Sunday Science Poem: Modernists and Darwin

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.
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