MLA 2020 Session on “Spenser and Digital Humanities”

Organised by the International Spenser Society and SHARP
Thursday 9 January, 3.30pm to 4.45pm, 616 (WSCC)


Joseph Loewenstein and Anupam Basu

The foundational work of the Text Creation Partnership, and the supplementary efforts of colleagues at Washington University and Northwestern, have given early modernists a richly annotated corpus: 60,000 printed books, 1.65 billion words, with each word preserved in original and regularized spelling and tagged by part of speech, and each document searchable not only by word or phrase (with plenty of flexibility for the substitution of part-of-speech placeholders), but also by literary structure, making it possible to profile literary idiosyncrasy at a range of scales.  Having already assessed the (very high) degree to which Spenser’s spelling in print conforms to roiling orthographic norms across his career, we offer a preliminary report on his lexical and syntactic profile, measured against a “small” corpus of verse — extracted from about 1500 texts printed between 1561 and 1600.  Using some simple metrics, we can start to tell you what’s distinctive about Spenser’s lexicon — not just the odd words, but the less odd ones that he uses disproportionately; we can also tell you whose verse practice clusters with his and what the vectors of similarity are.  And we will.  If there’s time, we’ll branch out towards the more difficult problem of how to move from profiling by means of lexical clustering to the more demanding task of syntactic profiling.

Craig Berry
Prosaic Diction: the Words of Spenser’s Prose

We know that, as a secretary, Spenser wrote a great deal of prose. We have his long prose treatise A View of the Present State of Ireland as well as the smaller Brief Note of IrelandAxiochus, and a couple of published letters. The purposes and audiences of these texts and their generic horizons of expectation differ in various ways from each other as well as from those of Spenser’s poetry. This paper will consider specifically how and whether Spenser’s word choices in the prose works differ from or align with the diction of his poetry.

Most Spenserians can readily think of rare or eccentric word choices, especially in the poetry, but this paper takes a different approach in which the cruxes and exceptions will be less important than large-scale trends.  This work starts with lemmatized digital texts (where the lemma is the dictionary head word leveling out all inflection and spelling variation) and applies statistical methods, notably log likelihood ratios and z-scores, to measure difference and similarity between different word collections.  No statistical background will be required to understand that having a look at words far more likely or far less likely to occur in the prose than in the poetry (or vice versa) may illuminate Spenser’s practice in ways that confirm or challenge the intuitions of experienced readers. At least tentative answers will be given to such questions as what words are unique to the prose corpus and what parts of Spenser’s poetic corpus have the greatest (or least) affinity, vocabulary-wise, with the prose.

John R. Ladd
Spenserian Digital Deformance and the Interpretive Power of Playfulness

Digital tools give researchers many ways to disassemble and reassemble literary works. Some of these rearrangements are used for straightforward analytical purposes: representing a corpus as a “bag of words” to allow statistical analyses of vocabulary, for example. However this process of taking literature apart and recombining it in new ways can be creative, even playful. Using Jerome McGann’s concept of deformance—a portmanteau of deform and performance—I will present several projects that reconfigure our understanding of Spenser’s works by presenting his verse to us in digitally-altered ways.

In one project, Spenser’s Color Wheel, I visualize Spenser’s use of different color terms in The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calender, allowing the user to choose the lines that invoke a particular set of colors to construct evocative new poems. In another project, the Twitter bot @endlessmonument, I wrote a script that delivers lines of Spenser’s Epithalamion in accordance with the poem’s famously complex time-scheme: the social media reader then encounters the poem in short, temporally-fixed pieces alongside millions of other tweets. These projects grew out of my work with the Spenser Project, the digital edition of Spenser’s Complete Works. Following McGann, I will reflect on the ways in which these deformance projects help us to think about the alterations and interpretive choices of digital editing.

These deformances are more than creative side projects—by rearranging Spenser’s works in unexpected ways they direct readers’ attention to specific formal elements and authorial choices. I argue that deformance of Spenser’s work is interpretive—in coding them I made interpretive choices about what the reader should see in Spenser’s use of time and of color, and in exploring them readers are invited to spin out new interpretations of their own.