Why Punctuation Matters, or, Of Mice and ‘Measure for Measure’ and Midwinter Spring

People who like words often fall into one of two attitudes when it comes to punctuation.

In the blue corner, there are those who think punctuation is essentially unnecessary and tedious, but who tolerate its erratic demands for the sake of a quiet life—much as a good-humoured bartender would tolerate the demands of voracious and impulsive giant panda wielding a brightly coloured child’s water pistol.

In the red corner, meanwhile, we have those who love punctuation, meditate on its laws day and night, and have hissy fits if a semi-colon is misplaced. Probably this lot feel strongly about animal welfare, and think that the water-pistol-totin’ pandas of the world would never have behaved so badly if they hadn’t been misled by bad company.

I would suggest that the two warring camps could come to a truce over a few instances in literature where something about punctuation is really good, beautiful or interesting. Here are a few possible examples, collected, I hasten to add, not necessarily because they are the best, but because they are the ones I happen to know about and like.

One. The Curious Incident of the Double Inverted Comma in Measure for Measure, Act 2 Scene 4.

In this scene, the Duke’s representative, Angelo, meets with the novice Isabella, whose brother Claudio he has sentenced to be executed. Angelo presents Isabella with an uninspiring choice:

                          Redeeme thy brother,

By yeelding vp thy bodie to my will,

Or else he must not onelie die the death,

But thy vnkindnesse shall his death draw out

To lingring sufferance …

Isabella’s struggle, alone on stage at the end of the scene, appears in the First Folio thus:

Isa. To whom should I complaine? Did I tell this,

Who would beleeue me? O perilous mouthes

That beare in them, one and the selfesame tongue,

Either of condemnation, or approofe,

Bidding the Law make curtsie to their will,

Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,

To follow as it drawes. Ile to my brother,

Though he hath falne by prompture of the blood,

Yet hath he in him such a minde of Honor,

That had he twentie heads to tender downe

On twentie bloodie blockes, hee’ld yeeld them vp,

Before his sister should her bodie stoope

To such abhord pollution.

Then Isabell liue chaste, and brother die;

“More then our Brother, is our Chastitie.

Ile tell him yet of Angelo’s request,

And fit his minde to death, for his soules rest.

My impression, and I may be mistaken, is that seventeenth-century printed scripts sometimes had double inverted commas at the beginning of a line where someone had spotted that the line was a maxim or a proverb. There are not very many of them in the First Folio, but one of the others appears when Cressida, also alone on stage except possibly for ‘her man’, says

Therefore this maxime out of loue I teach;

“Atchieuement, is command; vngain’d, beseech.

So perhaps Isabella isn’t saying outright that her chastity is more important to her than her brother—which some have thought a rather harsh assertion. Perhaps, instead, she is quoting a saying to herself, trying to teach herself, telling herself, what she ought to think, or just attempting to work up some determination one way or another in the midst of paralysing confusion and divided feelings. Of course the punctuation mark wasn’t necessarily planned by Shakespeare himself, but he has caused Isabella to address herself by name, and use the plural pronoun ‘our’, indicating that she is deliberately, purposefully talking to herself. I sometimes imagine this scene staged with a mirror at hand, just to make the character’s state of mind superabundantly clear.

Two. The Singular Adventure of the Comma in ‘Four Quartets’, more specifically, ‘Little Gidding’ Part I (copied from T.S. Eliot, The Complete Plays and Poems.)

Midwinter spring is its own season,

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,

Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire

In the dark time of the year.

Possibly the fields Eliot was looking at… but in March.

This passage opens a poem about a spiritual experience, by which I mean an experience of the Spirit, but an elusive or indescribable one, where by ‘indescribable’ (bad word!) I mean that great delicacy is required in the writing to represent it. So, for example, in earlier drafts the line ‘A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon’ had a comma at the end; now it has a full stop. This is important, because the light is sunlight all the way through to this line; if it ended with a comma, we might carry on reading straight through and imagine that the ‘glow more intense’ is, like the ‘glare that is blindness’, reflected in the watery mirror of line 7. But a more complete break is made, so that we get from what is definitely sunshine to ‘pentecostal fire’ without the speaker saying quite what the relation is between them. He won’t say that the sunshine is the pentecostal fire, nor that the sunshine is like pentecostal fire: comparing the Spirit to the sun might seem to reduce the mysteriousness of the former, and it might suggest a distinction of spiritual and natural which, if you happen to believe that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, you might not entirely agree with. So the subject is avoided, and the mystery retained.

My nervousness about writing this post is increasing as I write it, as it seems more and more like presumption to be writing about Shakespeare and Eliot On The Internet.

It was me! I’m sorry!

But we’re nearly there…

Three. Look at the mouse! So cute! Look at its little ears! And its little tail! Ahh…

I wanted to quote from e. e. cummings’ poem ‘Here’s a little mouse’ (which may actually be called ‘Here’s a little mouse)’ or, indeed, something else altogether), but I’m not sure where my printed copy is, and I can’t find an Internet version that seems respectable. Anyway, if you find a copy in a proper book somewhere, you’ll notice that by writing “mouse”, cummings has given his mouse a pair of little ears, and a little tail…

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2 Responses to Why Punctuation Matters, or, Of Mice and ‘Measure for Measure’ and Midwinter Spring

  1. apparently cummings copied my version, see below;-.

    here’s a little herring) and
    what does he think about, i
    wonder as over this
    floor (quietly with
    bright eyes) drifts (nobody
    can tell because
    Nobody knows, or why
    jerks Here &, here,
    gr(oo)ving the room’s Silence)this like
    a littlest
    poem a
    (with wee ears and see?
    tail frisks)
    (gonE)
    “herring”,
    We are not the same you and
    i, since here’s a little he
    or is
    it It
    ? (or was something we saw in the mirror)?
    therefore we’ll kiss; for maybe
    what was Disappeared
    into ourselves
    who (look). ,startled

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