It’s Not Distant Reading: I’m Just Far-Sighted

Not wearing my glasses the last few days has made me take the visual metaphors underlying “distant” and “close” reading a bit too literally. I’m near-sighted, so I do now find myself in a world full of things too far away to read. Choosing to read one thing leaves the others as distant blurs. In its digital humanities sense, “distant reading” is the process of making sense of those blurs, using computers to count particular features and then statistical analysis to think through the implications. The work of Jonathan Hope and Michael Whitmore is particularly brilliant in this regard.

But I’ve lately realized that there is another set of critical digital practices that I haven’t seen as thoroughly theorized. I am deeply privileged by virtue of having had institutional access to Early English Books Online for as long as I’ve studied the early modern period. (Even as an undergraduate, I didn’t know the difference between a New Historicism and an Old one, but I spent hours looking up woodcuts and jestbooks.) As a result, as a reader of early modern texts, I’m deeply far-sighted. I learn to read particular texts by exploring the blur of other things that are kinda like it.

Recently, for instance, I’ve been writing about a moment early in As You Like It, the disguised Rosalind and Celia encounter a pair of shepherds discussing love. The younger—Silvius—delivers a (parodic and absurd) rhapsody on love before running away abruptly. It’s a comic scene, but it moves Rosalind:
Jove, Jove! this shepherd’s passion
Is much upon my fashion.
In Silvius’s silly little love song, Rosalind hears something that rings true, something that wrings her own verse out of shape. The moment of recognition deforms the metrical contours of Rosalind’s lines. We can wrench this into a pentameter, with pauses before each “Jove” and a trisyllabic pronunciation of “passion,” but it seems more likely that she lapses into common meter.

Shakespeare in the 1590’s is engaged in an ongoing project of teasing out the relationship between intense emotion and verse skill. In addition to depicting numerous inept (or partially-ept) poets—the Lords of Navarre, Orlando, Benedict, even Hamlet—he spends several of The Sonnets ruminating on the potential obsolescence of his own style and the value of a “rude” pen. As a result, I’ve been deeply tempted to allegorize this “passion”/ “fashion” couplet as a way of indexing questions that run throughout my project.

So, as a way of understanding how this one scene works, I pulled up all (more or less) the instances of the “passion”/“fashion” rhyme in the EEBO-TCP database. There are, I’m sure, more sophisticated ways of doing it, but I just ran a proximity search (for “passion NEAR fashion”) and manually culled the results to those in which the two serve as end rhymes. The search pulls up 86 results as I do it now at the Folger, and it’s not hard to pick out the handful in which the two words rhyme.

One possibility that the results suggested was that Rosalind may actually burst into song as this moment.  John Wilbye (1598), Thomas Dekker (1604), and Thomas Robinson (1609) all feature the “passion”/“fashion” rhyme prominently in their songs. Wilbye’s madrigal, for instance, features a gentlewoman’s complaint:
Then burst she forth in passion,
You men loue but for fashion,
You men loue but for fashion…
(You can hear the madrigal performed by a chorus.)
A decade later, Robinson’s song bemoans the end of that same fashion:
In men there is no passion,
Loue is so out of fashion.
Even some of the non-musical uses of the rhyme seem to associate it with sung performance. (I am speculating wildly here, but I hear a faint dissonance in the slant rhyme of the first syllables that is less jarring in song, as in the Wilbye performance above.)

There is an ongoing concern in these texts about the relationship between emotion and social performance: how much of a problem is it that our emotions tread the paths worn out by our identities in the world?

In another key, this will become the problem of Orlando. Rosalind, for instance, looks about him for the marks of love:

A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected, which you have not; but I pardon you for that, for simply your having in beard is a younger brother’s revenue: then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and every thing about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man; you are rather point-device in your accoutrements as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.

The most straightforward meaning here is that Orlando is too fastidious to seem properly in love, that he is merely playing at love rather than conquered by it. But how easily the argument works the other way, the “careless desolation” of the lover equally becoming a put-on, a fashion. The problem of Orlando’s lack of cultural capital—signified most clearly in his inept verse—cuts across the problem of sincerity.

I could say more about this. Or rather, less at greater length. But I find myself wondering what I’m doing when I dig up the history of a particular rhyme. It’s clearly not distant reading: I’m working with tiny sample sizes, an incomplete corpus, idiosyncratic criteria, and no statistics. But it’s also not quite anecdotal: like many critics (I think) I do the same work with virtually every key concept, image, allusion, and now rhyme I close read. I understand better when I use digital search tools to dig for context, to figure out what is conventional and what is unique about an instance, to see a little more clearly through the historical fog that separates me from a text.

I don’t want this digital research to be structural in my own work. Heck, I don’t particularly want it to be visible. It’s just that I’m critically far-sighted, and EEBO (alongside WordHoard, concordances, the OED, and other tools) allows me to hold texts at arm’s length, so as to better distinguish the shape of the blurs. If the close-readings that result don’t hold up on their own terms, I have failed.

But is that right? Or might there be a better way of documenting and communicating digital search work, so that readers can distinguish when it is well-done from when it is poorly done. Unless they run our own searches, how do they tell convincing but cherrypicked anecdotes from real patterns in the results that persist through some changing of the search terms? (A friend once proposed as a thought experiment sharing every EEBO search undertaken for a project. I’m tempted to document my own just to see what happens.) Likewise, what sorts of theoretical work need to happen for us to interpret (or let us be convince by) such small sample size material meaningfully?  Does it even make sense to talk about the cultural history of a rhyme?

I’m not sure. What should I read to figure it out?

[Images: Darley, Felix. Study for “Rosalind and Silvius,” before 1885. Via
Robinson, Thomas. New Citharen Lessons. London: William Barley, 1609. p. Lv]