Preventing Play:
Annotating the Battle of the Books

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University

The battle of the Ancients and Moderns has by now been thoroughly documented,1 but not all its battlegrounds have been mapped in equal detail. The quarrel was a struggle for control over textual authority at every level, and even the humblest elements of textuality -- those often excluded from discussions of "the text" such as marginalia, notes, prefaces, indexes, glossaries, appendices, and commentaries -- can turn up material for a more inclusive history of the text. Recent historicist critiques2 show scholarly annotation to be a source of contention over the nature of early modern textuality.

The scholarly project begun in the Renaissance demanded increasingly sophisticated techniques of scholarly annotation, techniques which problematize the relationship between primary texts and the secondary texts which comment upon them. The "scientific" textual criticism of Bentley, Wotton, and Theobald, for instance, held that the ostensibly disinterested Moderns might mediate the Ancients' claims to authority: that the plodding meticulousness of a Zoilus or a Tigellius might overshadow a Homer or a Horace. For the partisans of the Ancients, adherents of the "humanist" tradition,3 this ascendancy of the ingenious over the genius threatened a cherished order. When Sir William Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning drew first blood in the battle of the books, it was in defense of this threatened humanistic order. His curious reaction in a situation so seemingly innocuous requires attention, particularly now, when such scholia are the norm and their self-definition as disinterested and "scientific" is taken largely for granted.

The Renaissance was an age of voluminous classical scholarship, but the beginnings of humanism, paradoxically, departed from its predecessors by trying to pare down the Scholastic commentaries the texts had accumulated. The 1491 Venice edition of Tibullus, Catullus, and Propertius,4 for instance, is an editorial masterpiece, but free of pedantic small print. It lacks page numbers: it is to be read through or dipped into at random, but not used as a research tool. The margins are wide enough for readers' comments -- few Renaissance volumes are without some early reader's marginalia. A later text, a 1519 Horace,5 includes a number of advances. A seven-page index nominum at the front of the volume points to page numbers, making it possible for the reader to search out passages without reading the volume through. Most notable is the swelling of the commentary to take over the text: four sets of marginal commentaries surround the text, crowding out readerly annotations. At the end of the volume are twenty-eight pages of Annotationes in Horatium.

Richard Bentley's scholarship is a watershed in textual criticism. His Horace,6 for instance -- a more accurate text than ever before -- did not, however, come without a cost, at least to the humanists. His annotations completely take over the text, burying it in discussions of verb forms, manuscript families, syntax. Rounding out the volume is an index, fully 239 pages on points of syntax, accidence, and etymology without number.

Bentley did not fight the Moderns' war alone. Thanks to the skewering he received from Swift, posterity remembers William Wotton as another arch-Modern.7 His 1705 Observations upon The Tale of a Tub brought about the travestied apparatus Swift added to the fifth edition of the Tale. Another was Lewis Theobald, who entered the quarrel in 1726 with Shakespeare Restored.8 His stated goal is "retrieving, as far as possible, the original Purity of his Text, and rooting out that vast Crop of Errors" introduced by such incompetent editors as Pope. The scholarship is indeed sound -- certainly better than Pope's9 -- but his methods are the pedantic plodding that so offended the humanists. After 132 pages of minutely documented "restoration" of Hamlet, for instance, comes an appendix: "The Examination of this single Play has drove out into such a Length, that I am almost afraid to think of an Appendix to it. But" -- But indeed. "Almost afraid" was not enough to forestall a sixty-two-page appendix in eight-point type set solid.

All of this was new, exciting to some and threatening to others, and both sides were struggling to understand (and to master) the implications of this new vision of textual authority. What Gérard Genette calls an "allographic" apparatus -- one added to the text without authorial sanction -- at once affirms and challenges the status of the primary text. A sympathetic apparatus may serve as an ancilla, but in the hands of a hostile critic it questions the authority of the text on which its existence ostensibly depends: it challenges the author to engage in a dialogue, to speak as an equal. Commentary questions its text, forces it to justify its existence. What cannot be explained by the critic must be rejected or amended. This principle lies behind Theobald's boast about his editing: "Where SHAKESPEARE has ... labour'd under flat Nonsense, and invincible Darkness, I can, by the Addition or Alteration of a single letter, or two, give him both Sense and Sentiment."

For the partisans of the Ancients authorial hegemony was beyond question, and the parasitical addition of commentary was a subversion of poetic genius, a modern appropriation of ancient authority. Annotation redirects the meaning of the text, aspiring to be not a supplemental excrescence but a complementary participant -- and one that needn't be cooperative. Though scholarly annotation borrows the guise of a disinterested deixis toward truth, it can also be a bid for a share of textual authority, an assertion of the modern will over the ancient text. Small wonder that the locus classicus for the conflation of scientific inquiry and intellectual hegemony is in Nietzsche, a classical philology prodigy at Basel, who daily confronted the bids for authority made by textual apparatus: "What urges you on and arouses your ardour, you wisest of men, do you call it 'will to truth'? ... That is your entire will, you wisest men; it is a will to power."10 Nor is it surprising that the most important theorist of institutional power relations is Nietzsche's intellectual heir, Michel Foucault.

The new scientific criticism works by regarding the text as a Royal Society scientist might regard a specimen on his dissecting table. The term "scientific" is apt, for though it popularly connotes disinterestedness, Foucauldian analyses of the scientist's engagement in power-play reveal a different scene. Ostensibly disinterested textual critics remove the author's control over his text, making room for the critic's participation in the creation of meaning -- transforming the object, in one fashionable pair of terms, from work to text; in another, from the Bakhtinian catechistic to the dialogic. Theorists working in Structuralism's wake have labeled this participation "play," a term popularized by Barthes and Derrida.11 The term is perhaps unjust, for play connotes innocence, while the humanist defenders of the ancients found it more pernicious.

The humanists were also disturbed by the social relation implied by annotation, for the scholar-annotator envisions the vulgus as unprepared to approach a text. Though what Derrida calls the decentering of the author -- Barthes goes so far as to call it his death -- seems tantamount to the apotheosis of textual play, not all readers can play properly. Some textual consumers must have their text pre-played. Annotation strives to control both the author's meaning and the reader's participation: crowded pages leave no room for amateurs' comments. Professionals thereby snatch literature from the dilettantes, who must be certified competent before they can be let loose on texts.

The humanists did not watch these developments in silent dismay. The first satirical volley in the English Quarrel came shortly after Sir William Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning. The debate found a local center in the dispute over the authenticity of the Epistles of Phalaris.12 We have already seen Wotton's and Bentley's scientific and philological approach to the question. Temple's opposition opinion appears in the 1699 Character of the Epistles of Phalaris:

Several Learned men ... have not esteemed them Genuine.... But I think he must have little skill in Painting that cannot find out this to be an Original; such diversity of passions upon such variety of actions and passages of Life and Government, such Freedom of Thought, such Boldness of Expression, such Bounty to his Friends, such Scorn of his Enemies, such Honour of Learned men, such Esteem of good, such Knowledge of Life, such Contempt of Death, with such Fierceness of Nature and Cruelty of Revenge, could never be represented but by him that possest them.13
The syllogism in short: the ancients are admirable; the Epistles are admirable; therefore the Epistles are ancient. Temple had little faith in scientific philology: "I know not what to make of it; and less how it came into the number of the sciences.... He must be a Conjurer that can make these Moderns, with their Comments and Glossaries, and Annotations, more learned than the Authors themselves."14 For Temple, philology cannot effect ethical improvement, and if he was sometimes forced to be a textual critic by chance, he was perpetually a moralist.

Boyle, Temple's first champion, also recognizes the Moderns' appropriation of authority, and his discussion of pedantry provides insights into humanist notions of the decorum befitting scholarship. "The first and surest Mark of a Pedant," he observes, "is, to write without observing the receiv'd Rules of Civility, and Common Decency: and without distinguishing the Characters of Those he writes to, or against: For Pedantry in the Pen, is what Clownishness is in Conversation; it is Written Ill-Breeding." Bentley's "Itch of contradicting Great Men" shows the unspoken rule Bentley has broken: social presumption, addressing his betters without due deference.

Atterbury's contribution to the third edition of Boyle's work is a minor masterpiece of humanist invective, and his attack on pedantry takes on the voice of a pedant: "A Short Account of Dr BENTLEY, By way of INDEX," an index of exactly one entry -- "Bentley" -- with personal invective under neatly arranged subcategories. A typical extract:

Dr Bentley's true Story of the MS prov'd false by the testimonies of
        ----Mr Bennet.                      Pag. 6
        ----Mr Gibson.                        p. 7
        ----Dr King.                          p. 8
Atterbury masses the Ancients' troops on Bentley's border, in several entries armed with devastating sarcasm: "His modesty and decency in contradicting great men, -- Plato ... Grotius ... all the Moderns ... Erasmus ... Everybody."

However illuminating and even occasionally amusing the work of Temple, Boyle, and Atterbury, though, they hold little interest for modern readers. But the reaction against annotation produced at least two masterpieces, Swift's Tale of a Tub and Pope's 1729 Dunciad Variorum. The two use similar techniques in similar causes, differing only in the names of their opponents.

Swift knew of ancient annotations, but he dissociates ancient annotators from the Ancients generally. Zoilus and Tigellius in particular, though chronologically Ancients, anticipate Modernity by meddling with the texts of their betters.15 Pedantic annotation is uncharacteristic of a "real" Ancient, and "Ancientness" is not only reserved for but actually defined by humanistic accolades.

Swift therefore responded to Wotton's presumptuous 1705 apparatus on the Tale of a Tub with a withering attack on all apparatus, and his satirical instinct led him to the master-stroke of making the attack in the very form of an apparatus. The arsenal16 of the Moderns' scholarly tools is vast, and Swift, insofar as he can be said to perform anything systematically, takes aim at each. A Tale of a Tub ridicules marginalia, the footnote, the pamphlet, the lexicon, the index, the preface, the appendix, even the use of typography -- each of these is at least ridiculed, and most are travestied.

Swift was of course no disinterested defender of the Ancients; he was himself an author in what he considered the ancient tradition, and his actions are naturally self-interested. By swatting at the flies swarming about Homer's corpus, he hoped to keep them from settling on his own, to restrict the meaning of his text to what he intended. Authorship is for him essentially rhetorical: the text is a vehicle, a means of bringing about effects in the receptive reader in a transaction which has no place for Wottons.

Swift's satirical appropriation of the scholarly apparatus belies the objective status claimed by modern scholarship and brings to light its insidious potential. The most obvious parodic scholarly annotations in the Tale are the footnotes attributed to Wotton -- some correctly, some spuriously, but always with the effect of making Wotton appear ridiculous. By conflating allographic and authorial annotations, he exposes the annotation's bid to share in textual authority. Swift, though a master of textual play in much of his work, becomes fiercely jealous when his contemporaries try to join in his game. When Wotton intrudes on the margins of his text, Swift responds by crowding him out with his own marginalia, and his new text is, in effect, pre-played. Swift's own play, often in Wotton's name, anticipates the attempted play of future critics and pushes them out of the game. This concern with future play recalls the original sense of the word prevent, at once to anticipate and to prohibit. By satirically interrogating the truth claims of scholarly annotations, Swift prevents play and preserves his authorial jurisdiction over meaning.

Pope develops Swift's techniques in The Dunciad. Pedants are favorite targets even in the 1728 Dunciad, but the 1729 Dunciad Variorum adds mountains of burlesqued apparatus to the earlier edition. Most visible are the pedantic annotations to nearly every line of the poem, the first of which asks of the very title "whether this be a right Reading. Ought it not rather to be spelled Dunceiad, as the Etymology evidently demands?" followed by a learned exchange on the letter E. The attribution to Theobald comes from Swift's similar treatment of Wotton, and in any case would have been impossible for Pope to resist after Theobald's vision of glory in Shakespeare Restored: "The Alteration of a Letter, when it restores Sense to a corrupted Passage, ... is an Atchievement that brings Honour to the Critick who advances it ... as long as the World shall have any Esteem for the Remains of Menander and Philemon."

The victors in the annotation wars are evident to anyone in academia, where commentaries that outweigh the texts they presume to elucidate are now the norm. The Renaissance humanist scholarly project was paradoxical and therefore probably doomed from the beginning: the recovery and reinvigoration of the classics was possible only by means of the techniques which would later embalm them. Swift's and Pope's defiant satires very nearly constitute an emblematic last stand for the humanists.

Miriam Starkman expresses the paradox in the humanist gesture in the opening words of her book on the Tale of a Tub: "Rarely has so great a book been written in a lost cause." Whatever the bellettristic success of the Tale and the Dunciad -- and their status as satiric triumphs is beyond question -- they fail as polemics to stave off pedantry. Bentleys, Wottons, Theobalds were on the ascendant. In the Phalaris controversy, posterity has (perhaps grudgingly) come down on the side of the dunces. Wotton and Bentley were correct: the epistles of Phalaris were spurious. And modern critics, even those sympathetic to Swift and Pope, would be unable to work without the scientific scholia excoriated in the Tale and the Dunciad, which now, in their standard editions, groan under their accumulated scholarship.

Swift's rear-guard Apology to the 1710 edition of the Tale is a fitting postscript. Swift may successfully prevent some textual play by anticipating it, but no parodic outworks can keep the intruders away forever. His parting comment on annotation in the Apology has been underscored with a bitter historical irony:

The Author is informed, that the Bookseller has prevailed on several Gentlemen, to write some explanatory Notes, for the goodness of which he is not to answer, having never seen any of them, nor intends it, till they appear in Print, when it is not unlikely he may have the Pleasure to find twenty Meanings, which never enter'd into his Imagination.
This passage is undermined by the very scholarly apparatus he seeks to satirize: Guthkelch and Smith, editors of the scholarly edition of the Tale, have appended a footnote: "Swift certainly saw the 'explanatory Notes' before they were published. They were sent to him on 10 July 1710." An annotation thus reaches across two centuries and redirects Swift's meaning: a scientific concern for the text has destroyed the rhetorical sleight of hand Swift hoped to achieve. But the Tale of a Tub and the Dunciad survived the enemy encroachment where so many works have been forgotten, and they save the battle of the books from becoming a mere footnote to intellectual history.


1. See, for instance, Anne Elizabeth Burlingame, Battle of the Books in its Historical Setting (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920); Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns, A Study of the Background of the Battle of the Books, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1965); Miriam Kosh Starkman, Swift's Satire on Learning in "A Tale of a Tub" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1950); and most recently Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).

2. The literature on annotation is still fairly sparse, but seems to be attracting increasing attention, especially in Renaissance studies. Peter W. Cosgrove's "Undermining the Text: Edward Gibbon, Alexander Pope, and the Anti-Authenticating Footnote," in Stephen A. Barney, ed., Annotation and Its Texts (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), is an important look at the role of the satiric footnote in the eighteenth century. In addition to all the contributions to Barney's volume, see Lawrence Lipking, "The Marginal Gloss: Notes and Asides on Poe, Valery, 'The Ancient Mariner,' the Ordeal of the Margin, Storiella as She is Syung, Versions of Leonardo, and the Plight of Modern Criticism," Critical Inquiry, 3 (1977), 609-55; Frank Palmieri, "The Satiric Footnotes of Swift and Gibbon," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 31 (1990), 245-62; and Jean-Paul Forster, "Swift and Wotton: The Unintended Mousetrap," Swift Studies, 7 (1992), 23-35. See also Harald Stang, Einleitung -- Fußnote -- Kommentar: Fingierte Formen wissenschaftlicher Darstellung als Gestaltungeselemente moderner Erz hlkunst (Bielfeld: Aistheses Verlag, 1992).

3. In settling on the term "humanist," I follow Paul Fussell's description of eighteenth-century humanism in The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), though the term is not entirely satisfactory; "humanist" carries with it Renaissance connotations which aren't necessarily applicable to the Quarrel.

4. Tibullus Catullus & Propertius cum commento (Venice, 1491). The text of Tibullus is annotated by Bernardinus Veronensis; of Catullus, by Antonius Parthenius; of Propertius, by Philippus Beroaldus.

5. Opera Q. Horatii Flacci Poet am nissimi cum quatuor commentariis, Acronis, Porphyrionis, Anto. Mancinelli, Iodici Badii Ascensi accurate repositis. Cumque adnotationibus Matthei Bonfinis: & Aldi Manutii Romani a Philologo recognitis: suisque locis insertis & ad finem ex integro restitutis (Paris, 1519).

6. In Q. Horatium Flaccum notae & emendationes Richardi Bentleii, 2 vols. in one (Cambridge, 1711).

7. As is always the case with satirical targets, this characterization is neither fair nor accurate. Wotton was careful to balance the claims of the Ancients and the Moderns, giving each side its due: "This Extream can be no Way more easily avoided, than by stating the due Limits of Ancient and Modern Learning; and shewing, in every Particular, to which we ought to give the Pre-eminence" (Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning [London, 1697], sig. A7r). As Levine observes, "Wotton proposed himself ... as neither an ancient like Temple nor an unqualified modern, ... but rather as a mediator between the two" (pp. 34-35). In fact all of the most vilified Moderns are portrayed as caricatures of their actual selves.

8. Shakespeare Restored: or, a Specimen of the Many Errors, as Well Committed, as Unamended, by Mr. Pope in his Late Edition of this Poet. Designed Not Only to Correct the Said Edition, but to Restore the True Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions Ever Yet Publish'd (London, 1726).

9. As James Sutherland points out, "Here was an exposure of [Pope's] incompetence as an editor, all the more galling for being in the main justified." The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland, third ed., in the Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen; New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), p. xi. See also Peter Seary, Lewis Theobald and the Editing of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) for a fair assessment of Theobald's accomplishments.

10. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 136 (Part II, sect. 12).

11. See, e.g., Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text," in Image, Music, Text, pp. 155-64, and Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in Writing and Difference, pp. 278-95.

12. Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides, and Others; and the Fables of Aesop (London, 1697), printed with the second edition of Wotton's Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning; also A Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an Answer to the Objections of the Hon. C. Boyle (London, 1699).

13. The Epistles of Phalaris, Translated into English from the Original Greek by S. Whately ... to which is added Sir W. Temple's Character of the Epistles of Phalaris (London, 1699), sig. A1r.

14. Temple, Miscellanea, The Third Part, cited in Levine, p. 42.

15. See, for instance, A Tale of a Tub, To which is added The Battle of the Books and the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, ed. A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 94.

16. I am not alone in resorting to military metaphors for annotation: the contributors to Barney's Annotation and Its Texts turn to military imagery often. Cosgrove, for instance, describes the footnote as "a humble subaltern in the ranks of the apparatus" (p. 131). Thomas McFarland, in the same collection, likens himself to Vauban in constructing the elaborate apparatus to his Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition: "I generated the documentation defensively, ... my aim being nothing less than an impregnable fortification for my own argument" (p. 164), while Ralph Hanna III figures his allographic notes as military offense: "As annotator I am always enveloping my author, always in the act of invading him, of delimiting his possible meaning and relevance" (p. 182).