Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Apeneck Sweeney's Penitential Path

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Apeneck Sweeney's Penitential Path

Article excerpt

Sweeney is a baffling person. He runs in and out poems like a naughty boy, scarcely offers an explanation of his conduct, and generally confounds" critics by his bad manners and rude behaviour.--T. H. Thompson (161)

Names are critically important in the poetry of T. S. Eliot. The brilliant choice of J. Alfred Prufrock characterizes the protagonist of Eliot's great early poem in a single indelible stroke, while names such as Grishkin, Mr. Apollinax, and Rachel nee Rabinovitch are likewise famously memorable. Many readers have found similarly suggestive the name of Sweeney, the main character in three of the quatrain poems and the Sweeney Agonistes fragments as well as a bit player in The Waste Land, but there has been little consensus as to what the name might actually suggest. Some have heard in it a resemblance to swine, others to swans. (1) Most agree that the name denotes an Irishman, but what it connotes appears to range widely, from a stereotypically drunken Irish-Catholic brute to an appealingly unsophisticated "natural man." Confusion and conflict among the various interpretations of the Sweeney poems are evident in the essays collected in Kinley Roby's Critical Essays on T. S. Eliot: The Sweeney Motif, the most comprehensive treatment of the character to date.

In his introduction, Roby argues that Sweeney cannot simply be dismissed as "a decayed version of the classic hero, the modern world's disgraceful entry in the lists of mythical heroes, a man without culture, traditions, ideals, or moral vision" (1), but many of the essays in the volume go on to do precisely that. Elizabeth Drew, in a piece excerpted from her influential study T. S. Eliot. The Design of His Poetry, argues that the central point of the quatrain poems is the juxtaposition of a "uniformly stale and unsavory" present, of which Sweeney is the prime exemplar, with "the continuous reminder of times when it was not so," in the more glorious past captured in art and literature (41). Jonathan Morse asserts that "Sweeney is physically and morally repulsive," (137), while Nancy Hargrove finds in him a representation of "that element of humanity, and more specifically modern humanity, which is vulgar, physical, uneducated, and without human or spiritual values" (149). (2) In contrast, the collection includes several positive evaluations of Sweeney as well. Jerome Meckier notes that "Sweeney in his bath is closer to the baptized Christ than are the presbyters" in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," (192) and Robert DeGraaff sees Sweeney as "earthy but not unkind," (221) an exponent of an "innocent simplicity" (222). Strikingly, there seems to be little or no common ground between the two camps, as few of the essays give serious attention to the possibility of differing evaluations. The sharp divergence of opinion extends even to what would seem to be more straightforward matters of interpretation, such as, for instance, whether Sweeney and "the man with heavy eyes" in "Sweeney among the Nightingales" are identical, or if they are two different characters. (3)

It is by no means surprising that texts as subtle and allusive as Eliot's Sweeney poems should produce a diversity of interpretation. If meaning in literature were entirely transparent, after all, we would have no need for literary critics. What is striking, however, is the extreme polarization evident in criticism surrounding the figure of Sweeney. As Roby's essay collection demonstrates, conclusions tend to be stated with great confidence and little room for any sort of middle ground, despite the existence of multiple opposing interpretations. In this essay, I would like to suggest that Eliot's Sweeney might be better understood through reference to one of the possible sources for the character. While no definitive source has been identified, it has occasionally been suggested, most notably by Herbert Knust, that Eliot may have drawn on a character called Suibhne, the Middle Irish progenitor of the modern name Sweeney. …

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