Tweet as Alexander Pope Day (#tweetaspopeday

Conrad Brunstrom’s adroit commentary on the formal qualities of Pope’s poetry and Twitter!



Once a year, just once a year I like to relax and stop pretending that I can actually express myself with any degree of verve and finesse using only 140 characters and instead give the whole day over to Alexander Pope.

Now there was someone calling themselves Alexander Pope who was tweeting away – but they were making up their own couplets and trying to be topical.  I can’t be doing with that.  Far preferable was Samuel Pepys, who used to send daily nuggets from the 1660s of the “… and then to Vauxhall where did ogle Lady Castlemaine mightily” variety,  Haven’t heard from Pepys for a while though he did say his eyesight was getting bad.  No, for “tweet as Pope day” (#tweetaspopeday) all I want to do is send actual couplets from actual Pope poems, pretty much at random, at intervals through the day and see if the…

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On being lost without my desktop

imageToday, I can’t work properly. I feel disorientated. I’m doleful. Why? It’s because I don’t have my computer. I have a computer; but it’s not my computer. (In case you’re wondering, I’m writing this on the fly, on my iPad, which has something of me in it).

In that possessiveness is revealed – unexpectedly and powerfully – the close relationship between myself and my laptop: how, over the course of a year or two, I have configured the various settings, passwords, bookmarks, cloud storage, and apps to help me do my job. This configuration has quietly and almost without me noticing produced a particular way of working with my materials: in the parlance of our time, this is my workflow.

In retrospect, I should have thought about this before I blithely sent my own dear laptop off to get repaired. Perhaps I could have transferred my desktop and settings to this new temporary alien laptop (now sitting unused beside me)? But what they say about hindsight is right. If nothing else, it’s revealed to me just how intimately my mental and physical schema was closely bound to this one, particularly configured, piece of technology. It did, indeed, have a lot of me in it.

‘Sad Dog’ image via Wikimedia Commons.





Daniel Defoe and the Scottish referendum

Old_bridge,_Stirling,_Scotland-LCCN2002695059A guest post by Sharon Alker
and Holly Faith Nelson

As two expatriate Scots, we believe that the upcoming referendum vote needs to be decided by Scots who live in Scotland, rather than Scots abroad who tend to romanticize the homeland, enjoying it vicariously, and often unrealistically, through various cultural events and artifacts, including the Highland Games, Burns’ suppers, and the occasional Scottish novel and film. As students of Daniel Defoe, however, we know that if he were alive today, he would have taken a far more hands on approach to the upcoming vote for an Independent Scotland, and he would be adamantly against the dissolution of the Act of Union. In the first few decades of the eighteenth century, Defoe wrote that the union was to be an eternal act which would undoubtedly and unequivocally benefit both the Scots and the English. Working for the powerful English politician Robert Harley at the turn of the century, Defoe was a spy in Scotland, gathering pre-union opinions about the possibility of Union, an untiring journalist, writing myriad pamphlets and other works that both factually and imaginatively naturalized the Union, and a Dissenter, who was a great admirer of the Scottish Kirk and recognized the need for its preservation in Union negotiations. In his capacity as a great Unionist, Defoe has taken on a central role in Tim Barrow’s new play, Union.

In her groundbreaking book Acts of Union, Leith Davis captures the way many writers on both sides of the border negotiated British identity in the century after the Union.[1] She has written on Defoe’s pro-union work, pointing out that he tends to use rational language in many of his pamphlets to counter the mythological force of the figurative language used by those who argued against the Union, such as Lord Belhaven. Defoe had his work cut out for him. The anti-Union position was deeply rooted in a long history of cross-border hostility and it nurtured sentiments of Scottish distinctness and unity. The passionate resonance of history and mythology were a powerful tool to motivate Scots against the Union. The benefits that would accrue from the Union also seemed nebulous. Scotland’s king had migrated to London with his court in the early seventeenth century and it seemed unthinkable that the limited representation of Scots in the British parliament, on the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, could benefit Scotland economically or otherwise. What is more, while Scotland was a known entity, there was no reliable notion of what a united Britain would look like, other than what existed in the anxious imagination of the Scots. Defoe’s job was to help people both north and south of the border to imagine a unified British nation in the best possible terms.

Practical rational arguments (as Davis contends) were a very effective way to accomplish this objective. And we have certainly seen myriad arguments in the current union debates on both sides. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that the strength of Alistair Darling’s arguments has been his emphasis on fact and detail. In this regard, he may seem to be following directly in Defoe’s footsteps. Commenting on the first debate between Darling and Alex Salmond, The Guardian noted, “The no campaign has always believed that as the vote approached, Darling’s forensic dullness would switch from liability to asset.” In fact, the discourse of reason and fact dominates the whole “Better Together” website. There are sections on “The Facts about the Pound,” “The Facts about Jobs,” and “The Facts about Defense,” among others.

On the other hand, the current Scottish arguments for the dissolution of the Union are also solidly grounded in reason. Defoe would likely approve of this attention to reason, even if disagreeing with the overall desire for separation or disputing the accuracy of the facts presented as he was accustomed to doing in the original Union debate. It is perhaps even more important that a rational case be made in 2014 than in 1706 because now Scotland is in an inverted position in the debate. Whereas in the early eighteenth century, readers in both England and Scotland would have been worried about how precisely this unknown thing, Union, would appear and function, now the Union is a known entity and Scots may be concerned about the precise nature and operation of an independent Scotland. The 2013 white paper has been crafted precisely to alleviate this concern by providing facts and specific plans about such matters as Scotland’s autonomy over its political future, business and tax issues, transportation, immigration, childcare, education and agriculture. The weight of the booklet alone (which is over 600 pages in length) affirms that an independent Scotland is no mere chimera, no mythologically powerful but antiquated idea that is irrelevant to everyday life in the twenty-first century. Rather it is grounded in specific, detailed ideas about global governance. It argues that dissolving the Union will provide an array of practical benefits, and that there is a solid and detailed goal that is achievable after a transition period. Alex Salmond has framed this array of policy ideas in an overarching idea of Scottish autonomy and distinctness.

In a recent essay in the New Statesman, Robert Colls comments on the emphasis on the pragmatic over the mythological in the Yes campaign, writing “Alex Salmond has waged a good campaign, make no mistake, and that he has done so without invoking a time when Fingal lived and Ossian sang is creditworthy.” However, Colls adds, “Even so, it is as dangerous for a people’s politician to neglect the people’s myths as it is dangerous for an independence party to avoid looking beyond independence.” Colls comments might make us wonder whether the battle cannot be fought, either then or now, by reason alone. The facts may need to work alongside the power and appeal of the vision of either a firmly unified Britain or a strongly independent Scotland. It is for that reason that Defoe did not rely on reason alone in explaining what an imagined Britain might look like. Rather, he turned to metaphor and symbol.

We have written on Defoe’s use of tropes at length, following in the footsteps of the work of Evan Gottlieb, who, in his 2007 book, Feeling British, writes of the way Defoe uses metaphor to naturalize the Union.[2] Defoe was very aware that the way the Union was described figuratively was crucial to enhancing its appeal, but also very tricky. On the one hand, any symbol or literary figure designed to describe the Anglo-Scottish union needed to stress its indissolvability. On the other hand, it had to emphasize that both nations would continue to be distinct and would be valued for their differences. Not every metaphor could balance these two meanings.[3]

The marriage trope, for example, was not a good one to represent Britishness, particularly given the inequality in marriage in the early eighteenth century. Representing either Scotland or England as the bride in this Union would have been a problem, suggesting profound and unchangeable inequality. For that reason, marriage tropes were most often used by the anti-Union crowd. About seven years after the Union, Defoe explained in The Scots Nation and Union Vindicated (London, 1714) that “the simile or allusion of a marriage is lame and halts in the case very much; for in a marriage the woman is a subject, an inferior; promises obedience, and is call’d by the name of her husband: But here is an entire dissolution of the former capacities and circumstances, and both become subjected equally to a new constitution, and take up a new name.”

Tom Devine, who has recently publically shared his decision to vote yes, uses the marriage trope in a modern context to naturalize dissolution. Devine explained, “The union of England and Scotland was not a marriage based on love. It was a marriage of convenience. It was pragmatic. From the 1750s down to the 1980s there was stability in the relationship. Now, all the primary foundations of that stability have gone or been massively diluted.” If the Union is like a marriage, both nations are seen as distinct and can move toward divorce if the marriage no longer works. Other familial metaphors can be equally problematic, given the inequity of power in families. John Arbuthnot, for example, in crafting a sibling trope to explain the Union, presents a well-fed, powerful brother, John Bull, alongside a feisty but impoverished sister Peg. Yet the natural affection of familial metaphors means that they still have a pretty powerful appeal in pro-Union arguments. David Cameron, for example, commented in September 2013, “We are a family of nations within one United Kingdom. Now is not the time to reduce that relationship to one of second cousins, once removed.” Using such a trope leaves the No side open to accusations that Britain may be a family of sorts, but it is a highly dysfunctional one.

As Evan Gottleib has pointed out, rather than working with familial metaphors, Defoe wisely turned to organic ones, arguing, for example, that ‘[i]f the Union be an Incorporation…it must then be a Union of the very SOUL OF THE NATION, all its Constitution, Customs, Trade and Manners, must be blended together, digested and concocted for the mutual united, undistinguished, good, growth and health of the one whole united Body; and this I understand by Union.” This quotation, reproduced from Gottleib’s book (13), is from Defoe’s 1706 Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with England. The material body was to become a prominent trope for Defoe, whether he was writing about the wounded body of a divided British isles or the monstrous body of a pre-Union Britain that was only partially connected with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Both conditions could, of course, be healed by Union.

Have the Yes and No campaigns found such powerful metaphors either to celebrate union or independence? There certainly have been countless tropes used, some of which have caused frustration.  In February of 2014, a comment in The Economist in response to an article on the role of currency in the Union debate explicitly rejects many metaphors disseminated by the media such as “the ‘teenager leaving home’ metaphor, the ‘divorcee seeking to maintain the joint account’ metaphor and now from the TE we have the ‘discarding common sense for ice-cream’ metaphor.” Rather, the writer suggests, “the more realistic ‘partnership’ metaphor, which is, the BOE, is a 300 year old partnership, with 4 equity partners, England, Wales, N. Ireland and Scotland.” This seems like a trope that more accurately captures the Union than familial ones, but it is hardly an emotionally appealing one. Possibly the strongest trope on the Yes side might be the concept of the autonomous individual, with agency over his or her own future.

Defoe was on the winning side of the Union argument. The Union did indeed take place and has survived for a substantial amount of time, despite volatile disagreements in the years that immediately followed. In fact, in 1713, there was a vote to repeal the Union that only failed by four proxy votes. Of course we can dispute the idea that the Union was originally won by a persuasive blend of rational argument and magnificent metaphors by turning to another of our favorite writers, Robert Burns, who would likely gladly go toe-to-toe with Defoe about whether the Union was beneficial to Scotland. The Union, Burns argued, was forged neither in reason nor in a sparkling rhetoric, but in bribery and betrayal. Of the behavior of Scottish politicians and aristocrats during the last days before the passing of the Act of Union, Burns lamented:

We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

And indeed, Robert Harley himself later noted of the Scots that “we bought them.”[4] Defoe, however, wasn’t as cynical. His writings on the Union, though certainly published for propagandistic purposes, suggest that he was genuinely hopeful that it would be a success. He continued writing about Scotland after the Union, defending the Church of Scotland, in particular, suggesting that he recognized that to achieve such success, rhetoric or policy that attacked the Scots would have to be diminished, and replaced by an ongoing discourse of mutual respect. Whether that has been the case over the past 300 years is certainly questionable.   So, for our friends who live north of the Tweed, however you vote on the 18th of September, know that you may be haunted in the voting booth by the residual competing hopes and fears of Defoe and Burns for the future of a nation each of them loved. We’ll let you determine which is the good angel and which is the bad.


[1] Davis, Leith, Acts of Union: Scotland and the Literary Negotiation of the British Nation 1707−1830 (Stanford University Press, 1999).

[2] Gottleib, Evan. Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing 1707-1832 (Bucknell University Press, 2007).

[3] Alker, Sharon. “John Arbuthnot’s Family Ties: Anglo-Scottish Relations in the John Bull Pamphlets.” Scottish Studies Review 9.2 (2008), 1-20; Alker, Sharon, and Holly Faith Nelson. “Pamphlet Wars: Tropological Union in Defoe’s Anglo-Scottish Works.” Positioning Daniel Defoe’s Non-Fiction: Form, Function, Genre. Ed. Aino Mäkikalli and Andreas K.E. Mueller (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011); Nelson, Holly Faith, and Sharon Alker. “Daniel Defoe and the Scottish Church.” Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries 5.1 (2013), 1-19.

[4] Eales, Jacqueline. “Harley, Sir Robert (bap. 1579, d. 1656).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn. May 2007. 27 Aug 2014.

Sharon Alker is an Associate Professor of English at Whitman College,  and Holly Faith Nelson is a Professor and Chair of English at Trinity Western University, Canada.

Image is of Stirling Bridge. By Photochrom Print Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

How a database works: some thoughts on a student task

BeggarsmetadataHere’s some out-loud thinking about a session for my new module Digital Literary Studies. Since the module will require students to work with a wide range of online resources, I really wanted to make sure they could begin to understand how they work. Moreover, the module – via eighteenth-century literature – will be thinking about categorisation and representation, so I wanted to build a set of tasks that would introduce these issues. Below is a draft of what I might give to my students. (Acknowledgement: this is an adaptation of a student task devised by George Williams, who kindly shared it with me in a pub near the British Library). I’ll aim to write a post on how it goes.

Throughout this module we’re going to be working with a variety of online databases and resources, so the aim of this session is to get an idea of what happens behind the scenes (a.k.a the ‘interface’): it’s really about how data is ordered and managed so it can be searched. You might find it helpful before this session to look at other online databases and catalogues you’re used to using to see how you can search them (e.g. JSTOR or the BSU library catalogue).

  1. I’ve given you a number of music CDs: select two each. For each individual CD assign a sheet of paper and write down a list of information about it, beginning with the obvious categories of artist/group name and title of CD. Then move to other categories of information: at this point I’ll leave these up to you (and no conferring at this point – you’ll see why later).
  1. Congratulations, you’ve built a database! Let’s try some searches and see what happens.
  1. Now get together and compare your categories. For each category assign a sheet of paper and list all the relevant data for that category (i.e. one sheet will have all the artists/group names; another sheet will have all the titles; and so on for each category). Well done, you’ve now built what’s called a ‘relational database’.
  1. To what extent did you each order data differently? Was some information difficult to represent or categorise? How did you solve these differences and difficulties?
  1. At this point, we’ll try some more searches using your data and see what comes up and, perhaps, what is missing.

To conclude we’ll compare our database with something like the English Short-Title Catalogue and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. You’ll note that we’ve built a database that describes objects, but does not actually give us the object itself: in many cases this is called ‘meta-data’. (In different context, the electronic surveillance programmes run by NSA and GCHQ have been described as the analysis of meta-data: for a revealing view on such ‘data-mining’ see this fascinating piece of research by MIT researcher Ethan Zuckerman).

Pointing at Gondibert

Couldn’t resist re-blogging this thoughtful post on manicules in a copy of D’Avenant’s Gondibert held at the Folger (via @Nicosia_Marissa)

marginal notes

As promised, this post analyzes the manicules that gesture from the margins of a Folger copy of William D’Avenant’s Gondibert (and grace the header of this blog). This post is adapted from a paper I gave at the SHARP conference in Philadelphia last summer and it focuses on a single opening in the book.


D’Avenant’s Gondibert is a rollicking heroic poem set in medieval Lombardy.[1] The narrative itself features stag hunting in the Italian countryside, power struggles in Bergamo and Verona, numerous yearning lovers, elaborate funerals for beloved warriors, and a detailed description of a gentleman’s library and scientific endeavors, among other things. But the work is perhaps best known for its lengthy preface in which D’Avenant proposes a model for heroic poetry. Despite the extended analysis of heroic poetry in D’Avenant’s preface, Gondibert has been variously discussed as an epic, a romance, and a drama. This generic…

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Fun with Google Maps: the 18thC book trade

Stationers’ Hall.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to take the annual Bibliographical Society Summer Tour. This year it was led by Professor James Raven and was a walking tour around the eighteenth-century London book trade. James Raven is well known in book history circles and this tour drew upon his research on the topography of the eighteenth-century book trade, the subject of his 2010 Panizzi lectures, and the focus of Bookscapes: Geographies of Printing and Publishing in London before 1800 (British Library, 2014). I’m not going to describe the tour here – although it was lively, thought provoking, and fun – but as we were walking from the area where Paternoster row once existed to Fleet Street, it struck me that the most appropriate way to record this event might be to map our walk. It had also occured to me that I hadn’t yet played with Google Maps and it might be useful a process to pass on to my undergraduate students.


So what you see here (click on map image) is a rough and quick map of our tour using Google Maps. I’ve dropped a few pins to locations and figures that were mentioned on the tour, although it by no means reflects that breadth of James Raven’s knowledge nor, indeed, the astonighly high concentration of booksellers, printers, and publishers in the areas around St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, and the Strand during this period. In throwing together a map of the tour, I’ve not gone into much detail: I could have written much more extensive notes to people such as Abel Roper or the Murrays or Strahans, given more time. I also limited myself by deciding that I would only pin-point items or people for which image existed (and that the image was free to use and without any copyright issues, so I’ve relied heavily on Wikimedia Commons). In this sense, the map reflects the limits of the basic Google Maps app: images can only be downloaded from the web, so I couldn’t use any of my own photographs (although I guess I could have upoaded them to, for example, flickr, and re-upload them from there). Of course, the other major limitation when using Google Maps for marking historical information is that it doesn’t reflect the original street layout. In this case, the most obvious anomaly is that the route we took from Stationers’ Hall to the East side of St Pauls, was attempting to trace what no longer exists: Paternoster Row, the historic focus of so much book trade activity up to WWII. But see this project to creat a virtual Paternoster Row at the University of Essex.

So, there are a number of lessons to hand on to students using Google Maps. But there are also significant gains to be had in the process of marking and annotating, in addition to the obvious visual impact of a map. I had fun imagining myself into the bookscape of eighteenth-century London. I hope you have fun with this map.

Why ‘manicule’?

Via Penn Provenance Project, Flickr
Via Penn Provenance Project, Flickr

Welcome to my new blog!

I’ve called this ‘Manicule’ because it reminds me of the materiality of our connections with texts. Handling books, turning down the corner of a page, marking up passages, inserting sticky notes are all ways of reading, ordering and even sharing our interactions with texts. The pointing finger was a frequently used symbol of a reader’s annotation in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts appearing in the margins to mark important passages or words. It would also start appearing in print: for you eighteenth-centuryists, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa offers a wonderful fictional example, in which Lovelace uses the manicule to aggressively mark up a letter of Clarissa’s.

The blog’s title is also a pun on the other sense of the ‘digital’: the way information is processed in digital, as opposed to analogue, technology. So it points to the other interest of mine, digital humanities, which for me also involves a variety of different ways of marking-up texts. 763px-Mouse-cursor-hand-pointer.svgOf course, our relation to information in this way is not directly material, although it is significant that early graphic interfaces sought to replicate this material interaction with information by using the manicule (a pointing finger manipulated by the mouse). However, we tend to forget that our interaction with a computer is still physically mediated by our fingers

William Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), in his chapter on the manicule, quotes the 12thC Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus as an epigraph:

The seconde [finger[ hyght Index and Salutaris …

For with him we grete, and shewe, and teche all thynges.

‘Greet, show and teach’: I rather like that as a description of what this blog attempts.

Digital editing: students, building, sharing


I’ve posted before on an undergraduate digital editing project for my final year English degree students, but Adam Kirsch’s recent summary and critique of digital humanities has prompted some further thoughts about my students’ work and what I’d hoped to help them achieve. I’m not going to presume to add to the solid body of responses to Kirch’s piece (see Mark Sample’s piece), so this is a focused and brief reaction to his depiction of “the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts” as ostensibly “minimalist” digital humanities work. Part of the problem in this back-handed compliment is that it devalues what Ryan Cordell’s response rightly characterises as “arguably the longest-standing and most influential thread of digital humanities’ history in literary studies: the preservation, annotation, and representation of historical-literary works for the new medium of our time.”

But more importantly, I don’t think my students would recognise their work as either minimalist or traditional. In this project I ask for volunteers to create an online digital edition of an eighteenth-century text in conjunction with the scholarly digital platform 18thConnect (Mandell, IDHMC, Texas). The project was built out of my belief that digital technology could offer English Literature students a way to demonstrate their critical skills in a more tangible way than in written coursework: to create an artefact that carries them beyond the confines of the hermetic world of student/tutor/institution. Simultaneously, it was a response to what I perceived to be students’ limited knowledge about the nature of the digitized texts they accessed via databases such as EEBO, ECCO, or even Google Books.

Crucial to the project was the ability of students to reflect upon and rationalise the use of digital technology; in effect, their answers to the questions: ‘What is a text in a digital context?’ ‘Why digital?’ and ‘Who is this for’? The interconnectedness of these questions draws upon two definitions of digital humanities easily misread as dichotomous. Stephen Ramsay’s post ‘On Building’ posited that “the move from reading to making” enables a different experience of interpretation and so produce new insights. In this project, for example, encoding their edition in XML / TEI demands – and enables – students to reflect upon the nature and authority of the text in new ways. The ‘why digital’ question also asks students to think about audience: what are the best ways of building digitally to render biographical, literary, or historical meanings? So the students reflect upon, as Mark Sample put it, “the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge” (‘The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing’). The project, then, is about how students can explore the intimacy between (contra Kirsch) interpretation and digital creation, building and sharing.

Note, this is a summary of a more expansive talk I gave at the Digital Humanities Congress 2014 in Sheffield, hosted by the HRI and Centernet, and at the ‘Teaching Digital Humanities’ conference at the University of Reading. Here are the slides:

Students, building, sharing – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

“Lego Brick”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Imagining the Storm

The Storm by Daniel Defoe cover pageThe Lord hath his way in the Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the dust of his Feet. (Nahum. 1:3)

Re-reading Defoe’s The Storm and looking out at the sometimes scudding, sometimes lowering clouds over the past month, it has been impossible not to connect the present UK weather with Defoe’s memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703. Published in 1704, it is a remarkable combination of eyewitness reports from all over England, folkloric, classical, scientific, and biblical explanations of storms, and Defoe’s own attempt to account for this ‘Dreadful TEMPEST’.[1]

The epigraph, quoted above, is perhaps an unsurprising gloss on a natural disaster for most people living in the early eighteenth century (even the most rational natural or experimental philosopher synthesised to some degree or other their scientific explanations with the divine order of things). And for anyone familiar with Defoe’s novels, it should come as little surprise that storms are the expression of God’s intervention in human life: think about the storms at sea in Robinson Crusoe or Roxana: atmospheric disturbances are a figure for the intimations from heaven. Clouds perform a similar function, they are ‘the dust of his Feet’, manifestations of divine warning and harbingers of God’s approach.

Clouds are also a reflection – albeit an unreliable one – of the wind’s movement. In a remarkable extended conceit that imagines the storm as an army marching to war, Defoe declares ‘I confess, I have never studied the Motion of the Clouds so nicely, as to calculate how much time the Army of Terror might take up in its furious March’ (60). The difficulty to provide a rational explanation for the movement of winds and the function of clouds is underlined when Defoe quotes natural philosopher Ralph Bohun:

‘The Winds,’ says the Learned Mr. Bohun, ‘are generated in the Intermediate Space between the Earth and the Clouds, either by Rarefaction or Repletion, and sometimes haply by pressure of Clouds, Elastical Virtue of the Air, &c. from the Earth or Seas, as by Submarine or Subterraneal Eruption or Descension or Resilition from the middle Region.’

All this, though no Man is more capable of the Enquiry than this Gentleman, yet to the Demonstration of the thing, amounts to no more than what we had before, and still leaves it as Abstruse and Cloudy to our Understanding as ever. (8-9)

Despite the clunky pun at Bohun’s expense, Defoe forcefully emphasises the gap left by the failure of human understanding about the weather, quoting John (3:8): ‘The Wind blows where it listeth, and thou hearest the Sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh’ (10).

Storm clouds (7462161170)Into this gap pours our fancy and our humours, both so easily swayed by the clouds within and without. The parallel between figurative and literal clouds are an image for that traditional association, already strong by the eighteenth century, between English weather and a national disposition to melancholy. Inserted strangely alongside the factual accounts of the storm is a pastoral poem in the style of Virgil fitted to the subject of the hurricane, ostensibly sent in by an ‘ingenious Author’ (41). Damon asks his friend, ‘the melancholy Shepherd’ Melibæus, ‘what Cloud dares overcast  your brow … ?’ (42). The author – whom I strongly suspect to be Defoe himself – exploits the gap between the pastoral form and the ‘havoc’ (43) of the weather to emphasise the serious affliction and corresponding duty facing the English nation.

As nature writer Richard Mabey sets out in Turned out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather (2013), there is an indissoluble link between our subjective experience of the weather and those macro-events that we call climate. Defoe’s account of the great storm, looking back over accounts of weather from classical discussions, events from the seventeenth-century, as well as the more immediate reports of his correspondents, moves between several different levels of time: human history; typological time, in which events are suffused with Biblical resonance; the recent and immediate period of English history; and the subjective and affective moment. The difficulty facing Defoe is how to negotiate and balance all these levels in order to, as he says, ‘bring the Story into a Compass tolerable to the Reader’ (270). The remarkable thing is to see how effectively The Storm succeeds.

[1] Daniel Defoe, The Storm: Or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (London, 1704), page references to this edition.

Fun with Google’s N-Gram Viewer for my C18th students

Just the other day I was preparing to teach Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). Usually, I ask students to try to historicise the meanings of the word ‘sentimental’, in effect placing it within the broader culture of sensibility. This year, wondering how I might emphasise how new and even fashionable the word sentimental became in the latter half of the century, I thought of Google’s N-Gram Viewer. I’d seen this in action in relation to the eighteenth-century on the Persistent Enlightenment blog. So  I thought I’d give it a go:


There’s a gratfyingly significant rise from around the 1750s (and a small dip around the 1790s when sentimentalism was perceived in Britain to be associated with the radical levelling tendencies of the French Revolution). Of course this does not give us insight into the meanings of the word, but Google also offers links to the word’s place in the source material so that I hope my students can look at the word in context. It’s also useful when used in context with title searches on ESTC.

On another note, and since my students also engage with eighteenth-century contextual material from ECCO, I’ve often warned that the practice of capitalising certain words did not necessarily indicate particular significance, and that this was more often a printer’s convention for certain nouns that gradually died away towards the end of the century. The N-Gram Viewer is case-sensitive, so to search for different cases I clicked ‘case-insensitive’ and searched for ‘virtue’ between 1700 and 1799:


It’s great to see that cross-over so clearly. Clearly, the idea of virtue wasn’t going out of fashion, but the fashion for capitalising it was.