High Punctuation

Christopher Ricks

  • But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse by John Lennard
    Oxford, 324 pp, £35.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 811247 5

Fecund and jocund, well-earned and learnèd, wittily wily, But I digress is a delight and a treasure-house, alive with moving illumination and with benign warning, in short a delight-house of a book. It is the best work at once of literary criticism and of literary history I’ve read for many and many a day.

No less agile at dancing than at pouncing, the disciplined movement of mind here is never shifty and always nifty.

But before praising it to the skies (and then grounding a few objections), I need to declare an interest. John Lennard says in his acknowledgments that he is in debt to me. Nothing like as much as I (and many others to come) now stand in debt to him, but his IOU had better be spelt out. First, that in some measure he took off from a 1978 essay of mine on Geoffrey Hill’s brackets (as I called them – John Lennard proffers, by way of Erasmus, the happy term lunulae, little moons, for this mark itself, the enclosing curves within which these words of mine now come to a close). And second, that for a couple of hours a few years ago, he and I (both then stranded on foreign shores) exchanged thoughts about the ways of his thinking.

So there must be no bones made of his having been so good as to –c. –c. But my grateful pleasure in his achievement is, I assure myself, not just my reciprocated or answering good opinion (albeit lunulae are an answering punctuation, as you can’t parenthetically have the (without the)). For Dr Lennard is his own man. He shows as much by squarely reprimanding me with a square-bracketed ‘[sic]’ – or rather, as he insists, a crotcheted (and for once uncrotchety) one – for my having quoted Swift on his own death as making someone ask ‘(and what is Trumps?)’ when (ai! ai!) I should have put ‘(and what is Trumps?)’. With roman fortitude I admit my error. And, fighting back to show that nor am I his creature, I remark that Dr Lennard doesn’t know how to spell either John Livingston Lowes or Nicolas Barker (neither in any way an ass and each a famous pons asinorum); and that Dr Lennard should be ashamed of himself for having such truck with the vogue/vague words resonance, deflate, undercut, undermine, ironise, and even – grimly inescapable these days – ineluctably.

So much for clean breasts.

But I digress puts its unflat foot forward at the outset: ‘this is a general, preliminary investigation of one aspect of a neglected subject – the historical development of punctuation.’ This, though mercifully not false modesty, does itself less than justice. For what is so good about the book is its imaginative co-operation of the historical with the critical, its diverse demonstration that history and criticism, though distinguishable, are not distinct. Dr Lennard shows not just independence but interdependence of mind.

Park Honan, I now know from this book, said thirty years ago that ‘we know relatively little about the history of English punctuation and still less about the history of poetic punctuation.’ Thanks to Lennard, we now know much more, and not only about the history. He is (there is one citation in the OED, 1871) an inaugurative ‘punctuationist’: ‘one who practises, studies or treats of punctuation’; and his blazing book constitutes a true tribute to the man who taught him, Dr Malcolm Parkes, who is (I gather from a footnote here) about to publish his awaited work, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West.

Punctuation (I was moved now for the first time to look it up) is wirily defined in the OED as ‘the practice, art, method or system of inserting points or “stops” to aid the sense, in writing or printing’. It is a great strength of Lennard’s book that he does not allow any one of those four powers, ‘practice, art, method or system’, to lord it over the others; his argument depends on his keeping all four in play, referring to all, deferring to none, and leaving it to them to settle their differences. It is an allied strength that he takes so flexible yet responsible a view of what should be understood by that innocent word sense (‘to aid the sense’), for his chosen punctuation marks, lunulae, are remarkably adept in indicating not just the plain sense but the sense we have of the sense, its tone, and even, as Lennard brilliantly brings out, both the epistemological and the ontological status of the words we are reading. If it’s strata you’re after ...

His entire argument (which is as remarkable for its speculations as for its specificities) might be taken as an extended commentary on that OED entry for ‘punctuation’, with its suggestive citations: its first such being 1661 (spot-on for Lennard’s historical arguments), and its subsequent illustrative quotations including two which make you more than think:

1771 The expectation of a settled Punctuation is in vain, since no rules of prevailing authority have been yet established.

1824 Punctuation is a modern art. The ancients were entirely unacquainted with the use of our commas, colons, –c.

There is a charm in the movement there from ‘The ancients’ to the modern rendering, ‘–c.’ (how elegantly the ampersand twines!), of the ancient et cetera. But yes, punctuation is an art, and is a resource and a recourse for the art of poetry. (And of prose, but Lennard quite sufficiently had his playful work cut out.)

The history of this particular marking of punctuation (lunulae) is told in happy humorous detail. The year 1399 sees its birth, and 1494 its arrival in England. By 1500 the three new Humanist marks have been developed: lunulae, the exclamation mark and the semicolon. (By the 20th century, one might add, the aged Hugh Kingsmill is moved to reply to an interviewer’s question, Is there anything you would wish to do differently if you had your life over again?, with the rueful self-stricture, ‘Use fewer semi-colons’; and the narrator of Beckett’s Watt is wrung to a small sudden flat remonstrance: ‘How hideous is the semi-colon.’)

The conventions of Elizabethan printing are here charted and illustrated: with a single lunula, to indicate lines that are overrunning, up or down; for stage directions; and for lemmata, which are now usually indicated with a crotchet, thus ]; and with paired lunulae, to indicate page numbers, cues for notes, attributions of speech, vocatives, relative and conditional clauses, comparisons and sententiae. A later century gives a clue to the number of letters in the words to answer crossword clues – let me throw in one of my favourites, from the old Times days: ‘But it was not he who said L’état, c’est moi’ (7,6).

Lennard, who has an affectionate eye to all the unmain chances, is quick to recognise quirks and sports – oh, the use of lunulae in the titles of pop songs now, or a physiognomic pattern to be found for some reason in detective stories. He is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles which he then considers and shows to be not trifling at all.

I can’t begin to list, let alone to exemplify, the occasions on which a facet of a poem catches a new light as Lennard illuminates it. But I trust that I shan’t read Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’ with the old insufficiency of attention, rather with supplemented delight:

Come thither; As she spake this, her toong tript.
For vnawares (Come thither) from her slipt.
And sodainly her former colour chang’d.
And here and there her eies through anger rang’d.

Lennard exquisitely relates this betraying trip to the other parentheses just before it in the poem, and to Marlowe’s masterly grasp of Hero’s Freudian slip: and then he concludes, with a dear dominie dryness, by rapping the grammar-teachers over the knuckles:

Marlowe’s exploitation plays the devil with the homely prescriptions for the mark by the Elizabethan schoolmasters. Puttenham, for example, says that lunulae are appropriate for any ‘unnecessary parcell of speach which nevertheless may be thence without any detriment to the rest’; and the notion is still current. But Leander for one would take exception to missing out ‘(come thither)’.

Delectable – though I may as well take my small revenge (‘Revenge is a valuable passion, and the only sure pillar on which justice rests’ – A.E. Housman), and interject my own [sic]: ‘But Leander for one would take exception to missing out (come [sic] hither).’ A capital offence. Unless Lennard’s own slip was in having it as ‘(Come hither)’ a moment earlier.

The three figures upon whom attentive energy (a full chapter each) is lavished are Marvell, Coleridge and Eliot. The vertiginous and echoing ‘(perhaps)’ in Marvell’s ‘Bermudas’ is courteously but steelily interrogated for all it is worth, which proves to be a very great deal.

Oh let our Voice his Praise exalt,
Till it arrive at Heavens Vault:
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Eccho beyond the Mexique Bay.

On which Lennard has much to show, including (sorry about the ineluctably, but):

The clue to what Marvell is about lies in the vocal difficulty caused by the lunulae. ‘(perhaps)’ is an ineluctably private doubt placed within a choral affirmation which, it has already been implied, may be blindly destructive. At the most general level the point relates to the difficulty experienced by any thinking individual caught up in a religiously polarised civil war; but it has implications for the fate of the islands and their natural wealth (upon which the poem has previously lingered) once sectarian Europeans blind to all faiths and requirements but their own have taken charge of them.

This is politically limber in a way seldom met these days, and its spirit is at one with its understanding of the philosophical implications which the lunulae can raise, this moment in Marvell being one of Lennard’s showpieces for the epistemological and the ontological exploitation of his telltale mark.

For the graphic – that is, the exploitation of lunulae through a vivid awakening of what, after all, they look like (the curves of nutshells, of wings, of curtains, of a bottle ...) – Lennard’s showpiece is Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’, which furnishes him not only with a splendid dust-jacket (the six literary lines from moon struck Coleridge ensconced within the literal lunulae of the moon), but with pages of responsible and fascinating teasing-out:

   For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast

As for Eliot, there are evocations, as persuasive as they are unexpected, of effects not only within the mysterious world of Four Quartets but within the even more elusive and enigmatic worlds of ‘The Hollow Men’ and of ‘Ash-Wednesday’.

Wavering between the profit and the loss.
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

Lennard writes:

‘Ash-Wednesday’ ends with the plea ‘Suffer me not to be separated/ /And let my cry come unto Thee.’; and that cry is ‘(Bless me father)’. The lunulae enabled Eliot to record and express what being able to pray meant to him. The fact of interpolation embodies the act of intercession, for the prayer is secluded from the temporal observations and details, even those that are lovely, as it is hoped that God will reward piety with inclusion. It is high punctuation.

And this is high criticism. It is at once seaward flying and admirably down to earth. In the vision of so good a critic as Lennard, punctuation, which might seem no more than a point of order, is itself a wide window.

The range of mimetic possibilities, graphic and other, is shown to be a fertile fact, as is the delightful wit of self-reference. Lennard shares with us his pleasure in Sulpitius’s self-gratification, back at the earliest lunulae in England, in the Opus Grammaticum in 1494:

Parenthesis est vbi diversa oratio (vt inquit Perottus) imperfecti adhuc orationi interponitur.

Parenthesis is where a different utterance (so says Perottus) is introduced into an as yet incomplete utterance.

The is self-instantiating rather than exemplary, and the strange quality, allied to wittiness, that results is an intriguing pointer to the kinds of exploitation that followed.

(So says Lennard.)

It is good to read a book which not only knows how much life there will always be in mimesis but shows how much there can still be in mimetic criticism. And it is good to read a critic who is not afraid to say Boo to the goose that honks ‘the intentional fallacy’, a critic who (rightly) supposes that one piece of evidence (not proof, not the ace of trumps, but one piece of evidence, a card in the hand worth a good deal), when weighing an interpretation of a poem, may be the testimony of its author:

Graphic exploitations, however, depend only partly on the received meanings of lunulae, for they turn upon shape; and the same exploitation may occur independently in different historical periods. In The Cuckqueanes and Cuckolds Errants (c. 1601), William Percy used a double parenthesis in a speech by Pearle to suggest a pearl within an oyster; and in the novel Foe (1986) J.M. Coetzee wrote of storytelling: ‘Teasing and braiding can, like any craft, be learned. But as to determining which episodes hold promise (as oysters hold pearls), it is not without justice that this art is called divining.’


I asked Dr Coetzee if he had intended the graphic exploitation, or read Percy’s play. He replied: ‘Yes, I was aware that the parenthesis held the phrase as the oyster holds the pearl. No, I certainly hadn’t read William Percy.’

Lennard likewise had the good sense to inquire of Tony Harrison and Jon Stallworthy as to his speculations about their parentheses. (Confirmed, though not thereby proved.) He and we wouldn’t have to take the poets’ word for it, but how odd of differently-minded critics to want to shut their ears to the poets’ words about it. If Byron and Browning (on whom Lennard is acutely provocative) were reachable by ouija board, it would be perverse of us to refuse to hear whether they would assent to an interpretation of their work – with oui and ja (the etymology after all) – or whether we should find ourselves seated at a nonnein board.

Some quick words of objection or reservation. Lennard’s working antithesis of convention v. exploitation won’t work, or won’t work as far as he would wish, and the next round of thinking about these and cognate matters will require a firm dissatisfaction with that antithesis itself, along with an acknowledgment that the exploitations of the mark are themselves no less governed by conventions – and moreover that the pejorative possibilities of the word ‘exploitative’ (used too unmisgivingly by Lennard) need to form part of the critical argument. In brief, Lennard underrates the value of all the non-exploitative (merely – merely! – functional) uses of lunulae. He throws down a very imprudent gauntlet, with for once more bravado than bravery, when he says of the moment in Gray’s Elegy, ‘Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,’ that ‘Gray does nothing with the ostentatious parenthesis ... Gray has managed, in despite of Puttenham, to graft a parenthesis that is neither for larger information, nor to any other purpose.’ No, what this obduracy of Lennard’s shows is that exploitation should not be supposed to have a monopoly of purpose.

Then there are inevitably points of detail. One such: I believe that there is a misunderstanding, or (more fairly) a partial understanding only, of the weirdly lovely lines from Thomas Jordan on which Lennard imaginatively lingers.

BrightBeauty makes your gazers eloquent,
LetLittle Cupid his lost eyes obtaine
(Vayl’d)Viewing you would strike him blinde againe;
ayNever thinke I flatter, If you be
husTo none else (by love) you are to me.

‘The basic joke,’ says Lennard, ‘is simply that “(Vavl’d)” is parenthetically veiled,’ and he goes on to speak of ‘the veil of the lunulae’. But this takes no account of the fact that ‘Vayl’d’ means too not veiled but vailed – that is, lowered or cast down the eyes, as in submission.

But praise is much more to the point. Not only for the unique advance Lennard makes in the critical argument about the empty lunulae at the end of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 (two lines short, rendered so to the lunulae). Nor only for such passing felicities as Lennard’s having seen to it that the footnote on a Medieval poem which has (according as one punctuates it) two perversely entwined meanings should be numbered 69. But for his having done so much, diversely and divertingly, to substantiate with particular felicity three classic sayings by poet-critics. Two by Eliot, on punctuation:

Verse, whatever else it may or may not be, is itself a system of punctuation: the usual marks of punctuation themselves are differently employed.

... the punctuation (which includes the absence of punctuation marks, when they are omitted where the reader would expect them).

And finally, as the aegis under which all such critical closeness of attention can be itself and can outfrown the accusation that it is much ado about nothing, there is one other unignorable formulation. It is by Coleridge: ‘And I must not forget in speaking of the certain hubbub I am to undergo for hyper-criticism, to point out how little instructive any criticism can be which does not enter into minutiae.’