Thursday, 5 November 2009

The T.S. Eliot Defence

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky

Is without doubt one of the finest couplets in English poetry (by "without doubt" I mean that if you doubt it I will track you down and punch you on the jaw); the only problem with it is that the grammar is wrong - irrefutably and indubitably wrong.

"You and I" is apposite to "us", so it should be "you and me". Put another way: "let you and I go" is as wrong as "let I go". It should be "me".

Me, me, me, me, me.

Let us go then, you and me,
When the evening is a tumpty-tee...


This is a problem for a pedant. What, really, is the point of all this grammatical, syntactical, linguistic brou-ha-ha if you can ignore it all and still write some of the finest lines in English?

What, indeed, about Our Mutual Friend? When two things are mutual each stands in the same relation to the other. There can be mutual love and mutual hate but there can be no third party in a mutual relationship. It should, were the rules obeyed, be called Our Shared Friend.

A Dickens-loving pedant would probably proffer the excuse that the line is attributed in the book to Silas Wegg and that the whole joke is that Wegg is illiterate yet pretentious. They would then return to altering the punctuation in Shakespeare, muttering that dear old Charles do the police in different voices.

Such defenders of Dickens would, I am afraid, be no more convincing than Mr Curdle. Dickens got it wrong. Eliot got it wrong. I do not even believe that he sacrificed "me" for the rhyme.

Yet their wrongness did not detract from their genius because the beauty of the lines and the clearness of thought were not impaired. I would not alter a jot or even a tittle of Eliot's lines any more than I would point out to Botticelli how wrong the anatomy is in the Birth of Venus. Beauty cannot be wrong, nor can the deliberate be mistaken.

So, it's probably worth saying something about the subject of this blog. I am not here to assert by force of arms the hegemony of grammar over sense or by dint of pandiculation the rule of dictionary definitions over perfectly good new uses. Oblivious may be defined in the dictionary as forgetting, but everybody now uses it to mean never having noticed and that is, quite simply, that.

It is only the lazy uses, the meaningless swathes, the casual use of casual, ubiquitous axes and vacuous vibrancies to which we take (odd phrase when you think about it) exception.

Note her left shoulder and arm


  1. As many people have pointed out, Dickens might also have called his book "Our Common Friend", but this might have given the wrong impression.

  2. Somewhat related: I always wish that Keats had capitalized, "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty...", just to suggest the vocative.

  3. Stumbled on this from a previous post. I've heard it argued that by saying "you and I," Eliot was commenting on Prufrock's wanting to be aristocratic; people often believe replacing "me" with "I" sounds smarter. If that is the case (I like to pretend it is), Eliot knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, I often feel that people attribute too much credit to artists. At least it's something to consider.

  4. It can be grammatical.

    You're assuming that "you and I" is apposite to the "us", which is a normal assumption, but not the only valid one.

    Don't treat "let" as a transitive verb - treat it as an imperative. At which point "you and I" can be treated as the vocative recipients of that imperative, and it's perfectly valid.