Statistical Overview

The links to the left display statistical tables summarizing the scope and contents of the database.

The demographic tables digest information for more than a thousand writers. Included are most major poets and critics of the era, along with a broad cross-section of minor figures. Dramatists, novelists, essayists, and scholars are well represented because so many made remarks about Spenser. While imitations tend towards the literary end of the poetic spectrum, writers from all walks of life composed "literary" poetry: if semi-literate poets were less likely to imitate Spenser and Milton, they did imitate Thomson, Goldsmith, and Burns. The women writers and laboring-class poets included are demographically typical and appear in something like representative numbers. So too with Scottish, Irish, and American writers: they comprise a smaller proportion than English writers because fewer were publishing — though the demographic profile begins to shift noticeably in the nineteenth century.

Because of the selection criteria, anything having to do specifically with Spenser is blown statistically out of proportion. Nonetheless, the corpus of poetry collected here — mostly derived from Spenser at several removes — was large enough, diverse enough, and central enough that most important developments in English literature are registered. Genre shifts are representative: seventeenth-century writers uttered in epigram what their literary descendants would deliver in odes or sonnets. But while the general increase in numbers of odes and sonnets is representative, proportions can be deceptive. Allegorical odes were certainly popular, but so were Anacreontic odes, few of which appear in the database. Sonnets were certainly popular, but Spenserian sonnets, while they make a good showing here, are scarce as four-leaf clovers in the green lawn of romantic poetry (which was not dominated by poems in Spenserian stanzas). On the other hand, while the large number of eighteenth century pastorals registered here may seem out of all proportion, it is in fact fairly representative of what was being published.

While the texts file strives to be complete within the limits of its selection criteria, this is not the case with commentary. There the object has been to be "selectively unselective," giving priority to remarks by figures represented in the database, but otherwise trying to collect comments and anecdotes by the widest possible range of readers. Collecting periodical verse has been a priority because, being scattered, it is harder to find and because, being ephemeral, its importance has gone unrecognized. I have tried to be thorough with minor figures and even those of middling notoriety. But literary fame does interesting things at the extremity of the statistical curve: truly dominant figures (Spenser, Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Byron) attract more comment than their nearer rivals by something like an order of magnitude. These figures, and not the minor writers, are statistically under-represented.

The tables can be deceptive in other ways. Spenser is mentioned more frequently as time goes by, which would seem to indicate that he was more popular in the romantic era than ever before. But was he? In proportion to the number of works published, an absolute increase might still be a relative decline. Considered in relation to the much larger number of works not registered in the database, Spenser's popularity in the nineteenth century was almost certainly declining — even as the number of works being composed in Spenserian stanzas began to soar.

Conversely, Spenserian poems are very scarce in the middle and late decades of the seventeenth century, a time when Spenser was almost universally praised. In part, the small absolute number of Spenser imitations reflects changes in taste, in part the fact that comparatively little non-dramatic poetry was then being published. Spenser's works, only once reprinted since the beginning of the seventeenth century, must have been scarce, leading one to suspect that he was more often praised than read. If quantitative evidence can be misleading, so can generalizations based on qualitative evidence.

While the prospect of compiling complete emumerations threatens to become a will o' the wisp, it remains a task worth undertaking: seeing things in numerical proportion helps to clarify aspects of literary history that have fallen victim to selective memory. The stories traditions tell about themselves tend to be partial and, for all their grain of truth, can also be misleading. Dramatic events stick in the memory, yet eras of sweeping political change are not ordinarily the times when the literary system is most active. Looking at a broader enumeration of authors and titles suggests that the development of literature was evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process, albeit one fraught with complexity and change.

The numbers do tell us unequivocally that Spenser and the traditions he initiated grew dramatically over time. As writers working in these traditions came to dominate the literary scene English literature became British literature (but also Scottish, Irish, and American literature). How that came to pass, and why, the numbers do not and cannot say. For explanations one turns to accounts left by the writers themselves.