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.

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