Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
In the first post in this series, Discourse and Conceptual Topology, I reviewed network models on three scales, micro, meso, and macro. In the second post, From History to Abstraction, I moved to the micro scale and argued that the mechanism of abstraction proposed by David Hays gives us a way of thinking about how a historical process can lead to subsequent abstraction and illustrated the model through an examination of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. In this post I examine Heuser and Le-Khac on the 19th Century British novel and undertake a formal comparison of The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights in which I argue that Brontë had the advantage of conceptual machinery unavailable to Shakespeare, though in some way anticipated by him. I hope to conclude this series with a fourth post in which I return to purely theoretical and methodological matters.
History: Showing and Telling
As we all know, one of the major problems of literary studies up to now is that it has concentrated its attentions on a relatively small body of texts, the so-called canon, and has allowed the examination of those texts to stand as a proxy for all of literary history. The assumption is either that, because of their quality, those are the only texts that matter or, perhaps, their quality allows them to “stand-in” for the rest. The widespread availability of powerful computers now allows as to put these assumptions to the test or, rather, simply to abandon them.
Sister disciplines have developed techniques for analyzing large bodies of texts, corpus linguistics, and literary critics are applying these to newly available digital text collections. I want to examine one such study, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4, May 2012; HERE is an older post on this study). Their corpus included almost 3000 British novels spanning the period from 1785 to 1900. What they discovered, roughly speaking, is a shift from abstract terms to concrete, which they characterize as shift from telling (abstract terminology) showing (concrete terms). They read this shift through Raymond Williams (The Country and the City) as reflecting a population shift from small rural closely-knit communities to large urban communities where people are constantly amid strangers. Continue reading