Sunday, 27 March 2016

Subtleties of Punctuation



In his lively book on How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton has an early approving mention of ‘the critic who said of some lines of T.S. Eliot: “There is something very sad about the punctuation”’ (p.3).  When I asked Terry which critic he meant by this, since there is no footnote in the book itself, he referred me to Gabriel Pearson’s essay in Graham Martin’s excellent albeit dated collection, Eliot in Perspective.

We don’t have very much in the way of studies of William Morris’s punctuation, which is why I welcome Stephen Arata’s comment, in his 2003 Broadview edition of Morris’s utopia, on ‘the dash – one of Morris’s favoured punctuation marks in News from Nowhere, and one he often uses to great effect.  To replace the dash, the Kelmscott edition [of the book] uses a combination of ellipses, commas, semi-colons, and colons, which somehow fails to achieve the rhythmical effects Morris achieved with the dash’ (p.49).

So here is a fine literary-critical task for someone to carry out: to analyse, with all the Empsonian or Ricksian subtlety one can command, the precise local rhythmic and semantic effects achieved by the Morris dash.

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