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After reading some of the recent posts on the list, I've been thinking about Eliot's "Sweeney Agonistes". I know the work was unfinished, so we don't know what the final form may have been. Nonetheless, I have some thoughts and questions about a particular line from the work, the line about "Birth, and copulation, and death".

Sweeney describes life on a crocodile isle, a life with "no telephones, . . . no gramophones, . . . no motor cars, . . . nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows".

Then he says that there is "Nothing at all but three things . . . Birth, and copulation, and death.
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.
. . .
That's all the facts when you come down to brass tacks"

It seems that Sweeney is trying to describe the situation we find ourselves in on this Earth (i.e., the cycle of life we find ourselves in). The word that stands out to me as very odd is "copulation".

First of all, in past poems Sweeney is Eliot's 'uncouth, natural man'. Sweeney "shifts from ham to ham, stirring the waters in his bath" in contrast to the "masters of the subtle schools". Sweeney has sex in a whorehouse and is described in blunt terms such as "This withered root of knots of hair/Slitted below and gashed with eyes,/This oval O cropped out with teeth".

It strikes me as odd that this same "uncouth" Sweeney now uses a rather fancy word like "copulation". I would have expected a more basic description from Sweeney, such as:

"Birth, and sex, and death.
That's all the facts when you come down to brass tacks"

or even

"Birth, and screwing, and death."

On top of that, when contemplating the "cycle of life", I believe that most people think about _reproduction_ rather than _sex_ as the triumvirate of "brass tasks". I wonder if the four-syllable word "copulation" in fact invites the reader to think about another formulation with a different four-syllable word, namely, "Birth, and reproduction, and death."

There is a striking contrast between having one of the "brass tasks of existence" be "copulation" rather than "reproduction". In focusing on sex, Eliot asks an implied question: Why is 'sex' of equal importance to the individual as 'birth' and 'death'? What makes 'sex' an equal partner with the other two in the cycle of life?

I think Eliot is trying to say, as he has done in other works and essays, that sex serves a critical (and unexpected) purpose for humankind. The critical purpose is not reproduction but rather is that sex prepares the individual for a union of the soul and God.

I know Eliot's essay "DANTE (1929)" has been quoted on the list before, but for your convenience I'd like to quote the passage relevant to what I'm talking about:


The attitude of Dante to the fundamental experience of the _Vita Nuova_ can only be understood by accustoming ourselves to find meaning in _final causes_ rather than in origins. It is not, I believe, meant as a description of what he _consciously_ felt on his meeting with Beatrice, but rather as a description of what that meant on mature reflection upon it. The final cause is the attraction towards God. A great deal of sentiment has been spilt, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upon idealizing the reciprocal feelings of man and woman towards each other, which various realists have been irritated to denounce: this sentiment ignoring the fact that the love of man and woman (or for that matter of man and man) is only explained and made reasonable by the higher love, or else is simply the coupling of animals.


In this passage we see "copulation" (the coupling of animals) elevated to inducing the individual to understand the "higher love", the soul's attraction towards God.

I think this also ties back to the epigraph of the work, where Eliot provides the quote from "St. John of the Cross, "Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings".

As always, comments criticisms and corrections are welcome.

-- Tom --

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