59. (William Wordsworth)

Late in his life, in a letter to an inquiring William Rowan Hamilton, Wordsworth stressed the “innumerable minutiae” upon which the success of poetry depends. Among the minutiae: punctuation. I’ve tried to say (in an article) how exactly Wordsworth makes good on the oft-overlooked potential of punctuation in his verse, but the examples I chose there were not the best, and the explanation I gave could have occupied far less space. Here, then, a second chance.

The crucial fact to keep in mind: punctuation follows conventions, not rules. Within these conventions, there is scope for choice; only with the advent of modernism did discarding the conventions become an acceptable maneuver of ambitious authors. In the nineteenth century, poets found creative expression from within the conventional possibilities.

The best criticism on punctuation is that of John Lennard, whose But I Digress: On the Exploitation of Parentheses in English Verse, is ingenious, erudite and wide in its reach. Coleridge’s relationship to parentheses have recently received excellent treatment in the hands of Thomas Owens in the Oxford journal, Essays in Criticism; but that article does not do justice to Lennard’s work, the strongest chapter of which is on Coleridge and what Lennard terms lunulae.

Coleridge thought about punctuation as he did about much else: imaginatively, sporadically, and speculatively. The penguin Collected poems, edited by William Keach, includes the draft (never published) of Coleridge’s essay on punctuation: the essential insight is that punctuation affords a reader an opportunity of placing himself in the mind and position of an author as he pauses to contemplate what will come next. In other words, punctuation serves as sort of choreography of potentially occluded mental operations. (The essay is one of the earliest importations of the German notion “in-feeling” into English; the word would, around the turn into the twentieth century, be translated as “empathy”).

Punctuation marks, on Coleridge’s account, may be either blanks in the mind as a thought coheres, or else the blanks in the mind as thought fails; in their space, either is possible. As the finest critic of punctuation, and much else, points out (in my paraphrase): Punctuation both unites and divides…it is the mortar that both holds the bricks together and keeps them apart.

Wordsworth spent so much time with Coleridge that it would be surprising were he to have had no inkling of what his friend thought on punctuation. But even if he did not, there is no reason to believe Wordsworth would not have thought about the matter himself. As various editors introductions to various editions of the Cornell Wordsworth testify: Wordsworth was attentive to punctuation marks throughout the process of composition.

When we understand how punctuation was understood in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, we can see why. The four most common marks in printed material, the comma, the semi-colon, the colon, and the full-stop, were taught and explained as notation for indicating pauses in writing and speaking: the pauses ascended in duration from comma to full-stop. Sometimes, in primers for school-children, the pauses were given absolute duration (count to one at a comma; count to two at a semi-colon; count to…); more often, in the manuals of grammar that proliferated at the time, the pauses were given relative durations (e.g. the comma indicates a pause a quarter as long as the full-stop). For reference, Bishop Lowth’s eighteenth-century grammar is available online, as is Lindley Murray’s grammar, reissued throughout the nineteenth century.

Park Honan, fifty years ago, claimed that a shift occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, wherein the “rhetorical” function of punctuation (founded on the notion that marks replicated the pauses in spoken delivery) was displaced by a “syntactical” function (punctuation to facilitate syntactical units and clarity). But that account has been challenged, by Lennard and by contemporary linguists (see work by Daniel O’Connell). In short, the rhetorical function of punctuation can and did co-exist, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in tension, with the syntactical function.

Whatever the development of punctuation conventions over the nineteenth century, anyone should be able to see that Wordsworth would find the temporal aspect of punctuation especially pertinent for his own poetry, which searchingly imagines and seeks to understand human and non-human experiences of time.

Depending on the poem, and its subject matter, punctuation does different work for Wordsworth. Elsewhere, I’ve focused on “Michael” and “Resolution and Independence,” where the discontinuities and continuities of punctuation register the stuttered, abruptly failing, and discontinuous time of Wordsworth’s own thinking as his encounters with “solitaries” throws him into perplexity. What I didn’t say then, but should have, is that those breaks in the verse—those unexpected pauses—indicate also that Wordsworth, in his encounters, was also thrown out of normal time. They represent his temporal distance from his normal powers of poetic apprehension.

In other masterpieces, Wordsworth deploys abrupt and uneven punctuation to different, but related, ends: to represent his distance from time as it is experienced by other individuals, “solitaries” once again.

In “The Discharged Soldier,” the fragmentary poem later incorporated into The Prelude, Wordsworth’s once again encounters a solitary whose experience of time frets his own. Here are the lines as they appear in manuscript AB, the punctuation of which was supervised by William, and carried out in the hand of Dorothy (his sister) and Mary (his wife):

I wish’d to see him move; but he remain’d

Fix’d to his place, and still from time to time

Sent forth a murmuring voice of dead complaint,

Groans scarcely audible. Without self-blame

I had not thus prolong’d my watch; and now,

Subduing my heart’s specious cowardice,

I left the shady nook where I had stood,

And hail’d him. Slowly from his resting-place

He rose, and, with a lean and wasted arm

In measur’d gesture lifted to his head,

Return’d my salutation; then resum’d

His station as before: and when, erelong,

I ask’d his history, he in reply

Was neither slow nor eager; but unmov’d,

And with a quiet, uncomplaining voice,

A stately air of mild indifference

He told, in simple words, a Soldier’s Tale,

That in the Tropic Islands he had serv’d,

Whence he had landed, scarcely ten days past,

That on his landing he had been dismiss’d,

And now was travelling to his native home.

The solider is discharged from service, but also has been discharged, and summarily discarded, like a gun. His abject state exceeds that of any other solitary (even, I think, the leech-gatherer), and Wordsworth is less compelled, more reluctant, to make the effort to redeem his essential humanness, and not at all capable of discerning a glow of something that might be stronger than a common humanity.

But, for Wordsworth, that “common human heart” is often an achievement, and foundation, for a common human time. It’s in “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” a poem dedicated to celebrating the regular and socially harmonizing rounds of a socially displaced and destitute wanderer, that Wordsworth famously asserts “That we have all of us one human heart.”

Here, the inhumanness (not the inhumanity) of the discharged soldier is conditioned by, and a condition of, his exile from time as Wordsworth knows it. Throughout the encounter, Wordsworth fails to predict his sudden starts and extended stays of stillness. And on each occasion that the soldier run’s athwart of Wordsworth’s sense of time and timing, a semi-colon baffles the verse.

How much less perturbing would be the alternative provided by the conventions of the time:

I wish’d to see him move, but he remain’d


Return’d my salutation, then resum’d


 Was neither slow nor eager, but unmov’d

Characteristically, Wordsworth’s sympathy, rather than demand shared understanding and fellow-feeling, plumbs the insurmountable distances between people, in light of which duty is demanded. But the punctuation of “The Discharged Soldier” helps us see that the distance is of, as well as in, time.

I do not know how much to claim for punctuation in these cases; the experience of the poem does not depend on these marks. But that they contribute to it, somehow, seems clear to me, and by pulling hard on the small black threads of punctuation on the page, we might be led to unravel what would be more tenaciously woven otherwise.


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