The Digital Temple: Telescope for George Herbert’s “Book of Starres”
When Robert Whalen of Northern Michigan University began to explore how he might apply emerging digital technology to the English poetry of Metaphysical master George Herbert (1593-1633), he thought with youthful optimism that such a project might take, oh, a year or two. After all, the complete printed works of Herbert fit into only one volume. How long could it take to transcribe, encode, and annotate the lyric poems of The Temple (1633)? Thirteen years later, he knows. The Digital Temple, more than a decade in the making, is now available from University of Virginia Press/Rotunda, America’s leading academic digital publisher, where it keeps company with the digital papers of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and is being hailed by advance reviewers as the state of the art in digital editions.
With his co-editor, UNCG’s Christopher Hodgkins, who joined the project in 2008, Whalen shared a 2010-11 NEH Digital Humanities Grant to finish building a born-digital documentary edition which makes instantly available not only exact transcriptions of the earliest known textual witnesses of The Temple, but also densely detailed digital captures of these three oldest witnesses: the Williams Manuscript of 1628, the Bodleian Manuscript of 1633, and the first printed edition of 1633. Herbert’s Temple has been compared to a “book of starres,” and the amazingly interactive search capacities of this electronic engine—which in digital parlance is called “the Versioning Machine”—include literally telescoping powers of textual magnification. These powers bring into startling focus many of Herbert’s configurations that have previously been little noticed, and allow us to see his storied constellations in deep and brilliant new ways.
What took so long? The digital capture was the least of it—expert technicians at the British, Bodleian, and Folger Shakespeare Libraries with their cutting- edge equipment made relatively quick work of producing the beautifully high-density page-for-page facsimiles. These are so fully “pixelated” that one can zoom in to analyze watermarks and count inkspots, flyspecks, or binding stitches—if one fancies such details. No, the real labor turned out to be in the encoding—that is, embedding the transcribed texts of the poems in intricate TEI-XML code language that enables a dazzling range of searches about both style and substance, from rhyme and meter to spelling and word choice. This powerful search engine will discover as-yet-unknown patterns. Above all, the instant parallel display of the three witnesses—with richly-encoded transcriptions, expert explanatory notes and high-resolution images—discovers in ways not possible with any print edition how the creation and experience of poems is a living process, not merely a static final product.
Come join Professors Whalen and Hodgkins at the March 6th, 4 pm book launch event in the Hodges Reading Room where they’ll demonstrate many of these features and discuss the practice and the power of digital editing. Their next project: The Digital Works of George Herbert, which will capture the manuscripts and first editions of every other Herbert book—most of which will come from UNCG’s own world-class Herbert archive in the Amy Charles Collection!
Post content provided by Dr. Chris Hodgkins of the English Department.