Saturday, August 14, 2010

punctuation, with reference to Milton & Lisa Robertson

Yes, the Modern Library Milton I'm teaching from this Fall has quotation marks; that is, when characters in Paradise Lost talk, their speeches are indicated with good old-fashioned (American style) quotation marks. E.g., Satan at IV.31-34:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
"O thou that with surpassing glory crowned,
Look'st from thy sole dominion like the God
Of this new world...
The original 1674 text of course has no such marks, but looks a lot more like what Roy Flannagan gives us in the Riverside Milton:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World...
All decisions on punctuating Milton, and for that matter on spelling, are pretty much up to the editor, since it's generally assumed that JM, who dictated his poem when he was blind, left his amanuenses responsible for those "accidentals." Flannagan sticks pretty closely to the early printed editions for punctuation, as do most editors (one exception is Gordon Teskey's excellent Norton Critical edition, which opts to punctuate as lightly as possible). Flannagan is notable for presenting something close to an "original-spelling" edition, while most editors have tended to modernize the spellings of the poem (except for such items as "thir" for "their," which might reflect Milton's pronunciation).

But none of the editions I have lying around at the moment – Flannagan, Hughes, Teskey, Shawcross – I can't be bothered at the moment to pull down Fowler – insert quotation marks, as Kerrigan et al. do in the Modern Library edition. It's part of the overall modernizing push of the ML edition, an attempt (I take it) to make the book as user-friendly as possible for students. They've ironed out most of the early editions' italics, done away with the Germanic capitalizations (see the Flannagan quotation), and tried to make the punctuation as helpful as possible. I have no problem with any of this: if I want to see what Milton's amanuenses & printers made of his script, I can easily open up Flannagan or check out the early editions on EEBO; my students are going to have trouble enough with Milton's syntax and referentiality without having to also struggle with early modern orthography. (One of J.'s students once wrote in an essay that Shakespeare was difficult because he wrote in "old broken English.")

But what about those quotation marks? They're definitely a modern intrusion. Quotation marks, as I understand it, didn't become standard equipment for the English writer until sometime in the 18th century. Milton himself never used them, even when he had the use of his eyes to write and read proof. What you get over & over again in Paradise Lost (& this reflects the fact that he had early on conceived of the project in dramatic terms) is large block speeches, introduced by speech tags ("To whom thus Adam."), and marked by slight indentation of the first line. (Milton doesn't do short speeches in PL – none of that Senecan backing-&-forthing – which is part of what makes Eve's humble one-liner at 10.162 so wonderful: "The Serpent me beguiled and I did eat.")

But I've decided I don't mind the quotation marks in the Modern Library edition. Even if they're a modern intrusion, they don't change the overall texture of the text, and they'll probably be a bit of an aid to my students (and for that matter to me) in keeping straight when someone's talking. Of course, if this had been an 18th- or 19th-century edition, those quotation marks on lines of poetry would look rather different:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
'O thou that with surpassing glory crowned,
'Look'st from thy sole dominion like the God
'Of this new world...
Orthographical standards in the 18th and 19th centuries specified that each line of direct speech in verse should be preceded with its own quotation mark. That's the convention at work in The Cantos, as for instance in Canto V:
"Yet feared this might not end him," or lest Alessandro
Know not by whom death came, O se credesse
"If when the foot slipped, when death came upon him,
"Lest cousin Duke Alessandro think he had fallen alone,
"No friend to aid him in falling."
(Is Pound being intentionally archaic here? I don't think so – the replacement of the every-line quotation marks with quotation marks only at the beginning & end of a quoted passage in the later Cantos, my sense is, reflects a shift in general printing standards rather than a shift in Pound's orthographical aesthetic.)

It's pretty obvious that those every-line quotation marks wouldn't work for Milton, would end up being unbelievably fussy & intrusive decorating his 40- or 50-line speeches. So the opening & closing quotes – double in the American convention & all – make sense to me.
Of course, trust Lisa Robertson to do something new & eye-opening with orthography. Among a number of arresting moments in Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House, 2009) is this, in "About 1836," in which the speaker asks "the dog of Latinity" to tell her about boredom.
The dog replied:

'At the edges of the villages of Europe
'there is boredom.
'The villages of Europe
'don't want your thinking.
'They want
'not a world.
'In these villages
'one rereads the soiled timetables
'of minor trains
'and finds therein
'Grace. This is called
'an environment. Now
'you weep its surplus.
'Nowhere is like that.

And the dog said

'I am going to call it hegemony when [....]
Did you catch that? First of all, note the effect of this archaic orthographical device, when applied to heavily enjambed, short-lined free verse – I can only call it "weird, in a cool way." (Note how I'm slipping into my highly-theoretical professorial voice.) But truly strange is its fracturing – the fact that there is no closing quotation mark after "that." The quotation ends without a mark of ending. It's not a typo; she does it again, several times, over the course of the poem.

The effect is odd, at least for this reader. Just as I was beginning to "naturalize" the every-line quotes, suddenly I was jerked into awareness of them by Robertson's very violation of their conventions. And I remained hyper-aware of the quotation marks for the whole of the poem. They became a repeatedly meaningful punctuation, rather than a default indicator of speech.

I want to relate this to the pervasive quotation marks in Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, but it's something I want to think about more.


tyrone said...

This is fascinating for someone obsessed with the function of orthography in general, especially the changes over the century. I agree that modernizing Milton will doubtless make him more student-friendly but I wonder if it will humanize Satan too much--turn him into that weird uncle you've always heard whispered about...As for Robertson I love those single quotation marks--indices of a quote within a quote (the putative narrator) an I take the absence of closure as another reminder that since this is human language imposed upon a non-human there is no "end" to what these 'words" might mean--that they don't in fact constitute speech as much as they do unutterable utterance (okay I'll stop--I;m obviously getting TOO ready for the semester...

Peter said...

When I taught Blake last year, the "punctuation" problem arose. We used the Penguin Classics edition of the poems, edited by Alicia Ostriker, who follows the Erdman orthography, which more or less repeats, when applicable, Blake's idiosyncratic punctuation as represented on the illuminated plates. ("The Four Zoas" is drawn from manuscript.)

It's hard to get used to: Blake followed no known conventions, especially with his use of periods. But Ostriker suggests quite helpfully that punctuation in Blake be regarded more in terms of emphasis than grammar, which is to say, he uses all those periods to generate musical intensifications and prolongations.

Milton: I've always used the Hackett/Kastan - the notes are just so damn good, truly helpful for teacher and student alike! Kastan uses quotation marks and paragraph indentations.

Worth comparing to Notley in Alette is what Thomas Meyer does in some of his translations to be found in At Dusk Iridescent, especially his poem "Rilke," which begins as a translation of the First Duino Elegy: "Help me! Who would hear. The terrible. Citizens. Angelic. / Orders. And if they did and held me I would die. / To their hearts. In the beauty. At the beginning. The / Terror. Its first twinges. / Takes our breath and we begin. We / survive. Survive because it waits and will / not strike. Every angel. The Terror. Every angel."

What marvelous tensions he generates with those periods...

Michael Peverett said...

No books to hand, so these are bare undocumented assertions:
1.Unclosed quotes are fairly common practice in modern brit and canadian poetry, probably US too.
2. I'm sure that Pound was being archaic, enjoying his Browning and Doughty jive the same way more recent poets enjoy th/r Rbt Duncan note-form. "Archaic" isn't quite the right word, though, these are gestures of solidarity with the ethos of one strand in a comparatively recent past.

De-capitalizing elsewhere leaves you wondering why "God" (meaning "god") is still capitalized. And why capitalize the beginning of each line? Doesn't the same argument apply - Milton was blind, so this isn't HIS convention. And it sure ain't ours.

Michael Peverett said...

I doubted my own assertions and did a little research, which only showed that Pound's "every line a quotation mark" also shows up, to a minor extent, in the Waste Land. The convention applied to non-stanzaic verse. In stanzaic verse, a long speech would have a quotation-mark at the beginning of each stanza, not each line. At least that's what I found in Bridges' Eros and Psyche (1885).Doughty (contrary to what I claimed ) has no truck with any sort of quotation marks - he uses a special sort of widely spaced font for his heroes' declamations.

I also found out that Pound's musical compositions are the jest of classical fans, currently. (

Alex Davis said...

Milton's speech tags no doubt are intended to echo those in classical epic, where they indicate speech (and the speaker) to the audience of a recitation of a poem.

Mark Scroggins said...

I'm finding the every-line quotation marks in Bridges' admittedly backwards-looking Testament of Beauty (1930), but I know I've seen them in less self-consciously retrograde books from earlier in the century.

I dunno, Michael -- the unclosed quotation marks were a surprise to me; that is, outside of a few American poets -- Olson, Susan Howe, etc. -- I hadn't seen them before; and never deployed in such simultaenously old-fashioned & "modern" mixed context (short free verse lines, no initial capitalizations, every-line quotation marks).

The argument for capitalizing the beginning of each line (& for that matter, "God"), would be that Milton did so consistently before he went blind, & would have expected his compositors to do so as well. But you're right -- if we aren't necessarily constrained by his spelling, his punctuation, & his italicizations, why stick with other 17th-century printing conventions? (Inertia, I suspect, of some sort.)

Michael Peverett said...

I'm narrowing it down, increasingly fascinated by this slightly bizarre convention. You find it in Browning but not in late-19th c editions of Scott. I'd like to know where it started and what the thinking was. I mean, I get the logic of transferring a common practice from successive prose paragraphs of direct speech to successive stanzas of direct speech, but putting an opening quote on every line is one step beyond that.

You are right to emphasize (and I was wrong not to emphasize)the particular distinction of Lisa Robertson's abusage, ie in the context of a now-truly-archaic convention, almost impeccably followed.