Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Popular and the Primitive in T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes and E. E. Cummings' Him


English Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Arts and Humanities


This paper compares and contrasts Eliot's and Cummings' engagement with the popular and the primitive in order to shed light on modernist attitudes towards both. If Eliot often buried his popular and "primitive" sources while parading his learning, Cummings often buried his learning in popular or primitive pastiche. Yet Sweeney Agonistes and Him share interesting parallels. Both Eliot and Cummings include scenes with doubled characters (Klipstein and Krumpacker; Swarts and Snow, Will and Bill) who appear to be aspects of one personality and represent modern psychological fragmentation. Both plays are about birth, copulation, and death, and both imply that romantic love has been destroyed by modernity. While the theme of the blocked artist is more overt in Him, Eliot's failure to finish Sweeney certainly implies some difficulty in integrating popular and primitive material into high art. Both plays suggest rebirth after a period of sterility. Eliot's play ends with nine knocks on the door, while Cummings' symbolism is more explicit: a woman is etherized on a table by a doctor; nine freaks symbolize the nine months between conception and birth, and the last freak, Princess Anankay (Necessity), who is touted as something of a stripper, appears at the end of the play in a virginal white robe, holding an infant. Eliot's rebirth is based more on Frazer and Cornford's vegetation myths, while Cummings' rebirth has traditional Romantic and mystical sources, yet owes something as well to Freud and especially Jung. The two dramatists employed the primitive and the popular as a way of moving drama away from realism towards what they saw as its origins: ritual, music, rhythm, and dance. The original, the primitive, and the popular were valued for their authenticity, power, and closeness to social and psychic life. Moreover, these ur-forms offered a chance to regain a lost psychic unity, both individual and social. Thus these two modernists were interested in dramatizing myths of death and resurrection in order to redeem the unworld of modernity, by reviving (making new) the foundations of art and psyche, and showing the way to psychic and social regeneration. Eliot's regeneration is more circumscribed than Cummings'--who indicates that rebirth could or should occur through an innocent child born to and of Necessity.

Conference Name

Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900

Conference Location

Louisville, KY

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