Commentary (literary studies)

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A literary commentary (also philological comment , or, in a clear context, comment for short ) is the collection of comments on a literary text which are intended to facilitate or enable the understanding of the text. Today, a comment usually represents the history of the origin, transmission and impact of the text and contains an overview comment and, in the so-called position comment , explanations of names, terms, foreign words and quotations. These explanations are usually published as part of critical editions within the apparatus , but there are also separate explanatory volumes.

Conceptual and factual history

Ancient and Middle Ages

The long tradition of philological commentary is related to the development of philology in general. Just as literary studies and philology are in the tradition of theological hermeneutics and exegesis , this also applies in particular to literary commentary.

Even in ancient times there were commentaries, i.e. explanatory writings, on religious, philosophical, astronomical, medical and also literary texts. The word “comment” goes back to the Latin commentarius , derived from the Latin commentus (“that is called into memory”), the past participle of comminisci (“to recall something”), as a loan translation of the equivalent ancient Greek ὑπόμνημα ( hypómnēma ). Hypomnema is initially a non-specific term for prose texts in ancient Greek.

Even in Roman times, commentarius liber ("commentary book") and commentarium volumen (" commentary volume ") denoted a large number of very different writings. An example of the meaning that the word commentarius could take on depending on the context is its use by Cicero : Cicero uses it to designate official documents, but also scientific treatises and the collection of memorabilia to support memory. In this latter meaning field of the memoranda are Caesar's " commentarii de bello Gallico " classified.

In the beginning, the focus of scientific commentary was mainly on legal texts and holy scriptures, but in the third century AD, since the Alexandrian philologists, the term commentarius has been used in general for contents, explanations of meaning and interpretations of older poetic, political, philosophical, rhetorical or generally scientific texts. Commentaries on literary or philosophical works were published as an investigation, tract , essay , or quaestio . In antiquity and the Renaissance, it made no difference whether the commentary was published independently or as part of an edition of the text. Comparable with today's commentary is the gloss , which since antiquity has provided explanations or translations of individual words as a form of commentary on authoritative texts, especially on the Bible. The Scholion, on the other hand, explains the text in linguistic, semantic , stylistic , rhetorical , metrical and poetological terms. The schools of Antioch and Alexandria competed on questions of biblical hermeneutics . The comments, for example, of Basil the Great , Gregory of Nazianzen , Theodor of Mopsuestia , who was later condemned as a Nestorian , or John Chrysostom were mainly based on the linguistic, historical and moral sense. The learned Bible commentaries of Clement of Alexandria and Origen became influential through the use of the allegorical method of interpretation . Ultimately, the allegorical method and the doctrine of the fourfold sense of writing prevailed. Various terms are used in antiquity and the Middle Ages for commentaries on Christian Bible exegesis , e.g. E.g .: commentarius (-um), glossa (-ula), elucidatio (-arium), enaratio, explanatio, explicatio, expositio. In Byzantium: Katene . Biblical commentaries can also be found under unspecific titles such as dialogus, disputatio, epistola, homilia, liber, postilla, quaestio, sermo, tractatus with a reference to the biblical books explained. In addition there are the commentaries on the sentences of Petrus Lombardus as well as extensive commentary literature on the individual books of canon law , such as the Decretum Gratiani , the Liber Extra and the Liber Sextus . Commentary literature makes up a significant part of Latin literature of the Middle Ages and modern times. Among the commentators are the most important scholars and theologians such as Ambrose of Milan , Hieronymus , Augustine of Hippo , Hilarius of Poitiers , Cassiodorus , Gregory the Great , Beda Venerabilis , Hrabanus Maurus , Bernhard von Clairvaux , Albertus Magnus , Thomas Aquinas , Johannes Duns Scotus to name just a few of the most important.


In the humanistic philology of the Renaissance, in the course of the return to antiquity, many commentaries on ancient writings arose, especially on texts by Aristotle , Cicero , Ovid and Virgil . In addition, the vernacular, i.e. non-Latin commentary on the writings of the great national authors gained importance in the Renaissance. It is true that the majority of commentaries written during the Renaissance were written in the universal scientific language of Latin, especially those on ancient texts. But when vernacular poetry, especially Dante's Divine Comedy, was accorded the same artistic status, people began to comment in the vernacular as well. The Latin and vernacular commentaries are fundamentally different from each other because they target different audiences. The commentary on the praise of the folly of Erasmus von Rotterdam is an example of this: Sebastian Franck's German-language commentary is aimed at a reading public who does not understand Latin, i.e. an audience who is not humanistically educated. He therefore often refers to contemporary experiences, holds back to a large extent with comments on the linguistic design and rather shifts the focus of the commentary to the interpretation of the moral level of the text.

In the Renaissance, it was mainly individual passages or entire passages that were interpreted. The variety of forms of comments is greatest in humanism. Numerous different terms for comments, some of which cannot be clearly distinguished from one another, testify to this: Interpretatio ("Interpretation"), Ennarratio ("Discussion"), Expositio ("Presentation"), Explicatio ("Explanation"), Adnotationes ("Notes"), Glossae , Scholia . In addition to mythological explanations, the factual comments in the humanistic commentaries often provide philosophical, scientific, historical, geographical and astrological explanations. In addition to this encyclopedic claim, a peculiarity of the humanistic commentaries is that they often link the ancient text very personally with the realities of life, with the commentator's own experiences: a distinction was made between the short commentary ( commentarius brevis , commentarius contractus ), primarily the factual Explanation serves, and the long commentary ( commentarius diffusus ), in which the commentator contributes his own knowledge and experiences and uses modern examples and observations of contemporary society for explanation. This literary commentary began primarily as an evaluative literary criticism . In this tradition, the journalistic literary commentary , which primarily contains an evaluation , still stands today . Since the second half of the sixteenth century, commentators have sought a rational interpretation of the text.

Modern times

In the 19th century, the commentary increasingly aimed at scientific interpretation. In the middle of the 19th century, the commentary was deliberately removed from the text-critical editions. This was intended to express the different status of textual criticism and commentary: the textual criticism was certified to have a higher degree of scientific relevance, whereas the commentary, also due to its limited validity, was viewed as more dubious. At the beginning of the 20th century the commentary was subjected to a fundamental scientific criticism. There was a widespread opinion that a comment must address a certain group of addressees, and that the manner of commenting must be based on the knowledge and lack of knowledge of this group of readers. The scientific criticism of the commentary led to the comment, contrary to the long European tradition of scientific commentary, in some cases even being rejected as unscientific - the commentator's work was viewed as a subjective intervention in the text, which would affect the content of the text, which was regarded as objective falsify and narrow the interpretations through an arbitrary preliminary decision by the commentator. It was not until the 1970s, when methodological reflection on the scientific basis of commentary began to take hold, that commentary has been recognized as a recognized subject of scientific editions in German literature. Since then, comments have often appeared in the context of text-critical editions, in study editions and in annotated historical-critical editions as a note section. However, separate series of comments have also been preserved, such as Reclam's explanations and documents .

Tasks and content of the comment

The literary commentary is intended to enable the reader to develop the text. It is not now considered his job to provide an interpretation of the text. In order to understand the text, the comment should provide as much information as possible that is relevant to understanding the text in its context and form.

The misunderstanding or non-understanding of a text is often due to the historical or cultural distance between the reader and the author. This so-called horizon difference, the difference in knowledge and evaluations of the author and the reader, should be reduced by the comment to such an extent that an understanding of the text is possible. Generally speaking, any metrical peculiarities of the text are considered worthy of comment . In addition, a comment contains explanations of words (if the historical meaning of a word differs from what is customary today), factual explanations of the terms used in the text (if it can be assumed that these explanations are not familiar to the reader), as well as information on the biographical and historical context (such as statements by the author) and information on the history of the impact of the text.

Even if there is little historical distance between author and reader, a text can be hermetic and difficult to access due to its poetic character . Reading symbolist poems, for example, can be enriched with a comment - even if the reader is familiar with all the words and their meaning, because many of the symbols and allusions that appear there are only accessible with a broad background. Where writers idiosyncratically use a word differently than usual, knowing how it is used in other texts by the same author can be more comprehensible. References to such parallel passages are therefore worth commenting on. The processing of foreign texts or text components can also contain a specific statement. For this reason, so-called intertextual references to other (literary) works (such as marked or unmarked quotations , plagiarism , parodies , counterfactures , or allusions) are mentioned in the literary commentary.

The specific tasks of each comment also depend on the (presumed) reader group. Comments aimed at schoolchildren or a broader reading public primarily contain individual explanations of unclear words or passages, while information on reception history and in academic editions are more relevant. Since the need for comment depends on the reader's horizon, comments regularly become out of date: Passages that were previously considered unproblematic can become unclear because the readers' horizon, their knowledge, their evaluations and their habits change over time.

Methodological problems

Delimitation from interpretation

A comment can fundamentally influence the reception and perception of a text. Hence, it is considered a scientific ideal to keep the commentary as free from arbitrary interpretation as possible. The scientific commentary reflects the status of the scientific discussion and shows which interpretive approaches are being used in literary research.

The ideal of freedom of interpretation contradicts the fact that the selection of the lemmas , i.e. the decision about which passages are considered worthy of comment, requires an interpretive decision. This depends on the horizon of the editor and on assumptions about the horizon of the reader. This can have a directional influence on the reception of the text, especially when commenting on allusions and parallel passages.

Editorial considerations that are not completely free of subjective decisions and evaluations may be necessary when commenting on allusions: sometimes it depends on the reader's assessment whether he sees a passage as an allusion to another text. The commentary is limited to information whose sources can be proven, for example, from knowledge of the estate or the author's letters. Information that can only be obtained by interpreting the text should be avoided in the comment.


Another methodological problem arises when commenting on the intertextuality of the text. Since nobody knows the entire literature, it cannot be methodologically guaranteed that the commentary on the intertextual references is complete. The meaningfulness of the comment is always limited by the level of reading of the commentator.

Since the author's intention is the decisive guideline for the editor's decisions, he faces the methodical problem of distinguishing between intended and unintentional quotations. Intended quotations can often be identified as such. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to show that a quote is not consciously intended as such by the author. For a similar reason, it can also be uncertain whether an observation is actually a quotation or whether two texts coincide, since the latter is usually difficult to exclude conclusively.


Scene excerpt from Georg Büchner's drama "Woyzeck"

The commentary on a scene excerpt from Georg Büchner's drama “ Woyzeck ” can exemplarily illustrate the function and effect of literary commentary. The following short scene excerpt contains many unclear, ambiguous passages:

Booths. People.
Barkers in front of a booth.

Gentlemen! Gentlemen! See the creature as God made it, nothing, nothing at all. Now look at the art, go upright, has skirt and pants, has a saber! Ho! Compliment So you are baron. Give a kiss! (he trumpets) Michel is musical. Gentlemen, here you can see the astronomical horse and the little rabble birds. Is favori of all crowned heads. Start the presentation! You mess from the beginning. "

The comment section of the Marburg edition explains words and phrases that may be unclear:

“The creature as God made it, that is, in its natural state, undressed, naked. In the sense of the internationally widespread saying «Clothes make the man» [...] the naked animal is still nothing. It is Michel, whom the barkeeper introduces here, possibly. a monkey, like a horse, an ape , a canaille bird. The monkey is already emerging as a soldier . "

Wherever the linguistic usage in Büchner's time deviates significantly from today's usage, reference is made to the historical usage, using dictionaries from Büchner's time:

"Compliment " from the French. Compliment, actually a bow out of awe or respect. In a wider sense, a greeting with a bow. In a broader sense, every greeting » "

“Baron a man of nobility who knows how to behave. "Baron" has also been popular in German since the 17th century - from the French "baron" used by the barkeeper or the Italian "barone" - and denotes the class of the lower nobility between the counts and the simple nobles , corresponds to the German "Freyherren". "

In addition, role models from reality or literature are named:

“(He trumpets) Michel is musically the monkey theater was a popular attraction at folk festivals and in amusement parks. Since the Middle Ages there has not been a stray juggler who has not brought an African monkey with him. A kind of systematic dressage did not appear until the 18th century. [...] "

"Mackt imitates French pronunciation, as in Raimund's comedy" The spendthrift "performed on Feb. 20, 1834:" Open my window so that I can see the landscape. [...] Ha! the churchyard is fine there. " "

This information is initially used to understand the word in unclear places. In addition, they also provide information on the interpretation and prevent possible misinterpretations: By specifying the context certain words come from or even - as in the penultimate example - certain design elements of the text (in this case the idea for the entire scenery) , the scope for interpretative speculations is narrowed to the historical context.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "A dream of great magic"

An example of how a comment not only clears up unclear passages, but can also enrich the interpretation by specifying literary references, is the commentary on a poem by Hugo von Hofmannsthal :

A dream of great magic

Much more regal than a pearl ribbon
And bold as young sea in the morning scent,
Such was a great dream as I found it.

The air passed through open glass doors.
I slept in the pavilion on level ground
And the air passed through four open doors

And before harnessed horses ran
through and dogs a whole flock
past my bed. But the gesture of the

magician, the first, the big one, was
suddenly between me and a wall
His proud nod, royal hair.

And behind him not a wall: there was
a great splendor of abyss, dark sea
and green mats behind his hand.

He bent down and pulled the deep down.
He bent down and his fingers went
in the ground as if it were water.

From the thin spring water, however,
huge opals were caught in their hands
and fell off again in rings.

Then he threw himself with a slight swing of his loins,
As if only out of pride, to the next cliff
- I saw the power of gravity end at him.

In his eyes, however, there was tranquility
Of sleeping, yet living gemstones.
He sat down and said such a thou.

To days that seem quite past to us,
That they came here mournful and great:
That made him laugh and cry.

In a dreamlike manner he felt the lot of all people,
just as he felt his own limbs.
Nothing was near and far to him, nothing small and big.

And how deep down the earth cooled itself
The darkness from the depths penetrated upwards,
The night the

tepid dug out of the treetops He enjoyed all life's great gait
So much that in great drunkenness he
jumped like a lion over cliffs.

[…] The

cherub and high Lord is our spirit,
does not dwell in us, and
he sets the chair in the upper stars and leaves us orphaned a lot:

But he is fire to us in the deepest core
- so I suspected that I found the dream there -
And talks to the fires of that far away

And lives in me as I do in my hand.

The commentary contains references to (possible) literary and philosophical models as well as references to Hofmannsthal's own work:

"Elements of the poem probably go back to Hofmannsthal's reading of the writings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), especially his attempt on ghost vision and what is related to it. For the motif of magic and the dream as inspiration cf. the poem Kubla Khan of the Engl. Poet and philosopher Samuel T. Coleridge (1772–1834). For the dream motif cf. a. [Hofmannsthals] "World Secret" . See Ad me ipsum . He bent down and […] in rings : cf. the poem Lied und Gebilde in the "Book of the Singer" by Goethe's West-Eastern Divan (1814–1819) and [Hofmannsthal's] The Conversation on Poems "

A comparison of these covers shows how Hofmannsthal has processed them. The manner of processing may contain a specific statement for the interpretation of the poem. This comparative perspective is only possible through the knowledge provided by the comment.


  • Jan Assmann and Burkhard Gladigow (eds.): Text and commentary. Archeology of literary communication IV. Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1995.
  • Wolfgang Frühwald u. a. (Ed.): Problems of commentary: Colloquia of the German Research Foundation, Frankfurt am Main, 12. – 14. October 1970 and 16.-18. March 1972. Lectures and contributions to the discussion. Boldt, Boppard 1975.
  • Gunter Martens (Ed.): Commenting procedures and commentary forms. Hamburg Colloquium of the Working Group for Germanistic Edition March 4 to 7, 1992, author and problem-related presentations. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1993.
  • Christian von Zimmermann : From commenting. In: Michael Stolz and Yen-Chun Chen (Eds.): Internationality and Interdisciplinarity of Edition Studies. de Gruyter, Berlin 2014 (= supplements to editio, 38), pp. 219–237.

Individual evidence

  1. Cf. Norbert Oellers: Commentary . In: Fricke, Harald u. a. (Ed.): Reallexikon der Deutschen Literaturwissenschaft . Berlin, New York: Walter Gruyter 2000, Vol. 2, pp. 302-303
  2. See Bodo Plachta: Apparat . In: FRICKE 2000 , Vol. 1, pp. 109-111
  3. See comment . In: Pfeifer, Wolfgang (Ed.): Etymological Dictionary of German , Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1989, p. 884
  4. Ludwig Fladerer: Art. Comment. In: Real Lexicon for Antiquity and Christianity . Vol. 21, Anton Hiersemann Verlag , Stuttgart 2006, Sp. 275-276.
  5. For this section cf. Ralph Häfner: Comment 1 . In: FRICKE 2000 , Vol. 2 pp. 298-302
  6. See also Nikolaus Wegman: Commentary, philological . In: Nünning, Ansgar (Hrsg.): Metzler Lexikon literary and cultural theory. 4th edition, Stuttgart and Weimar: JB Metzler 2008, pp. 364–365
  7. See also Rainer Hess: literary criticism . In: Hess, Rainer u. a. (Ed.): Literary studies dictionary for Romanists (LWR) . 4th edition, Tübingen and Basel: A. Francke 2003, pp. 161–168, in particular section 1b on pp. 162–163
  8. See Nikolaus Henkel: Gloss 1 . In: FRICKE 2000 , Vol. 1, pp. 727-728
  9. For this paragraph cf. August Buck: Introduction . In: The Commentary in the Renaissance . Ed. V. August Buck and Otto Herding. Boppard: Harald Boldt 1975, pp. 7-19
  10. See also Bodo Guthmüller: Commentary. General . In: Manfred Landfester (Ed.): Der Neue Pauly . Stuttgart and Weimar: JB Metzler 2000, Vol. 14, Sp. 1055-1057
  11. For the following paragraph cf. also Aline Loicq: Commentaire . In: Aron, Paul u. a. (Ed.): Le dictionnaire du Littéraire . Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 2002, pp. 108-109
  12. ^ Georg Witkowski: Textual criticism and editing techniques for newer writings. A methodological attempt. Leipzig: Haessel 1924, p. 134
  13. Cf. Bodo Plachta: Text indexing through explanation and comment . In: ders .: Editionswissenschaft . Stuttgart: Reclam 1997 ( RUB 17603), pp. 122-129
  14. See Thomas Zabka: Commentary . In: Burdorf, Dieter u. a. (Ed.): Metzler Lexicon Literature. Terms and definitions , 3rd edition, Stuttgart and Weimar: JB Metzler 2007 pp. 390–391.
  15. cf. Jürgen Lehmann and Christine Ivanović in: Commentary on Paul Celan's »No Man's Rose« . Ed. V. Jürgen Lehmann.
  16. Cf. Andreas Thomasberger: About the explanations of Hofmannsthal's poetry . In: MARTENS 1993 , pp. 11-16
  17. Cf. Andreas Thomasberger: About the explanations of Hofmannsthal's poetry . In: MARTENS 1993 , p. 14
  18. For the following paragraph cf. Wolfram Groddeck: "And I forgot the word". Intertextuality as a challenge and limit definition of philological commentary, illustrated by a poem by Heinrich Heine . In: MARTENS 1993 , pp. 1-10.
  19. Claus Zittel: From the poets. Source research versus concepts of intertextuality using the example of a chapter from Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra." In: A. Schwob, E. Streitfeld, K. Kranich-Hofbauer (Ed.): Source - Text - Edition. Editio. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1997, ISBN 978-3-484-29509-4 , p. 315-332 .
  20. Georg Büchner: Woyzeck. Marburg edition. Volume 7.2. Ed. V. Burghard Dedner. Scientific Book Society Darmstadt. P. 3
  21. All of the following quotations in this section from: Georg Büchner: Woyzeck. Marburg edition. Volume 7.2. Ed. V. Burghard Dedner. Scientific Book Society Darmstadt. Pp. 443-444
  22. ^ Text and commentary on the poem from: Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Collected Works Volume I. Poems and Prose. ed. v. Dieter Lamping, with comments by Frank Zipfel, Düsseldorf and Zurich: Artemis & Winkler 2003, pp. 24–25 and p. 757