Theses Doctoral

Poetic Numbers: Measurement and the Formation of Literary Criticism in Enlightenment England

Swidzinski, Joshua

This dissertation examines the importance of the concept of measurement to poets and literary critics in eighteenth-century England. It documents attempts to measure aspects of literary form, especially prosodic phenomena such as meter and rhythm, and it explores how these empirical and pseudo-empirical experiments influenced the writing and reading of poetry. During the Enlightenment, it argues, poets and critics were particularly drawn to prosody's apparent objectivity: through the parsing of lines and counting of syllables, prosody seemed to allow one to isolate and quite literally measure the beauty and significance of verse. Inquiries into the social and historical functions of literature routinely relied on this discourse, exploring questions of style, politics, and philosophy with the help of prosodic measurement. By drawing on works and artifacts ranging from dictionaries and grammars to mnemonic schemes and notional verse-making machines, and through close readings of poet-critics such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and Samuel Johnson, "Poetic Numbers" contends that the eighteenth century's fascination with prosody represents a foundational moment in the history of literary criticism: a moment whose acute self-consciousness about literary critical methods, as well as about whether and how these methods can aspire to count and account for aspects of literary experience, anticipates many of the methodological questions that mark our own time.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 26, 2015