At six lines long, the final sentence of John Donne's “The Triple Foole” accounts for nearly a quarter of the poem.
To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,
Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles bee.
Despite its length, the sentence seems to visually comply with traditional sentence expectations. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. It is composed of linked clauses, several of which begin with coordinating conjunctions such as but, and, and for. These kinds of conjunctions tend to make a reader feel rhetorically safe. They hint at a balanced argument, a weighing of options. They imply logical progress from one idea to the next. But is logical progress really what’s happening in this sentence? When I look more closely at the punctuation, I begin to feel uneasy.
Lines 1 and 2 open smoothly enough. In fact, “To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs, / But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,” reads like a sentence unto itself. Though the order is archaic and convoluted, the lines have a subject (“tribute of Verse”) and an accompanying verb (“belongs”) with an attached prepositional phrase (“To Love, and Griefe”). The second line is a dependent clause that explains the qualities of this particular “tribute of Verse” (it’s not pleasant when read). So far, so clear.
But line 2 ends with a comma, indicating that the sentence isn’t over yet. So why, when I read line 3, do I feel as if I am now in a completely different sentence? The simplest response is because Donne has relied on a comma splice. That is, instead of inserting a period or a semicolon after line 2, he has used a comma to link an independent clause (“Both are increased by such songs:”) to what was already a complete sentence.
You may be a person with a hot, hot hate for so-called bad grammar. You may revile its versus it’s errors and snarl about dangling modifiers and split infinitives. But for now I want you to stop spitting and snarling. I also want you forget the fact that seventeenth-century punctuation styles don’t follow the rules of twenty-first-century grammar manuals. Simply I want you to reread these three lines and ask yourself, Why did Donne use a comma here?
In my previous chapter about punctuation, I thought about some of the ways in which Hopkins chose to punctuate his poem “The Soldier.” To me, many of those choices seemed to relate to sound. In this case, however, I am less sure about the influence of sound. Does the sound of “The Triple Foole” change radically if I insert a strong end-stopped pause rather than a lighter comma pause? Yes, each reading does create a different effect in my voice and on my ear. But more than the echo of music I hear the echo of thought.
In lines 1 and 2, Donne states that verse can be a tribute to either love or grief, and he tells us that such tributes aren’t necessarily a pleasure to read about. Then in line 3 he rushes into his next idea: such tributes aren’t pleasant because verse intensifies both love and grief. Is he making logical sense? Not necessarily. I might argue that an increase in love can be pleasurable, even that an increase in grief can have its self-absorbed allurements. But I think it’s important to remember that thought isn’t logic. Thought is exploration. To my mind, Donne’s comma splice is somewhat analogous to the light bulb that appears over a cartoon character’s head. “Idea!” it shouts.
Let's keep pushing into the sentence. Line 3 ends with a colon. Here again, we have a situation that might be called a sentence break. Why did Donne choose to break his thought with a long exhale rather than an actual stop?
Read further down into line 5, which ends with a semicolon. In modern English grammar, a semicolon links two independent clauses. In other words, it functions as a kind of hybrid period/comma. But this isn’t a case of two independent clauses. Line 6 is a straightforward dependent clause—a place I might have expected to see a comma. Why didn’t Donne choose to use one here?
How do these punctuation choices--a colon, then a semicolon--affect your sense that the poet is working, in the OED's terms, with "a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought"? I’m not going to answer such questions for you, although I hope you take the time to puzzle over them yourself. As I’ve already said, my goal in this chapter is to show you how to open doors in the poem, not to explicate it for you. By paying attention to sentence structure, sentence punctuation, and sentence position, you will be using the solid elements of language as touchstones for your own curiosity. You can analyze for meaning; you can focus on dramatic movement; you can bask in the cadence of the language. There are many ways to read a poem, and there are moments in your life when one type of reading will be more vital than another. But the poet’s language choices always remain at the root of those readings.
[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]