Long before the current vogue for big data and distant reading led literary scholars to examine ever larger corpora of texts, Roger Lonsdale argued in his groundbre anding of “the landscape of eighteenth-century poetry” was limited because we hadn’t read enough of what was published in the period:
It will seem outrageous to suggest that we still know very little about the subject. Yet given the sheer quantity of verse published in the century—the thousands of substantial, separately published poems, the hundreds of volumes of collected poems by individual authors, the innumerable miscellanies by several hands, all the verse which appeared in the poetry sections of hundreds of magazines and newspapers—this must literally be the case.1
The vastness of this terrain is both the reason it demands scholarly attention and the chief deterrent preventing engagement. The quantity of verse published in just one of those categories Lonsdale mentioned—“the innumerable miscellanies by several hands”—is staggering: across the period, tens of thousands of poems were published in well over a thousand miscellanies. [End Page 1] Moreover, such miscellanies came in all shapes and sizes, from multivolume anthologies of literary verse, to hastily put-together pamphlets of topical and scurrilous satire, and everything in between. As Michael Suarez has observed, for many years the problem confronting the scholar interested in exploring these publications was knowing where to start: “Lacking adequate maps, few scholars have been willing to venture into so vast an uncharted territory.”2
In 2010, a team of researchers based at the University of Oxford began a project that sought to make a map. In compiling a database of the contents of eighteenth-century miscellanies, they would sketch out, for the first time, the contours of the poetic territory identified by Lonsdale and Suarez, developing a resource that would act as a guidebook to assist scholars in making sense of this vastly uncharted land. The project, which became known as the Digital Miscellanies Index (henceforth “DMI”) was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and headed by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt. The database that underpins the index was built by Oxford University Computing Services, and remodeled and launched in a beta phase by Gnostyx Research, thanks to the generosity of Joe Gollner. The DMI team made use of Michael Suarez’s bibliographical survey of the period’s miscellanies in order to catalog as many eighteenth-century poetic miscellanies as possible. Key information was recorded about each miscellany: about the books themselves, about their makers, about the poems they contained, and about the authors of those poems. When the first phase of the project reached a conclusion in 2013, the DMI contained records of over 40,000 poems by several hundred named poets (and countless unnamed ones) printed in almost 1,500 miscellany volumes published between 1700 and 1780. Users of the DMI, now freely available at http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org, can investigate how a particular poem, or author, or genre of verse, appears across this body of miscellanies; zoom in on particular collections in order to track their evolution across multiple editions or evaluate their contents against rival publications; focus on the varied practices of different miscellany makers, be they editors or compilers, printers or publishers; or explore broader patterns across the whole dataset including trends relating to popularity and canonicity. A comprehensive guide to the database, together with hints and tips on how to use it, can be found on the project website.3 Though, as Lonsdale notes, miscellanies are just one facet of a complex and varied poetry publishing landscape, they are undoubtedly a vital part of it, and consequently, the data-driven reception history [End Page 2] enabled by the DMI has the potential to challenge—or confirm—some of the customary narratives that persist regarding eighteenth-century poetry.
This special issue of Eighteenth-Century Life presents articles that draw on the DMI to demonstrate the richness and complexity of the contribution miscellanies made to eighteenth-century poetic culture. The essays in this collection employ various methodological approaches. Some focus closely on a particular poem, or volume, or miscellany series; some take on the oeuvre of...