Did Anyone Even Read the Notes in Romantic Poetry?

by Miriam Lahrsow (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

If you were lucky enough to obtain an early edition of Byron’s satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), you would soon realise that the volume not only contains more than a thousand lines of witty and vituperative poetry but also almost one hundred footnotes written by Byron himself. Initially, you would probably be quite puzzled by these footnotes – after all, most modern editions either omit them altogether or hide them among the editorial commentary. But now that you get the chance to see these footnotes exactly as Byron’s first readers saw them, would you read them? And, more importantly: would Byron’s contemporaries themselves have read them?

According to William Cobbett, they would not. In his 1819 Grammar of the English Language, Cobbett claims: “Notes are seldom read” (83, original emphasis). In this post, basing my argument on authors’ correspondence and contemporary reviews of annotated poetry, I will show that Cobbett was wrong. Quite on the contrary, readers in the Romantic age were very interested in the foot- and endnotes that authors included in their works. And, as we will see, such annotations could even cause duels.

Image of the page proofs of `Don Juan: Cantos I and II` by Byron, with corrections by John Cam Hobhouse and Byron; MS.43394, John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland.

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While today the inclusion of footnotes or endnotes in a literary work is usually associated with more avant-gardist or ‘experimental’ authors like Joyce, Nabokov, or David Foster Wallace, in the Romantic age it was a common, even ubiquitous practice, especially in poetry. In a letter to his publisher Longman, poet laureate Robert Southey even argues that authors who do not annotate their works are not taken seriously by the public:

With regard to the illustrations [i.e. annotations] of my larger poems, I am glad you think of them, because such things are now become so customary that the poet who goes without them might seem to hold but a low place in public opinion (Southey, Collected Letters 6: letter 3426).

As Southey’s letter already suggests, contemporary readers indeed took considerable interest in annotations. For instance, in a letter to Byron on 6 October 1810, his friend John Cam Hobhouse tells him of a discussion that one of the notes in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had given rise to:

Only think of that ninny Ekenhead! When he was reading the Satire and came to that note where you talk about Haley and call him Mr. H. he said “ah ah so he has got a slap at you too,” and, I fancy, he thinks that Mr. H means Mr. Hobhouse to this moment. (Hobhouse 51)

Another footnote in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers even nearly caused bloodshed. The poet Thomas Moore (nowadays mainly known for his Irish Melodies, e.g. “The Last Rose of Summer”) misinterpreted an annotation that contained an anecdote about his duel with the reviewer Francis Jeffrey (ll. 465-67) and wrongly believed that Byron accused him of cowardice. Moore wrote an indignant letter to Byron, insinuating that he now thought about challenging him to a duel over this footnote (cf. Moore, Letters 1: 134-35; 161-62). The matter concluded without violence and Moore soon became one of Byron’s closest friends, but the incident shows that, at least among authors, annotations were indeed taken very seriously. Byron and Scott even thought that the poetry in some works was rather negligible and that they should only be read for their annotations. For example, Byron comments on Thomas James Mathias’s satire The Pursuits of Literature that it is

notoriously as far as the poetry goes the worst written of it’s [sic] kind, the World has been long but of one opinion viz. that it’s sole merit lies in the Notes, which are indisputably excellent. (Byron, BLJ 2: 86, original emphasis)

And Scott, announcing to one of his correspondents that he will send him Sir Edward Pellews’ poem Catalonia, explains: “the notes contain some curious information which is the reason I send it. The bard seems to me however to croak a little too much” (Scott, Letters 3: 67).

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Many reviewers also saw annotations as integral parts of the reviewed works and included them in their evaluation. For example, in its review of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, the Edinburgh Review comments:

The Notes are written in a flippant, lively, tranchant and assuming style – neither very deep nor very witty; though rather entertaining, and containing some curious information as to the character and qualifications of the modern Greeks; of whom, as well as of the Portuguese, Lord Byron seems inclined to speak much more favourably in prose than in verse. (475, original emphasis)

The practice of commenting on annotations was not restricted to British journals. The review of Byron’s Bride of Abydos in the Wiener Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung even dedicates a whole page to his annotations!

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Unfortunately, there is not too much information about whether ‘ordinary’ readers were just as interested in annotations as authors and reviewers. What is clear is that reviews and pirated editions made poems and their notes accessible to those readers who could not afford to buy the texts in their ‘official’ printed form.[1] Pirated editions in Britain and the continental reprints by Galignani and others usually retained the annotations.[2] Reviews in periodicals like the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review, or Blackwood’s Monthly Magazine generally included long quotes from the reviewed poem and often reprinted the annotations belonging to these quotes in their entirety. Thus, even though it is not clear whether ‘ordinary’ readers were interested in annotations, it can be established that they at least had relatively easy access to them.

And, given that it was often the footnotes or endnotes that contained the most scandalous, amusing, or insulting parts of a work, it is very likely that ‘ordinary’ people did indeed pay attention to them. Who, after all, could resist reading an annotation in which the most famous poet of the age relates how he passed several nights at the house of a (retired) Albanian robber (cf. Byron, Bride of Abydos 2.150n) or spent a considerable part of his youth in low-life gambling dens (cf. Byron, Don Juan 11.29n)?

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon, Byron’s Letters and Journals: Vol. 2: 1810-1812: Famous in my time, ed. by Leslie A. Marchand (Murray, 1973)

—— ‘The Bride of Abydos’, in: The Complete Poetical Works: Vol. 3, ed. by Jerome J. McGann (Clarendon, 1981)

—— The Complete Poetical Works: Vol. 5: Don Juan, ed. by Jerome J. McGann (Clarendon, 1986)

Cobbett, William, Grammar of the English Language (Thomas Dolby, 1819) www.archive.org​/​details/​grammarofenglish00cobbiala

Hobhouse, John Cam, Byron’s Bulldog: The Letters of John Cam Hobhouse to Lord Byron, ed. by Peter W. Graham (Ohio State UP, 1984)

Moore, Thomas, The Letters of Thomas Moore, Vol. 1: 1793-1818, ed. by Wilfred S. Dowden (Oxford University Press, 1964)

O’Connell, Mary, Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher (Liverpool University Press, 2015)

‘Review of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Edinburgh Review, 19: 38 (Feb 1812), 466–77

Scott, Walter, The Letters of Sir Walter Scott: E-Text (Constable, 1932-1937) www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk​/​etexts/​etexts/​letters.html

Southey, Robert, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part 3: 1804-1809, ed. by Carol Bolton and Tim Fulford (Romantic Circles, 2013) www.romantic-circles.org​/​editions/​southey_​letters/​Part_​Three/​index.html

St. Clair, William, ‘The Impact of Byron’s Writings: An Evaluative Approach’, in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, ed. by Andrew Rutherford (Macmillan, 1990), pp. 1-25.

—— The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Wiener Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, No. 26 (Camesina, 1814) www.books.google.de​/​books​?​id=​0fhbAAAAcAAJ.


[1] A bound quarto copy of the first two cantos of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage cost 50 shillings, half the weekly income of a gentleman (cf. O’Connell 86–87; St. Clair, “The Impact of Byron’s Writings” 4).

[2] See, for example, the pirated Don Juan, An Exact Copy from the Quarto Edition, published in 1819 by a J. Onwhyn, which cost four shillings.

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