Hoo-ha’s Coming to You

In “Fragment of a Prologue,” the first part of Sweeney Agonistes (1933), Sam Wauchope brings his friends (Captain Horsfall and two American businessmen, Mr. Klipstein and Mr. Krumpacker) to Doris and Dusty’s flat. They talk casually about the war, a memorable poker game, and London. The five men reappear in the second part (“Fragment of an Agon”), where their singing mingles with the dialogue between Doris and Sweeney (music-hall style) and, as a chorus, they bring the play to a close:

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.

This grim impression harks back to earlier poems by Eliot, such as “Preludes” (1917): “You dozed, and watched the night revealing / the thousand sordid images / of which your soul was constituted”. On the other hand, they prefigure The Family Reunion (1939), whose protagonist, Harry, conveys to his sympathetic cousin Mary the terror of being chased by the Furies: “At the moment before sleep / I always see their claws distended”. In fact, The Family Reunion is often assumed to revisit Sweeney Agonistes, and both texts draw on Aeschylus’s trilogy, the Oresteia. The former is inspired by The Furies, and the latter opens quoting Orestes in The Libation Bearers: “You don’t see them, you don’t – but I see them: they are haunting me down, I must move on”.

The final chorus suggests the nightmare of death in life (“And perhaps you’re alive / And perhaps you’re dead”), echoing Sweeney when he clarifies for Doris that “Death is life and life is death,” a perfect four-stress line that could be interpreted as a mystical paradox. Not surprisingly, the other opening quote chosen by Eliot for Sweeney Agonistes is from St. John of the Cross’s description of the dark night of soul: “Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”.

The via negativa is only tangentially present, as a paratext, in Sweeney Agonistes, a prodigy of rhythm and experimentation published as an “unfinished poem”. It is unfinished literally, but also in the sense of lacking transcendent completion. When Eliot returned to his project of verse drama in the late thirties with The Family Reunion, after his conversion, he was a different man and a different author. In the later work, Harry could leave his family behind in order to follow the Eumenides (that is, the Furies in their benevolent aspect), to head for “somewhere on the other side of despair”.

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