Modernist writers and artists were heavily influenced by the remarkable series of heavily popularized, late 19th, early 20-th century scientific findings that can still stir controversy today. The work of Darwin and Einstein in particular, as well as the less scientific work of Freud contributed to the notion that human nature was not what it used to be. The mechanized mass slaughter of World War I appeared to verify the modern picture of humans as driven by unconscious drives and primordial animal urges.
T.S. Elliot’s poem “Sweeney Among The Nightingales” can be read as a disturbed response to Darwin. The main character, Apeneck Sweeney, “the silent vertebrate” is portrayed as an ape who eats ‘oranges bananas figs and hothouse grapes’ in a café while being hit on by prostitutes. Against these animal images Eliot placed allusions to and images from classical literature – a literature which, despite the rampant violence and depravity it depicts, portrays humans as noble and heroic.
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees Letting his arms hang down to laugh, The zebra stripes along his jaw Swelling to maculate giraffe. The circles of the stormy moon Slide westward toward the River Plate, Death and the Raven drift above And Sweeney guards the horned gate. Gloomy Orion and the Dog Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas; The person in the Spanish cape Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees Slips and pulls the table cloth Overturns a coffee-cup, Reorganized upon the floor She yawns and draws a stocking up; The silent man in mocha brown Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes; The waiter brings in oranges Bananas figs and hothouse grapes; The silent vertebrate in brown Contracts and concentrates, withdraws; Rachel née Rabinovitch Tears at the grapes with murderous paws; She and the lady in the cape Are suspect, thought to be in league; Therefore the man with heavy eyes Declines the gambit, shows fatigue, Leaves the room and reappears Outside the window, leaning in, Branches of wistaria Circumscribe a golden grin; The host with someone indistinct Converses at the door apart, The nightingales are singing near The Convent of the Sacred Heart, And sang within the bloody wood When Agamemnon cried aloud, And let their liquid droppings fall To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.