Anomalous First Lines: Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

There are two points of interest in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The first is the identity of Prufrock’s companion – never specified, it is normally assumed to be the reader of the poem, but it could equally be another person, or creature, or good luck charm, or hat, or umbrella, or even the Muse of Poetry herself. It plays no further part in the story and yet, well, it’s there for reasons of rhetoric or invocation.

The second point is grammatical. The line is so embedded in English poetry that it seems sacrosanct, but periodically someone will point out that it should be “you and me”. Consider these sentences: “Let me go to the store for you.” “Let us go to the store.” “Let’s you and me go to the store.” In all examples, “me” and “us” are the objects of the verb “let”; there is no occasion for “you and I” any more than there is for writing “we” instead of “us”. You wouldn’t say “Let we go to the store.”

Caveat: perhaps a Jamaican would. So Prufrock in patois could begin, “Mek we go den, you an I” or in deference to my Rastafarian brethren, “Mek we go den, you an I an I.” But other than in patois? No, it should be “you and me”.

So why did Eliot write “you and I”? It makes a useful rhyme as part of the startling image that follows. Those who debate this issue often come up with alternative opening lines with a rhyme for either “me” or “you”. Thomas Middleton in the L.A. Times suggests:

Let us go, then, you and me,
When the evening is suspended from a tree
Like a horse thief or a swing put up for children.

while Peter De Vries has offered:

Leave us go then, me and you,
When the evening is dropped like an old shoe,
The first of what must inevitably be two.

Eliot’s version seems better, even if grammatically dubious. However it still grates. And it has the feeling of a class issue. Against the lower-class “you and me” used as a subject–“You and me gonna fight about this”–the upper-class reaction is to use “you and I” pretentiously on all possible occasions, even as an object. But that would suggest that Eliot was a snob… or J. Alfred Prufrock is, at the very least… and I think the voices are the same.

4 thoughts on “Anomalous First Lines: Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’

  1. Joe

    Hi Robin.

    On the other hand, other linguists argue that Eliot is being perfectly grammatical with his “Let us go then, you and I” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/375710) . It never struck me as odd when I first read it. But what I did think weird was “Like a patient etherized upon a table” Like a what? Seriously?? I have grown to love the poem and know it now pretty much by heart. But I am still concussed by that line every time.

    Joe

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    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      Hi Joe, I’m torn between two points of view that I hold: on the one hand, anything that communicates accurately and clearly what the speaker/author intended is grammatically correct – there are no *laws* about grammar, only useful conventions which are always changing anyway, so his “you and I” is fine; on the other hand, I still suspect that this use of “I” when an object is unconscious snobbery, pretentiousness, and it bugs me. (I did see that jstor piece, could only read the first page, it wasn’t making any meaningful points that far.)

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      Reply
  2. David Galef

    Disagree, Robin. The commas separating “you and I” from the rest of the sentence function as parentheses, as in “They sent me dinner (I wanted breakfast)….” Not sure why the identity of the speaker needs to be tied down, but see the Vergil-Dante epigraph. As for “etherised,” the spelling signals that Eliot has become Anglicized. The third line shows a true Modernist sensibility, not the logical romantic continuation but a switcheroo that continues to dislocate readers.

    My three cents,
    David

    Liked by 1 person

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