"Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad"

In this sentence "whom" is used at the beginning where subject is normally placed, but why is it in accusative case? It's should be in the nominative case right? Please explain.

  • What makes you think it should be nominative?
    – BillJ
    May 2, 2020 at 8:59
  • As far I as read in my grammar subject is usually put in the beginning of a sentence and sometimes put after the predicate. May 2, 2020 at 9:05
  • I have just started learning English grammar therefore I don't know much. May 2, 2020 at 9:06
  • 1
    It's actually a tricky construction because "whom" is a prenucleus where it's both head of the noun phrase "whom they first make mad" (which is object of "destroy"), and object of the verb "make" in the relative clause: "The Gods would destroy [ whom they first make ___ mad]".
    – BillJ
    May 2, 2020 at 10:16
  • 1
    When you translate from Latin, and try to keep the word order, here is what you get.
    – GEdgar
    May 2, 2020 at 12:23

3 Answers 3


Whom the gods would destroy [____ they first make ____ mad].

It's actually a tricky construction because "whom" is a prenucleus, where it's both head of the bracketed noun phrase functioning as object of "destroy", and object of "make" in the nucleus clause.

  • No, the entire relative clause is the object of "make".
    – Spencer
    May 2, 2020 at 13:21
  • I'd say that it is just the prenucleus "whom" that is object of "make",
    – BillJ
    May 2, 2020 at 15:13

There are a few things going on here, but the most important one is that

whom the gods would destroy

is a relative clause, which always begins with a relative pronoun (such as who, whom, which, or what).

The relative pronoun has to be in the objective case (i.e. "whom") because within the clause it is the recipient of the action (destroy). "The gods" are the subject of the relative clause, but only within the clause, thus making the pronoun "they" necessary outside of it.

But even so, the relative clause is still the object of the sentence. So we have to dig a little deeper.

The entire phrase in question comes from the 1875 dramatic work "The Masque of Pandora" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It's supposed to mimic an ancient Greek tragedy (it even has a chorus).

So we also have a little bit of poetic license going on, in the ritualized manner of dramatic speech. In the play, Prometheus is warning his brother Epimetheus against accepting the gift of Pandora from the gods.

P: O Epimetheus! Is it then in vain that I have warned thee? Let me now implore. Thou harborest in thy house a dangerous guest.

E: Whom the gods love they honor with such guests.

P: Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

P is chiding E on his lack of forethought by mocking E's fatuous statement.

Longfellow places the relative clause first for emphasis. He does this in other places:

E: O my brother! Thou drivest me to madness with thy taunts.

P: And me thou drivest to madness with thy follies.

As seen in the ELU question object-subject-verb order, it's a common practice to put the object first for such emphasis.

I find cookie dough ice cream disgusting, but Moose Tracks, I like!


The object of make has been preposed - moved to prenuclear position before the subject. With the object in its default position the sentence would read:

They first make whom the Gods would destroy mad.

Corrected for word order,

The Gods first make whom they would destroy mad.

The object whom they would destroy is a fused relative, that is the relative word whom has the meaning of him who(m) / the person whom. The corresponding main clause being:

The gods would destroy him.

And, for reference, the non-fused relative:

him whom the gods would destroy __

where object him has been moved to prenuclear position followed by relative word whom

There are two further points of interest here. One is that the object is rather heavy compared to the predicative complement mad and so it would sound natural to postpose it, to put it after mad, if it were not preposed:

The Gods first make mad whom they would destroy.

Another thing to note is that using who(m) as a fused relative is pretty rare, which adds a bit of poetic flair to this expression.

  • 1
    I'd say that the basic order would be "The Gods would destroy whom they first make mad",
    – BillJ
    May 2, 2020 at 11:17
  • The other unusual thing about the sentence is the use of the auxiliary would for desire to (although I can't say why it strikes me as odd in this sentence, when it's perfectly fine in other sentences). So: The Gods first make mad whom they desire to destroy. May 2, 2020 at 11:25
  • @BillJ That would give a bit of an odd reading. Did they not initially intend to destroy the person, but since they already made this person mad they now intend to destroy this person? Or, do they only make mad those whom they would destroy?
    – DW256
    May 2, 2020 at 11:25
  • 1
    It's a very untypical English sentence. Spelled out in simple terms, it would be If the gods wish to destroy someone, they drive them mad first. May 2, 2020 at 11:45

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