Essays in Miniature/The Oppression of Notes


THAT innocent nondescript, the average reader, is suffering very sorely at the present day from what might be justly called the oppression or tyranny of notes. I hear, indeed, from time to time, bitter complaints of editorial inaccuracy, of the unscholarly treatment of quite forgotten masterpieces by the industrious gentlemen who seek to reintroduce them to the public; but such inaccuracy can wound only the limited number who know more than the editor, and who in their secret souls are not sorry to prove him wrong. The average reader, even though he hold himself to be of moderate intelligence, is happily ignorant of such fine shadings, and only asks that he may enjoy his books in a moderately intelligent manner; that he may be helped over hedges and ditches, and allowed to ramble unmolested where the ground seems tolerably smooth. This is precisely the privilege, however, which a too liberal editor is disinclined to allow. He will build you a bridge over a raindrop, put ladders up a pebble, and encompass you on every side with ingenious alpenstocks and climbing-irons; yet when, perchance, you stumble and hold out a hand for help, behold, he is never there to grasp it. He merely refers you, with some coldness, to a remote authority who will give you the assistance you require when you have reached the end of your journey. Mr. Ritchie, for example, who has recently edited a volume of Mrs. Carlyle's early letters, expects you patiently to search for the information you want in Mr. Froude's pages, which is always a disheartening thing to be asked to do. Yet when Jeanie Welsh, writing cheerfully of an inconstant lover, says, "Mais n'importe! It is only one more Spanish castle demolished; another may start up like a mushroom in its place;" an explanatory note carefully reveals to you that "Spanish castle" really means "château en Espagne"—a circumstance which even Macaulay's schoolboy would probably have deciphered for himself.

If it be hard on the average reader to be referred chillingly to modern writers who are at least within approachable distance, it is harder still to be requested to look up classical authorities. If it be hard to be told occasionally by that prince of good editors, Mr. Alfred Ainger, to please turn elsewhere for the little bits of information which we think he might give us about Charles Lamb, it is harder still to have Mr. Wright refuse to translate for us Edward Fitzgerald's infrequent lapses into Greek. What is the use of saying in a note "v. 9" when Fitzgerald quotes Herodotus? If I can read the quotation for myself, I have no need to hunt up v. 9; and if I can't, v. 9 is of no use to me when found. Even "Hor. Od. I. 4, 14, 15," is not altogether satisfactory to the indifferent scholar, for whom Fitzgerald himself had such generous sympathy, and for whom his translations were avowedly undertaken.

These are merely cases, however, in which notes refuse to be helpful; they are apt to become absolutely oppressive when accompanying older writers. A few years ago I bought a little English edition of the Religio Medici, to which are added the Letter to a Friend and Christian Morals. The book is one of Macmillan's Golden Treasury Series, and is edited by Mr. W. A. Greenhill, who opens with an "Editor's Preface," eighteen pages long, and fairly bristling with knowledge points. After this come a "Chronological Table of Dates, Connected with Sir Thomas Browne," two pages long; "Note on the Discovery of the Remains of Sir Thomas Browne in 1840," two pages; "Brief Notices of Former Editors of the Religio Medici" four pages; "List of Editions of Religio Medici," thirteen pages; "Collations of Some Old Editions of Religio Medici," three pages; "List of Editions of Letter to a Friend and Christian Morals," five pages; "Addenda et Corrigenda," one page. Having thus laboriously cleared the way, we are at last gladdened by a sight of the Religio Medici itself, which, together with the Letter and Christian Morals, occupies two hundred and thirty pages. Then, following close, like the mighty luggage of a Persian army, come an array of "Notes Critical and Explanatory," eighty-eight pages; and an Index just sixty-nine pages long. Thus it will be seen that two hundred and five pages of editorial work are deemed necessary to elucidate two hundred and thirty pages of Sir Thomas Browne, which seems like an intolerable deal of sack for such a quantity of bread. To compress all this into a small volume requires close printing and flimsy paper, and the ungrateful reader thinks in his hardened heart that he would rather a little more space had been given to the author, and a little less to the editor, who is for most of us, after all, a secondary consideration. It is also manifestly impossible, with such a number of notes, even to refer to them at the bottom of the page; yet without this guiding finger they are often practically useless. We are not as a rule aware, when we read, what information we lack, and it becomes a grievous duty to examine every few minutes and see if we ought not to be finding something out.

A glance at the notes themselves is very discouraging:

"P. 10, l. 14, directed, A to E, G; direct, F, H to L.

"P. 10, l. 16, rectified, A to I; rectifie, J, K, L.

"P. 10, l. 28, consist, A to J; resist, K, L."

Reading with such helps as these becomes a literary nightmare:

"P. 8, l. 8, distinguished] Chapman (R) and Gardiner (W) read 'being distinguished.'

"P. 8, l. 8, distinguished not only] Wilkin (T) read 'not only distinguished.'"

And this is weirder still:

"P. 59, l. 4, antimetathesis, C to M; antanaclasis, A, B; transposition of words, N, O."

It may easily be surmised that eighty-eight pages of such concentrated and deadly erudition weigh very heavily on the unscholarly soul. We are reminded forcibly of the impatience manifested by Mr. E. S. Dallas, in The Gay Science, over Porson's notes on Euripides, from which he had hoped so much and gleaned so little; which were all about words and less than words—syllables, letters, accents, punctuation.

"Codex A and Codex B, Codex Cantabrigiensis and Codex Cottonianus, were ransacked in turn to show how this noun should be in the dative, not in the accusative; how that verb should have the accent paroxytone, not perispomenon; and how, by all the rules of prosody, there should be an iambus, not a spondee, in this place or that." The lad who has heard all his college life about the wonderful supplement to the Hecuba turns to it with wistful eyes, expecting to find some subtle key to Greek tragedy. "Behold, it is a treatise on certain Greek metres. Its talk is of cæsural pauses, penthemimeral and hephthemimeral, of isochronous feet, of enclitics and cretic terminations; and the grand doctrine it promulgates is expressed in the canon regarding the pause which, from the discoverer, has been named the Porsonian—that when the iambic trimeter after a word of more than one syllable has the cretic termination included either in one word or in two, then the fifth foot must be an iambus. The young student throws down the book thus prefaced and supplemented, and wonders if this be all that giants of Porsonian height can see or care to speak about in Greek literature."

But then be it remembered that Euripides, as edited by Porson, was intended for the use of scholars, and there exists an impression—perhaps erroneous—that this is the sort of food for which scholars hunger and thirst. Sir Thomas Browne has, happily, not yet passed out of the hands of the general reader, whose appetite for intellectual abstraction and the rigors of precision is distinctly moderate, and in whose behalf I urge my plea to-day.

After the oppressively erudite notes come those which interpret trifles with painstaking fidelity, and which reveal to us the meaning of quite familiar words. In Ferrier's admirable edition of the Noctes Ambrosianæ, for example, we are told with naïve gravity that "wiselike" means "judicious," that "glowering" means "staring," that "parritch" is "porridge," that "guffaw" is a "loud laugh," that "douce" is "sedate," that "gane" is "gone," and that "in a jiffy" means "immediately." But surely the readers of Christopher North do not require information like this. "Douce" and "parritch" and "guffaw" are not difficult words to understand, and "in a jiffy" would seem to come within the intellectual grasp of many who have not yet made the acquaintance of the alphabet.

It may be, however, that there are people who really like to be instructed in this manner, just as there are people who like to go to lectures and to organ recitals. It may even be that a taste for notes, like a taste for gin, or opium, or Dr. Ibsen's dramas, increases with what it feeds on. In that tiny volume of Selected Poems by Gray which Mr. Gosse has edited for the Clarendon Press, there are forty-two pages of notes to sixty pages of poetry; and while some of them are valuable and interesting, many more seem strangely superfluous. But Mr. Gosse, who has his finger on the literary pulse of his generation, is probably the last man in England to furnish information unless it is desired. He knows, better than most purveyors of knowledge, what it is that readers want; he is not prone to waste his precious minutes; he has a saving sense of humor; and he does not aspire to be a lettered philanthropist fretting to enlighten mankind. If, then, he finds it necessary to elucidate that happy trifle, On the Death of a Favorite Cat, with no less than seven notes, which is at the rate of one for every verse, it must be that he is filling an expressed demand; it must be that he is aware that modern students of Gray—every one who reads a poet is a "student" nowadays—like to be told by an editor about Tyrian purple, and about Arion's dolphin, and about the difference between a tortoise-shell and a tabby. As for the seven pages of notes that accompany the Elegy, they carry me back in spirit to the friend of my childhood, Miss Edgeworth's Rosamond, who was expected to understand every word of every poem she studied. What a blessing Mr. Gosse's notes would have been to that poor, dear, misguided little girl, who rashly committed the Elegy to memory because, in honest, childish fashion, she loved its pretty sound! Who can forget the pathetic scene where she attempts to recite it, and has only finished the first line,

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,"

when Godfrey, whom I always thought, and still think, a very disagreeable boy, interrupts her ruthlessly.

"'What is meant by the "curfew"? What is meant by "tolls"? What is a "knell"? What is meant by "parting day"?'

"'Godfrey, I cannot tell the meaning of every word, but I know the general meaning. It means that the day is going, that it is evening, that it is growing dark. Now let me go on.'

"'Go on,' said Godfrey, 'and let us see what you will do when you come to "the boast of heraldry," to "the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault," to the "village Hampden," to "some mute inglorious Milton," and to "some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood," you who have not come to Cromwell yet, in the history of England.'"

No wonder poor Rosamond is disheartened and silenced by such an array of difficulties in her path. It is comforting to know that Godfrey himself comes to grief, a little later, with The Bard, and that even the wise and irreproachable Laura confesses to have been baffled by the lines,

"If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
May hope, chaste eve, to soothe thy modest ear."

"Oaten stop" was a mystery, and "eve" she thought—and was none the worse for thinking it—meant our first great erring mother.

No such wholesome blunders—pleasant to recall in later, weary, well-instructed days—would be possible for Miss Edgeworth's little people if they lived in our age of pitiless enlightenment, when even a book framed for their especial joy, like The Children's Treasury of English Song, bristles with marginal notes. Here Rosamond would have found an explanation of no less than forty-eight words in the Elegy, and would probably have understood it a great deal better, and loved it a great deal less. It is healthy and natural for a child to be forcibly attracted by what she does not wholly comprehend; the music of words appeals very sweetly to childish ears, and their meaning comes later—comes often after the first keen unconscious pleasure is past. I once knew a tiny boy who so delighted in Byron's description of the dying gladiator that he made me read it to him over, and over, and over again. He did not know—and I never told him—what a gladiator was. He did not know that it was a statue, and not a real man, described. He had not the faintest notion of what was meant by the Danube, or the "Dacian mother," or "a Roman holiday." Historically and geographically, the boy's mind was a happy blank. There was nothing intelligent or sagacious in his enjoyment; only a blissful stirring of the heartstrings by reason of strong words, and swinging verse, and his own tangle of groping thoughts. But what child who reads Cowper's pretty remonstrance to his spaniel, and the spaniel's neat reply, wants to be told in a succession of dismal notes that "allures" means "tempts," that "remedy" means "cure," that "killing time" means "wasting time," that "destined" means "meant for," and that "behest" means "command"? Cowper is one of the simplest of writers, and the little boys and girls who cannot be trusted unarmed in his company had better confine their reading to Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable, or to the veracious pages of Mother Goose. But perhaps the day is not far distant when even Mother Goose will afford food for instruction and a fresh industry for authors, and when the hapless children of the dawning century will be confronted with a dozen highly abbreviated and unintelligible notes referring them to some Icelandic Saga or remote Indian epic for the bloody history of the Three Blind Mice.