- Annotation in Eighteenth-Century Poetry ed. by Michael Edson
The eleven essays in Michael Edson's collection, Annotation in Eighteenth-Century Poetry, offer a "series of snapshots, or case studies" that indicate the "quirky particularism" of the subject matter but remain serious in their effort to drag footnotes and endnotes more fully into the critical consciousness (xxix). Readers will find essays that range over eighteenth-century British poetry and collections of earlier poetry published in the eighteenth century, including canonical poets and works (i.e. Pope's Iliad, Butler's Hudibras, Chaucer, and Milton) as well as lesser-known figures (William Falconer's Shipwreck, the "Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester," and Thomas Percey's The Hermit of Warkworth). The volume doesn't offer, nor is it particularly interested in offering, a tightly framed historical narrative of eighteenth-century poetry; instead, its ambition is to recover the historical and critical contribution of annotation by mapping a network of relations between poetic texts and prose annotations. Rather than cling to a shared thesis, the contributors adhere to a common commitment—investigate how the critical engagement with textual annotation adds to the disciplinary fields of book history, material culture, print culture. Buttressed by increasing pressure to reevaluate academic engagement with literary objects made newly and widely available by digital repositories, the collection's strength lies in its potential ramifications for scholars working on a range of topics that can take these materials into account. And while I closed Edson's collection feeling mildly frustrated by how the authors in this collection often reduce poetry to a backdrop upon which the historical and interpretive arguments about annotation play out, this was offset by all this book taught me about the curious, chaotic, and at times bizarre activities of eighteenth-century annotators.
While Edson breaks the collection into four parts, he is quick to point out that this organizational structure is flexible and doesn't require linear progress through the essays. Moreover, this flexibility reflects the methodological framework of annotation as the essays, like the annotations they study, operate more like a network of ideas than a narrowly defined historical and critical narrative of eighteenth-century poetry. Part I, "Georgic Annotations," contains Edson's exceptional "Introduction" that, along with the first chapter "Annotating Georgic Poetry" co-authored with Karina Williamson, does the useful work of laying out earlier scholarship on annotation and articulating the conceptual stakes of this subfield. Three analytical concepts/modes seem to underwrite the contributor's approach to the historical and critical work of reading annotations: (1) the dual role played by annotations as both a tool for interpretation and the object of interpretation; (2) the various ways of configuring the relationship between a poem and its annotations—marginalizing, overwhelming, displacing or clarifying; and (3) how annotations impact readers when authors, editors and readers negotiate between interpretive freedom and didactic instruction. These methodological principles constitute the backbone of the collection as it ranges across genres, temporal spans, and geographical boundaries.
The three essays in Part II on "Nationalism, Antiquarianism, and Annotation" borrow Katie Trumpener's notion of "bardic nationalism" to explore the antiquarian practice of annotating ballads and the establishment of national [End Page 364] identity. Jeff Strabone's "The Afterlife of Annotation" argues persuasively that annotations of eighteenth-century poetry shift in focus from historical documents read by educated antiquarians to poems and ballads that marked the beginnings of an English nationalism. Building on Strabone's linkage of annotation to literary nationalism, Thomas Van der Goten's "Topographical Annotation" argues that "antiquarian notes are synecdochal expressions of the collaborative networks of scholars, collectors, and correspondents […] the rhetoric of which echoes the cultural patriotism of the respective families, institutions, and societies that endorsed such projects" (83). The glue that binds these two essays together, along with Alex Watson's reading of Robert Southey's notes to Madoc, is how the inclusion of annotations aids the reader's interpretation of a poetic text by constructing a narrative lens from which to view the work.
Part III: "Varieties of Annotation" dives...