Document Type



This essay topic models Shakespeare’s Sonnets as an act of computational deformance in order to propose that word clouds are poems. The Sonnets have never been topic modeled: while there are legitimate mathematical objections to doing so, yet there are good reasons to bring together a highly useful tool and a canonical text, both to learn what the tool can offer and because close reading the products of distant reading demonstrates the socially-embedded nature of critical process. As an author steeped in the humanist educational system of late sixteenth-century England, Shakespeare relies on the forms of his poetry to perform communicative functions; and in fact, early modern conceptions of shaped language help us understand word clouds. What unites humanist poems and digital humanities word clouds is an abiding concern with form, and particularly form as endowed with social meaning. Taken together, theories of early modern poetic form and modern digital humanities topic modeling practices emphasize that digital humanities products are not transparent keys to the text: they are generative, and are best when read like poems, a shaped remediation of language. As generative products, they further illuminate the constructed nature of the processes behind both computational and traditional literary criticism.