Using “Wordle” [available at wordle.net] and pasting in the online text of section 1 of “Song of Myself” (given at the end of this post), here is the “word cloud” that was generated:
(Click on the image if you’d like it larger.) An immediate surprise for me: the prominence of the word parents in section 1. But that shouldn’t have been the case: the word cloud correctly represents that Whitman repeats the word 3 times in a single line—something I’d not really noticed while reading linearly. This is one advantage to word clouding, if I may use such a verb: it may change our reading ideas of which words are used most frequently. Of course, importance and frequency are not necessarily linked, and the most interesting words in a passage may verb probably NOT be the ones used most frequently. But my hunch is word clouds can generate some interesting surprises leading to questions for further research on texts.
Here’s some from just my one observation above: is the word parent as prominent in any other sections? what different kinds of references to parents and to generations are there in the rest of the poem? Mothers and fathers are often mentioned, I know, but what about grandparents, for instance? Does Whitman often use “generations” to mean all kinds of different species, like plants & animals, not just humans? Exploring these questions will lead to other good ones too. It’s also possible to cut across the grain of the poem, so to speak, and to explore the biographical facts about Whitman’s actual parents and his relations with them—which, to put it mildly, were fraught and complicated—vs. the highly idealized image of the family that he creates in section 1 and indeed throughout “Song of Myself.”
“Word clouding” texts and then comparing and discussing the results–and asking what research hypotheses they might generate–strikes me as an interesting “digital humanities” assignment for undergraduates.
Some current digital humanities courses use word cloud assignments: I must explore this further, with particular emphasis not so much on generating the cloud as on what to do with it. “What should we do with our results” would also make for a lively class discussion topic, if well guided.
Would be worth exploring too how to adopt this assignment for more unusual Whitman reading—such as using texts now available via the online Walt Whitman Archive.
The text of “Song of Myself,” section 1. Please excuse the lack of stanza breaks. No one obviously told the WordPress programmers that such things might be important. I can’t figure out how to put them in. Or rather, I put them in with paragraph returns in the “draft” and then they disappear when this is all uploaded. This is typical of the digital world: it does some things great and with other important things it is a complete time-sink frustration aggravation. I’m sure there’s probably a work-around, but now I have to spend time finding it. And all I’m trying to do is add stanza breaks!