Wordle and Paradise Lost

A few days ago, I created a Wordle of my dissertation. I’ve done this before for individual chapters, but I think this is the first time I’ve put the whole thing together. It seems to reflect the things I think are most important in my dissertation, which is good, but it’s weird that Wordle was able to intuit that a black letter font might be appropriate here! (Seriously, it was not my choice, but I thought it appropriate, so I left it.)

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I’ve almost always used wordle in order to analyze my own writing, though usually in smaller chunks.  I have a tendency, especially when writing very quickly, to overuse certain words. There’s no consistency to which words I overuse.  One of my advisors has noted a different such word in each of my chapters, usually in just a few paragraphs that I didn’t revise enough before sending it to her. Wordle helps me see these words because I often can’t otherwise.

But today I started thinking about using it with literary texts. I’d seen a post on ProfHacker a few months ago about using Wordle as a tool to help teach students different forms of literary analysis, and recently the Early Modern Online Bibliography blog posted reviews of a whole slew of other digital teaching and research tools, including one from Wine Dark Sea called LATtice that can be used to visualize linguistic variation.

One of LATtice’s data sets is for Paradise Lost, and while I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the results from that sort of visualization, I thought I would see what would happen if I ran each book of Paradise Lost through Wordle.  The results are really cool, and not just because it means I have pretty pictures of my favorite poem now:

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The first thing that popped out for me is how prominent Heaven is over either Earth or Hell. The second thing is how much Milton uses of “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” in every book. The third is how important “thus” is to Milton. These are things I haven’t consciously noted before, and I don’t know why they are important yet, but I expect I’ll bring an awareness of them to the next time I read the poem, and the next time I teach it. I’m looking forward to seeing what my students might do with this sort of tool as well.

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3 comments on “Wordle and Paradise Lost

  1. stevil2001 says:

    Are “thou,” “thee,” “thy,” and “thus” really any more common than “you,” “yours,” and “then” would be in modern writing? Wordle excludes common words, but probably not historical ones.

    • Sapience says:

      There are two reasons I thought it was interesting. First, it was in the 17th century that “thou” etc. went out of common usage. The exceptions were in Bible translations and among the Quakers (both of those things have relevance for interpreting what Milton is doing). Second, I was mostly surprised by exactly how much conversation and/or direct address is implied by these terms. I think Milton tends to be a dialogic sort of author, and I think that is at least partly born out by how much he has his characters in conversation with one another (despite the fact that their conversation is usually in the form of long speeches…).

    • Sapience says:

      and “thus” I think is very different from “then,” because one implies causality while the other simply sequence.

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