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I've seen a number of examples of poetry, where "nor" appears without a preceding negative. In these examples, I'm unsure of whether I'm meant to understand the sentence as:

  • "neither" is elided, so it's really a hidden "(neither) ... nor" sentence
  • "nor" is an abbreviation for "and not", so the first part actually has a positive meaning

For example, from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, we find the following lines (about Napoleon):

There sunk the greatest,
nor the worst of men,
Whose spirit antithetically mixt
One moment of the mightiest, and again
On little objects with like firmness fixt,

Are we meant to understand this as Napoleon being neither the greatest nor the worst? Or are we meant to understand it as meaning Napoleon was the greatest and definitely not the worst?

Similarly Dylan Thomas' poem "I see the boys of summer", there's a stanza that goes

But seasons must be challenged or they totter
Into a chiming quarter
Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars;
There, in his night, the black-tongued bells
The sleepy man of winter pulls,
Nor blows back moon-and-midnight as she blows

Are we meant to read the last three lines as meaning, the "sleepy man of winter" neither pulls the black-tongued bells nor blows back moon-and-midnight? Or are we meant to understand them as saying that the sleepy man of winter does pull the black-tongued bells, but does not blow back moon-and-midnight?

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Byron’s use of “nor” is sense 2b in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the examples make it clear that “neither” is indicated. Note the 1813 quotation showing that Byron was familiar with this sense.

nor, conj. 2. Without immediately preceding (negative) correlative (such as neither).

b. Without other negative expressed. Now rare.

1594   C. Marlowe & T. Nashe Dido v. ii   Though thou nor he will pity me a whit.
1621   M. Wroth Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania 532   The most ignorant proud woman liuing, caring for, nor respecting any but her selfe and hers.
1678   J. Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress 127   They threatned that the Cage nor Irons should serve their turn.
1813   Ld. Byron Bride Abydos i. xii. 366   A heart his words nor deeds can daunt.
1872   Ld. Tennyson Last Tournament in Gareth & Lynette 103   Great brother, thou nor I have made the world.
1954   W. Faulkner Fable 348   A world such as caesar nor sultan nor khan ever saw, Tiberius nor Kubla nor all the emperors of the East ever dreamed of.

Oxford English Dictionary

In Childe Harold, Byron makes the sense clear by elaborating the same idea in different words: Napoleon was neither the greatest nor the worst of men; rather, his character contained a mixture of greatness and smallness.

By contrast, Thomas’s use of “nor” is sense 5a:

nor, conj. 5. And — not.

a. Following an affirmative clause, or in continuing narration. Now chiefly poetic.

1697   J. Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics iii, in tr. Virgil Wks. 101   His Age and Courage weigh: Nor those alone.
1822   Ld. Byron Heaven & Earth i. iii, in Liberal 1 198   Away! nor weep!
1871   R. Ellis tr. Catullus Poems lxi. 205   Come nor tarry to greet her.
2006   C. McCarthy Road 71   The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall.

Oxford English Dictionary

In ‘I see the boys of summer’, it works best if the “sleepy man of winter” is pulling the “black-tongued bells”, because this is one of the things that makes winter the “chiming quarter” that the seasons are prone to “totter” into.

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