Topic Modeling Thomas Osborne Davis

I intend for my final project to focus on Thomas Osborne Davis, an Irish nationalist who lived from 1814 to 1845 (he died a week after the potato blight that caused the infamous Famine was first reported). During Davis’ lifetime, his poetry and prose appeared in The Nation, a newspaper he cofounded in 1842. After his death, Charles Gavan Duffy—one of The Nation’s other founders—published Davis’ work in book form. All of Davis’ writing fiercely condemns British control of Ireland and celebrates aspects of Ireland’s pre-colonial culture such as mythology, language, and artwork, which the British had long attempted to eradicate. Davis argues that reclaiming Ireland’s traditional culture will empower the Irish people to end their colonization.

Despite Davis’ importance to subsequent Irish nationalists (for instance, the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising picked up his tactic of glorifying Ireland’s traditional culture), he is not at all well known in the U.S. My attraction to Davis’ writing stems from my interests in how national identities are created and sustained and in the history of Ireland’s colonization. To allow me to pursue my interest in Davis, Ted added two collections of Davis’ writing—The Poems of Thomas Davis (1846) and Literary and Historical Essays (1845)—to our corpus.

I was initially nervous about the idea of bringing digital tools to bear on Davis’ work. I worried that topic modeling would yield only obvious results, such as his frequent use of words like “Ireland,” “Irish,” and “national.” Indeed, both of the texts by Davis in our corpus rely heavily on Topic 69 (ireland irish county sir lord see king note catholic english scotland earl roman parish country said bishop england parliament castle year pope about kingdom died land century lands family per native priest crown fits afterwards royal reign dr church according ancient town property priests oath following queen held period north). This is the first topic listed for Literary and Historical Essays—completely unsurprising given that titles in this collection include “Ancient Ireland,” “Irish Antiquities,” and “Irish Scenery.” Topic 69’s relationship to The Poems of Thomas Davis, on the other hand, surprised me somewhat. I expected Topic 69 to be the most common topic in this collection, as well, because Davis’ anticolonial, nationalistic project informed all of his writing. Instead, Topic 69 is the third topic—still a prominent topic, to be sure, and still much more common in this text than in most other texts in our corpus, but not quite as dominating as I predicted.

So, which topics occur more often in Davis’ poems than Topic 69? Topics 91 and 137. In one sense, this result should not be shocking, since both of these topics are incredibly common in our corpus: Topic 91 is the eighth most common topic and Topic 137 the tenth most common. Both topics include plenty of characteristically poetic words. Topic 91 contains numerous references to facial features and emotions: thy love tis oh thee heart sweet song bright still yet eye fair thou may oft though joy while whose nor dear light smile brow vain hope hour maid thine hath how flowers home beauty gay notes page youth round loved can young tears day ye note grave breast away. The following visualization bears out the association between Topic 91 and poetry. The graph also demonstrates that this topic reached its peak usage in the first half of the nineteenth century, becoming significantly less common after about 1850. Davis, writing in the early 1840s, made use of this topic as it was declining in popularity.

The second most common topic in Davis’ poems, Topic 137, describes features of both nature and human beings (like sea night dark deep air light wind sky wild sun waves beneath round sound green earth voice shore clouds mountain pale land stood heard till bright moon eyes red death along waters wave heart cloud eye blue hear blood came rose storm around winds forth high fire dead white), indicating much use of the pathetic fallacy. As with Topic 91, the texts that most rely on Topic 137 are volumes of poetry. Another similarity between the two topics is that the visualizations show them both declining in the latter part of the nineteenth century (though Topic 137’s decline seems less dramatic than Topic 91’s). Again, Davis was using the words associated with Topic 137 as they were becoming less common.

Previously, I said that Davis’ reliance on Topics 91 and 137 is not surprising because of the commonness of these topics in nineteenth-century poetry generally. However, I believe that his use of these words is significant precisely because they are so common. As I mentioned earlier, Davis’ nationalistic rhetoric promotes the notion that Ireland’s pre-colonial culture is reclaimable; it also emphasizes the differences between British and traditional Irish culture. The prevalence of such common language in his poems suggests that colonization had effectively eliminated some of these cultural differences: topic modeling shows that Davis did not write characteristically Irish poetry (at least not at the level of word choice), as the authors most associated with Topics 91 and 137 are mostly English and American. Most likely, the similarities between Davis’ poetry and that of English and American writers stem from their use of a common language (English). Ironically, Davis dealt with the problem of the Irish using English in “Our National Language,” an essay published in 1843. In this essay, Davis writes that the Irish people cannot be truly decolonized until they cease using English, the language of their colonizers, and revive the long-outlawed Irish language.

Several of the other top topics for The Poems of Thomas Davis (Topics 143, 102, and 132, for example) are also very common in English poetry, further demonstrating the success of Britain’s cultural colonization of Ireland.

These are just a few of the interesting results I obtained by topic modeling Davis’ works. I don’t know how much significance these results hold for anyone besides me—and I’m not sure how interested any of the rest of you are in this area—but I have enjoyed looking at Davis’ writing in a new way.

–Rebecca McCloud

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