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
There 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.
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.