punctuation poems subtly subvert dominant social order with lineation

Challenging the ideology of the dominant social order tends to anger persons entrenched in it. That’s dangerous for dissidents. Creative poets, however, developed means to pass under orthodoxy while offering subversive views. With punctuation poems, poets allowed readers to nod in complacent affirmation of the dominant ideology. Yet these poems with an alternate lineation enabled alert readers to encounter a different view of the dominant social order.

Law, particularly criminal law, is a central aspect of the dominant social order. Consider this perspective on reigning law in England in the fifteenth century:

Now the law is led by clear conscience.
Very seldomly covetousness has dominion.
In every place right has residence.
Neither in town nor rurally {exists} deception.
There is truly in every case consolation.
The poor people at no time has {nothing} but formal right.
Men may find neither {by} day nor night adulation.
Now reigns truth in every man’s sight.

Here’s a radically different view:

Now the law is led by clear conscience very seldomly.
Covetousness has dominion in every place.
Right has residence neither in town nor rurally.
Deception there is truly in every case.
Consolation the poor people at no time has {anything} but formal right.
Men may find neither day nor night {but all confused}.
Adulation now reigns {over} truth in every man’s sight.

Both these readings are encoded in same Middle English poem:

Nowe the lawe is ledde by clere conscience .
ffull seld . Couetise hath dominacioun .
In Every place . Right hath residence .
Neyther in towne ne feld . Similacion .
Ther is truly in euery cas . Consolacioun .
The pore peple no tyme hase . but right .
Men may fynd day ne nyght . Adulacioun .
Nowe reigneth treuth in euery mannys sight . [1]

Reading textual lines as the units of sense, the dominant reading practice, gives the ideology of the dominant order. Transgressing the end-stopped lines to the mid-line break (caesura) gives the subversive reading. That non-dominant Middle English poetic lineation is known as enjambment.

Lawyers in seventeenth-century England imprisoned through private action an extraordinarily large number of men for debt. A punctuation poem from the mid-seventeenth century critiques lawyers’ role in that terrible structure of justice:

Lawyers themselves maintain the commonweal.
They punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art the innocent
from any danger, loose {them} of punishment.
The can, but will not, save the world in awe
with any false or mis-expounded law.
They ever have great stock of charity,
and love they desire not, keeping amity.

Lawyers themselves maintain.
The commonweal they punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art {the guilty}.
The innocent from any danger, loose of punishment, they can, but will not, save.
The world in awe, with any false or mis-expounded law, they ever have great stock.
Of charity and love they lack,
not keeping amity.

{ Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .
They punish . such as doe offend and steale .
They free with subtill arte . The Innocent .
From any danger, loose of punishment .
They can but will not save . ye world in awe .
With any false or mixexpounded law .
They euer haue great store . of charite .
And loue they wante not, keeping amitie . } [2]

This poem is relatively crude in its use of rhyme. But, as in the previous punctuation poem, breaks within the lines are associated with the critical version that breaks from affirming the dominant social order.[3]

Another aspect of dominant ideology is the dominant religious faith. In seventeenth-century England, orthodox faith meant not merely ideological fervor in upholding dominant ideology, but membership in an actual Church of England. With a break down its middle, like the break a priest makes to a communion wafer in celebrating Mass, a seventeenth-century punctuation poem encoded a fierce Catholic declaration within an Anglican affirmation:

I hold as faith what England’s church allows.
What Rome’s church says my conscience disavows.
Where the King’s the head that church can have no shame.
The flock’s misled that holds the Pope supreme.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images}, there’s service scarce divine.
The people’s blessed with table, bread, and wine  {and no holy images}.
He’s but an ass who the {Anglican} communion flies —
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass is catholic and wise.

I hold as faith
what Rome’s church says.
Where the King’s the head,
the flock’s misled.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images},
the people’s blessed.
He’s but an ass
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass.

What England’s church allows,
my conscience disavows.
That church can have no shame,
that holds the Pope supreme.
There’s service scarce divine
with table, bread, and wine {but no holy images}.
Who the {Anglican} communion flies
is Catholic and wise. [4]

Catholics rebels plotted in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. In previous decades many Catholics were harshly treated and sometimes even killed for their faith. Affirming Catholicism within a statement of Anglican orthodoxy wasn’t a trifling poetic game.

Criticizing women is even more dangerous under the dominant gynocentric order than is dissenting in how to worship God. Not surprisingly, men resorted to punctuation poems for the treacherous activity of expressing their feelings about women:

In women is rest, peace, and patience.
No {mere} season for truth, everything {they say is} with generosity.
Both by night and day, they have {their men’s warranted} confidence.
All ways of treason out of blame they be.
At no time, as men say, {have they} mutability.
They have, without nay, {nothing} but steadfastness.
In them may you never find, I guess, cruelty.
Such qualities they have more & less.

In women {there} is {for} rest, peace, and patience no season.
For truth everything {including their sexual favors} with generosity {they give} both by night and day.
They have confidence {in} all ways of treason.
Out of blame they be at no time.
As men say, mutability they have.
Without nay, but {even just} steadfastness in them may you never find.
I guess cruelty — such qualities — they have more & less.

{ In women is rest peas and pacience .
No season . for soth outht of charite .
Bothe be nyght & day . thei haue confidence .
All wey of treasone . Owt of blame thei be .
No tyme as men say . Mutabilite .
They haue without nay . but stedfastnes .
In theym may ye neuer fynde y gesse . Cruelte
Suche condicons they haue more & lesse . } [5]

The concluding “more & less” indicates the diffidence of this poem’s protest. But another punctuation poem moves forward to protest more vigorously women’s abusive behavior toward men:

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent.
Who can perceive that they do offend?
Daily they serve god with good intent.
Seldom they displease their husbands to their lives’ end.
Always to please them they do intend.
Never man may find in them shrewdness.
Commonly such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil?
Every man that has wit greatly will them praise.
For vice they abhor with all their will.
Prudence, mercy & patience they use always.
Folly, wrath & cruelty they hate as man says.
Meekness & all virtue they practice ever.
Sin to avoid, virtues they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women!”
Truly therefore they are to blame.
Nothing a man may disparage of them.
Abundantly they have grace & good fame.
Lacking {are they} few virtues to a good name.
In them you find all constantness.
They lack, obviously, all shrewdness as I see it.

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent: who can perceive that?
They do offend daily.
They serve god with good intent seldom.
They displease their husbands to their lives’ end always.
To please them they do intend never.
Man may find in them shrewdness commonly.
Such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil? Every man that has wit.
Greatly {they} will them praise for vice.
They abhor with all their will prudence, mercy & patience.
They use always folly, wrath & cruelty.
They hate, as men says, meekness & all virtue.
They practice ever sin.
To avoid virtues, they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women truly!”
Therefore they are to blame {for} nothing.
A man may disparage of them abundantly.
They have grace & good fame lacking.
Few virtues to a good name in them you find.
All constantness they lack, obviously.
All shrewdness {they have}, as I see it.

{ All women have vertues noble & excelent
Who can perceyve that they do offend
dayly they serve god with good intent
Seldome they dysplease there husbandes to theyr lyves end
Always to plese them they do intend
neuer man may fynd in them srewdnes
comonly suche condycyons they haue more & lese

What man can percyve that women be evyll
euery man that hathe wytt . gretly wyll them prayse
ffor vyce : they Abhorre with all theyre wyll
prudence mercy & pacyence . they vse always
ffoly wrathe & cruelte they hate As men says
meknes & all vertue . they prattyse euer
syn . to Avoyde vertues they do procure

Sum men speke muche evyll be women
truly . theyfore they be to blame
nothyng . A man may chekk in them
haboundantly . they haue of grace & good fame
Lakkyng . few vertues to A good name
in them fynd ye . All constantnes
they lak perde . all srewdnes As I gese } [6]

Like law, lawyers, and the church, women had a dominant position in medieval gynocentric society. In punctuation poems, the dominant way of reading poems expressed that dominant position. One such poem explained:

Read this verse according to its meter
and it says women are good, but read it {according} to
its {punctuation} marks to gain the contrary {meaning}.

{ Reid this werss acording to ye meitter
& It is guid of wemen bot reid it to
ye nott ewin the contrair } [7]

The contrary meaning was the subversive, dangerous meaning within gynocentric society.

Surviving Middle English punctuation poems lack the artistic brilliance of Optatianus Porfyrius’s fourth-century carmen cancellatum to a cuckolded husband. But they have a similar social position and a similar critical strategy. Within the oppressive circumstances of gynocentric society, speaking about gender injustices against men requires unusual poetry.

rabbit-duck illusion

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 101 (poem no. 111), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. Five other surviving manuscripts are known to contain this poem, DIMEV 3804. Nutall (2014) points out the change in verse form with the change in lineation.

Subsequent examples of punctuation poems are Roister Doister’s mispunctuated love letter to Dame Christian Custance, in Nicholas Udall’s comedic play Roister Doister, “Sweete mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all”, 3.4.36ff ; and the poetic prologue to the play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, “If we offend, it is with our good will.” 5.1.108ff. Here’s a recent poem that reveals anti-meninist sentiments if the lines are read in reverse order. Here’s a review of modern punctuation poetry.

[2] Original English text from Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. Id. describes it as “A poem of the time of King Charles II {that} was printed in an edition limited to 102 copies at Bristol in 1814.”

[3] A punctuation poem written in the mid-sixteenth century is inconsistent with that pattern. Consider:

Trusty seldom, to their friends unjust.
Glad to help no Christian creator.
Willing to grieve, establishing all their joy & lust.
Only in the pleasure of God having no care.
Who is most rich with them, they will be protective.
Where need is, {they are} giving {of} neither reward nor fee.
Unreasonably thus priests love, obviously.

Trusty, seldom to their friends unjust.
Glad to help.
No Christian creator willing to grieve.
Establishing all their joy & lust only in the pleasure of God.
Having no care who is most rich with them.
They will be protective where need is.
Giving neither reward nor fee unreasonably.
Thus priests love, obviously.

{ Trvsty seldom . to their ffrendys vniust .
Gladd for to helpe no crysten creator .
Wyllyng to greve . settyng all ther ioy & lust
Only in Þe pleasour . of gode havyng no cure .
Who is most riche with them Þei wil be sure .
Wher nede is gewyng nether rewarde ne ffee .
Vnresonably thus lyve prestys, Parde. }

Middle English text from Kreuzer (1938) p. 323 (version B, punctuated for disparaging priests), my modernizations. The poem survives in Pembroke College, Cambridge MS. 307, fol. 197b. The poem survives to two versions of the Middle English text, differently punctuated to indicated the different readings. Id. prints both versions. Robbins (1952) p. 101 prints the A version (punctuated for praising priests), and notes:

The poem is written twice: first in a mid-sixteenth-century hand, and second in a somewhat latter hand. It appears on the end flyleaf of a Confessio Amantis along with other scribblings — a location which indicates the experimental nature of the verse.

Id. p. 262. Kreuzer (1938), p. 323, less carefully suggests that both versions were written in the fifteenth century.

Priests were part of the dominant order in medieval England. Who would have authored a fifteenth-century English poem that in its dominant lineation disparaged priests, yet contained an alternate lineation that praised priests? The most plausible answer seems to me a priest. The point might be that, despite superficial appearances of corruption, priests have a less visible goodness. Such social positioning of a punctuation poem seems to me likely to be quite unusual.

[4] Original English text in Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. The original text is like the first modernization except in spelling and punctuation. Id. states of the poem:

it comes from a broadside of 1655, which the antiquary Robert Bell two hundred years later found posted on the wall of a Gloucestershire public-house.

The poem probably was written well before the English Civil War (1642–1651).

[5] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 102 (poem no. 112), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. (the same folio page containing above “Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .”). This poem is found only in this manuscript.

[6] Poem by Richard Hattfield, Middle English text from the Devonshire Manuscript, London, British Library Addit. 17492, f. 18v, my modernizations. The first stanza of this poem (DIMEV 406) is found in four other manuscripts, but the second and third stanzas are unique to the Devonshire Manuscript.

[7] Middle English text from Robbins (1939) p. 206, printed from the early sixteenth-century MS. Cambridge UK, Magdalene College Pepys 2553 (Maitland Folio Manuscript) p. 356, printed in Craigie (1919) vol. 1, p. 433. This rubric follows the first stanza of a version of “All women have virtues noble and excellent” (DIMEV 406). See above.

[image] “Rabbit and Duck” double (ambiguous) drawing. From the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Craigie, William Alexander. 1919. The Maitland Folio Manuscript, Containing Poems by Sir Richard Maitland, Dunbar, Douglas, Henryson, and others. Scottish Text Society n.s. 7.

Kreuzer, James R. 1938. “Some Earlier Examples of the Rhetorical Device in Ralph Roister Doister (III. iv. 33 ff.).” The Review of English Studies. 14 (55): 321-323.

Nuttall, Jenni. 2014. “One Poem: Two Ways.” Stylisticienne, Mar. 27 (online).

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1939. “Punctuation Poems — A Further Note.” The Review of English Studies. Old Series 15(58): 206-207.

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1952. Secular lyrics of the XIVth and XVth centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *