371. (William Wordsworth)

What opens when “pattern,” rather than “form” is allowed to guide our reading of literature? It might be thought a step backwards towards a more juvenile way of reading. But I think it can extend more widely and variously than form, yielding better insights for a range of critical perspectives. Formal unity is a concern of the New Critics; the coherence, interruption, suggestion, and disruption of patterns accounts more truly for the interests of other critics sometimes mistaken for New Critics. But it does so, I admit, only if we consider that patterns extend beyond language, to the world itself, to life and thought. Taking the broadest view, we navigate patterned worlds, anticipating by the patterns from the past, extending the patterns into the future. Our own patterns of behavior may be habits or skills; the patterns of speech we use, the patterns of clothes we wear are socially derived and markers of individuality; personality, as elusive as it is, is often characterized as pattern; and a full account of a character acting would require that we see not only their commitments, but how those commitments form a larger pattern, in a moment, and across time. Recognizing similarities and differences is only possible against a pattern, but the notion of a pattern insists that some similarities will be relevant against differences. Patterns, like fractals, can be layered, each pattern containing others, and each part of others. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels, among the master wizards is a “Master of Patterns,” whose power seems to reside in the warp and woof of the world; he can perceive how the Way reveals itself, and takes on ten thousand shapes, which themselves flow into and out of patterns.

It is a wonderful term, and like any other is susceptible to abuse; I present it as an alternative to “form,” but it is in fact a healthy corrective. It does not requires that we throw overboard the sculptural properties of literature in favor of the musical; pattern does not ask that we choose, but it does ask that we find a middle ground, recognizing that an adequate description of the form of even a Brancusi sculpture can be broken into parts, which yield harmony and disharmony, themselves patterns of likeness and unlikeness.

The great insights of the literary critics can be conceived as insights into patterns, and into the breakages from and within patterns that are puzzling. I find Empson’s remark that life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that cannot be solved by analysis easier to make sense of when couched in the notion of patterns…There are patterns in life, or across lives, that do not harmonize, that generate conflicts, and, as such, yield puzzles, and these puzzles cannot be resolved by analysis. Art does not deny, but thrives on these, accommodating them within broader patterns, placing them in clear relation to one another so as to register and apprehend perplexity, rather than wash it out; that is itself the source of what is puzzling in art, the patterns of word, thought, and feeling that—when successfully puzzling—involve variation and clashes and deviation that can be justified by larger or interwoven patterns of thought, language, and word in the work—and that when unsuccessful suggest only incoherence, a failure to think, or insensitivity.

This post is on William Wordsworth because this thinking about patterns returns me to a half-argument I once put forward, in a publication, about Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” and the patterning of punctuation therein; except I did not use the word pattern at the time. What I said has seemed, even as I rushed to have my name in print, less than it should have been. A friend of mine told me he felt like I was holding back from saying something substantial that I wanted to, and could have said. I agreed with him but also didn’t know what that might be. I think now that this word, “pattern,” might have helped.

Wordsworth’s insights into the patterns are quite overt, allying naturally with his sense for habits, memories, and conventions; they extend into his sense of how habits sustains but also deadens life, and into how time itself may be patterned with interruptions (the “spots of time”) that cannot be explained within the normal conventions of time-marking; one of his innovations as a poet of memory consists in giving new patterning to memory’s working in the syntax of his language; and his sense of the natural world, and what there endures and how, is a sense of how seasons, individual lives, and events may pattern a landscape’s more settled forms, as well as how those settled forms (mountains, rocks) pattern a life’s movements and changes.

Punctuation marks, on their own, possess varying temporal dimension, and this makes them a good resource for Wordsworth; like raw chunks of time he can intrude into the verse. But in “Resolution and Independence,” individual marks do not seem to matter much, here and there; it is instead, as I said in that essay, the cumulative effect of marks that does the work. I haven’t changed my mind about that, but really what needs to be said about the cumulative effect is that the marks in that poem, especially once he encounters the Leech-Gatherer, do not resolve into a pattern and also do not accord with the patterns of conventional punctuation (conventions are themselves patterns), which we can see in a letter that Coleridge wrote in which he re-punctuated the poem by his own lights, with a result that baffles less both in respect to expectations and in its internal consistency.

Here is from the article, quoting and discussing Wordsworth’s punctuation as it occurs, showing both how it is disruptive and unusual, but also how it can be said to make sense. The versions quoted include Coleridge’s letter, with his punctuation, as well as Wordsworth’s original 1807 punctuation and, when relevant, his revised, end-of-life 1849 version. In all transcriptions, the punctuation relevant to the discussion has been underlined by me:

As a huge Stone is sometimes seen to lie

Couch’d on the bald top of an eminence;

Wonder to all who do the same espy

By what means it could thither come, and whence;

So that it seems a thing endued with sense:

Like a Sea-beast crawl’d forth, which on a shelf

Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself. (1807, 64-70)

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie

Couch’d on the bald time of an eminence,

Wonder to all that do the same espy,

By what means it could thither come & whence;

So that it seems a thing endued with sense,

Like a Sea-beast crawl’d forth, which on a Shelf

Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.(Coleridge, 64-70)

The only place in the passage where Coleridge’s punctuation is heavier than the 1807 version is with the comma following ‘espy’, and this could be said to muddy the sense of the passage by separating it from the following phrase, and Wordsworth may have wished to avoid doing so. Elsewhere, however, 1807 is heavier. We may think that the challenge of the syntax demanded the semi-colon of 1807 rather than the comma of Coleridge’s transcription. The nub of the difficulty is the word ‘wonder’. ‘Wonder’ might be taken as a noun in apposition with ‘huge stone’ and ‘the same’, so that the huge stone is a wonder to all who could spy by what means it could thither come and whence—implying that anyone who saw the route available to it would be surprised that it ended up where it was. Alternatively, ‘wonder’ might be taken as an attribute of those who ‘do the same [stone] espy’, along the lines of: ‘there was wonder in all of those who espied that same stone, that wonder occasioned by thinking of how and whence it got to the eminence’.  But heavier punctuation does not resolve or elucidate the matter: whether there is a semi-colon or comma before the word, either reading is possible. 

Such seem’d this Man, not all alive nor dead,

Nor all asleep; in his extreme old age:

His body was bent double, feet and head

Coming together in their pilgrimage;

As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage

Of sickness felt by him in times long past,

A more than human weight upon his frame had cast. (1807, 71-77)

Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead,

Nor all asleep—in his extreme old age:(1849, 64-5)

Such seem’d this Man, not all alive nor dead,

Nor all asleep; in his extreme old age

His body was bent double, feet and head

Coming together in their pilgrimage;

As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage

Of sickness felt by him in times long past

A more than human weight upon his age had cast. (Coleridge, 71-7)

We might understand ‘in his extreme old age’ in relation either to what comes before, as an item in a list, or to what comes after, as providing the reason that his body is ‘bent double.’  But the semi-colon that precedes the phrase and the colon that follows it distance it from both what comes before and what comes after, so that it somewhat uncertainly hangs attached to either.  In 1849, Wordsworth replaces the semi-colon with a dash, and in his transcription, Coleridge had replaced the colon with the absence of a mark.  We might have expected either of these, or a comma in place of either the colon or the semi-colon so as to establish clearer continuity with either the phrase that precedes or the phrase that follows. As Wordsworth punctuates it in 1807, the phrase floats, a partially severed observation about the old man:

Himself he propp’d, his body, limbs, and face,

Upon a long grey Staff of shaven wood:

And, still as I drew near with gentle pace,

Beside the little pond or Moorish flood

Motionless as a Cloud the Old Man stood;

That heareth not the loud winds when they call;

And moveth altogether, if it move at all. (1807, 78-84)

Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,

That heareth not the loud winds when they call;(1849,74-6 )

Himself he propp’d, both body, [limb, and face,]

Upon  a long grey staff of shaven wood[d],

And still as I drew near with gentle pace

Beside the little pond or Moorish flood

Motionless as a cloud the Old Man stood,

That heareth not the loud winds when they call,

And moveth altogether if it moves at all.(Coleridge, 78-84)

The punctuation of the Coleridge transcription is natural to the modern eye: commas dividing the dependent clauses from one another. Yet, even in revising the poem, Wordsworth did not alter the second of the semicolons preceding the dependent clause beginning ‘And moveth’.  With the semi-colon in 1807, the verse itself ceases moving for a greater duration than it does with Coleridge’s comma.

His words came feebly, from a feeble chest,

Yet each in solemn order follow’d each,

With something of a lofty utterance drest:

Choice word, and measured phrase; above the reach

Of ordinary men; a stately speech!

Such as grave Livers do In Scotland use,

Religious men, who give to God and Man their dues. (1807, 99-105)

With something of a lofty utterance drest—

Choice word and measured phrase, above the reach

Of ordinary men; a stately speech; (1849, 94-6)

His words came feebly from a feeble chest,

Yet each in solemn order follow’d each

With something of a pompous utterance drest,

Choice word & measur’d phrase, beyond the reach

Of ordinary men, a stately speech,

Such as grave livers do in Scotland use,

Religious Men who give to God & Man their dues.(Coleridge, 106-112)

Both Wordsworth’s revision and the Coleridge transcription agree in following ‘measured phrase’ with a comma, rather than a semicolon, as it appears in the 1807 version. Coleridge’s transcription sets off the appositive phrase (‘stately speech’) with a comma, rather than a semicolon, and follows it with the expected comma, which the exclamation mark in the 1807 version might have been thought to replace, had it not been for Wordsworth’s revision. For in nineteenth-century usage, an exclamation mark indicates intonation and might be substituted for any of the various pauses, from comma to full-stop. Hence the alteration of the exclamation point after ‘speech’ to a semicolon is an alteration in the direction of a more clearly abrupt mark, and it is the only instance in revision of this poem where Wordsworth alters a lighter for a heavier mark where it is not for the purpose of syntactical elucidation. Without taking the revision into account, the exclamation point may have been read as the equivalent of a comma, or as simply a guide for intonation, with no bearing on the nearness of the words to one another in time or syntax. 

The Old Man still stood talking by my side;

But now his voice to me was like a stream

Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;

And the whole Body of the man did seem

Like one who I had met with in a dream;

Or like a Man from some far region sent;

To give me human strength, and strong admonishment. (1807, 113-119)

The Old Man still stood talking by my side,

But soon his voice to me was like a stream

Scarce heard, nor word from word could I divide,

And the whole body of the Man did seem

Like [one w]hom I had met with in a dream;

Or like a Man from some far region sent

To give me human strength, & strong admonishment.(Coleridge, 120-6)

The semicolon following ‘sent’ is not included in the Cornell Wordsworth edition, though it was present as the poem was published in 1807. The Cornell editor, Jared Curtis, remarks in a note that ‘sense and phrasing require a comma, which was supplied by WW in 1815’, but it is not evident that the semicolon obfuscates the sense at all, and the phrasing, though altered by the comma, is not in need of one (Poems, in Two Volumes, ed. Curtis, 128). In fact, the semicolon following ‘sent’ leaves open the possibility that the final phrase, ‘to give me human strength, and strong admonishment’ applies not only to the man ‘from some far region sent’, but the man Wordsworth had met with in a dream. The effect of the semicolon after ‘sent’ is jarring, but then so is the man’s purpose. Also startling, though less obtrusive, is the semicolon after ‘dream’. As in many of the cases underlined, the semicolon might have been replaced with a comma, since it introduces a dependent clause governed by the verb ‘seem’, though the Coleridge transcription likewise includes the strong semicolon to cap off the line.

He with a smile did then his words repeat;

And said that, gathering Leeches, far and wide

He travelled; stirring thus about his feet

The waters of the Ponds where they abide.

‘Once I could meet with them on every side;

But they have dwindled long by slow decay;

Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may’. (1807, 127-133)

He with a smile did then his words repeat

And said, that whereso’er they might be spied

He gather’d Leeches, stirring at his feet

The waters in the Ponds where they abide.

Once he could meet with them on every side;

But fewer they became from day to day,

And so his means of life before him died away.(Coleridge, 134-40)

The semicolon following ‘side’ shows that the Coleridge transcription is not always bereft of semicolons—but his transcription of the passage elsewhere shows how much lighter the punctuation of 1807 might have been much of the time, as when it has a comma rather than a semicolon between ‘Leeches’ and ‘stirring’. In 1807, even when reporting the leech-gatherer’s speech, the heavy punctuation interrupts, dividing the leech-gatherer from his daily labour of ‘stirring’. It could be that a difference of meaning is suggested by the semi-colon. With the comma, we might be inclined to hear the leech-gatherer as saying that he stirs the water with his feet as he travels. But we might take the semi-colon as indicating that he has concluded his speech, and that he stirs the water with his feet as he speaks to Wordsworth.

This is somewhat tedious and my interpretation was disappointing; Wordsworth was registering his perplexity, showing just how he was out of sync with the leech-gatherer. I could have perhaps said more about how their various temporal experiences could not lock into place, but the Leech Gatherer is less a figure of habit than, say, the Old Man Traveling or Michael.

But the thought of a pattern does seem helpful: the leech-gatherer cannot be fit into, resolved with, either a pattern of human, animal, or divine life; he is monstrous (like a sea-monster) because of that disregard. And the punctuation is, without much fanfare, a record of his disruption of the conventions of cognition. It does not express thought, but itself represents and registers thought that does not settle into its accustomed grooves. Now, this is not a much grander or more substantive conclusion than the one I reached, but it does point out to other concerns about endurance and time in Wordsworth; it has the potential to take flight more than “perplexity” alone does. If anything, I should now say that it is a perplexed pattern and a pattern of perplexity.

As a final note, we do not know if Wordsworth was responsible for this punctuation, or if Dorothy or Mary (his wife) or even his sister-in-law Sara were involved. But patterning removes some of the angst over the question, beyond positing a collaborative intelligence. I once thought that ornamentation might be a useful analogy for discussing punctuation in poetry. The trouble is that ornamentation is something distinct, with a history and life of its own, which is not the history and life of punctuation. Less committal, but related, is the thought that punctuation patterns a poem. We can admire how one of Wordsworth’s closest readers patterned the pointing (the punctuation). We can, for good reason, think we ought to preserve their patterning, since they were close in time and place to the poet. We can also admire the patterning as participating in the poetry, rather than either, at one extreme, extraneously adorning it, and, on the other, as integral or essential to its patterns of words and thought.


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