Collaborative Reading: Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Ben Burton’s “Encoding form: A proposed database of poetic form”


Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Ben Burton’s recent paper,“Encoding form: A proposed database of poetic form”, for APPOSITIONS:
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture
‘s recent E-Conference: February-March, 2010, is suggestive of how new digital resources can be developed to augment the capabilities of existing tools such as EEBO and EECO. Responding many years later to Heather Dubrow’s 1979 call for “new methodology in early modern studies,” Scott-Baumann and Burton are constructing a database devoted to poetic form. Their project will afford a means of studying, historically and formally, poetic form by enabling queries about poetic form and generic transformations that resemble those we can now pose about words, thanks to electronic databases such as EEBO and EECO:

  • What is the origin (or origins) of a given form?
  • How does its structure, use, and meaning change over time?
  • Are there variations in use and meaning in different regions, or among different groups?
  • How does a given form relate to others, and how does this relationship change over time?
  • Concentrating on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry, Scott-Baumann and Burton will use existing EEBO-TCP texts and enhance them with additional mark-up that builds upon Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) tags. As those familiar with TEI documentation will recall, its tags include ones designed for encoding verse: “stanza divisions, caesurae, enjambment, rhyme scheme, and metrical information, as well as a special purpose rhyme element to support the simple analysis of rhyming words.” Because encoding capabilities extend beyond merely marking general formal conventions and can also entail encoding that represent interpretive judgments, Scott-Baumann and Burton will experiment with both possibilities. The inevitably time-consuming nature of their task will probably result in building the databases in stages.

    As for publication plans for the database, its creators “aim to negotiate with EEBO and Chadwyck-Healey to find a form of publication which both respects intellectual property and commercial interests, while also making this rich new material accessible to the widest possible audience.” Scott-Baumann and Burton have clearly thought hard about issues of access and how to maximize this database’s availability for users. They present four different possible options, formulated with an eye to those lacking access to EEBO. As they note though, much will depend on what arrangements they are able to make with EEBO/Chadwyck-Healey.

    Noting that their database, once built, could be expanded beyond its present focus on the 1500s and 1600s to cover all periods of poetry, they then devote a section of their paper to its potential scholarly and pedagogical uses. Most obvious perhaps is the usefulness this planned tool could have on advancing work in historical formalism, an emerging approach that revisits “poetic form as historically specific, historically determined, and historically efficacious.” The ability to conduct specific searches across a significant number of poetic texts enables the quick capture of evidence to support or disprove what are currently only hypothetical propositions based on a small textual sample. Rightly claiming that this database “would change the way in which scholarship on poetic form is conducted, Scott-Baumann and Burton detail a wealth of possible questions and issues it could serve. This section also offers a range of pedagogical uses for this tool and addresses a range of audiences from the undergraduate to the secondary student.

    Before a brief conclusion, the paper then turns to discussing the two-stage pilot project for the database:

    1. A small database containing information on the metrical structures and rhyme schemes of all verse in the first edition of 10 texts published between 1590 and 1599. 2. A larger database containing information on the metrical structures and rhyme schemes of all verse in first editions of texts published during this period.

    Scott-Baumann and Burton’s database plans present another way of thinking about EEBO and how to augment its value. That they have proposed to build their database using EEBO-TCP seems essentially a wise plan, notwithstanding unsettled questions about access.* For one, linking one’s project to an already well-established resource should ensure its visibility. Too often very worthy projects are launched but remain unknown to many who would benefit from them. In addition, such a tie-in helps ensure continuity among resources. This augmentation of EEBO’s capabilities and the efforts to provide continuity are similar to what NINES and 18thConnect are offering later periods.

    *One of the access options does offer “[o]pen access to database and texts but not with mark up. …if we are not able to make the XML-encoded texts freely available, we would display the texts in their entirety [as users request them], but with the encoding invisible. … and display the verse with, for example, its stresses marked with accents, or its rhyme scheme colour-coded, rather than with visible tags.”


    Tags: , , , , ,

    8 Responses to “Collaborative Reading: Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Ben Burton’s “Encoding form: A proposed database of poetic form””

    1. Anna Battigelli Says:

      This is an ambitious project. It shares similarities with other projects that view digitized resources as augmenting historical formalism. We have discussed some of these projects on this blog.

      I like the project and would love to hear more about it. But it also raises questions. One question is whether prosody isn’t an art rather than a science. One reader’s metrical analysis may differ, sometimes significantly, from that of another reader. When metrical analysis yields options, will more than one set of scanning marks be displayed simultaneously?

      Another question pertains to the use of first editions. Particularly with regard to prosody, might significant revisions appear in subsequent editions? Furthermore, as Sayre has revealed on a separate thread on this blog, these databases are not stable, and search results are not always replicable. This stubborn fact needs to be taken into account in any project involving searching.

      The problem of access remains a genuine problem.

      Finally, it would seem important to preserve clean tcp transcriptions devoid of metrical marks for those interested in a working draft they can scan for themselves.

      It would be great to hear more about this promising project as it develops.


    2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:


      Your point about “art vs. science” is extremely important and carries significance beyond this projet. One of the lessons I gained from attending the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities was the ways in which coding texts often entailed significant intellectual, interpretive work and should not be assigned to someone without scholarly expertise in the field.

      The proposers of this project clearly understand this point. As they acknowledge,

      ‘[t]here is…a general question as to whether text markup for scholarly interchange should be limited to broad formal conventions (e.g. meter, rhyme, stanzaic forms), or whether individual characteristics of verse texts may also be included (a step which often represents the foundation of a stylistic interpretation).’[6] What is more, since prosodic analysis necessarily entails an element of critical judgement, any encoder will need to formulate clear principles for marking up verse. For example, can we always distinguish between formal conventions and individual characteristics of verse texts? How should we indicate that the pattern indicated by the mark up is not the only possible pattern for the verse text under consideration? ([6] See David Chisholm and David Robey, ‘Encoding Verse Texts’ Computers and the Humanities 29 (1995) 99-111 [108-109].)

      The pilot stages will experiment with different was to handle these issues. Scott-Baumann and Burton also note, “For rhyme and metrical analysis, the [TEI P-5’s] module for verse includes attributes which allow users to specify encoding for the conventional metrical structure of the element, as well as for the actual realization of the conventional metrical structure applicable to a given element of a text.” Users of the database could of course access the TEI header information to view the coding, and information would set forth the particular principles and methods used.


    3. Anna Battigelli Says:

      It will be interesting to see how what the two pilot stages reveal.


    4. Elizabeth Scott-Baumann Says:

      We’re delighted to read these thoughtful and insightful responses to our paper for Appositions on an Electronic Database of Poetic Form. The points about both the subjectivity of encoding metrical information and the challenges of durability and access have provoked (and excited!) us as we plan the database, and I hope to be able to keep you both informed as we progress further.
      Many thanks, and very best


    5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:


      We are pleased our postings have been helpful to your project, and we look forward to hearing more about it as you progress with its plans. As our posting no doubt indicated, your Electronic Database of Poetic Form is an exciting initiative, one that should prove quite valuable. We also realize that it is a large undertaking and will necessarily take some time to develop. Yet, we would welcome hearing about even the small steps taken as you move forward.



    6. escottbaumann Says:

      For information on a conference connected to this project,
      Renaissance Poetic Form: New Directions, taking place in Oxford 5-7 July 2012, see


      • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

        Many thanks for letting us know about this conference. Such gatherings to discuss and showcase new databases and electronic tools such as yours are much needed.


    7. Generative Metrics and Distant Reading « ereadingromanticism Says:

      […] meter, but it is tempting to imagine how computer-aided scansion could greatly increase the reach of projects that aim to database poetry based on elements of poetic form. Google’s recent work in trying to get computers to translate poetry from one language to […]


    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: