Research Exercise 7: Aurora Leigh from a distance

English 111: Victorian Novel Research Seminar

Research Exercise 10: Close and Distant Reading of Aurora Leigh

*Adapted from Professor Cyrus Mulready (SUNY-New Paltz) “Close and Distant Reading Assignment” for English Lit.

Dedicating Aurora Leigh to her cousin John Kenyon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

The words ‘cousin’ and ‘friend’ are constantly recurring in this poem, the last pages of which have been finished under the hospitality of your roof, my own dearest cousin and friend: –cousin and friend, in a sense of less equality and greater disinterestedness than ‘Romney’ ‘s.

Here Barrett Browning notes some keywords that recur in her poem, and even imagines them as floating free from some of the connotations in which the narrative of Aurora Leigh embeds them. For this assignment, we’ll do something similar, identifying some key words in AL and using digital tools to represent them in different ways, in the hopes that in so re-representing them we might learn something new. Se we will be performing a kind of language laboratory experiment, using digital tools as a way of gaining a better – or just different – understanding of Aurora Leigh.

I recommend that you give yourself plenty of time to work through the steps below.

1) This about how you read Aurora Leigh using the reading frameworks we’ve developed in class so far. Note some themes and potential research questions; zero in on a few lines, mark them up, and close read.(Don’t skip this step!) Think about the Tucker and the Woolf articles about the poem.  Try to work up your own personal reading, think about what other seminar members will say about this poem, and try to think about what the seminar as a whole will find interesting about this poem, how it will relate to our ongoing concerns. Think about a suspicious reading; think about a just reading. Think about all the readings in between. Jot down a few keywords from the poem that you see as important.

2) Distant Reading of Aurora Leigh. Using, work through the following steps to examine all of the sonnets together.

  • Open this link, which will take you to a Voyant viewer that I have prepared specifically for this exercise.  And here is the Voyant documentation to help; it includes tutorials. I also recommend that you spend a little time playing around with voyant. Here is a list of other tools that you can use through Voyant.
  • Look at the “word cloud” generated by Voyant (in the upper-left hand corner of the screen). This gives you a visual representation of word frequency (larger words=used more often in the poem). Do any of these words chime with the readings and keywords that came up for you when you thought about AL in the first part of this assignment?
  • Glance through the list of words in the bottom-left hand corner of the screen—this is a list of words ranked by the number of times they are used in the poem. Do you recognize any patterns in these words? How do you think they relate to patterns we might find in other texts – in the non-poetic novels we’ve been reading throughout the semester? Are there any commonly used words that are surprising to you?
  • Find the lines you close read in the “corpus” section of the text. Notice that when you float over the words it tells you the frequency with which the word is used. When you click on these words, you’ll see on the right that you can jump to the various places in the sonnets where the word is used. Compare how Barrett Browning uses one or more of your keywords in other places. Does she use the word in the same way? Is there something different about it?
  • Using some of your keywords from the close reading and/or keywords part of the assignment in part I, graph three or four of the words to get a visual picture of how they are used in the poem (you can do this in the upper-right hand corner of the screen by entering words into the search box). Is there a pattern to the ways these words are used?
  • Now go to the Google NGram viewer and put in two or three of the large words from the cloud (signifying it is a commonly used word in AL) with the date range 1800-1900 (be sure to separate your words with commas). Try entering in some of your keyword. Does this show us anything about AL’s language?

3) Devise a Research Question or Experiment Based on your analysis of the AL in steps 1 and 2, come up with a question (or a group of related questions) that you would like to answer about AL in the context of the Victorian novel (and in as far as you can if you want to, Victorian poetry), using the tools available in Voyant and (if you like) the Google Books NGram Viewer. Discuss what kind of “experiment” you could you carry out and what might it reveal about AL. If you like, Voyant makes it very easy to set up other texts – how does AL compare to Middlemarch in some specific way? you might ask and answer. (To add texts to Voyant upload a txt file with the text of the novel or other text you are interested in, or just direct Voyant to a url for the etext. And don’t forget to set the Cirrus options to Stopword-English-apply globally if you don’t want common words (if, and, but) to show up in the word cloud.) What kinds of questions do you think this tool can be used to answer? Be creative.

4) Look at the “Resources” page and start to imagine some other possible research questions we might ask and begin to answer using other digital tools.

You might also – based on this relative limited experience – think about what you think is valuable (or not) about distant reading or data mining. Do you think this is a useful tool for literary analysis? Why or why not? What do you think are the strengths and limitations of this method of literary analysis?