In defence of annotation

There is some­thing rather odd about anno­tat­ing poet­ry.

After all, poet­ry is as close as words come to music. The verse should work upon us not as  ratio­nal argu­ment — or not just as ratio­nal argu­ment — but as melody and rhythm work.

The attrac­tion and inter­est should be emo­tion­al and… well, vis­cer­al. The expe­ri­ence should be sort of inex­plic­a­ble. If you have to explain it then it prob­a­bly doesn’t work.

Yet here I am prepar­ing an anno­tat­ed ver­sion of Can­tos I and II of Byron’s Don Juan to cel­e­brate the 200th anniver­sary, this July, of their pub­li­ca­tion.

Why, for good­ness’ sake, clut­ter up the pages of what is already a long poem? If Don Juan is so hard to read that it needs notes then no amount of notes is ever going to help its appeal or restore the fun two cen­turies lat­er.

And, besides, I’m no lit­er­ary schol­ar or Byron expert. There are scores (hun­dreds?) of learned crit­ics who have resist­ed any temp­ta­tion to attach their mar­gin­a­lia to the great­est work of one of the great­est poets and per­son­al­i­ties of his­to­ry. What gives me a license they have not sought for them­selves?

These are “good ques­tions”. I mean, they’re annoy­ing ques­tions. I have them myself but I don’t have answers that I find quite sat­is­fy­ing. Still, I go on with the project that has now reached a stage where I can soon release drafts of my notes and the accom­pa­ny­ing record­ings of my read­ing of the Can­tos.

Here’s what I’ve got as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for anno­ta­tion.

Byron did it

Byron anno­tat­ed his own poet­ry begin­ning with “Hours of Idle­ness” first pub­lished in 1807 when he was bare­ly 20. There are long “essays” attached to some of the Can­tos in  Childe Harold and he allowed his friend, Cam Hob­house, to anno­tate the last, fourth, Can­to of the Childe. All of his longer tragedies have notes, espe­cial­ly “Mari­no Faliero.”

But Byron added very few notes to the first two can­tos of Don Juan. He has eleven notes to Can­to I of Don Juan that most­ly give the source of some clas­si­cal ref­er­ence in the poem. Only two notes of the eleven step back from the text to offer some addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion. One is an admis­sion that he has quot­ed Campbell’s “Gertrude of Wyoming” from mem­o­ry; the sec­ond notes that “Julia” makes a mis­take in say­ing Count O’Reilly took Algiers. Byron offers just four notes on Can­to II; most­ly cita­tions, none of them more than a dozen words.

There are fur­ther scrib­blings and era­sures and signs of debate in the mar­gins of the print­ers’ proofs of the two can­tos where he and Cam Hob­house (most­ly) dis­put­ed sug­gest­ed edits. Byron reject­ed almost all of them.

Everyone” does it

ShakesperarAnnotationThere are guides for school and col­lege stu­dents explain­ing how to anno­tate a poem as if it were a puz­zle to which there are solu­tions. They encour­age stu­dents to stake down and truss the verse, like Gul­liv­er in Lil­liput, by lines and note-bub­bles. When they’re not just clamps on an autop­sy table, these notes are usu­al­ly a crib for exams. They iden­ti­fy the “best bits” with copy-and-paste expla­na­tions of a sup­posed-more-than-expe­ri­enced emo­tion­al impact.

Then there are expert guides from schol­ars like the late Peter Cochran. If you haven’t dis­cov­ered Cochran’s edi­tion of Don Juan re-tran­scribed from the Byron man­u­scripts, you’re miss­ing a wealth of infor­ma­tion from Byron’s own sources and from PC’s keen insight into Byrons’ per­son­al­i­ty, his­to­ry and foibles. Stef­fan, Stef­fan and Pratt’s ear­ly-1970s Pen­guin edi­tion also pro­vides lengthy notes on both text and con­tent. Final­ly, Isaac Asi­mov, best known for his sci­ence fic­tion and pop­u­lar books on sci­ence but some­thing of a poly­math, also pro­duced an anno­tat­ed ver­sion of the poem in the ear­ly 1970s with his own foot­notes.

Necessary evils?

Dr John­son who, as a lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er, had a great deal of prac­tice in the art of pro­vid­ing con­cise, author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion, warned in his Pref­ace to Shake­speare that notes are nec­es­sary evils, at best.

Par­tic­u­lar pas­sages are cleared by notes,” John­son con­ced­ed, “but the gen­er­al effect of the work is weak­ened.”

The mind is refrig­er­at­ed by inter­rup­tion; the thoughts are divert­ed from the prin­ci­pal sub­ject; the read­er is weary, he sus­pects not why; and at last throws away the book, which he has too dili­gent­ly stud­ied.

John­son thought that the read­er should allow the dra­ma of Shake­speare, in this instance, to move them and while it did so, to plough-on with­out notes.

Let him read on through bright­ness and obscu­ri­ty, through integri­ty and cor­rup­tion; let him pre­serve his com­pre­hen­sion of the dia­logue and his inter­est in the fable, and when the plea­sures of nov­el­ty have ceased, let him attempt exact­ness, and read the com­men­ta­tors.

Of course, this assumes that the read­er is able to com­pre­hend the dia­log with­out notes. For­tu­nate­ly, Byron is much less dif­fi­cult than Shake­speare. His gram­mar can be dif­fi­cult and his free-form punc­tu­a­tion con­fus­ing. But the lan­guage he uses is still with­in the range of con­tem­po­rary eng­lish. Most 21st cen­tu­ry adults who are native eng­lish speak­ers should be able to com­pre­hend Don Juan with ease, even if they missed some of Byron’s ref­er­ences.

Might they give pleasure?

To the obses­sive, cer­tain­ly. There is a mar­ket for the anno­ta­tion of poet­ry that owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the puz­zle­ment of the read­er or the desire for schol­ar­ship but a great deal to casu­al curios­i­ty and delight.

For a fan, anno­tat­ed lit­er­a­ture should be a means to recap­ture and deep­en the plea­sure of first read­ing a poem (or prose). It should be like read­ing a trav­el book on places you’ve been or pour­ing through a com­men­ta­tors’ analy­sis of a football/cricket/baseball/basketball game you saw live. It should be like read­ing a walk-through for com­put­er-game lev­els you’ve already con­quered, or one of those after-the-event plot updates of, say, Game of Thrones.

You might learn things you didn’t know, sure. But it should also help you to re-live your expe­ri­ence of the poem (place, dra­ma) from the first-time-around.

This is what I would like to do with my anno­ta­tions of Can­tos I and II of Don Juan.

Are there exam­ples I could learn from? Apart from Cochran’s and Asimov’s anno­ta­tions of Don Juan, I have to admit there are few exam­ples I can point to. The one that springs to mind is — or seems to be — not seri­ous enough to sup­port my case. I mean Mar­tin Gardner’s “Anno­tat­ed Snark” (now long out of print).

This was prob­a­bly the first anno­tat­ed verse I ever read and, as most things by Gard­ner, bril­liant. Lewis Carrol’s poem is deeply un-seri­ous for rea­sons I sus­pect Byron would have endorsed: he appar­ent­ly had no truck with the “deeply seri­ous”, Arnoldian, High-Church of Vic­to­ri­an right-think­ing. But as a Don in Dean Hen­ry Liddell’s High Church Uni­ver­si­ty he kept that view hid­den behind a Lear-like inno­cent idio­cy. I loved Gardner’s anno­ta­tions that make sense of jokes that Carrol/Dodson pre­ferred to elide.

Avoiding Dr Johnson’s “refrigeration”

There are two means, I think.

First: offer some options. For exam­ple, anoth­er way to access the poet­ry while plac­ing the anno­tat­ed text before the read­er.

Sec­ond: make sure the anno­ta­tions don’t obtrude or demand the read­er jump to dif­fer­ent parts of the page (foot­notes) or, worse, to a dif­fer­ent part of the doc­u­ment (end-notes).

This post is already too long, so I’ll dis­cuss these options next time.