Category Archives: Anomalous First Lines

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.

Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

“Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;”

The first line of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’, one of Matthew Arnold’s best-known poems, is anomalous in two ways: first by the introduction of a shepherd whose identity and purpose are never detailed, and secondly by the use of the word “you”.

The shepherd is, according to various pieces of literary analysis, an evocation of the pastoral spirit. All well and good, but what is he doing? The poet summons him to get to his morning work, and then asks him to “again begin the quest” in the evening – the quest being (presumably) the search for the Scholar Gypsy. The first stanza reads in full:

Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;
Go, shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes!
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep are sometimes seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanch’d green,
Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!

The poet will wait for the shepherd all day in the shady corner of a half-reaped field, rereading Glanville’s ancient account of the Oxford student who dropped out to join a band of gypsies. It is a slow start to a rambling poem, and though shepherds are mentioned again they prove unnecessary in the 24 stanzas that follow. The poet is determined to track down the scholar-gypsy who is a) seen from time to time, b) over 200 years old, and c) ageless because he is untainted by modern life (Matthew Arnold wasn’t that big on science or history, apparently). The purpose of tracking the scholar-gypsy down turns out to be to tell him:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,

And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.

Thanks a lot, Matthew Arnold! You want to track down someone who is hard to find, in order to warn him not to make contact because it will be fatal? Not sure you’re thinking clearly here…

The other anomaly in the first line of the poem is the use of the word “you”. It is natural enough, until you realise that the remaining 249 lines are purely “thee” and “thou”. If Arnold wanted to write in the artificial language that was still (barely) normal for poetry in his day, why didn’t he do so in the first line of the poem? I can’t think of any reason, and assume it was unintentional – perhaps the first line of the poem just came to him as it is, and he accepted it; but as he worked on the rest of the poem in more deliberate fashion he adopted the style he felt appropriate. A pity. He stood on the cusp of contemporary language, but didn’t quite get there.

Photo: “sheep at hillside” by christophercjensen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0