The Language of Genres

The Digital Cavendish Project is delighted to host the following presentation of original research from Jacob Tootalian who presented his work and DocuScope visualizations for “Cavendish and the Language of Genres” at the Tenth Biennial International Margaret Cavendish Society conference.

Cavendish and the Language of Genres

Margaret Cavendish wrote poems, plays, prose fictions, essays, treatises, orations, epistles, and biographies. We can learn something about the nature of genre—and Cavendish’s use of it—from this textual variety. As Emma Rees has shown, much of the meaning of Cavendish’s texts derives from her manipulation of generic frameworks.((See Emma Rees, Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2003).)) However, genre is not only legible on the level of interpretive expectations. It can also be felt in the form of word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence linguistic gestures. What language patterns mark the genres of Cavendish’s writings? And what do those patterns suggest about the relationships between different kinds of texts?

To answer these questions, I have categorized and counted types of language in the Cavendish corpus, a process performed using a piece of software known as DocuScope.((DocuScope classifies strings of language into 101 categories of linguistic function, called language action types (LATs). David Kaufer and Suguru Ishizaki, the co-creators of DocuScope, assembled the program’s dictionary using an approach to language associated with functional linguistics. Their interpretive classifications make it possible to count the frequency with which a text employs certain LATs and to calculate the correlations that emerge between texts. I used the EEBO-TCP transcriptions of Cavendish’s writings, employing Alistair Baron’s VARD modernization program to make them accessible to DocuScope’s modern-spelling dictionary. I then separated the texts into segments of approximately 7,000-10,000 words in order to prepare the corpus for statistical analysis.)) Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore have successfully employed DocuScope in their analysis of the dramatic subgenres of Shakespeare’s plays.((See Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore, “The Hundreth Psalm to the Tune of ‘Green Sleeves’: Digital Approaches to Shakespeare’s Language of Genre,” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (2010), pp. 357-390. Hope and Witmore have also discussed their work with DocuScope extensively on the blog Wine Dark Sea.)) But in contrast to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Cavendish’s body of works allows us a greater vantage point from which to study the language of genre. It gives us the chance to look beyond the narrow band of poetic forms, exploring genres of discursive prose as well in order to understand the linguistic relationships that emerge within the wider textual spectrum. Using these digitally aided techniques, I have been able to produce a map of the Cavendish corpus (see figure 1) that marks out the relationships among her writings according to the kinds of language they tend to use.


Fig. 1: In this score plot, segments of the Cavendish corpus are marked with colored shapes that correspond to generic groupings that I have assigned (for instance, the group “Rhetorical Prose” includes The World’s Olio, Sociable Letters, and the Orations).  The spatial arrangement of these markers represents their relative similarity or difference from one another in terms of the frequency with which they use particular language action types (LATs). Figure 2 shows how DocuScope’s scheme of LATs have determined the composition of this map. As you can see, there are two clusters of Cavendish’s philosophical prose, which roughly correspond to the distinction between the works of the 1650s (in green) and the works of the 1660s (in blue). The segments containing the passages I discuss are labeled.


There are many insights to be gleaned from this map and the data that I used to produce it.((I welcome scholars interested in exploring these findings further to contact me at tootalian [at] wisc [dot] edu.)) I would like to focus on what, to my mind, is most surprising about it. I suspected that Cavendish’s philosophical prose would show linguistic tendencies distinct from her poetic writings. What I found largely affirms that assumption, but with a caveat. While Cavendish’s later philosophical writings of the 1660s are quite different from her poetic works, the earlier philosophical texts of the 1650s are actually closer to poetry’s linguistic inclinations. This map suggests a chronological development in the language of Cavendish’s philosophical writings, a movement from the descriptive resources shared with poetry toward a more distinctive recipe for philosophical discourse.


Fig. 2: The vectors in this loading plot each represent one of DocuScope’s 101 LATs. These vectors highlight the statistical relationships most relevant to generic distinctions in the Cavendish corpus, determining the layout of the texts marked in figure 1. The length of the vectors indicates the intensity of their impact on those relationships. The directions of the vectors show the relative co-occurrence of LATs with one another. For instance, high frequencies of the descriptive LATs “SenseObject” and “SenseProperty” tend to appear alongside one another, particularly in Cavendish’s poetry and early philosophical prose. Contrarily, “AbstractConcept” and “ReportingEvents” are near opposites, suggesting that the conceptual references common in her later philosophical prose are less likely to be accompanied by the narrative action of her poems or fictions.


The arrangement of figure 1 is derived from statistical analysis of the frequency with which each piece of text uses different categories of linguistic function—the language action types (LATs) that DocuScope counts.((I performed principal component analysis on the LAT frequencies of the Cavendish corpus, a technique that strategically reduces multiple statistical variables, making it possible to view patterns within the data in a two-dimensional form.)) Figure 2 shows the relative impact of each LAT on the segments of the corpus. The direction and length of these lines account for the spatial arrangement of figure 1. Most of Cavendish’s drama, biographical prose, and rhetorical prose is pulled to the top right of figure 1 by LATs associated with social roles (“PersonProperty”), cultural institutions (“CommonAuthorities”), shared values (“StandardsPositive”), emotional inflections (“Negativity” and “Positivity”), and gestures for speaking to (“DirectAddress”) or about (“PersonPronoun”) others. Her poems and fictions trail downward because of their tendency toward LATs used for narrative action (“ReportingEvents”) and description (“SenseObject,” “SenseProperty,” and “SpaceRelation”). The early philosophical prose appears in the bottom left of the map due to its heavy investment in these descriptive LATs, as well as a LAT for expressing movement (“Motions”). All of the philosophical prose is pulled toward the left side, a sign of its inclination toward a LAT that indicates states of being (“ReportingStates”). The bulk of the later philosophical prose reaches toward the upper left of the map, demonstrating its extensive employment of abstract references (“AbstractConcepts”) and structures for specification (“Specifiers”) and contingent reasoning (“Contingency)—the linguistic ingredients that distinguish Cavendish’s mature philosophical discourse. Appropriately enough, we can find the segments of The Blazing World revolving around the center of the map, like the hand of a compass at the North Pole, spinning its way through all of the linguistic possibilities.((As figure 1 shows, the “Romancical” part of the Blazing World (labeled as “Blazing World (1)”) is located down near the other poems and fictions, because of its sensory descriptions of the new world. The “Philosophical” part of the text (3), featuring the Empress’s abstract discussions with the virtuosos, appears with Cavendish’s later philosophical prose. A piece of the “Fantastical” part of the text (6), containing the Duchess’s forensic debate with Fortune, appears, as we might expect, alongside her dramatic, rhetorical, and biographical works.))


Fig. 3: A screenshot of DocuScope’s analysis of Poems, and Fancies (1653). This portion of the text (the third of eleven segments) contains the poem “A World in an Eare-ring.” The descriptive LATs “SenseObject,” “SenseProperty,” and “SpatialRelation” are underlined in yellow.


One of the compelling features of this generic diversity in Cavendish’s writing is the way that one form bleeds into another. After all, Poems, and Fancies (1653), her opening foray into natural philosophy uses the genre of poetry as its vehicle. Cavendish attributes this choice to lack of confidence in the truth of her ideas. In the preface, she suggests that “the Reason why I write it in Verse, is, because I thought Errours might better passe there.”((Cavendish, “To Natural Philosophers,” in Poems, and Fancies (London, 1653), n.p., Unbound from the strictures of certain truth, poetry frees writers to explore the possible connections that can exist among things. This type of poetic

representation utilizes the sensory details conjured up by descriptive language, which, as DocuScope shows, constitutes the linguistic signature of the genre. Hence, in a poem like “A World in an Eare-Ring,” Cavendish is able to conjure forth the abstract notion of a microcosmic “World” within a piece of jewelry by describing a network of concrete things. As figure 3 shows, the poem is laden with the language of “SenseObject” and “SenseProperty”: the earring itself, its round quality, the sun and planets it might contain, the stars alongside them—which are themselves likened to “twinkling diamonds.” All of these descriptive elements are tokens that Cavendish uses to unveil what there “may well … bee” that “we not see.”((Cavendish, “The World in an Eare-Ring,” in Poems, and Fancies, p. 45.)) Cavendish is able to direct her readers’ attention to what is unknown by reference to perceptible things. In this way, descriptive language forms the linguistic foundation of her poetic writing.


Fig. 4: A screenshot of DocuScope’s analysis of the Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). This portion of the text (the fourth of ten segments) contains Chapter 79, “Of the figurative figures.” The descriptive LATs “SenseObject,” “SenseProperty,” and “SpatialRelation” are underlined in yellow.


But Cavendish also taps into these descriptive resources in her early prose. We might expect this of her Philosophical Fancies (1653), which she intended to be published within the same volume as Poems, and Fancies and which contains verse as well as prose treatments of her philosophical impressions. The descriptive pattern holds, though, for Cavendish’s more systematic treatise on natural philosophy, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). At times, this language is used for metaphorical expressions, not unlike the poetic representations of her verse. For instance, in the chapter on “figurative figures” (by “figure,” Cavendish means physical shape, not metaphorical language), she expresses the nature of integrated bodily structures using an architectural metaphor. Such a structure is likened to when “a man builds a house”: “first he builds the figure of that house with wood, as beams, and rafters and lathes; next he laies morter, then is the figure of that house in morter,” and so on. As figure 4 demonstrates, the concrete terms of the comparison require that Cavendish draw upon the physical description of a dwelling and the components that compose it. This allows her to extend this description, metaphorically, to “an Animal, as a man.”((Cavendish, Ch. 79, “Of the figurative figures,” in Philosophical and Physical Opinion (London, 1655), p. 44,

Just as often, Cavendish uses these descriptors, not to express things by likeness, but in describing things in their own right. In the same passage, Cavendish moves from the comparison to the house to an extensive catalogue of a body’s own parts: “So the head, there is the brain, the pia mater, the dura mater, the scul, the nose, the eyes, the fore-head, the ears, the mouth, the lips, the tongue, the chin, yet all this is but a head; likewise the head, the neck,” continuing on accordingly.((Cavendish, Ch. 79, “Of the figurative figures,” in Philosophical and Physical Opinion , p. 44)) Not as evocative as her poetic passages, this referential treatment of physical phenomena as they are nonetheless requires access to the descriptive palate that poetry employs. Again and again, Cavendish returns to these resources of description in her early philosophical writing.

But as her approach to philosophy evolved it seems that her linguistic inclinations did as well. In the 1650s, Cavendish often claimed ignorance of others’ philosophies, but by the 1660s this attitude, or at least this mode of self-presentation, had changed. In works like the Philosophical Letters (1664) and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), she actively and polemically engages with the thoughts of philosophers both ancient and modern, explicitly emphasizing the contrast between her ideas and theirs. In fact, in the Observations, she looks back, confessing “I have not expressed myself in my Philosophical Works, especially in my Philosophical and Physical Opinions, so clearly and plainly as I might have done.”((Cavendish, “To the Reader,” in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, ed. Eileen O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), p. 11. It is unclear if the revised second edition of the Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663) shows signs of the discursive development of the later philosophical prose, because a transcription of that edition is not available in the EEBO-TCP collection at this time. However, the Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), a final reworking of the Philosophical and Physical Opinions, firmly adopts the linguistic pattern of the later prose.)) Placing less emphasis on concrete descriptions of natural phenomena, Cavendish relies more and more on abstract explication in her philosophical prose.

As Lisa Sarasohn notes, “[w]hile her contemporaries eschewed hypothesizing beyond the observed facts, Cavendish embraced speculation.”((Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010), p. 196.)) Cavendish’s philosophy challenged the empiricist frame of the Royal Society, the new scientific mainstream of seventeenth-century England. While portions of her later philosophical prose descend into descriptive language, these passages consist mostly of chapters like those of the Observations in which Cavendish directly challenges the flawed observations of particular phenomena that experimental philosophers had given. More often, though, Cavendish seems uninterested in simply meeting the experimentalists on their own epistemological grounds, avoiding containment within the descriptive representation of things as they are that privileges the empirical perspective of her rivals. The bulk of the Observations and of Cavendish’s later prose more generally is devoted to tracing out the abstract contours of her philosophy.

This “big-picture” approach to natural philosophy leads Cavendish to concentrate on the linguistic resources of “AbstractConcept,” the LAT that groups together conceptual words like nature, parts, several, infinite, sense, life, and corporeal. In the Observations, for instance, she addresses the question of “Whether the Inanimate Part of Matter, may not have self-knowledg as well as the Animate?”((Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, p. 155.)) As figure 5 shows, Cavendish’s question demands conceptual exposition in order to mark the difference between knowledge and perception that is critical to her vitalistic theory of matter. These abstract references allow her to articulate the condition of something being “sensible,” and to classify “matter” as a category of things, a category that itself can be divided into “parts,” which, in turn, she is able to label with the predicates “animate” or “inanimate.” Cavendish’s philosophical prose requires the language of abstraction to make fine theoretical distinctions like these.


Fig. 5: A screenshot of DocuScope’s analysis of Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. This portion of the text (the ninth of sixteen segments) contains Chapter 37, “Several Questions and Answers concerning Knowledge and Perception.” “AbstractConcept” is underlined in dark blue. “Specifiers” and “Contingency” are underlined in light blue.


Cavendish equips this conceptual terminology with language from the categories “Specifiers” and “Contingency.” These linguistic structures allow a writer to elaborate upon the basic meaning of a sentence for a greater degree of specification, and to reason through possibilities, respectively. Both LATs lend themselves to a higher degree of discursive precision. The abstract passage from the Observations in figure 5 is prompted by Cavendish’s anticipation of a potential objection to her interpretation. She is able to express the logic of this counterargument using the contingent “if” structure, laying the grounds for her to expose the false conflation between knowledge and perception that occurs in the opposing line of thought. Further, when she concedes that inanimate matter “may be sensible of its own self-knowledg,” Cavendish entertains this contingency only to offer a specification that reaffirms the distinction she is drawing. She redefines “sense” as not “such asense as self-moving matter has” (my emphasis).((Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, p. 155.)) She marks the contrast between possible interpretations, using the term “such” in order to specify one kind of sense from another, affirming her position on the sense of knowledge that she aligns with animate matter. The linguistic tools of contingent reasoning and specification make the conceptual abstractions of Cavendish’s later philosophical prose comprehensible in the relative absence of concrete description.

Mapping out the Cavendish corpus according to DocuScope’s categories, not only can we glimpse some of the linguistic patterns that correlate with certain genres, but we also get to explore complexities that are sometimes obscured behind generic labels. Where I expected to see one basic set of linguistic ingredients for Cavendish’s philosophical prose, there are instead two discernable discursive recipes. These two groupings suggest a development in Cavendish’s handling of the genre of philosophy from the 1650s to the 1660s. At the start of her intellectual career, Cavendish used poetry as a vehicle for philosophical inquiry and, even when she departed from poetic forms, she hewed to a descriptive approach, concentrating upon concrete phenomena. But by the time of the Restoration, Cavendish had secured a rhetorical mode better suited to the speculative color of her philosophy, a language keyed to abstract references and the tools of specification and contingent reasoning. While I have focused on her philosophical writing, there are other questions that this data can help us pose about the variety of genres that Cavendish explores. As Rees notes, “throughout Cavendish’s work, genre bears meaning.”((Rees, p. 10.)) Cavendish’s manipulation of genre shows it to be a form of linguistic execution, as much as expectation. If the meaning of her texts resides in the tension therein, then there is much to be learned in discerning the language of genre in the works of Margaret Cavendish.