Intertextual connections in An Collins’s Divine Songs and Meditacions: poetry versus prose

Intertextual connections in An Collins’s Divine Songs and Meditacions: poetry versus prose

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Jenna Townend, Ph.D. Candidate in English, Drama, and Publishing, Loughborough University

My collaborative work with the Intertextual Networks project takes the form of an investigation into how quantitative network analysis can help us map intertextual practices and influences in the poetry of the seventeenth-century writer, An Collins. Her collection of devotional poems, Divine Songs and Meditacions (1653), is the only source of information we have on Collins and her life. Though it is apparent from the poems that Collins suffered from a chronic illness which had affected her since childhood, discerning other influences on Collins’s writing – such as her particular religious beliefs, her reading habits, and how she made use of what she read – is not an easy task. Nevertheless, previous work by Helen Wilcox and Mary Morrissey has established that there are intertextual connections to be found, and it is from these studies that this project takes its departure.

The poems of Collins’s Divine Songs and Meditacions communicate her desire for union with God through her journey from melancholy to grace, and her experiences of spiritual and physical affliction. Divine Songs and Meditacions show that her creative and devotional thinking were influenced by the poetical devices and structural elements of poets such as George Herbert, as well as the prose texts of popular puritan theologians like William Perkins. My project examines and maps in close detail what Collins took from her textual sources, and considers how she used these sources in the context of her desire to achieve union with God. This blog post will consider how I have identified a good number of intertextual connections using a piece of text comparison software called WCopyfind, and will discuss the issue that is now of greatest significance as, in the second stage of the project, I begin to translate these data concerning intertextual connections into a format to which network analysis can be applied.

Inevitably, before the methods of network analysis structure can be used, much recovery work is required to uncover and categorize the intertextual elements of Collins’s text, and this requires the examination of each of the works that Collins may have been influenced by. Taking cues from the work of Wilcox and Morrissey, I began by examining George Herbert’s The Temple (1633), Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (1650), and William Perkins’s The Foundations of the Christian Religion (1590). This corpus has now been expanded to include other popular poetic works and theological texts, of which Faithful Teate’s Ter Tria (1650) and Richard Baxter’s The Saints Everlasting Rest (1650) are just two examples. Making close comparisons between multiple texts which span the genres of prose and poetry is an exceptionally time-consuming task, but it has been made significantly easier by a piece of software called WCopyfind. WCopyfind is an open-source program that compares documents and highlights similarities between their words and phrases. The software was originally developed to detect plagiarism in student essays, but it is also an invaluable resource for anyone working on similarities or differences between texts.

The interface of WCopyfind is extremely user-friendly, and enables the user to choose to ignore features such as punctuation or letter case: something that is invaluable when it comes to analysing early-modern texts with non-standardized spelling and syntax. Using the EEBO full-text files of each of the texts in the project’s corpus (remembering to remove extraneous metadata and hyperlinks such as ‘View Document Image 9’), it is possible to run comparisons between the phrasing of texts. Users can select various parameters such as the shortest phrase to include (for example, telling WCopyfind that you want it to find shared phrases of no fewer than four words), whether or not to include punctuation, and, perhaps most significantly, a minimum percentage of matching words (setting this value to 80%, for instance, allows WCopyfind to find matches despite minor discrepancies in spelling). Once the comparison has been run, the two texts and their similarities can be viewed in parallel windows, with correspondences shown in red:

Figure 1. Side-by-side comparison in WCopyfind between Collins’s Divine Songs and Perkins’s The Foundation.
Figure 2. Side-by-side comparison in WCopyfind of Collins’s Divine Songs and Perkins’s The Foundation, showing similarities between their comments on faith.

It is worth noting, however, that if such tools are used only for the purposes of noting down statistics relating to the degree of similarity between Collins’s work and that of a probable source, then they become something of a blunt object. As another collaborator on the Intertextual Networks project, Amanda Henrichs, has noted in her own work, doing so often leads to ‘gaining old insights more quickly, rather than coming to new conclusions’. What I would like to do, therefore, is to examine some of the results I have obtained by using WCopyfind, and suggest the direction that this project will take as it begins to experiment with using network analysis to map intertextual influence.

Running comparisons in WCopyfind between Collins’s Divine Songs and Herbert’s The Temple, and then between Collins’s work and Perkins’s The Foundation of the Christian Religion produced some surprising results which have altered the trajectory of this project. When it comes to similarities in phrasing, there are roughly twice as many correspondences between Collins’s poems and Perkins’s work than with Herbert’s verses, despite the fact that The Temple is more than twice as long as The Foundation. Repeating this comparison with other poetic texts that Collins may have been influenced by, such as Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans or Teate’s Ter Tria, produces a similar result. This unexpected outcome has caused me to widen the net of my project. After all, it calls into question any assumption that poets are always most influenced by other poets when it comes to the content of their verse. The fundamental question raised by these results thus concerns the difference between a poet drawing on, or being influenced by, a prose text and a poetic work. What was it about Perkins’s text that Collins found so well-aligned with her own devotional and creative thinking, and what, in turn, did she take from her poetic sources like Herbert? Whatever it was that Collins found appealing in her poetic sources, it does not appear to have been their doctrinal content or phrasing, and we must therefore pay close attention to Collins’s borrowing of verse forms, metaphors, and images from contemporary poets.

A brief example of the complexity of this issue can be found in the opening verse of Collins’s work, ‘The Discourse’. The one-hundred-and-three stanzas of Collins’s lyric are written in a similar style to the seventy-seven stanzas of Herbert’s own introductory poem, ‘The Church-porch’, and sets out many of the devotional ideas and topics that are also explored later in the volume. Collins uses an adapted version of the verse form of Herbert’s ‘The Church-porch’, rhyming her lyric ABABBCC, rather than ABABCC. We also learn personal details, such as the fact that Collins ‘spent my infantcy, | And part of freshest yeares, as hath been sayd | Partaking then of nothing cheerfully’ (ll. 85-87), and of her desire that ‘Next unto God, my selfe I sought to know’ (l. 246). However, in terms of the number of shared phrases, ‘The Discourse’ possesses a greater debt to Perkins’s The Foundation than any other poem in Collins’s text when it comes to doctrinal content. Perkins’s text, which takes the form of a catechism, was an extremely popular text among English puritans, and it was organized around six devotional topics of God: man’s sinfulness, imputation, saving faith, obtaining faith, and death (Morrissey, p. 469). As an illustrative example of the parity between Collins’s lyric and Perkins’s catechism, it is worth comparing Collins’s comments on faith in stanza seventy-nine of ‘The Discourse’ with a passage from Perkins’s catechism (see also Figure 2 for a side-by-side comparison of these sections in WCopyfind):

That such a man hath Faith it doth appeare
For these desires doe plainly testifie,
He hath the Spirit of his Saviour dear,
For tis his speciall work or property,
To stir up longings after purity:
Now where his Spirit is there Christ resides,
And where Christ dwels is true Faith though weak abides. (ll. 550-56)

Q. How doo you know that such a man hath faith?

A. These desires and prayers are testimonie of the spirit, whose propertie it is to stirre up a longing and a lusting after heavenly things, with sighes and groanes for Gods favour and mercie in Christ. Nowe where the spirit of Christ is, there is Christ dwelling: and where Christ dwelleth, there is true fayth how weake soever it be. (sigs. B5r-B6v)

The parallels in phrasing here are obvious. Following Perkins’s indication that a man’s ‘desires and prayers are testimonie of the spirit’ and that they ‘stirre up a longing and a lusting after heavenly things’, Collins similarly states her belief that faith’s ‘desires doe plainly testifie, | He hath the Spirit of his Saviour’ (ll. 551-52) and in turn ‘stir up longings after purity’ (l. 554). However, given that Collins transposes much of the content of Perkins’s prose catechism into a verse form adapted from Herbert, considering the confluence of both prose and poetic influences is evidently vital to understanding Collins’s lyrics and how she made use of her devotional reading. My current hypothesis is that Collins takes elements of the content and theology of her poems from writers like Perkins, while adapting features of the form, style, and theme from her poetic texts in order to give shape and order to these doctrinal elements. This hypothesis will be tested as the project now moves, in its second stage, to modelling data concerning these intertextual correspondences using network analysis.

Inevitably, using a methodology that is traditionally used to focus on tracing social relationships or connections between members of a network will require some sensitive reworking if it is going to productively examine questions of literary influence. After all, the project is dealing with intertextual correspondences that range from a direct borrowing of phrasing, shared doctrinal or theological topic, poetic form, and particular metaphors or images. Moving forward, then, my next challenge will be to experiment with network software programs such as UCINET and Gephi to conceptualize the most effective way of visually representing these various types of intertextual connection in the work of An Collins and, more broadly, to interrogate how early-modern women’s poetry was influenced by a full range of contemporary writers and their texts.

Bibliography

Collins, An, Divine Songs and Meditacions (London: R. Bishop, 1653)

Morrissey, Mary, ‘What An Collins was Reading’, Women’s Writing, 19 (2012), 467-86

Perkins, William, The Foundation of Christian Religion, gathered into Sixe Principles ([London]: Thomas Orwin for John Porter, 1591)

Wilcox, Helen, ‘The “finenesse of Devotional Poetry: An Collins and the School of Herbert’, in An Collins and the Historical Imagination, ed. by W. Scott Howard (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 71-86

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