Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Mistaken long: Andrew Marvell and pronouns again

I’ve been familiar with Andrew Marvell’s poem, “The Garden”, for a long time. I first encountered it in the early 1970s when I was at school. I was entranced by the ideas of the mind as an “ocean where each kind | Does straight its own resemblance find,” (ll. 43–4) and the soul which “Casting the body’s vest aside” (l. 51) glides into the boughs of the trees to prepare “for longer flight” (l. 55). But I forgot about the poem and rediscovered it with delight twenty years later when I went back to college in my thirties to study English (having done Law the first time around). I eventually wrote my doctoral thesis on Marvell; and it was “The Garden” that first hooked me on his poetry.

So, it’s a poem that I’m quite familiar with, and I’m embarrassed to have to admit that there’s something obvious about it that I had never noticed until last week. The second stanza begins:

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men. (ll. 9–12)

I had often noticed the shift from “thee” and “thy” in the first two lines of this stanza, to “you” in the third, but I had never before paid attention to the reason for this shift. Suddenly it struck me that “you” is — of course! — plural: the speaker is no longer speaking to, and about, “Fair Quiet” alone, but Quiet and Innocence together. Not only had he formerly been seeking Quiet “in busy companies of men”, he’d also been looking for Innocence in all the same wrong places! He had not only been long mistaken, but doubly so.

We’re now accustomed to the singular use of “you”, so it was easy for me to assume that the speaker continued, as he had started, to address a single listener. Now that I’ve seen my error, I think I ought to search through Marvell’s works to see whether he ever uses “you” as a singular pronoun and, if so, in what circumstances.

One of the arguments in favour of “the singular they” is that a similar change in number had happened in the case of “you”, without that causing confusion or difficulty. Before that change, “thou”, “thee” and “thy” were used informally and between equals, while “you” and “your” indicated that one was speaking either to more than one person, or to an individual who deserved or required respect or deference. As we know, “thou” became archaic and now everybody is “you”, however many or few they are.

But it’s not really true, is it, that the singularization of “you” came about without any confusion or misunderstanding? It often seems to me that we’re constantly looking to reintroduce a distinctively plural version of the second person pronoun. My father used to say “you people” to make it clear that he was addressing us collectively, not individually. When I lived in Dublin in the late 70s and early 80s, it wasn’t unusual to hear “yous” performing the same function. I went through a phase of using it myself. And, of course, there’s “y’all”.

In short, I think there’s clearly some value in retaining a distinction between singular and plural pronouns. I’m not, of course, advocating that we bring back “thou”. But I expect that if (when?) use of the singular they becomes the norm, we’re likely to see determined attempts to distinguish the plural from it. “They-all” perhaps. Or “theys”?

Posted by Art on 16-Dec-2022.