Blue Periods: On Aging and Writing

As a follow-up to my last post on Whitman, I wanted to explore more examples of how writing develops over the course of a poet’s career. As I wrote there, I’m interested in using network theory to better understand how a poet’s career might have a particular shape or orientation, indeed, how one might visualize the “career” itself. What are the connections between the highly local creative process of writing poems and a larger sense of the whole, of how one’s writing and a sense of one’s life line up?

If Whitman gives us one idea to work with — that the arc of the poetic corpus is towards consolidation, consensus, and compaction — I want to explore two other writers here, the Romantic poets J.W. Goethe and William Wordsworth. The point is not simply to find different types of careers, but also to understand how the patterns and groupings within a corpus work over time. To borrow Ted Underwood’s expression, not just how literary periods matter, but how periods within a person’s life matter, too.

The first example is the career of J.W. Goethe. Below you can see network graphs of his published poetry (I’ll return to the distinction about publication later). There is the full graph followed by his poetry broken down into the traditional three-part period scheme usually used to understand his career (early, middle, late). In addition, I’m including the measures used to calculate differences between the different period networks.

Goethe's published poems color-coded by genre.
Goethe’s published poems color-coded by genre.
Goethe’s Early Period. Notice the strong affiliation with the bright green nodes, which are “Lieder.” The large purple node (his poem on the opening of the Ilmenau mine) indicates the beginnings of what will be a new period and cluster.
Goethe’s middle or “classical” period. This period is dominated by the Roman Elegies and the Venetian epigrams. Notice the very strong grouping of the poetry from this period in the lower left.
Goethe’s late period. It is longer and larger than the others, but also marked by a much higher degree of generic heterogeneity (see the measures below). The oriential translations from the West-East Divan are the blue nodes in the lower left corner that mark a group unto themselves.


The two salient points that these graphs illustrate are the formal expansions of the late period – the generic entropy, the greater irregularity of distances between works, the increasing diameter – but also just how compact the so-called classical or middle period is. There is a tremendous formal consolidation that occurs during this phase of Goethe’s career that makes the late opening out all the more emphatic. The number of closed loops decrease by close to 30%, the variance of distances between works increases by 50%, the avg distance doubles, and the diameter is 2.5 times as wide. (It should be added that the avg. distance that matches the early period is very significant given the greater number of poems and thus the greater linguistic horizon that the late poems can connect with. The similarity of distance given the overall greater availability of language suggests a profound commitment to diversity.)

These points get even more interesting if we explore the periods as a longer horizon of time. What you see below is a graph of the distances in vocabulary between the poems for every connected pair of poems in the network. On one level, it reiterates the insight about that classical consolidation in the middle of Goethe’s career, the point at which we might say in more colloquial terms he has found his “voice.” (It’s the sag around poem 200.)


But actually, what seems most interesting to me about this graph are those spikes before the dips. In fact they often coincide with the *beginnings* of the different periods in Goethe’s life. If we plot it by differentiating between the three periods, we can see how each period is marked by an opening spike followed by a dip. In other words, one way to think about “periods” in a poet’s work are as moments of increased experimentation followed-by lexical consolidation. This might give us one way of thinking about what we mean by “period” — not as something internally coherent, but quite the opposite, as that which is marked by a distinct rise and fall of dissimilarity. The truly interesting insight here is the way it appears that towards the end of Goethe’s life he was working his way towards a new period as we see that distinct uptick of vocabulary change when he is in his late 70s. Faustian striving indeed.

The lexical difference between connected poems across Goethe's corpus, color-coded by period.
The lexical difference between connected poems across Goethe’s corpus, color-coded by period.


So what we have so far are two different examples of how poet’s imagined their careers – Whitman moving ever more in the direction of closure and compaction, Goethe moving in the direction of expansion, one spiraling out, the other in. Wordsworth will give us a third model to work with, but for that I’ll create a separate post.

Digging into Data Award

We learned that we have been awarded a Digging into Data Grant for our project, “Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks, 1050-1900.”

Our project will undertake the cross-cultural study of literary networks in a global context, ranging from post-classical Islamic philosophy to the European Enlightenment. Integrating new image-processing techniques with social network analysis, we examine how different cultural epochs are characterized by unique networks of intellectual exchange based on the visual data of texts.

We have assembled four teams from Canada, the U.S., and the Netherlands to undertake the cross-cultural study of literary networks across four separate database collections, which together comprise 1,194,000 page images: post-classical Islamic philosophy, Chinese Women’s Writing from the Ming-Qing Dynasties, the Anglo-Saxon Middle-Ages, and the European Enlightenment. Uniting each of these domains is the shared sense of being a culture in transition. Our central question is how are these different transitional periods and places characterized by networks of shared ideas?

Principal Investigators:

1. McGill University – Andrew Piper (

2. École de technologie supérieure (ETS) – Mohamed Cheriet (

3. Stanford University – Elaine Treharne (

4. University of Groningen – Lambert Schomaker (

The overall project will be led by Andrew Piper.

Digging into Data: Global Currents

Detail, Canterbury Psalter (1147)
Detail, Canterbury Psalter (1147)

What can you learn from the visual features of a page?

This is the question that lies at the centre of our digging into data project, the awards for which were announced yesterday.  A vast amount of our textual heritage has so far been resistant to large-scale data analysis, whether it is non-western scripts or early- or pre-print documents. These are works that don’t lend themselves well to current OCR technology and thus to the usual approaches of data and text mining.

Partnering with Mohamed Cheriet at the Synchromedia Lab at the École de technologie supérieure in Montreal and Lambert Schomaker of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Groningen University in the Netherlands, we will be applying new image-processing techniques to better understand the relations between pages at the visual level. Rather than OCR a text and  compare the relations between words, we want to know how it is that pages correlate with one another through their visual features. How much semantic information is contained in the visual dimensions of a page and what other kinds of information is encoded there — whether it be indeces of scribal communities or perhaps styles of ornamentation that marked different periods or cultures? Although we think of texts as things that we read, texts are first and foremost visual objects. Our goal is thus to account for new kinds of texts and new kinds of textual information that have so far been missing from the big data turn.

This is just the first step, however. Our second principal question is: knowing something about the visual relations between pages, can we create larger maps of connections between texts in corpuses of writing that represent different world cultures at different historical junctures? Can we understand the networks of literary exchange that existed and helped define these different cultural formations of the past? To this end, we are bringing together four different databases for our analysis that have been curated by researchers at McGill and Stanford: post-classical Islamic philosophy (Robert Wisnovsky), Chinese Women’s Writing from the Ming-Qing Dynasties (Grace Fong), the Anglo-Saxon Middle-Ages (Elaine Treharne), and the European Enlightenment (Andrew Piper/Mark Algee-Hewitt). These collections bring together writings from diverse spans of both time and space, from 1050, the beginnings of Islamic post-classical philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon high middle ages, to 1900, the onset of various global modernisms across China, the Middle East and Europe. Together they comprise 1,194,000 pages. Uniting each of these domains, we would suggest, is the shared sense of being a culture in transition. Our aim is thus as capacious as it is straightforward: how are these different transitional periods and places characterized by networks of shared ideas?

Partnering with Derek Ruths of the Network Dynamics Lab at McGill University, we will be asking some of the following questions regarding our different cultural collections:

  • what texts were most central to a particular epoch? what do such texts have in common with one another?
  • What texts play a mediating role between different communities of writing within a corpus? To make the bridge between different clusters of texts, what kinds of writing does one most often pass through?
  • How are these different cultures themselves comprised of different textual communities? Do we find that different periods or cultures are marked by different degrees of communities (many smaller communities versus fewer strong concentrations)?
  • How do ideas move across time? Are there strong correlations between works from similar time periods or do we find periods more defined by anachronism or recycling?

These are just some of the questions we hope to answer over the next two years. The value we think is the way this allows us to put into practice a model of comparative globalism, one that places major, often transnational regional cultures from diverse parts of the world in conversation with one another while at the same time preserving the uniqueness of their cultural differences. Our goal is not a flattening of the world into a single, unified cultural account, but the study of the communicative underpinnings that maintain these differences. The quantitative study of literary networks, we argue, allows for a renewed project of comparative inquiry, one that enables artifacts of a very different nature, whether of medium, script, language, or epoch, to be put into conversation with one another. This project would mark the first cross-cultural comparative study of literary networks of its kind.