Interlude: Byron and Pope – Two Very Different Self-Annotators

In: The Author as Annotator
Miriam Lahrsow
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As mentioned in the introduction to this study, I will not provide a comprehensive step-by-step comparison of the strategies used in, and functions of, individual annotations by Pope and Byron. The reason for this is that their notes as a whole have too little in common to warrant such a comparative approach. Even the notes in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (EBSR) – the work in Byron’s œuvre that is most closely modelled on the Dunciads – are so different from anything that can be found in Pope’s satire that a comparison would yield little insight into Byron’s self-annotatorial practices apart from the result that they fundamentally differ from Pope’s. Where Pope’s influence can be seen, however, is in the fact that Byron annotated his works in the first place. Without the Dunciads to make self-annotation a nearly indispensable feature of satirical poetry until the end of the Romantic age, it is possible that Byron (and other Romantic poets) would not even have thought about annotating their own works in such extensive and intricate ways. Put briefly, the very existence of Byron’s notes can be partly attributed to Pope’s lasting influence, but the strategies and functions of his annotations only bear very few similarities to those of his great idol.1 This can be seen by juxtaposing one of Pope’s satirical notes and four of Byron’s.

Pope’s extremely long annotation on John Dennis is rather symptomatic of his notes in the Dunciads in general. It is appended to the line “And all the mighty Mad in Dennis rage” and reads:

This is by no means to be understood literally, as if Mr. Dennis were really mad, according to the Narrative of Dr. Norris in Swift and Pope’s Miscellanies, vol. 3. No – it is spoken of that Excellent and Divine Madness, so often mentioned by Plato […].

Mr. Theobald, in the Censor, vol. ii. N. 33. calls Mr. Dennis by the name of Furius. ‘The modern Furius is to be looked upon as more an object of pity, than of that which he daily provokes, laughter and contempt. Did we really know how much this poor man (I wish that reflection on poverty had been spared) suffers by being contradicted, or, which is the same thing in effect, by hearing another praised[.] […] His very panegyric is spiteful[.] […],’ etc. Indeed his pieces against our poet are somewhat of an angry character, and as they are now scarce extant, a taste of his style may be satisfactory to the curious. ‘A young, squab, short gentleman, whose outward form, though it should be that of downright monkey, would not differ so much from human shape as his unthinking immaterial part does from human understanding. – He is as stupid and as venomous as a hunchback’d toad. […]’ Reflect. on the Essay on Criticism, p. 26. 29, 30.

It would be unjust not to add his reasons for this Fury, they are so strong and so coercive: ‘I regard him (saith he) as an Enemy, not so much to me, as to my King, to my Country, to my Religion, and to that Liberty which has been the sole felicity of my life. […] I look upon it as my duty, I say, to do – you shall see what – to pull the lion’s skin from this little Ass, which popular error has thrown round him; and to shew that this Author, who has been lately so much in vogue, has neither sense in his thoughts, nor English in his expressions.’ Dennis Rem. on Hom. Pref. p. 2. 91, etc.

Besides these public-spirited reasons, Mr. D. had a private one […]. He was even in bodily fear of his life from the machinations of the said Mr. P. […] [The] last words of his book plainly discover Mr. D.’s suspicion was that of being poisoned, in like manner as Mr. Curl had been before him; of which fact see A full and true account of a horrid and barbarous revenge, by poison, on the body of Edmund Curl, printed in 1716[.] […]

For the rest; Mr. John Dennis was the son of a Sadler [sic] in London, born in 1657. He paid court to Mr. Dryden: and having obtained some correspondence with Mr. Wycherly [sic] and Mr. Congreve, he immediately obliged the public with their Letters. He made himself known to the Government by many admirable schemes and projects; which the Ministry, for reasons best known to themselves, constantly kept private. For his character, as a writer, it is given us as follows: ‘Mr. Dennis is excellent at Pindaric writings, perfectly regular in all his performances, and a person of sound Learning. That he is master of a great deal of Penetration and Judgment, his criticisms, (particularly on Prince Arthur) do sufficiently demonstrate.’ From the same account it also appears that he writ Plays ‘more to get Reputation than Money.’ Dennis of himself. […] (Dunciad 1.106n, original emphasis)

I would like to focus on three aspects of this note: (1) Pope’s use of the annotation to justify his satire against Dennis, (2) Pope’s attempt at suggesting that he is making public problems his private cause (rather than the other way round), and (3) – despite its extreme length – the fact that the note shows only little digressiveness.

Regarding the first aspect, large portions of the annotation are used to explain and justify why Pope is attacking Dennis. For one, it emphasises that Dennis is generally seen as a very unpleasant man who cannot bear contradiction or to hear other writers being praised (as evinced by Theobald’s account of him). The fact that even Theobald – another prominent member of the dunces in Pope’s satire – shares Pope’s contempt of Dennis is meant to show that Pope’s feelings do not spring from personal enmity but are a reasonable reaction to Dennis’s character and behaviour. Furthermore, the extremely insulting criticisms of Pope’s works (written long before the Dunciads) that are quoted in the note imply that Pope is merely defending himself as against an aggressor. And as if this was not enough to make readers take Pope’s side against Dennis, the last paragraph of the note annotation depicts Dennis as an untrustworthy man who publishes private letters as soon as he gets his hands on them, a gadfly who is constantly pestering the government with strange und unfeasible schemes, and a narcissist who writes excessive praises of himself.

The second aspect – Pope’s implication that his satire against Dennis is tackling a public rather than a personal problem – is a direct result of this depiction of Dennis. Here, as throughout the Dunciads, we are being told that the dunce has a negative impact on almost every aspect of life: literature, patronage, criticism, political discourse, morals, etc. He is everyone’s problem, and Pope (seriously or ironically) presents himself as the brave champion who will rid society of this nuisance.

With regard to the third aspect, almost everything in the annotation is directly related to the annotated passage. There is only very little digression except for the ironical claim that Dennis is not being depicted as insane here, the jokes about Pope’s poisoning of Curll, and the deliberately incorrect disambiguation of Theobald’s use of the word “poor” to describe Dennis. Thus, despite its excessive length (I have only quoted about half of it here), the annotation is almost exclusively concerned with the question raised by the annotated passage, namely who Dennis is and why he is being satirised in the Dunciads.

Four examples drawn from Byron’s works will show how strongly his practice of satirical annotation deviates from Pope’s. First of all, regarding the justification of satire, most of the attacks in EBSR are made to seem rather light-hearted and baseless by Byron’s notes (apart from those on the Earl of Carlisle (see below) as well as those on Francis Jeffrey, whom Byron believed to be the critic who wrote the damning review of his Hours of Idleness). Take, for instance, the one on Amos and/or Joseph Cottle:

Mr. Cottle, Amos, Joseph, I don’t know which, but one or both, once sellers of books they did not write, and now writers of books they do not sell, have published a pair of Epics – ‘Alfred’ (poor Alfred! Pye has been at him too!) – ‘Alfred’ and the ‘Fall of Cambria’. (EBSR 406n; CPW 1: 406)

Pope presents Dennis as a character who has truly earned the reader’s (and everybody else’s) contempt. The Cottles in EBSR, however, seem to be random writers whom Byron is more or less unfamiliar with and whose only crime is to have published two unsuccessful epics. In Hints from Horace, written only slightly later than EBSR, Byron even turns the whole notion of personal satire on its head. Annotating the lines “some pretending scribbler of the court, / Some rhyming peer, – Carlisle or Carysfort” (Hints from Horace 721–22var), he explains that

of ‘John Joshua, Earl of Carysfort’, I know nothing at present, but from an advertisement in an old newspaper of certain Poems and Tragedies by his Lordship, which I saw by accident in the Morea. Being a rhymer himself, he will forgive the liberty I take with his name, seeing, as he must, how very commodious it is at the close of that couplet; and as for what follows and goes before, let him place it to the account of the other Thane [i.e. Carlisle]; since I cannot, under these circumstances, augur pro or con the contents of his ‘foolscap crown octavos’. (Hints from Horace 722var n; CPW 1: 442–43)

When reading the annotated lines, readers – knowing the conventions of annotated personal satire upheld by Pope, Gifford, and Mathias – expect to find a note that justifies why Carysfort’s name is included in the poem and that lists his many failings and misdeeds in order to publicly humiliate him so that from now on he will abstain from further wrongdoing. Byron’s annotation subverts this expectation and explains that the only reason for mentioning Carysfort is that he needed a rhyme word for “court”. The attack of the passage is, as the note explains, entirely targeted at the Earl of Carlisle (see below for Byron’s attack against him in EBSR).2 As in the case of the Cottle brothers, Byron’s annotation contains neither bitterness nor justification, only light-hearted fun. As Robert Hume argues, in Byron’s early satires the poet “aims to ridicule those he does not like, but unlike the Augustans he seems to lack any higher purpose in doing so, for he presents no positive standards and writes in defense of nothing” (Hume 499; also cf. Yarker 79). In the passage just discussed, Byron is not even concerned with someone “he does not like”; Carysfort is included merely for his name. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that Byron never wrote any serious satirical notes containing sharp personal attacks. One need only think of his annotation on the Elgin Marbles (cf. CHP 2.12n; CPW 2: 190–91) and the long note vituperating Robert Southey in the appendix to The Two Foscari (cf. CPW 6: 223–25). However, both of Byron’s poems that most prominently evoke Pope’s works – EBSR and Hints from Horace3 – contain annotations that are vastly different from Pope’s in their approach to personal satire.

The second great difference between the annotations in Pope’s Dunciads and Byron’s EBSR is that Pope claims to make the public’s problems his private cause while Byron tries to make his personal problems a public cause. Byron’s dunces either pose little problems to society at all (as shown above), or they were apparently included in EBSR for a private, only half-disclosed offence that concerns no one but Byron himself. Referring to the lines “Let STOTT, CARLISLE, MATILDA, and the rest / Of Grub-street, and of Grosvenor-Place the best, / Scrawl on, ‘till death release us from the strain” (EBSR 927–29), Byron’s explanation remains rather opaque:

It may be asked, why I have censured the Earl of Carlisle, my guardian and relative, to whom I dedicated a volume of puerile poems a few years ago? – The guardianship was nominal, at least as far as I have been able to discover; the relationship I cannot help, and am very sorry for it; but as his Lordship seemed to forget it on a very essential occasion to me, I shall not burden my memory with the recollection. I do not think that personal differences sanction the unjust condemnation of a brother scribbler; but I see no reason why they should act as a preventive, when the author, noble or ignoble, has, for a series of years, beguiled a ‘discerning public’ (as the advertisements have it) with divers reams of most orthodox, imperial nonsense. […] If, before I escaped from my teens, I said anything in favour of his Lordship’s paper books, it was in the way of dutiful dedication, and more from the advice of others than my own judgment, and I seize the first opportunity of pronouncing my sincere recantation. (EBSR 927n; CPW 1: 416)

This is one of the many tantalising autobiographical half-revelations that we can find throughout Byron’s annotations. Readers only learn that Carlisle is Byron’s relative and that, for some unnamed reason, he provoked Byron’s anger.4 The annotation shifts readers’ attention away from the satire itself towards the author’s private life. In the Dunciads, references to Pope’s private affairs are a means to a public end. They present him as a virtuous man and justified satirist (while also sometimes subverting this image for satirical purposes, see e.g. chapter 2.2.2 and chapter 2.2.3) and cite evidence of how the dunces tried to attack his character, sabotage his personal relationships, and harm his friends. By contrast, in Byron’s case, the public satire against incompetent authors partly seems to be a pretext to (half-)inform readers about his private struggles. Here, the allusion to his private life is not a means to an end but an end itself.

This issue is to some degree related to the third big difference between Pope’s and Byron’s satirical self-annotations. Pope’s notes are often extremely long, but they are rarely digressive or overly loquacious. They are straightforwardly targeted at the lemmatised part of the main text rather than taking the lemma as a starting point to talk about something entirely different. In Byron, the opposite is often the case. One of the most extreme examples of satirical digressiveness in Byron’s notes can be found not in EBSR but in the much later non-satirical poem The Island. The annotated passage simply reads: “The Ocean scarce spoke louder with his swell, / Than breathes his mimic murmurer in the shell” and, in fact, does not raise any questions that might require elucidation (Island 2.406–07). Nevertheless, Byron appends the following note:

If the reader will apply to his ear the sea-shell on his chimney-piece, he will be aware of what is alluded to. If the text should appear obscure, he will find in ‘Gebir’ the same idea better expressed in two lines. – The poem I never read, but have heard the lines quoted by a more recondite reader – who seems to be of a different opinion from the Editor of the Quarterly Review, who qualified it, in his answer to the Critical Reviewer of his Juvenal, as trash of the worst and most insane description. It is to Mr. Landor, the author of Gebir, so qualified, and of some Latin poems, which vie with Martial or Catullus in obscenity, that the immaculate Mr. Southey addresses his declamation against impurity! (Island 2.407n; CPW 7: 146)

The beginning of the annotation still refers to the lemma and relates the poem to the (imagined) readers’ life experience, thus evoking a very clear (though over-generalising) picture of Byron’s audience. It both playfully establishes a sense of community (Byron knows exactly who he is talking to; he has a vivid image of his readers and even their home) and of distance (for many readers, this description of their living/reading situation would not have been accurate). This is followed by what may at first sight appear as an instance of social networking, i.e. the compliment to the author of Gebir, Walter Savage Landor. Yet, this compliment is unexpectedly undermined in the next sentence, in which Byron claims never to have read the poem. The sentence also contains a jibe at the unnamed person who quoted the lines to Byron. As the annotation progresses, things get even more convoluted. Byron next alludes to William Gifford’s damning reference to Landor’s poem in an article in which Gifford defends himself against criticisms levelled at his translation of Juvenal.5 What seemed to start out as a compliment to Landor, now becomes a downright attack (“trash of the worst and most insane description”). Byron then uses Gifford’s censure of Landor to argue that Robert Southey, who praises Landor (and attacks Byron) in the preface to A Vision of Judgment,6 is a hypocrite who pretends to be declaiming “against impurity” while extolling a man whose writings have been condemned for their immorality by one of the most influential critics of the age. In short, the sea-shells lead to Landor, Landor leads to Gifford, Gifford leads to the attack against Landor, Gifford’s attack against Landor indirectly incriminates Southey, which, in turn, is used by Byron to defend himself against the accusations levelled against him in Southey’s A Vision of Judgment. And all of this is included in a poem that is not at all concerned with satirising contemporary poets but with the mutiny on the Bounty. As was shown throughout the first half of this study, Pope’s notes are usually directly related to the annotated passages. And as will be shown in the next half, Byron’s often take his poems as starting points only to veer off into completely different directions.

Even in this juxtaposition of annotations that share an overall aim, namely to satirise, the stark differences between Byron and Pope become apparent. When looking at Byron’s annotations that are not concerned with satire at all, there is hardly any common ground between them and Pope’s that would allow one to juxtapose the two authors’ approaches to self-annotation in any two given notes. Thus, a detailed, step-by-step comparison between individual notes would not be very fruitful for gaining a deeper insight into Byron’s strategies and functions of self-annotation. In what follows, instead of comparing them to Pope’s notes and analysing what Byron’s annotations do not do, I will read them on their terms and show both what they indeed do and how they do it. A discussion of the similarities and differences between Pope’s and Byron’s strategies and functions of self-annotation in general (rather than with respect to specific notes) will be presented in the overall conclusion of this study.


This is rather typical of Byron: he extolled Pope in theory but rarely imitated him in practice. Or, as John Clubbe puts it: according to Byron, a “right poetical system was one that adhered strictly to the practice and precepts of Pope, both of which Byron defended more faithfully than he followed” (Clubbe 74).


The claim that a word or name was only introduced because it suits the metre or rhyme is also a running joke in Don Juan. For a further example, see Byron’s note on Henry Hallam in EBSR, which is discussed in chapter 3.4.4.


Hints from Horace harks back less to the Dunciads and more to Pope’s Satires and Epistles of Horace Imitated as well as to the Essay on Criticism (cf. editor’s n in CPW 1: 427).


The reason was that, contrary to custom, he had refused to introduce Byron to the House of Lords, which put Byron in the embarrassing situation of having to prove his legitimacy before he could take his seat (cf. Marchand 1: 168).


McGann explains that the Critical Review attacked Gifford’s translation in 1802 – more than two decades before Byron’s The Island was published (cf. editor’s in in CPW 7: 146). Gifford’s counter-attack briefly digresses to describe Gebir as “a jumble of incomprehensible trash […], the most vile and despicable effusion of a mad and muddy brain that ever disgraced […] the ‘darkened walls’ of Bedlam”; he also calls Walter Savage Landor a “mischievous ideot [sic]” (Gifford, An Examination 7).


In this preface, Southey quotes Landor’s exhortation of Byron in his essay “De Cultu atque Usu Latini Sermonis”, which was published in Idyllia Heroica in 1820 (cf. Super 797). In the preface to The Vision of Judgment – Byron’s answer to Southey’s A Vision of Judgment – Byron attacks both Southey and Landor. He also makes slighting remarks on Landor in Don Juan 11.59 and the appendix to The Two Foscari (cf. CPW 6: 225). For the troubled relationship between Byron and Landor, see Super passim.

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