" was removed from "Love Song" before publication. Perhaps it made the cross-references too obvious. My impression, from early drafts, is that Eliot rarely changed what he had to say, but often modified how he said it.

In a more eccentric Prufrock-Sweeney (Bleistein?) "connection," Prufrock's name may have been taken from that of a mercantile establishment in St. Louis (or a mover, or a St. Louis family). Bleistein is almost certainly the family name of London furriers who kept a shop near Lloyd's bank. Whether or not Sweeney and Bleistein are interchangeable, Eliot describes both in similar terms. In "Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar", Bleistein's way (past tense) is said to have included,

A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese. (13-16)
Bleistein's knee and arm problems are similar to those displayed by Sweeney, who steps forth in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" amid recollections of Agamemnon (the Trojan War?).
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh (1-2)
All racist caricatures are alike. They paint the despised group-any group-as simian or sub-human. The game has been played with the Jews, in England with the Irish (Sweeney?), with Greeks (Ulysses?).... Frazer, in one of the more irritating aspects of The Golden Bough, seems to find everyone wanting but the English. While Eliot was at Harvard (1912), the Italian ambassador complained that a bias in favor of Anglo-Saxons was being overdone in newspaper coverage of the sinking of the Titanic. Many years later, the Jews, the Irish "sweenies," and just about everyone else, struck back with contemptuous talk about WASPs. I am not convinced that Eliot, the Anglophile, was an uncritical admirer of everything about the English.

The picture of "Apeneck Sweeney" as a bit of a beast is rounded out in "Sweeney Erect," the most Homeric of the Sweeney poems. Awakening Sweeney "rises from the sheets" (with an erection?) in what appears to be a loose take-off on an incident in Odyssey 6. Naked Ulysses, awakened from sleep, frightens Nausicaa and the maidens when he stumbles out to appear before them unclothed. Many of the Greek names Eliot scatters through "Sweeney Erect" come from a fairly compact section of the Odyssey: Nausicaa, Polypheme (blinded by Ulysses), Aeolus (whose winds are released by Ulysses' men), and so forth.

Bleistein the cartoon Jew, and Sweeney the cartoon Christian, might have stepped out of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, the equal-opportunity farce that concludes Jews are horrible, Christians are horrible, and, in the sorrowful words of the Psalmist, "there is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Ps. 14.3). If we assume Eliot intended Bleistein and Sweeney to be brothers under the skin, they may have a third brother who is even more beastly. In a device Eliot uses with great wit in The Waste Land, many or most threads to this third brother lead only to Sweeney, and Bleistein recedes into the background. This may be a take-off on a form that philosophers call the Aristotelian sorites (chain reasoning). If Sweeney has a second brother, it follows that this brother is also a brother to Bleistein (perfectly logical).

In "Sweeney Erect," Sweeney is "broadbottomed" (22). In "Sunday Morning Service," he stirs in his bath in cadences echoed when the Sweeney-like hippo rests in its bath.

Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the waters in his bath.
In "Hippopotamus,"
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Sweeney, if we should notice these parallelisms, may somewhat resemble the hippopotamus, and somewhat resemble Bleistein. In considering what (if anything) this might mean, we may be tempted to exclude from consideration those possibilities that seem laughable, ridiculous, far-fetched, or too absurd to take seriously. Is Sweeney a protean shape-shifter who appears in different forms in different poems? Is there a level at which Bleistein and the hippopotamus are "personas" of Sweeney, or two of his many personas? To adjudicate on this issue, we may not feel a need for literary precedents. But Eliot tantalizes by scattering about "precedents" (if we want them). Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example, is quoted in a note to The Waste Land. It tells about gods and goddess who change their forms, or who change human beings from one form to another.

At a mythic (or psychoanalytic?) level, Sweeney might pass for a personification of what used to be called the animal (or animalistic) aspect of human nature. The Greeks thought that the centaurs (half-human, half-horse), or the horse part of the centaurs, personified this "lower" nature. Freud brushed aside the lascivious centaurs and introduced the term Id. The Id, he said, is polymorphous-perverse. In its single-minded pursuit of pleasure, it can assume many forms (polymorphous). Eliot's Sweeney might almost pass as a cartoon-like personification of Freud's Id, at least to the extent that angst-ridden Prufrock might almost pass as a cartoon-like personification of Freud's Super-Ego. Or Eliot might have meant something else. The intimations about horses (and hoarseness) that persistently follow Sweeney may be meant to remind us of the centaurs, including the centaurs that appear in Inferno.

In Eliot's poems and plays, centaurs are actually mentioned only in Mr. Apollinax, along with talk of Priapus, the Roman garden god who can be identified in statuary by his gigantic erect penis. Whether the legendary member of Priapus has anything to do with the title of "Sweeney Erect" is unclear. But "Mr. Apollinax" is commonly held to be a sly allusion to Bertrand Russell's lasciviousness. Its beating centaur's feet (the centaurs of Greek mythology were lascivious) are echoed in the beat of the horses feet (hoofs) in "Burbank."

I heard the beat of centaur's hoofs over the hard turf (16)
...................................................................
The horses, under the axletree
Beat up the dawn from Istria
With even feet. (9-11)

If the beating feet (hoofs) are meant to point to any notable "relationship" between the two poems, Luther Burbank, like Bertrand Russell, was an outspoken atheist of his day. But Burbank is actually mentioned in "Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar"; Russell is never actually mentioned in "Mr. Apollinax."

Silly parodies of The Waste Land abound, including an unpublished example by Edna St Vincent Millay (Vassar Library). They fall short of addressing the question of whether the poem is already a parody, and, if so, what is being parodied. In my reading of the little trilogy of "God-centered" poems (Ara Vos Prec), the first of two miniature Commedias unfolds, or the first of two Mad-hatter burlesques of Commedia.

"Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar" is a modern Inferno set in Venice, in which Sweeney appears as a Jew (or two Jews). In "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," a Purgatorio, tubby Sweeney reappears in his tub pondering Christian (and "philosophical") mysteries. In "Hippopotamus," he finds the effective way to transcend his sectarian former lives. Now neither Jew nor Christian, Sweeney-'potamus was seen ascending to heaven. He will not be heard from again until his hoarse (or horse?) voice opens The Waste Land.

Perhaps because Prufrock is more self-effacing, small parallelisms that tie him to the Fisher King often turn on extreme indirection. For example, Prufrock's name is absent from the poem that we nominally assume is "about" him. It only appears in the title. In a parallel that may have been studied, the name, or title, of the Fisher King (a Prufrock type?) never appears The Waste Land. It only appears in the notes.

Assuming that the farcical "parallelism" is intended, it enhances the possibility that the Fisher King and Prufrock may have a few things in common. It also points to a range of genuine philosophical questions that might have been of interest to anyone with Eliot's background. Or he may have seen them as amusing questions to parody. Is the title of a poem "part" of the poem? Are the notes to a text "part" of the text? Are epigraphs and prologues "connected" to the poems they precede? Is the number of words on a line significant (if the poet seems to have counted the number of words)? More remotely, given the emphasis on puns and related word-play, does a word "mean" all of its possible meanings? Perhaps the answer to each of these questions is that a poem can be whatever a poet wants it to be, and Eliot may be pushing the envelope.

The reader's response to the poem is a necessary part of the equation, if only because communication is two-sided. Here, Eliot may have something for everyone. I regard The Waste Land and at least five other early Eliot poems as double texts. In a great tour de force by the poet, each of the poems can show either of two different faces, according to the preferences of the reader. I loosely call them the Romantic face (tragedy) and the Classical face (comedy). The tragic face, which shows touches of comedy, has been familiar for decades, and brought Eliot international acclaim. The man has a magical facility for stringing words together, and at an extreme we need not worry inordinately about what the words might mean. Intriguing fragments of images float about like flotsam and jetsam from the sea. To many readers, the very disjointedness was a powerful statement about the modern world. To reach this face, we need give only limited attention to the literary sources, or even none at all.

The comic face, perhaps a "superior amusement," requires a different reading strategy. Eliot's cited and uncited literary sources cannot be "disregarded." Doing a reasonably thorough job with the notes to The Waste Land might imply, for example, reading all of the Aeneid, though Eliot cites only one line and quotes only ten words (92n). The texts used by both Eliot and Dante, including the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, may be less widely read today than the Elizabethans and later authors. Eliot's wit turns partly on playing games with the reader's expectations, partly on giving unexpected twists to small details in the source works, and partly on the kinds of extreme indirection I have meant to outline here.

© 1997 by Patricia Sloane

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