The Augmented Criticism Lab’s Sonnet Database

This is the text of a short paper I delivered at the Digital Humanities 2019 conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands on 12 July 2019. The Augmented Criticism Lab’s Sonnet Database is in beta release.

To keep to my 10 minutes, I’ll be as focused as possible. My aim is to raise a research question, and then to describe my methods for answering it.

My question is:

Is the sonnet a form or a genre?

My method for answering it is:

A database of sonnets for text-analysis.

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Iter at 20: A Look Forward

This is the text of my paper delivered at a New Technologies in Renaissance Studies panel at the 2019 Renaissance Society of America meeting in Toronto.


Despite my title, I am not a futurist. I am a born optimist who looks forward to many things, but more in the aspirational more than the predictive sense. As the great Wayne Gretzky used to say, I try to skate where the puck is going, rather than where it is.

So in this paper I’ll take a brief look backward at Iter’s history, and its organization of information that becomes knowledge that becomes wisdom about history. Then I’ll look forward to its future in the conjoined realms of discovery and dissemination, and in the realm of collaborative “spaces for possibility and play,” in Liz Grumbach’s words this morning.

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John Donne and the Sonnet Problem

What makes a sonnet? For most early modern examples, the answer is clear: a 14-line rhyming poem, its form either Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet) or Petrarchan (an octave and a sestet). There are exceptions to those formal rules, but most sonnets meet them.

Formal rules are the conventional answer. And that answer works for conventional sonnets, which are the vast majority of sonnets.

But if you enforce formal rules too rigorously, you encounter a few interesting problems. These are the problems that my project is investigating. Moments’ Monuments: The ACL Database is collecting as many sonnets as possible, so I can get a more definitive answer to this question: Is the sonnet a form or a genre? The trouble is, you need to decide first what qualifies as a sonnet.

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NLP for Literary Critics: An Introduction and Tutorial

Preface: Knowledge and Information

Shall I compare thee, human, to a machine? Thou art more critical and more intemperate (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).

But seriously: how do human readers compare to machines? I ask because I want to define how literary critics can use machines to augment and extend our readings. Figuring that out depends on an understanding of how our readings compare to the machine’s abilities. Sure, they’re faster: but faster at what, exactly?
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Get with the Programming

(This continues my previous post on this research project, about my questions and initial steps.)

This week I’m away to the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference to deliver a paper on rhetorical figures in early modern drama. (Wait! Don’t stop reading, it gets better.) I feel like a legit digital humanist for the first time in my life, because I’ve written my own computer program to analyze texts – a bash script in Unix that you can try for yourself on Github.

Okay, so my program just prepares my text files to run a far more complex program by Marie Dubremetz at Uppsala University (chiasmusDetector), but getting it to run on my files took some work.

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