In Defense of Word Clouds

Word clouds have been under heavy critique in data visualization and digital humanities circles. Writing in 2011, the New York Time’s Jacob Harris laments that they enable “only the crudest sorts of textual analysis,” “confuse signifiers with what they signify” and abandon context. If this is true, it seems damning to the prospect of using word clouds for serious textual analysis.

Yet digital historian Adam Crymble offers a devastating critique of Harris’s objections: “However, an expert in the source material can, with reasonable accuracy, reconstruct some of the more basic details of what’s going on.” And indeed, take a look at this word cloud of Harris’s article:

Harris Word Cloud

We can very easily reconstruct that it concerns “word clouds”—or, perhaps, “words cloud,” but that’s a distinction without a difference. So, too, we can deduce that he’s investigating how this technique for “data” “visualization” enables a “reader” to “understand” “every” “narrative.” We even see a few key details that the article itself omits: the “reader” is “named” “York,” for instance. All this seems right. We miss only that Harris is opposed to the word clouds.

But a more sophisticated word cloud methodology will allow us to correct for that, too, while preserving most of the insights demonstrated by our computational techniques. If you’re not interested in technical discussion, you can skip down to the next image. In this revised image, I have completed a low-level significance transform, simply by adding the word “bad” to the source material a few dozen times.

Bad Harris Word Cloud

With this slight change, the image reveals something central about Harris’s argument: he thinks word clouds are bad. At the same time, careful study of this revised figure reveals a contradiction in Harris’s claims that less attentive readings may missed. Harris claims word clouds neglect context, and yet we see the word “context” very clearly, right below the crucial word “visualization.” So much for confusing signifiers and signified!


But we can go deeper still. Notice, inside the “b” of “bad” (or the “q” of “peq,” if you turn your head the opposite direction), the words “conclusions” “inside.” In a stunning visual pun, the graph reminds us that we can find conclusions inside the seeming badness of the word cloud.

Now let’s turn up the badness filter a bit higher. In the following figure, rather than including the word “bad,” I have included the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” alongside Harris’s piece.

Jackson-Harris Word Cloud

Once again, the image proves our foregone conclusions.

Close-Reading the Database

Lately, in my academic reading, I keep encountering a peculiar mode of textual argument, one that build associatively rather than logically, as if there were a transitive property of meaning. Sometimes, connections made within the logic of one set of texts (paper and lambskin, jewels and water) are chained to those within a different set of texts (lambs and meat, water and blood). A means B means C.  Other times, in a sort of Reader Response writ large, we learn that an early modern reader “would have associated” X with Y and from there with Z. The connecting threads are woven of simile, historical coincidence and conjecture, and suggestive phrases like “Perhaps it is no accident,” “it would not be too far-fetched to imagine,” “similarly,” “much as,” and “network of associations.” The resulting arguments are often incredibly learned, offering rich accounts of their conceptual landmarks, even as they are knotted together largely by the accumulation of puns and coincidences.

Sailing to sea in a sieve

Sailing to sea in a sieve.

Such projects close-read the world, applying the associative tracking that allowed formalist critics to offer an account of the meaning of image clusters within a poem to working out the resonances of a particular object or emotion in the world more generally. In so doing, they assume that meaning really is a closed and singular network, that once we’ve paid our fare, we’re free to travel from station to station as long as we’d like until we arrive at a destination we find suitable. At their best, such circuitous routes complicate our mental maps of the text, revealing new connections and different approaches. At worst, they seem (like automobile GPSes) to follow an imaginary map that never quite corresponds, sending us down disused highways and interstates that were never quite built.

The ways authors describe and defend this mode of reading are fascinating. I’ve recently seen it framed as a sort of object-oriented philology (bromides about the materiality of early modern language enabling basically sociological accounts of meaning), as inventive source study, or as close-reading at a distance. We could add other touchstones: New Historicism, of course, both in using the particular minor detail to stand in for the whole structure and in its willingness to read the canonical text through details that were largely extrinsic to it. Queer theory, in its use of puns to uncover desires that have been repressed. The way the new rhetorical criticism’s focus on figures as structures of thought allowed it to travely freely between instances.

But it seems clear to me that this mode of reading has emerged in larger part from the explosion of digital tools. When we try to close-read the world, we in fact are close-reading the scholarly databases and institutions with which we try to understand that world. Such tools are incredibly useful, allowing us to clear away the underbrush of received information by digging through all the early modern instances of a construction, a concept, a figure, or a phrase. We can trawl the DNB for unexpected connections between individuals or instituitions, dig through the Old Bailey trials for anecdotes, use CQPWeb to follow a grammatical construction, and move immediately from all these searches to clusters of scholarship in the MLA bibliography and back again. History makes itself visible to us as a combination of failed searches and unexpected connections.

My point is not that these types of inquiry are novel. They’re not: a sufficiently ingenious scholar, with sufficient resources, could have done any of them in 1920. But I do some number of these things every single day, and the result is an overgrowth of associations that kudzu-like sometimes conceals the underlying structures. As a process, searching databases always yields unexpected connections, simply because one keeps searching until one finds one.

The inevitability of this process makes me wonder how to judge the arguments that emerge. How do we assess arguments that by design are associative, trying both to interrogate deep patterns in a culture and to trace out some patterns of their own? How much weight are we willing to put on the metaphor of a network of associations? A net may sometimes catch a fish but will never hold water. And how do we pay sufficient attention to the ways that the limits of our tools constrain what we find?

I have long been moderately skeptical of Big Data approaches to the humanities, all too aware of the ways that our algorithms can distort our inquiries and that we, in turn, misapply the results we get to the problem we want to solve. But those of us in the land of Small or Medium Data may well need to think through the same challenges.



Image: the Witches from Macbeth, by an unknown Edwardian or Victorian artist. From the Folger Shakespeare Library.

I am grateful to Laura Kolb for taking a look at an earlier version of this post.

Video Games and the Land of Dreams

The Alone Sword is Zelda after an apocalypse. Everything is familiar and everything is wrong.

I play among the ruins of my nostalgia: the old landmarks still point the way; gradeschool experience still guides me through the maps; but the bushes have bleached with age and clusters of strange plantlife block some old routes. The world is now full of water, and my green elfin avatar has become an awkward squid-creature, dragging a large sword uselessly behind him. The controls are clunky and awkward: to swing that familiar green sword takes all of Squid-Me’s might and propels him off course. I lurch, an alien, through my memories.

This is to say that the game feels like a dream. “Dream,” like “archive” and “memory,” is a word it uses for itself in its narration, but I suspect I would have lurched upon it myself, as I muddle through this space I so deeply recognize, even flooded and bleached, distorted and overgrown.

Stuck with my early modernist brain, I’ve been thinking about this same set of metaphors in Midsummer Night’s Dream: its deep interests in poetry, play, and dream. One thing I find powerful about that play is the transformative uselessness it imagines for artistic creation. The always practical king Theseus concedes Sidney’s observation (in the Defence of Poesy) that poets turn this brazen world into a golden one. He writes:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

In the long arc of Shakespeare reception, this becomes praise of poetry. (Mark Akenside, for instance, revisits it in The Pleasures of the Imagination.) The inspired poet takes in the whole of creation, transcending and inventing as he sees fit. But here, in its locus Shakespearicus, the scene is intended to be ridiculous. Theseus links the poet with “lovers” and “madmen.” He emphasizes the fictionality, the unpracticality of this transformative attention: all are beguiled by “shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” layering impressions and misrecognitions over bare observations. Ultimately, any account of poetry’s value in the play creeps in through another figure of its worthlessness, the “dream.” There is something lovely about this vision of poetry as dreamlike: short-lived and unreal, insignificant and easily forgotten, but in its melting wisdom, inexplicably transformative.

Of course, what is most expressly, repeatedly dreamlike here is the lovers’ sojurn in the Green World. Escaping from the rigid law of Athenian patriarchy, the lovers find a brief, eerie, and unreal space where their own relations can be reconfigured. For years, I’ve thought the play allegorized a proto-literary space in precisely this manner, imagining fiction as a dreamlike escape from the order of things.

But this utopian reading demands a certain wilful blindness: we must remember that the Green World always threatens to become the Green Mall, Green Theme Park, or Green High School Prom containing and limiting experiment and emotion to create docile subjects. In their keynote address at the Queerness and Games conference, Merritt Kopas and Naomi Clark have argued that though recent wriers have imagined games as spaces of exploration, failure, and freedom outside of capitalistic logics of success and productiveness, these moments of failure and freedom find themselves in patterns of play—in plots—that are largely about accumulation, progress, and individual power. So, too, the delicious fantasies of Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It serve largely to produce contented aristocrats.
dickey and steel
The Alone Sword’s concerns with play and dream don’t entirely escape this nexus of problems, but it resists the bifurcation of lawed Athens and Utopian Green World. Its world of play, like the world of dreams, is less escape than distorting mirror, less resistance than strange clunky lurch. Further, it reminds me that the Green World is always a catastrophe. What for the audience is a pleasant space of comic misunderstandings is for the characters a horrifying ordeal. Lovers betray each other; friends are moved to blows; thorns and branches vex and tear. Might we inhabit another view on this disaster than the smiling sarcasm and distance the court audience affects for the rustics’ performance in act five?

One figure for such a reading might be Demetrius, who finds himself with his friends on the glorious morning of the play’s ending. Unlike them, he remains under the influence of the love potion. And so, as they shake off the last night’s events as a dream, he realizes that he cannot quite awake:
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.


The Alone Sword, overworld
The Legend of Zelda, overworld
“Bottom and Titania,” George Cruikshank. Via

Thanks to Maddy Meyers, whose tweets about the game made me start playing it.

Stuplimity, Sonnets, and Rage

In a fascinating recent post, Michael Lutz adopts Sianne Ngai’s concept of ‘stuplimity’ to think about video games. Ngai coins the term to refer to the combination of shock and boredom, irritation and awe, that marks works as different as the thick language of Stein, the sculptures of Ann Hamilton that lump together thousands of common objects (cf. the SF MOMA’s page on ‘Indigo Blue’) , or the “”pulsating, highly energized, yet exhaustively durational electronic music.”

indigo blue

Ann Hamilton, “Indigo Blue”

While (for Kant) the sublime ultimately distances and elevates, carrying the mind of the viewer to the realization of the still greater capacity of human freedom, the stuplime “draw[s] us down into the sensual and material domain of language and its dulling and irritating iterability, rather than elevating us to a transcendent, supersensible, or spiritual plane” (267).

For Lutz, ‘stuplimity’ comes to constitute an essential affect of video games itself, the way they “seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating.” Responding to the tendency in recent criticism to contrast flow and glitch–the smooth state of apprehending and processing the world of a game (or other artwork) as it comes to you with the grinding stop of a programming error, a bug, or flaw–he reads a glitched boss battle to show how these experiences are in practice woven together:

[T[he player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!”

And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.

The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!”

My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it.

In the ‘gray time’ of a video game, astonishment and boredom collapse into each other. The substance of the power fantasy is work. He closes:

And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.

There is a broader critique just below the surface here. This is the rhetoric not only of games but of gamification: the application of the affective strategies from gaming to other sorts of engagement and labor. Achievements, ‘missions’, and carefully-calibrated reward schedules now drive ‘engagement’ with ad campaigns, training manuals, weight-loss programs and to-do lists. I might argue that there is something deeply stuplime about the MOOC, aggregating and making visible both the tremendous labor of learning and the transformative promise that lies just ahead.


The benefits of four weeks of video instruction, three quizzes, and an exam. (

II. The Sonnet Stuplime

For Ngai and Lutz, then, the stuplime is an affect of late capitalism, generated out of the conditions of labor and aspiration. But as an early modernist, I can’t help but look to earlier examples. Stein and Hamilton influence how I read Erasmus’s exhausting catalog (in De Copia) of variations on “Your letter pleased me greatly,” for instance. At length, the subtle patterns of variation that give it purpose fade into the gray time of reading:

Your letter mightily pleased me. To a wonderful degree did your letter please me. Me exceedingly did your letter please. By your letter was I mightily pleased. I was exceeding pleased by your letter. Your epistle exhilarated me intensely. I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle. Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure. I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand. From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure. Your affectionate letter brought me unbelievable pleasure. Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight. I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages. Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy. The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines. We derived great delight form your excellency’s letter…

When I read Erasmus, he comes to sound like this, from Stein’s ‘Matisse’:

He certainly was clearly expressing something, certainly sometime any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know it of him that he was clearly expressing what he was expressing. He was a great one. Any one might come to know that of him. Very many did some to know that of him. Some who came to know that of him, that he was a great one, that he was clearly expressing something, came then to be certain that he was not greatly expressing something being struggling. Certainly he was expressing something being struggling. Any one could be certain that he was expressing something being struggling.

Some were certain that he was greatly expressing this thing. Some were certain that he was not greatly expressing this thing. Every one could come to be certain that he was a great man. Any one could come to be certain that he was clearly expressing something. Some certainly were wanting to be needing to be doing what he was doing, that is clearly expressing something. Certainly they were willing to be wanting to be a great one. They were, that is some of them, were not wanting to be needing expressing anything being struggling. And certainly he was one not greatly expressing something being struggling, he was a great one, he was clearly expressing something. Some were wanting to be doing what he was doing that is clearly expressing something. Very many were doing what he was doing, not greatly expressing something being struggling. Very many were wanting to be doing what he was doing were not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling.
[full poem and audio of Stein reading:]

(The effect is more pronounced when one listens to Stein reading and then tries to read the Erasmus aloud.) To use Ngai’s terms, “formal differences” give way to “modal differences”–“moody, shifting variations in intensity or degree.” At scale, wit turns to exhaustion. Indeed, sometimes (when I am feeling tired or low, hungover or otherwise uncharitable) I find myself reading sonnet sequences in this same way, grinding out their endless narcissism and small differences, as poem follows poem with a barely new twist on a conceit. Sonnets are like games in this: the momentary mastery of a closing couplet gives way to a new poem that realizes that nothing has been resolved, just as (Lutz points) out a new puzzle, new level, new Goomba or Waddle Dee, scrolls in to replace the old.

I would argue that many of the sequences dramatize precisely this effect, likening it to the self-exhausting wit of the sonneteer (Sidney), the self-lacerating attempts to justify the beloved’s cruelty (Shakespeare), the repetitive shape of female perfidy (Greville), or the cruel implacability of the sonnet mistress (many of the rest). The structure of the English sonnet sequence, with few exceptions, sets out the repetitive button-presses of male sprezzaturra as they fail to pull the heavenly beloved from the sky.

Sonnets, like video games, are not only power fantasies. They are failure simulators.

Such a way of reading is deeply anachronistic. But less so, perhaps, than it may seem. Indeed, perhaps the most common early modern account of poetry emphasizes precisely the aggregative, agglutinative properties of Hamilton’s sculpture. William Webbe writes, in a poetics treatise:

AMong the innumerable sortes of Englyshe Bookes, and infinite fardles of printed pamphlets; wherewith thys Countrey is pestered, all shoppes stuffed, and euery study furnished: the greatest part I thinke in any one kinde, are such as are either meere Poeticall, or which tende in some respecte (as either in matter or forme) to Poetry.

Similarly, in a lovely poem, John Davies has paper itself complain of the

…volumes hugely written,
Where I lye soild as I were all be-( ).

I could easily be-( ) this post with “infinite fardles” of more examples. Instead, I want to point out only that these comments, typically read as self-righteous boundary policing, include an affective and aesthetic critique as well. Or rather, following Lutz and Ngai, that a culture’s poetics are often grounded in ‘ugly feelings,’ in negative affects, and their approach to the failures of art.

III. Postscript: Barnabe Barnes

Trigger Warning: This section discusses a horrible, misogynistic poem of sexual violence.

For much of his sonnet sequence, Barnabe Barnes attempts to overgo the prior tradition. Typically, he combines the Italian octave with the closing of rime royal, resisting the ease of the ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet while still nativizing the tradition. Having learned from Sidney (or rather, mislearned) that the height of sonnet wit is to elaborately structured poems that draw their forms from the figures of rhetoric, Barnes sets out to produce the most elaborately artifical poems, straining scheme and trope to their breaking points. In particular poems, antanaclasis, correlatio, or gradatio will sometimes completely evaporate the meaning:

Right so, my tears, tongue, passions, heart, despair
VVith floods, complaints, sighs, throbs, and endless sorrow,
In seas, in volumes, winds, earth-quakes, and hell,
Shall float chant, breath, break, and dark mansion borrow.

His beloved is not persuaded. And as in so many sequences, the last sonnet catalogs his failures:

Ah me how many ways have I asaid
To win my mistress to me ceaseless suite?
What endless means and prayers have I made
To thy fair graces ever deaf and mute?

As ever, the “endless means” of formal variation do not lead to the sonneteer’s ends. Those two misogynistic conceits of sonnet writing in sixteenth-century England–that great suffering or great wit, wrangled into form, entitle one to sex–collapse into misery. But then the poem turns. “Changing the tenor of my lovely ditty,” Barnes transitions from beseeching to threat. In the closing triple sestina (that most difficult of forms), the beloved Parthenophe is made to appear in the woods, tormented by furies, naked, riding on a goat. The poetic speaker rapes her, and the sequence ends:

Tis now acquitted: cease your former tears, For as she once with rage my body kindled, So in hers am I buried this night.

This is vile, vile stuff. It sardonically describes rape as justice, blaming Parthenophe for the “rage” born of her refusal to submit to the speaker’s desire. The misogynistic undercurrents of frustration and blame here metastasize into something uglier still. To some extent I’m writing about this poem because it still makes me shudder. Barnes sees something terrifying at the center of the poetic enterprise. As wit exhausts itself into stuplimity, he dramatizes exactly the scene that Lutz describes gamers hoping for, the poet overpowering the woman he transforms into “that Thing, the payoff, … hovering just ahead,” “bobbing helplessly.” Rage turns subtext into text.

The English sonnet sequence, Barnes suggests, rests on a fault line. Sonnets are troped as attempts at persuasion, even as the genre demands they not persuade. More: there is no metaphor, no form, nothing that can be written that would entitle one to another’s love. At least within the conventions of the sequence, the sonnet game demands the “endless” overcoming of challenges of wit that bear only a metaphorical relation to the libidinal economy to which they refer. It is the accumulated frustration of this struggle, its overcoming-that-is-not-overcoming and endless false mastery, that leads him to explode with entitlement and misplaced rage. Those who have been following video games this week will recognize that move, as well.

The Script for Spam Comments

For some reason, one of the spambots haunting my comments here has erred and posted its whole script. I’m fascinated by its recurring themes–interestingness, speed of loading–and its generalized praise combined with specific details. Everything it says be applicable to every blogpost on which it alights but must also have the ring of human composition. As a result, we get nice little details. At one moment, the bot has either a “cup” or “mug” of coffee. At another, it is from one of a set of towns in Texas, announcing that  “[I’ve] finally got the {bravery|courage} to go ahead and give you a shout out from {New Caney|Kingwood|Huffman|Porter|Houston|Dallas|Austin|Lubbock|Humble|Atascocita} {Tx|Texas}!”

I like the idea of a tentative spambot, screwing up the courage to commit to a particular suburb. And, behind it, a human writer selecting cities that sound credible. How, I wonder, would one decide whether to stop at Lubbock or go on and add Humble and Atascocita? (And how might I, as a newly-fledged spambot-script-critic , evaluate whether the addition was successful?)

It strikes me that this sort of writing isn’t so different from the craft of sonneteering, where much of the craft comes from artfully selecting among existing conventions, tweaking and arranging as you see fit. Our friend the bot presumably selects at random, of course, but it needn’t. We could imagine the small changes to its script to make it build correlating patterns of praise.

The poet Sir John Davies [1569-1626] has anticipated us here, outlining the script for such a sonnetbot in one of my favorite poems, from his Gulling Sonnets:


Mine Eye, mine eare, my will, my witt, my harte
did see, did heare, did like, discerne, did love:
her face, her speche, her fashion, iudgment, arte,
which did charme, please, delighte, confounde and move.
Then fancie, humor, love, conceipte, and thoughte
did soe drawe, force, intyse, perswade, deuise,
that she was wonne, mov’d, caryed, compast, wrought
to thinck me kinde, true, comelie, valyant, wise;
that heauen, earth, hell, my folly and her pride
did worke, contrive, labor, conspire and sweare
to make me scorn’d, vile, cast off, bace, defyed
With her my love, my lighte, my life, my deare:
So that my harte, my witt, will, eare, and eye
doth greive, lament, sorrowe, dispaire and dye. 

[text taken from the Luminarium edition, with minor edits for clarity.]

Add brackets to write a lovebot.



The whole bot script follows:

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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]


Not Talking About Literary Merit

This past week, I asked my students whether Harry Potter should be taught in literature classes, and if so, why.* They were confident arguing that its commercial successes made it culturally relevant but less sure of themselves when it came to arguing about its value as literature. “What,” one student asked, “would literary merit mean, anyway?”paradise lost resort

It was only after he asked it that I realized just how little I had prepared them to answer it.

One of the sentences that I regularly flag in student writing praises the greatness of the author they’re analyzing. A promising observation about the text’s form or imagery will peter out into a claim that “So-and-so’s mastery of (whatever) is what makes him one of the greatest poets of all time.” Analysis gives way to praise.

As a result, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the ways that I talk about literary merit in the classroom. What I’ve noticed is that I (and my professors) use terms of value to guide our attention to particular formal devices, image patterns, or concepts: I’ll praise Shakespeare’s use of diction to distinguish characters, or Milton’s grammatical effects, or the tension between levels of allegory in Spenser. Value justifies the time spent to notice these effects.

It’s a good trick. Students like being told that what they’re studying (and the way they’re studying) is important. But I need to think more about the way these little moments of praise build into an implicit account of literary merit that I don’t believe. I hope to be an advocate for enthusiasm, for the pleasures of close attention, and for learning how any text is put together. But does the rhetoric of praise pull in another direction, towards a defense of that small canon that is the syllabus? What is the account of literary merit that I offer when I try not to articulate one?

In the discussion of Harry Potter that ensued, I heard a pair of opposed values: the immediate pleasure of the text and the complexity that rewards “academic” reading.

I think I need to explore more deliberate ways to muddle the two, to teach Paradise Lost as beach read and the pleasures of close-reading. Any ideas?

* I’m teaching Children’s Literature this semester, so this is not as much of a non sequitur as it might seem.

Starting Things Off

Elizabethan poetry volumes tend to begin with a curious mixture of self-promotion and self-deprecation. The poet Robert Roche, for instance, warns his readers not to expect the invention or style of “Lucrece Rape-write” or the “famous Fairy Swain”:chicken

My chicken-feathered wings, no imps enrich,
Pens not full sum’d, mount not so high a pitch.

The young Roche parodies E.K.’s account of Spenser “as a bird, whose principals be scarce grown out, but yet as that in time should be able to keep wing with the best.” His chicken feathers offer only a bumpy, uneven, and homely flight. So too, the poet Nicholas Breton imagines himself at the door of Parnassus, deciding whether to “press into the place/ where poets stand”:

No, no, (God wot) it is enough for me,
To stand without, and hearken at the door.
And through the key hole somewhat for to see…

But for all their sense of their own shortcomings, these writers (and countless others) attempt to explain the value of what they’re up to, what they’ve done and why they’ve done it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time mining these prefaces for accounts of writers to understand the work of writing, but it wasn’t until I reread these today, as I worked on building this site, that I realized how much bravery it takes to take off on chicken wings. I hope to use this space to wrestle with ongoing questions and passing fancies, to share little snippets I find as I work, and to reflect upon my practices as a teacher, writer, and researcher. But who knows–these things find a rhythm of their own, bumpy and uneven though it may be.

Image: “Chollerick” by William Marshall, from Foure Complexions [London: Peter Stent, 1662]. Image taken from the Folger’s excellent Luna database.