One of the pleasures of the British Poetry of the First World War conference (and the pleasures were many – I’ll be mentioning several over the next week or so) was Jay Winter’s talk on ‘Glory’.
He traced the decline of the word in English by use of Google Ngrams. This is a neat bit of software, available on all computers at the press of a button, that searches the vast archive of Google Books to find all uses of a word or phrase in the books of a particular year. The results, in a graph, show something about the popularity of a word. So, plotting the words ‘glory’ and ‘glorious’ from 1900 to 2000, we find this decline in their popularity (click for a better view):
You have to take these graphs with a certain amount of caution: they find references in books, not in newspapers or other documents, and they are based on the scanning of texts found in the mighty holdings of the Bodleian Library. These are very extensive, but not absolutely complete; there must be selection bias. Persons mentioned in academic texts are more likely to have their fame recorded than are the stars of the gossip columns.
With these provisos, however, ngrams are at the least very suggestive. Professor Winter made his point about the decline of ‘Glory’ in English by contrasting it with the staying power of ‘gloire’ in French (which you can check out for yourself here).
I’ve mentioned Ngrams on this blog before, tracing the rise and fall in novelists’ reputations. Having just been to a poetry conference, I thought I’d try to find out about some poets. This chart tracks mentions of Wilfred Owen against mentions of Siegfried Sassoon:
This is quite a neat graphic representation, I’d say, of the change in the poets’ reputations, with Sassoon leading through the twenties, and Owen’s fame steadily growing. Does the crossing of their lines show the change in what people wanted from war poetry, from satire to pity? One could maybe see how publication of the various editions of Owen’s poetry affected his fame.
Add Rupert Brooke to the equation, and you get this graph:
Of course, the Ngram program is crude in that it just counts references, with no account taken of whether the mentions are approving or negative.
I started wondering about the phrase ‘war poets’ itself (a specifically English term, as Professor Winter pointed out, with no real equivalent in other cultures), and plotted it for fun against ‘modernist poets’. Here’s what I got:
Maybe this tells us something about fashions in criticism. The Ngrams program only goes as far as the year 2000. If it went farther, I bet we’d see a rise in ‘war poets’ over the past fifteen years, and maybe a slight decline in the stock of the friends of Ezra.
One last graph. I wondered what would come up if I plotted Wilfred Owen against Douglas Haig. The result is a graphic illustration of the change in the way in which the War has been popularly perceived:
As I said, these results prove nothing, and need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. But making these graphs is a great way of wasting an afternoon.