Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hortatory subjuctive FTW

I was sitting in on a course in seventeenth-century poetry, many years ago. The professor was an obdurate character: there was a right way to read poetry, and there was everything else. You can guess whose way was the right way. Anyway: the discussion turned to the words “let us” in a poem. “I’ve always wondered,” the professor mused, “what that verb form is called.”

And me: “It’s the hortatory subjunctive.”

A defensive personality might have heard in my quick response a trace of accusation: “Goodness me, doesn’t everyone know that?” I intended no such accusation. But as I recall, the professor made no reply beyond a weak smile. Victory, for about three shining seconds, was mine.

The hortatory subjunctive is indeed for reals. I learned about it when studying T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with Jim Doyle, who mentioned it in passing: “Let us go then, you and I.” I of course was writing it down.

My response when a student tells me something I don’t know: gratitude, plainly expressed.

A related post

[The best-known instances of the hortatory subjunctive in seventeenth-century poetry might be these three: “Let us possess one world” (John Donne, “The Good Morrow”), “So let us melt, and make no noise” (Donne, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”), “Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball” (Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”).]

comments: 4

Elaine Fine said...

How would you illustrate the "hoity-toity" subjunctive?

Michael Leddy said...

“Let us take the Bentley.”

Elaine Fine said...

Let us ask for some Grey Poupon.

Julia said...

Hilarious! Thanks for this.

I had never even heard of hortatory. I see it is related to exhort. That makes sense. With my new discipline of philosophy, fun as yours is as an expression, it won't be replacing 'mereological nihilism' any time soon. :)