(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

In “The Two Races of Men” (1820), essayist Charles Lamb warns against lending books. He makes an exception, though, for his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury, enriched with annotations tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his—(inmatter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals). . . . I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.

It is fitting that the inveterate annotator Coleridge should have added the word “marginalia” to the English word-stock when, in 1819, he published a collection of his comments under that title. The practice predates the word by millennia. In the Alexandrian Library, established in the third century b.c.e., scholars added commentaries, called scholia, to classical texts. These notes retain their value for students of ancient works. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus urged readers to mark memorable passages. He also suggested that they write “some brief but pithy sayings such as aphorisms, proverbs, and maxims at the beginning and at the end of your books.”

Erasmus envisioned such comments as intellectual responses to a text. In The Saturday Review of Literature for July 6, 1940, Mortimer J. Adler made a similar recommendation, declaring that only the annotator truly possesses a book. For Adler, as for Erasmus, writing in the margins constitutes a conversation between reader and author, an active process that enhances comprehension and memory. This form of humanistic annotation persists and can aid later readers, as when a contemporary owner has provided the name left blank in an eighteenth century poem or corrected a guidebook to indicate how a building looked in 1810 or 1910.

H. J. Jackson detects a change in annotations in the latter half of the eighteenth century, as readers responded more personally to their books. However, one finds personal marginalia well before the shift from classic to Romantic sensibility. Jonathan Swift, hardly a Romantic, revealed much about himself in his annotations. For example, in Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time(1724-1734 edition), Swift recorded his hostility to William III. When Burnet reports that as Prince of Orange William hoped to end religious strife in England, Swift comments, “It seems the Prince even then thought of being King.” Burnet says that he advised Mary, Princess of Orange, to have Parliament vest real authority in her husband. “This would lay the greatest obligation on him possible, and lay the foundation of a perfect union between them, which had been of late a little embroiled.” Swift writes, “[B]ut he proved a d—d husband for all that.” The Whig Burnet himself elicited from Swift a marginal note, “Dog,” and, on the next page, “Dog, dog, dog.”

Jackson does not discuss Swift’s marginalia, but she cites other examples of comments exposing the inner life of readers. The British Library owns artist-poet William Blake’s copy of the 1798Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blake felt about Reynolds much as Swift did about Burnet; Reynolds’s rational neoclassicism was anathema to Blake’s aesthetic views. On the blank leaf preceding Reynolds’s “Discourse VIII,” which Reynolds had delivered at the Royal Academy, Blake rejected the views expressed there and proclaimed his own credo:

Burkes Treatise on the Sublime & Beautiful is founded on the Opinions of Newton & Locke on this Treatise Reynolds has grounded many of his assertions in all his Discourses I read Burkes Treatise when very Young. . . . I felt the Same Contempt & Abhorrence then; that I do now. They mock Inspiration & Vision Inspiration & Vision was then & now is & I hope will always Remain my Element my Eternal Dwelling place. how can I then hear it Contemned without returning Scorn for Scorn.

For the Blake biographer, such marginalia prove invaluable. Similarly, Leigh Hunt was moved by a passage in his 1839 edition of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson to leave a biographical note about his youth. Boswell had written of Johnson’s depression at the age of twenty in 1729. Hunt responded that at about the same age he, too, had felt “pure gloom & ultra-thoughtfulness,—constant dejection.” He added that he later attributed his...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)