Poetry and Punctuation


…but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Everyone knows these lines (especially the last two), but I never realized until just now that syntactically the poem doesn’t call for a question mark at the end. It’s really saying (imagine the ellipses): “And now I know what rough beast slouches,” the same way we might say “and now I know what candidate to vote for.” It really means “I know which beast slouches,” doesn’t it?

And yet I have always interpreted the lines as a question, perhaps because I probably first encountered them outside of the poem, and perhaps because of the overdetermined question mark. But how can you link these two clauses, one demonstrative one interrogative, with an “and” that way without creating a run-on sentence? “I went to the store today and are you feeling well?”

I don’t begrudge Yeats this question mark. He could have sprinkled through the poem many more question marks and I just would have assumed that he was expressing the confusion inherent in things falling apart. (He could have thrown a lot of run-on sentences, too, except then he would have magically transformed into T.S. Eliot.)

It’s just that now I have to question how much the narrator “now” knows.


This poem‘s also well-known, but I’ll quote it in full.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

I just want to say: There are two exclamation points in this poem (good restraint for a Romantic), and the second one makes sense, as it’s at the punchline, but the first one…by what possible logic does a trivial fact about a tangential image merit an exclamation point?

This is how I always imagine the poem running:

“Let me tell you a wicked sad story about this girl who was always lonely, and she was like the only star in the sky, and also like a flower by a rock.”
“Ho hum.”
“Yeah, and oh by the way she’s dead now.”

(Actually, I think my entire love of this poem, which I do love, is predicated on the fact that you have to mispronounce “difference” in the last line to make it scan. This is probably not the best reason to love a poem, but it works for me.)

Still confused by the “eye!” part.

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