The Digital Miscellanies Index at BSECS2013

I’ve been following the work by the team on the Digital Miscellanies Index (hereafter DMI for short) for the last year and a half, but at this year’s annual meeting of BSECS I had the chance to attend a panel given by the team on some of their latest findings and also to test an early version of the database.

The roundtable panel ‘Compiling the Canon: what can poetic miscellanies tell us? New findings from the Digital Miscellanies Index’ comprised Jennifer Batt, Rosamund Powell, Adam Bridgen and Mark Burden. Jenny Batt – the project’s coordinator – announced the startling fact that the DMI has indexed approximately 1,400 miscellanies from the period. Her own piece exemplified how one would use the DMI by focusing upon Mary Leapor’s poems in various miscellanies; mapping their chronological spread, the source of the poems, and their destination. For example, the biggest number of her poems in the miscellanies were from her first volume of poetry, Poem on Various Occasions (1748). However, her poems also appeared anonymously in some miscellanies, so the DMI also challenges the traditional authorship-centric notions of poetic dissemination, or what Jenny called ‘authorial branding’. Ros Powell’s piece on the mentions of Horace’s Art of Poetry in miscellanies revealed the flexibility of the DMI: she was able to separate mere mentions of or quotations from Horace, translations of Horace, and imitations – whether attributed or unattributed. She was also able to break these varying uses of Horace down into percentages (some nice pie charts too, which I never thought I’d find myself saying in a literary context!). Adam Bridgen fascinatingly concentrated on a surprising and little-studied genre of poem to be found in the miscellanies – the last will and testament. Adam pointed that that the well-known literary genre of the ‘mock testament’ afforded much satiric potential, especially when wielded by Pope and Swift, but what he found in the miscellanies were frequently real wills and testaments rendered in poetic form. The disjunction between form and function in such poems did not necessarily undermine their moral or functional role. However, Adam could not help pointing out that this could go awry and create unintended comic consequences. The final piece by Mark Burden concerned the reconstruction of the reading of dissenting academies and looked to the DMI to be able to aid such research by asking what poetry was being read in the academies. Since I’m a big Defoe fan, I’m going to watch that for what might be revealed in Defoe’s old academy, run by Charles Morton.

The subsequent discussion really brought home the possibilities of the DMI when it is launched, since from these papers it looks like it can enable both close readings and identify larger literary-cultural patterns. Moreover, the DMI has a striking potential for shifting our notions of what was popular, how authors disseminated their work, and even how we conceive reading practices in the period. With that in mind, I was looking forward to the opportunity to play with the early test version of the DMI search interface. All I can say is that – even in this early and not fully integrated version – it was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the final version when it is launched.

The DMI blog can be followed here.

This review can now also be found on the BSECS online reviews page.


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