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Hodgkins Brings 17th-Century Poet into Digital Age

080410EyeOnArts_DigitalAgeThe word “digital” hadn’t been coined when Welsh-born poet and Anglican priest George Herbert was writing.

But now, thanks to Dr. Christopher Hodgkins (English), Herbert, who lived from 1593-1633, is going digital.

Hodgkins has won a two-year, $250,000 Digital Humanities Scholarly Editions Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). His mission: to create an authoritative edition of Herbert, and to make manuscript and early print versions of his poetry available in digital form.

Hodgkins shares the grant with Dr. Robert Whalen of Northern Michigan University. Together they will produce a full scholarly edition that is entirely “born-digital,” meaning that it will be created, produced, and published only in digital form, through the Rotunda portal of the University of Virginia Press. The edition will include ultra-high-resolution, digitized copies of the two surviving manuscripts of Herbert’s masterpiece, “The Temple,” and of the first print edition of 1633.

Herbert’s “Temple,” ranks with Shakespeare’s “Sonnets,” Ben Jonson’s “Works,” and Donne’s “Poems” among the most important of early modern poetic publications, Hodgkins says. In lyric poems like “Redemption,” “The Collar,” and “Love,” Herbert explores the power and limits of poetic art, sometimes – as in “The Altar” and “Easter-Wings” – actually building with words the shapes named in the titles. The digital imaging of these “picture poems,” both in the manuscripts and in the first edition, will shed new light on the process of Herbert’s original composition versus editors’ and printers’ changes to the text.

The digital elements of the Herbert edition will enable readers and researchers to delve into such issues as editorial creativity and bias; textual variation and instability; the rise, fall, and revival of literary reputations; and the relations between reading and religion, politics, and poetic fashion from one generation to the next.

The most exciting features of this digital edition, says Hodgkins, are its instant worldwide availability and its almost infinite searchability, due to its rich encoding in state-of-the-art TEI-XML. The two manuscripts and the first print edition will be accessible to any subscriber anywhere, and will be interlinked word by word and line by line, with additional links to Whalen’s and Hodgkins’s textual and interpretive notes. In receiving this deluxe digital treatment, Herbert will join company with only a few other English-language poets, among them Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson and Whitman.

As exciting as these trend-setting digital projects are, Hodgkins stresses that the medium is not the message, that these digital resources are no replacement for deep thoughtful reading in a bound book, or for treasured manuscript and book archives themselves. Such archives include UNCG’s Walter Clinton Jackson Library, which houses one of the world’s largest Herbert collections, Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

“Digitized manuscripts and e-books are unbeatable for disseminating texts in wonderfully searchable form,” says Hodgkins, “though for preservation they never can nor should replace our paper archives. The vagaries of software and hardware being what they are, nothing keeps texts better than acid-free paper in a dry room. Except maybe 4,500-year-old cuneiform tablets.”

Visual: Original manuscript of Herbert’s ‘The Altar.’