Currents: An E-Journal Herbert in Hypertext:  
Using a Computer for Literary Analysis 
by Laura Kramarsky 
The University of Texas at Austin 

 Currents in Electronic Literacy Fall 1999 (2), <> 

  1. Much of the recent discussion about the uses of computers in education has revolved around the changes technology can make in composition and the ways it can facilitate discussions in literature classrooms. Relatively little attention, however, has been directed toward the prerequisite for stimulating classroom discussions: research. Practically speaking, we need to explore theories ourselves before we can teach them. Can we use computers to analyze literature in ways for which more traditional means will not suffice? 
  2. I would answer with an unequivocal "sometimes." 
  3. In some instances, working on a computer can be very similar to working without one: taking notes in a word processing program mirrors taking them on notecards, for example. While there are differences between composing notes on a word processor and on cards, writing down thoughts and organizing them are processes familiar to us from traditional research methods. Indeed, many of the programs designed especially for research seem to have been designed with the belief that the computer is a tool that increases efficiency without substantially altering output. There are times, however, a question would be impossible to answer, a theory impossible to prove, a concept impossible to flesh out without digital assistance (or enough note cards to decimate a small forest, a stadium-sized floor to arrange them on, and a visual memory as complex as a medieval monk's). 
  4. George Herbert's The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations poses just such an analytic problem. Herbert's work stands out among that of 17th century poets for several reasons, not the least of which is the very fact that he intended it for publication as a book. Instead of publishing his poems individually or passing them around among friends in small collections as did most of his contemporaries, he gathered them into a manuscript in a specific order with directions to publish them only after his death and only if they might prove beneficial to "any dejected poor soul." He also titled both the collection and each individual poem, a striking contrast to most of the other poets of his era. 
  5. The fact that Herbert chose to leave all the poems of The Temple in a single manuscript begs the question of how the individual texts relate to one another. To date, most of the research on this subject has searched for an architectural structure to the work that might mirror its name, using each small poem as a building block or architectural space. While these theories have proven productive, parts of Herbert's work defy such a linear interpretation. His ideas often move from node to node in recursive loops and cycles rather than lines. 
  6. Because Herbert titled each poem, most often with single nouns, critics have compared The Temple to a commonplace book or psalter, considering the titles as a type of index to the work. This certainly seems to be part of what Herbert was about. Of the 162 poems that form "the Church" at the center of The Temple, 150 of them are titled by nouns, just the kind of word psalters and commonplace books would use. The additional advantage to nouns, however, is that they allow a reader to follow the nodes through web of ideas Herbert forms. 
  7. My own theory on Herbert's work, the idea that the titles of the individual poems echo in specific ways through the other poems, required an approach--the analysis of all the poems together in light of criteria that might apply to all or only a selection--which would have been impractical, perhaps impossible, before we had the ability to see all 164 poems at once and to visualize the links that might appear between them. A brief glance at how my own experiment looks on a computer will illustrate why such an approach poses problems without digital assistance. 



    [this is a selection.  To view picture with the 162 poems that form the Church, click here.]

  9. I did my analysis of Herbert's book using StorySpace , a program from Eastgate Systems . In the image above, each box is an individual poem, each black line is a link between the poems. StorySpace has a search function so I did not have to read through each poem looking for the words I was analyzing; I simply pasted each poem into a text box (from the LION database , available to many educational institutions) and then used the search to tell me which poems included the words I was analyzing. I used a standard concordance to check my results. 
  10. The result of attempting to analyze The Temple electronically, as you can see, was something of a mess. StorySpace, however, is first and foremost a hypertext program--once you have completed the linking process, you can export the incredibly messy picture to HTML, where the connections become clearer. In hypertext, the poem "The Altar" has two internal links (that is, the words "sacrifice" and "peace" within the poem link it to poems by those titles) and one title link (that is, only one other poem--"[Love] II" contains the word "altar").   [For a closer look at "The Altar" and "[Love] II" in Storyspace, click here and here. ]. 
  11. The Altar 
    (by Herbert, George)
    [Love] II 
    (by Herbert, George)
    1 A broken Altar, Lord, thy servant rears, 
    2 Made of a heart, and cemented with tears, 
    3 Whose parts are as thy hand did frame; 
    4 No workmans tool hath touch'd the same. 
    5 A Heart alone 
    6 Is such a stone, 
    7 As nothing but 
    8 Thy pow'r doth cut. 
    9 Wherefore each part 
    10 Of my hard heart 
    11 Meets in this frame, 
    12 To praise thy name. 
    13 That if I chance to hold my peace
    14 These stones to praise thee may not cease. 
    15 O let thy blessed Sacrifice be mine 
    16 And sanctifie this Altar to be thine. 

    The Altar : 2 references 
    [Love] II

    1 Immortall Heat, O let thy greater flame 
    2 Attract the lesser to it: let those fires, 
    3 Which shall consume the Altar lay, 
    8 And there in hymnes send back thy fire again: 
    9 Our eies shall see thee, which before saw dust; 
    10 Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blinde, 
    11 Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde, 
    12 Who wert disseized by usurping lust: 
    13 All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise, 
    14 And praise him who did make and mend our eies. 

    [love references listed under Love I

    These two poems are samples. The links within them lead out to the pages within the larger Temple project.
    The project itself is still under construction, but the table of title word counts with links to the poems can be found at

  12. This type of analysis leads to more questions than answers, as is to be expected from any new theoretical approach. The fact that the word "altar" appears only in one other poem would seem, at first, to deny its importance (in direct opposition to architectural analysis which would claim for an altar the central spot in any temple). However, the word "altar" appears three times (if you don't count titles, as I did not in my study) and three is a number vital to Herbert's theology. For my own work, I am concentrating for the moment on the title words that appear most often The Temple: "Man", "Sinne", "Love", "Life" and "Death." It will come as no surprise to Herbert scholars that the most common words contain pairs of binary opposites; the conflicts Herbert felt within his own theology are well documented both in his own poems and in the critical literature. These oppositions are probably the root of sense one has, reading Herbert, that there is something other than a linear progression of ideas underlying his work.
  13. I haven't figured out exactly what the recurrences of title words mean yet, but at least I have hope that someday I will be able to work through the web of connections that provides the foundation for Herbert's Temple. While such an approach would not be productive for many seventeenth century poets, the nature of Herbert's work means that hypertext, and its implementation in StorySpace, can reveal new connections and themes in his much-analyzed Temple.
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