Books: Sweeney & the Mockingbirds

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THE SWEENIAD (66 pp.)—Myra Buttle —Sagamore ($2).

A man who sees himself become a public monument in his own lifetime runs the risk of finding rude and irreverent remarks scribbled on the plinth. Such is the case of Britain's T. S. Eliot. Now he has had the ultimate accolade: a full-and fancy-dress parody. In the season's least subtle anagram, it is signed Myra Buttle; it represents the rebuttal to Eliot of a waspish and clever Cambridge lecturer in Far Eastern history named Victor Purcell (possibly, the publishers heavily hint, he had some distinguished anti-Eliot collaborators, including Robert Graves and C. Day Lewis). In Britain The Sweeniad—titled for Apeneck Sweeney, Eliot's loathed modern subman—has already provoked tempests in all the best literary teapots. "Bravo!" cried Graham Greene. "A delight," said Bertrand Russell (who was once more or less described by Poet Eliot as an "irresponsible foetus").

For any reader even vaguely familiar with Eliot, a lot of the book is good fun—it might be titled Sweeney Among the Mockingbirds. Parodist Purcell has great sport with Eliot's comparison shopping between languages and religions, his footnote-prone scholarship, his frequent obscurity ("Fiffles the refulgence of the Pliocene"). Typical of the parody is one passage from a psuedo-Wasteland:

. . . And when we were out on bail,

staying with the Dalai Lama, My uncle, he gave me a ride on a yak, And I was speechless. He said, Mamie Mamie, grasp his ears. And off we went Beyond Yonkers, then I felt safe.

I drink most of the year and then I have a Vichy,*

This sort of spoofing aside, the book has a deadly serious animus: its real intention against Eliot is not to tear him for his bad verses but to attack him for his principles—which Eliot once oversimplified in his self-description as "an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics." Lapsing into angry prose, Author Purcell elaborately accuses Missouri-born Thomas Stearns Eliot of being a reactionary, a Christian, an American, a spoilsport and ployer of anti-lifemanship, a sociologically irresponsible escapist. In a typical passage, Purcell complains that "The very great improvement in the living conditions of the working classes" after World War I was "of no concern" to Eliot—which is about as irrelevant as panning Shakespeare for being a jingo.

In The Dunciad, Alexander Pope's genius and malice made Colley Cibber memorable ; in The Vision of Judgment, Byron made Southey immortal. But if the name of Victor Purcell—or Myra Buttle—is remembered in a hundred years it will be for the fact that he threw a dead cat at a living poet. Before The Sweeniad nears its inevitable conclusion ("This is the way that Sweeney ends. Not with a curse but a mutter"), the satire has fallen heavily among the bric-a-brac.

*The original: . . . And when we were children, staying at the archduke's, My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, And I was frightened. He said, Marie, Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. In the mountains, there you feel free. I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.