Sweeney Erect

Original Text: 
T. S. Eliot, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920): 19-21. E546 A753 1920a Fisher Rare Book Library.
And the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks
Groan with continual surges; and behind me,
Make all a desolation. Look, look, wenches!
4      Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.
8      And swell with haste the perjured sails.
9Morning stirs the feet and hands
12    Rises from the sheets in steam.
13This withered root of knots of hair
14    Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
15This oval O cropped out with teeth:
16    The sickle motion from the thighs
17Jackknifes upward at the knees
18    Then straightens out from heel to hip
19Pushing the framework of the bed
20    And clawing at the pillow slip.
21Sweeney addressed full length to shave
22    Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,
23Knows the female temperament
24    And wipes the suds around his face.
25(The lengthened shadow of a man
27Who had not seen the silhouette
28    Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).
29Tests the razor on his leg
30    Waiting until the shriek subsides.
31The epileptic on the bed
32    Curves backward, clutching at her sides.
33The ladies of the corridor
34    Find themselves involved, disgraced,
35Call witness to their principles
36    And deprecate the lack of taste
37Observing that hysteria
38    Might easily be misunderstood;
40    It does the house no sort of good.
41But Doris, towelled from the bath,
42    Enters padding on broad feet,


1] The epigraph is Aspatia's directions to the tapestry-makers in The Maid's Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: she tells them to depict the tale of Ariadne, like herself someone who has lost a love, with a barrenness that reflects how she feels. Back to Line
2] unstilled Cyclades: Greek islands in the Aegean Sea that in legend are floating. Back to Line
3] anfractuous: tortuously broken. Back to Line
5] Aeolus: god of the winds in Greek mythology. Back to Line
6] Reviewing: viewing again, perhaps viewing as turning around to one's backside. Back to Line
7] Ariadne: this daughter of Minos, king of Crete, gave Theseus the thread by which he escaped from the Minotaur's labyrinth. Afterwards, Theseus married and then abandoned her on Naxos, where she hanged herself. On his return to Athens, Theseus forgot to change the colour of his sails from black -- which was supposed to signify his defeat -- as a result of which his father the king, fearing the worst from sails that in effect lied, also committed suicide. Back to Line
10] Nausicaa: Homer's Odyssey tells how the daughter of the king of King Alcinous brought naked, shipwrecked Odysseus back to the safety of her court on Scheria. Polypheme: chief of the man-eating cyclops, blinded by Odysseus and his ship-mates so that they could escape from his hands. Back to Line
11] orang-outang: Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," associates its murders with an orang-outang's lathering and shaving by means of his owner's razor. Back to Line
26] The essay "Self-Reliance," by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), states that "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man .... and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons" (Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957]: 154-55). Back to Line
39] Mrs. Turner: the keeper of a bawdy house. Back to Line
43] sal volatile: smelling salts, used to awaken someone from a faint. Back to Line
44] neat: served without water or another mixer. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
First published in Art and Letters 2.3 (Summer 1919). In England published in an almost identical book, Ara Vos Prec (London: Ovid Press, [1920]). Donald Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (London: Faber and Faber, 1969): A4b, C81.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.
Special Copyright: 

© T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber Ltd 1974