Intentions, Conventions, and Topics

I. “Sonnet Boom: A Thumbnail History”

My project for this course is to use topic-modeling to explore a collection of texts that literary historians associate with the “Elizabethan sonnet boom.” The history, in brief, is as follows: the sonnet form was imported from Italy to England during the reign of Henry VIII. Sir Robert Wyatt was one of the first practitioners of the form; he composed original sonnets, but most of his poetic work consists of “translations” (really, they’re more like what we would today call adaptations) of Petrarch.

When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, it became possible for poets to adapt the standard Petrarchan set-up (of a male poet-lover trying to woo a female love-object) for the purposes of flattering a female monarch and getting patronage. This and other historical circumstances led to a huge explosion in the production of sonnets during and just after Elizabeth’s reign. And while there were plenty of one-off sonnets produced in the period later collected into poetic miscellanies, a large percentage of the sonnet output took the Petrarchan form of the sonnet sequence.

The sonnet fad extended well into the reign of James I, Elizabeth’s successor, but it had largely died out by the 1620s-30s

II. “Intentions, Conventions, and Topics”
Sonnet sequences are hyper-artificial, and they consciously engage with a pre-existing set of conventions. Part of what sonnet writers hope to do is to make a verbal object that has been highly labor-intensive while seeming to be dashed-off in a moment of passion or inspiration – an ideal familiar to Renaissance scholars as ‘sprezzatura.’ Sonnet-writers aim at total rhetorical control: think of it as proto-Nabokovian.

They’re also highly conscious of the conventions of their genre. Petrarch laid the foundations, and sonnet sequences as a corpus are conspicuous for the way they really work closely on and elaborate a rather limited set of tropes, techniques, and themes.

In a way, these two facts—that sonnets are highly-intentional verbal objects, and that they consciously rely on a set of stock tropes—might be seen as a very good reason not to perform topic modeling on sonnet sequences as a corpus. If topic-modeling locates and defines “discourses,” and if the discourses subtending the sonnet tradition are really, really well known (not only because they have been studied endlessly, but because they have a common root in an identifiable set of master-texts), then it might be that the results of this project are, well, boring. That is, I have no doubt that I’ll turn up some topics or discourses that are recognizably Petrarchan, and some that are the result of the extreme artificiality of sonnet-language.

III. “Three Potential Payoffs”

So what, then, might be the payoff of such a project?

I hope to find, over and above some things that a recognizable, a few topics that are more surprising: non-Petrarchan in origin and not necessarily tied up with the intense rhetorical control endemic to the sonnet form. I think this would be an interesting result in two ways: first, it might tell us something we didn’t yet know about the corpus; second, it might help to clarify some things about topic modeling as a technique.

The first claim is pretty obvious, and it’s one of the big benefits of topic modeling: we become aware of topics that exceed authorial intent and that go beyond standard and well-worn tropes. The second claim is less obvious, and more speculative, and deals with the question: what is a topic, anyway? Hopefully, because I’m dealing with a corpus that’s maximally intentional and conventional, the lines between topics, stock-tropes, and intentional grammatical forms will be “harder,” and less fuzzy.

Finally, and most speculatively, I hope that since my corpus is actually rather small, that I might be able to do some work in thinking about the change of topics over time. When James comes to the throne, is there a shift in topics? That is, does the discourse subtending sonnets change with the gender of the monarch? How about well-known political events: the Spanish Armada (1588) say, or the late-Elizabethan succession crisis? Will these register in terms measurable by topic modeling?

Until the results come in, it’s hard to float guesses. Hopefully, though, this will help to explain the rationale of my project.

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