Saturday, July 05, 2008

The five greatest commas in literary history

Dr Blotpage is author of The 17 Commas of Highly Ineffective People, An Anthology of the Fin-De-Siecle Comma, and The Adventures of ',' on the High Seas. He is almost as widely read amongst scholars of punctuation today as he is ignored by them. Please make him welcome to this blog.

There are those who talk of the timeless beauty, elegance, and dramatic potential inherent within the Shakespearean comma, but I think they're crackers. I prefer the Spenserian comma myself.

Hi, I'm Dr Blotpage. You might remember me from such commas as ',', and ',', as well as ','. They appear, to widespread popular acclaim, from one end of the sentence to the other!

I'm here today to talk about the five greatest commas in literary history. We've had to deal with a wide field, starting with the inception of the comma in western literature from renaissance times through to the present day. Naturally, there's a whole lot of glorious commas that we've had to omit. For instance, the rhetorical brilliance of the Elizabethean/Jacobean comma (who could forget the furiously anachronistic commas in Donne's idiosyncratic Holy Sonnets?) has had to be passed over. Nor have we had time to observe deeply the stark emotionalism of the Greater Romantic Comma, those fierce markings that so set apart the commas of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley from their classical forebears. The radical modern experiments with commas - who could forget that dramatic first comma in T S Eliot's 'The Wasteland'? - here cannot be examined either. Yes, the comma devotee has a lot to appreciate. So let's get right into it!

5. The Austen Comma, from Pride and Prejudice.


This classic comma from Austen's most widely-loved collection of commas, Pride and Prejudice, so neatly and aptly demonstrates the reasons for Austen's fame amongst comma lovers. It implies so much! And yet says so little! In fact, so great is the power of implication in this elegant comma, that if I were to say what it implied, then it's implied powers of implication would be significantly diminished. Consequently, we pass over this beautiful example of the powers of commas to an even greater comma.

4. Boswellian commas, from The Life of Dr Samuel Johnson

As comma afficionados know, the punctilious and witty Boswell produced many of literatures most widely-quoted commas.


Many comma lovers have, of course, objected that Boswell merely acted as a scribe to the generally greater and more prolific producer of the classical comma, Dr Johnson. And it is certainly true that we are indebted to Boswell for preserving for posterity many of Dr Johnson's justly famous commas. However, in this instance, Boswell grandly rises to the challenge of producing a comma that speaks to generations of comma lovers, and does so with both elegance and wit.

3. The Great Germanic Comma, The Collected Scientific Papers of Goethe

For our next comma, we turn to Germany, and the brilliant Man of Letters (and commas) Goethe. Although many of the finest commas of literary history are to be found in that epic book of commas, Faustus, it is not from that text that we draw our comma today. (I might note, in passing, here, that there is currently a significant quarrel between different comma lovers as to the significance of the umlaut in Faustus, and as to whether or not the commas in that poetic drama are not merely an elaborate conceit for the furtherance of the umlaut ideology; we do not propose to deal with this lengthy subject today.) Instead, this comma is drawn from Goethe's collected scientific papers.


In that single comma, does not a sublime new universe of possibility open up before you? It is indeed a grand comma, the comma that seems to encapsulate the dreamings of the romantic comma lovers on the English isle, and suggest new comma perspectives to discover.

2. The Original English comma, Hamlet

Although the science and study of commas was already established by Shakespeare's time, discerning comma lovers should not be surprised that it was up to Shakespeare, in his famous play Hamlet, to show the true potential of the comma. Consider the following fiercely original deployment of the comma in the tragedy:


could any other punctuation mark have so simply, so profoundly, so pathetically expressed Hamlet's tragic indecision? 'Here is an option', the comma seems to say. 'And here is another'. To be, or not to be? This is the comma that sounded down the ages!

1.The Henry Fielding Comma, Tom Jones

The following comma needs no words: its beauty and power are clear from the very first line.


Such a comma! Such wit! Although he never died again rise to the marvellous heights of expression inherent in this comma, Henry Fielding nevertheless continued producing brackets of fine commas, spicing his sentences, until his death. Such noble dedication to the cause of commas is truly to be admired.


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

I commend to your attention one of the world's most consummate comma-ndos, Monsieur le Henri James, who wields, here, in the first few sentences of The Turn of the Screw, an entire cartel of commas:

I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong. After rising, in town, to meet his appeal, I had at all events a couple of very bad days - found myself doubtful again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake. In this state of mind I spent the long hours of bumping, singing coach that carried me to the stopping place at which I was to be met by a vehicle from the house. This convenience, I was told, had been ordered, and I found, toward the close of the June afternoon, a commodious fly in waiting for me.

As a wise person once said unto me: Henry James exposes the difference between precision and clarity.

TimT said...

And, as we all know, clarity is the greatest of the virtues, according to St Paul. Faith, hope, and clarity. Yep, I know my Bible.

Dale Slamma said...

I have recently become a fan of Oxford commas. I am working my way up to using one.

Paco said...

I call "fraud" on number 5! That's not an 18th century comma, at all; in fact, in looks like a late 19th century Prussian comma.

Paco said...

Oops, sorry! I meant "fraud" on number 1.

TimT said...

Hmm. Quite right. The aberrant Prussian comma has been pulled out and replaced with a fresh 18th century comma, straight out of the comma jar!

I guess a sneaky Prussian put it on my blog when I wasn't looking, the scoundrel!

Email: timhtrain - at -

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