Dear Tom,
 
The only way to answer this is to address the definitions of "vulgar" and "primitive."  In many senses, Sweeney is just vulgar by definition:  for example, he belongs "to the ordinary or common class in the community, esp. the uneducated or ignorant"; he is "a person not reckoned as belonging to good society"; he is one of "the common people."  See the OED.  There are more examples.
 
"Primitive" is a highly charged word.  In the 1920s it was assumed to be an accurate description of societies that we now know were highly complex.  Eliot's use would need to be studied, but he clearly assumed that Conrad's image, for example, was a depiction of primitivism, and he read a lot about it.  The word now is suspect in that general sense, so the question can't be answered just by saying one or the other.  It needs precise definition and analysis of what the difference would be.  I think in Sweeney Agonistes he is both vulgar and primitive (in the sense then generally used).  I haven't thought about the version at Vassar, so I'm only commenting on the published version.
Cheers,
Nancy  

>>> Tom Colket <[log in to unmask]>08/10/09 4:46 PM >>>

Diana:
 
I'm just trying to think through Peter's question: In the early poems, is Sweeney vulgar or just primitive?

 

Yes, the sex being described is mechanical and Eliot's word choices for the physical description of Sweeney are ugly ("withered root", "slitted", "gashed", "oval O cropped out with teeth", etc.). In another poem he is the "silent vertebrate".

 

Primitive, yes. But is he vulgar?
 
I used the term "whore house" because of the later lines in the poem:
 
Mrs. Turner intimates

It does the house no sort of good


-- Tom --

 


Date: Mon, 10 Aug 2009 13:33:50 +0000
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Sweeney Agonistes
To: [log in to unmask]

Tom, "whore house" is vulgar. That you were inspired to use this term may have something to do with the poem.
 
The poem's description of sexual intercourse renders the act purely mechanical, like pistons in a car. Whether it's Eliot or Sweeney, or Sweeney/Eliot who dehumanizes sex is the question.
 
It is not a given that paid sex is dehumanized or dehumanizing. Some johns have relationships with prostitutes over time and find the women to be congenial and understanding.
 
Diana
 

Date: Sun, 9 Aug 2009 17:53:13 -0400
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Sweeney Agonistes
To: [log in to unmask]

Peter wrote (8/6/09):
P> I don't quite agree that Sweeney in the early poems was/is
P> crude and vulgar. I think he is more undefined and so grates
P> against the current culture. I think he is more just primitive.
. . .
P> By the time of Sweeney Ag. he has emerged more, but with his primitive
P> background still resonant. So it is more the perception of Sweeney
P> that evolves, rather than the character himself.

That's an interesting thought, Peter. He certainly is described as primitive in the early poems, but now that you mention it, I'm not sure 'vulgar' is the right description (unless one automatically applies the word 'vulgar' to any man patronizing a prostitute). His physical description is certainly not pretty as he has sex at the whore house:

(Sweeney Erect)
This withered root of knots of hair
Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:
The sickle motion from the thighs
 
Jackknifes upward at the knees
Then straightens out from heel to hip
Pushing the framework of the bed
And clawing at the pillow slip.


As far as whether Sweeney evolves or it's just the reader's perception of him evolves, it's hard for me to reconcile the above descriptive lines from "Sweeney Erect" with the Sweeney speaking lines from the unfinished play "The Superior Landlord" that Eliot gave to Hallie Flanagan in 1933:

Sweeney:
   When will the barnfowl fly before morning?
   When will the owl be operated on for cataracts?
   When will the eagle get out of his barrel-roll?

[Quoted by Chinitz p124, in "T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide"]

It seems to me that Eliot intended Sweeney to evolve, and in very startling ways. Can you imagine being in the audience at Vassar that night (with Eliot in attendance so you know the lines are authentic) and hearing those Sweeney lines?

P> I'm very much of the school that sees Eliot's work as being
P> about perception, and creating for the reader, perceptual effects,
P> rather than spouting meaning or reflecting personal narrative.


Let me respectfully disagree with this. I think Eliot's work is basically religious poetry, with a lot of confessional poetry thrown into the mix. But that's a big topic that will take a lot of posts to explore.

I continue to enjoy the discussion. That's for sharing your views.

-- Tom --

 

Date: Thu, 6 Aug 2009 00:12:21 -0800
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Sweeney Agonistes
To: [log in to unmask]

Also thinking more about S.A.
 
I don't quite agree that Sweeney in the early poems was/is crude and vulgar.
I think he is more undefined and so grates against the current culture.
I think he is more just primitive. He is emerging out of the new ethos, his form
or character is still a silhouette against the sun. Being unknown, and so to speak,
out of control, he seems very threatening. He is not the average music hall patron.
 
By the time of Sweeney Ag. he has emerged more, but with his primitive background still
resonant. So it is more the perception of Sweeney that evolves, rather than the character
himself.
 
I'm very much of the school that sees Eliot's work as being about perception,
and creating for the reader, peceptual effects, rather than spouting meaning
or reflecting personal narrative. That is what makes Sweeney so interesting...
he always manages to have an effect, and it makes one pay attention.
 
In fact he reminds me very much of the the Canadian painter, Wyndham Lewis' emergent
character, the Tyro, about which he published two issues of a magazine by that name.
See his (Lewis') self-portrait as tyro at:
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyndham_Lewis
 
(scroll down a fair amount.)
 
It could very easily be Sweeney.
 
Cheers,
Peter
 
 
----- Original Message -----
From: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">Tom Colket
To: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Tuesday, August 04, 2009 6:45 AM
Subject: Sweeney Agonistes

Thinking more about Sweeney Agonistes, I'd like to revisit some things from earlier in the list discussion.

Firstly, while Sweeney started out in the poems as Eliot's version of a crude, vulgar man, it appears Eliot intended a startling transformation of the Sweeney character. As Schuchard writes in "Eliot's dark Angel",

=================================================
. . .we now know from Eliot's synopsis and extant scenarios that the play would follow the Aristophanic formula. In the scene to follow, Mrs. Porter makes her riotous entrance. . . Sweeney . . .begins the agon as a principle of Life in argument with Mrs. Porter, a principle of Death in the form of sexual sin. As he symbolically slays her, the murder is interrupted by a number of intruders, including Pereria, the degenerate landlord who threatens the girls with eviction. Sweeney defeats Pereria in theological argument, casting him out as unworthy of living a better life and revealing to him that he has become Pereria's landlord, the "Superior Landlord" of the revised title. Mrs. Porter's resurrection, which signals the successful expulsion of death and the induction of new life, is followed by a marriage and feast, with Sweeney the Cook scrambling the eggs for a wedding breakfast of life and death.

In the hymeneal procession that ends the scenario of the play, Sweeney would be held up as l'homme moyen spirituel, the triumphant representative of the Life principle. As such, he has come a long way from making Doris laugh in "Sweeney Erect," from his apprehension of the Furies in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales:' from his ponderous bathtub ruminations on the flesh and the Word in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service."
=================================================

If that transformation is right, the obvious question is: why did Eliot choose to 'evolve' the character rather than invent a new one?

Let me venture an opinion on my own question: I have thought (and this is certainly not an original thought) that Prufrock and Sweeney are the two sides of Eliot, the reserved, refined, inhibited man on one hand and the vulgar, crude, and raucous man on the other. During the period of the Sweeney poems around 1920, Eliot was struggling with the 'crude' man and with all the spiritual baggage it implied. But by the mid-to-late-1920s, Eliot was journeying closer and closer to openly embracing Christianity, and so Sweeney (if he is truly so profoundly linked to his creator, i.e., Eliot) must make that journey with TSE. The character from 1920, along with all that he represented to Eliot, had to evolve.

-- Tom --





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