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  • Tennyson and the Weight of a Pause
  • Owen Boynton (bio)

Tennyson deployed and revised punctuation in his poems with diligent care; his critics have responded in kind.1 Christopher Ricks, Eric Griffiths, Herbert Tucker, and a more recent generation including Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Kirstie Blair have all turned their attention toward the pointing of Tennyson’s verse, but they have turned their attention toward it when looking away from the other matters with which they are chiefly concerned, glancing briefly and occasionally at marks, rather than granting Tennyson’s punctuation the sustained scrutiny it deserves.2 Such scrutiny can take various forms. A critic might enumerate the diverse repercussions of punctuation across works or in a single work, or else a critic might fix upon a single function of punctuation as it pertains to some of Tennyson’s deepest preoccupations. In what follows, I pursue the latter path, hoping, by way of a discussion of Tennyson’s punctuation, to arrive at a greater understanding of Tennyson’s poetic procedures and intentions.

Whether it elucidates syntax or whether it modulates rhetorical emphasis, punctuation has an inherently temporal character, with different marks inviting readers to pause for greater or lesser durations. Throughout the nineteenth century, at least four marks of punctuation were synonymous with variously extended pauses, even when they were used also, or primarily, for syntactical elucidation.3 Commas, semicolons, colons, and full stops represented a series of pauses, of relatively increasing duration, such that the comma asks for a smaller pause than the semicolon, which asks for a smaller pause than the colon, and so on. Early and mid-Victorian children were sometimes trained, as school children, to stop and count aloud for one second at each comma, two seconds at each semicolon, three at each colon, and four at each full stop when learning to read. Many Victorian readers were raised in the same world as Maggie Tulliver, who assists in educating her brother with a reminder that: “you ought to stop twice as long at a semicolon as you do at a comma, and you make the longest stops where there ought to be no stop at all.”4 Even today’s readers may recall learning to stop at different marks of punctuation for relatively longer or shorter pauses, to better understand the degrees of relationship between parts of sentences set off by those marks.5 [End Page 229]

Any poet may take advantage of the temporal aspect of punctuation, but not all poets will have good reason for doing so. Tennyson did. In his memoir of his father, Hallam Tennyson records an incident that occurred in 1873, when the poet was sixty-four years old:

During the evening we consoled ourselves by reading Lélia by George Sand: whose Consuelo and Petite Fadette were favourites of his. Nothing was to be heard at night thro’ the mist but the shrill ticking of a church-clock, which sounded, he said, “in the thick darkness like the cry of a dying man.” He says he once lived near a stable clock which he never heard but which he felt, most ghostly wise, through the boards.6

As time passed in the ticking of a church clock, it passed also along Tennyson’s nerves, intimating human mortality and the terror, or pain, of death. In some of his earliest surviving verse, Tennyson likewise intuits that time can have an exquisitely visceral presence:

There is a clock in Pandemonium,Hard by the burning throne of my Great Grandsire,The slow vibrations of whose pendulum,With click-clack alternation to and fro,Sound “Ever, Never!” through the courts of Hell,Piercing the wrung ears of the damned that writheUpon their beds of flame . . .

(The Devil and the Lady, I.V. 233–239) 7

The nightmare of Hell, in addition to the agony of the beds of flame, is that it is both eternal and subject to the tangibly “piercing” vibrations of a clock; time becomes as painful, precise, and directed as a metallic tool of torture. In the span of years between these two pieces of writing, time repeatedly features in Tennyson’s poetry as a force of attrition, often...


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