17th century poet and 21st century scholar inspire new ways of thinking

Photo of assistant professor Liza Blake
Tuesday, June 18, 2019 - 10:54am
Maeve Doyle

Liza Blake, a scholar of literature, science and philosophy in the Department of English & Drama at the University of Toronto Mississauga, published Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies: A Digital Critical Edition in May. Blake worked with students and the U of T Mississauga Library to publish online this first scholarly edition and make it freely available to researchers and students worldwide.

The "thrice noble, illustrious and excellent" Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish, also known as the Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer who lived in 17th century England, a tumultuous time of civil war, and the era of scientific revolution. Like many writers of the time, Cavendish used her literary work to explore new ways of thinking about scientific and philosophical ideas.

“She wrote about such topics as the atomic makeup of the world; ethics and empathy with the non-human world; the cognitive possibilities of poetic and allegorical modes; the importance of making mental room for the supernatural; and the ravages of war on a nation and on individual minds,” says the assistant professor.

Blake says that Cavendish is remarkable not because she was a woman writer—there were quite a few women writers in the 17th century—but partly because of how thoroughly she put all her works into print. Thousands of pages of Cavendish’s writing are available now because she saw to it that her work made it to the printer, was bound and deposited into libraries.

“She was someone who was very interested in making sure her works got distributed, were read and stored,” says Blake.

But what makes Cavendish especially interesting and important for Renaissance literature is her radically different way of thinking about what poetry can be.

Blake says Cavendish made unusual choices. She rarely used the first-person pronoun. She tended not to write her poems to a conventional conclusion. She refused to write about love as a theme.

"This makes her different from most of her contemporaries and influences, such as John Donne. Donne’s poetry is more typically lyric. Written in the first person, it explores his feelings and reactions, whether his object be a love interest or God.”

Image of page from Poems and Fancies

Three years, three volumes, 13 research assistants and one librarian

Beginning in 2016, Blake assembled teams of undergraduate research assistants through the U of T Mississauga’s Research Opportunity Program and through the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-in-Residence program.

She travelled around the world to dozens of rare book libraries to see original print copies of Poems and Fancies. Cavendish, who first published her works in 1653, extensively revised and reprinted the volume in 1664, and then revised and reprinted it again in 1668.

Blake’s research assistants sometimes travelled with her to libraries such as the British Library in London and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Blake led and trained her teams in research methods. They compared the different editions, and tracked and recorded each and every variant. She included them in discussions of the variants and in decisions upon which variant to include. Collaboratively, they modernized spelling and punctuation, and HTML-encoded the text.

“Professor Blake had already done a lot of the work on her own, including developing the site on private servers,” says Mike Serafin, Library Technologies and Liaison Librarian at the U of T Mississauga. “We helped her to relocate it to a server at UTM and provided the URL. We were also able to help with some of the web development and customize the navigation and information architecture to meet her needs.”

Dispelling the myth

Blake says the myth that there were no women writers before the 20th century still persists, which is why it is important to keep publishing Cavendish. “Everyone knows there were lots of women writers and the more we can let people not forget that, the better.”

Making the scholarly edition of Poems and Fancies available online allows for immediate and speedy dissemination of her work, says Blake. Making it freely available will get Cavendish into more classrooms. Modernizing the spelling and punctuation makes it easier to teach, like the works of Shakespeare and Milton, which are often read in modernized versions.

“The ways that we’ve been trained to read poetry have all developed from reading authors like Donne and never from reading authors like Cavendish,” says Blake.

When teaching at the U of T Mississauga, Blake assigns Margaret Cavendish’s poetry to her students and then asks them to think about what their discipline might look like if they had learned to read Cavendish rather than having learned to read Donne. What new questions would they ask? What new things would they look for?

A demanding subject

Currently, Blake is finishing her new book Early and Modern Literary Physics, which includes a chapter on Cavendish.

Another of her projects focuses exclusively on Cavendish and is “much more deeply engaged with digital technologies and digital methods,” says Blake. At the time of the interview, Blake was in a digital skills training camp at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia. She is learning Python, a coding language necessary for her second project.

“It’s hard to work on just a little bit of Cavendish,” says Blake. “She takes over and demands a lot of you.”