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 two others 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.

Here is “Old Man Travelling,” published in 1798, and successively revised. I present here the 1798 version, but will not be discussing the final six lines, which Wordsworth later removed.


The little hedge-row birds,

That peck along the road, regard him not.

He travels on, and in his face, his step,

His gait, is one expression; every limb,

His look and bending figure, all bespeak

A man who does not move with pain, but moves

With thought—He is insensibly subdued

To settled quiet: he is one by whom

All effort seems forgotten, one to whom

Long patience has such mild composure given

That patience now doth seem a thing, of which

He hath no need. He is by nature led

To peace so perfect, that the young behold

With envy, what the old man hardly feels.

–I asked him whither he was bound, and what

The object of his journey; he replied

‘Sir! I am going many miles to take

A last leave of my son, a mariner,

Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,

And there is dying in a hospital.’


Though some of the capitalization was revised, and the final lines received tinkering before removal, the punctuation remained constant.

The poem is about the estrangement Wordsworth feels at the sight of a man whose experience of time, and in time, feels—from his judgment on the surface of things—far removed from his own. The poem echoes Lear’s speech on patience, “Reason not the need!”, but Lear is an anti-type for this father moving in paternal devotion towards a son (Lear moves in madness towards Cordelia).

A crux of the poem is an ambiguity: what does it mean to seem to have no need for patience? Does it mean that one no longer requires it, as an infant no longer requires an umbilical cord, or does it mean that one no longer seems to require it because its essential purpose is so functioning so well, as one does not seem to need a liver when the liver works as it should.

He “hardly” feels both in that, like all of the solitaries, he is lacking in sensitivity to his surroundings, and in that he feels with hardness, through his hardness.

As Geoffrey Hill observes of the leech-gatherer, this is both essential man and man destitute—removed from history until the final six lines extend the sonnet form.

Now note the punctuation marks: comma, comma, full-stop, comma, comma, comma, comma, semi-colon, comma, comma, comma, dash, colon, comma, comma, full-stop, comma, comma, full-stop.

The commas are not my chief focus: instead, observe the succession of other marks. Following conventions of the early-nineteenth century, and following conventions found throughout Wordsworth’s poetry, and following the conventions in this one poem, any of those marks could be exchanged with any other. Any of those marks—semi-colon, colon, dash, or full-stop—could be used at to indicate the arrival of an independent clause. In “Old Man Travelling,” each does so.

I would not seek to explain the rationale for any one mark in relation to the subject matter or language of the poem where it appear; instead, I would describe the marks in relation to one another.

Since the four pauses, comma to full-stop, along with the dash (which may be used to substitute for any of the four), establish pauses of relative durations, what matters in the poem is that Wordsworth pauses unevenly and unpredictably between independent clauses. There is no regularity in the duration of pauses between clauses.

In most respects, the steadiness of the old man’s movement, and the seemingly sure ease of the old man’s experience in time, is mirrored by the poem’s movement: it’s steady repetitions and its near perfect iambic pentameter (maybe one or two substitutions; interestingly, one of these might be a spondee on “Long patience”).

But in the temporal dimension of punctuation, Wordsworth’s poem is at discord with the old man, as if Wordsworth cannot bend his language to fit the man’s experience as neatly as he would—as if the source of resistance, or the aspect of that experience that refuses fitting, is the temporal. The punctuation registers the failure of Wordsworth to close the distance with the old man. Their experiences of time are felt to be irreconcilable, or at least at odds.

A similar failure to close the distance is felt, I think, in the word “seems” (“All effort seems forgotten”), which, in early Wordsworth, exists in tension with “be.”

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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