In 1653, poet, scientist, and playwright Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published a book of poems entitled Poems and Fancies. The first part of this collection contains a fragmented, atomized treatise on natural philosophy, including 106 short, combinable poems about how atomism could explain matter, motion, and life. By the 1660s, Cavendish had abandoned ideas of atomism, developing a vitalist monist theory of matter; nevertheless, she completed a comprehensive rearrangement and revision of her earlier work, reprinting her poems in 1664 and again in 1668.
Arrangement was a central concept in ancient and early modern atomism, and also to Cavendish’s atomistic poetics: each poem is, in itself, not a stand-alone, self-complete, well-wrought urn, but a kind of tile that can be rearranged into different mosaics of thought. Cavendish undertakes one such rearrangement in her 1664 edition, where the poems appear in a radically new configuration, and with new lines, ideas, and word-choices. The shuffling of the poems across editions, this project will argue, is not a correction, but an experiment on Cavendish’s part, an attempt to think through concepts of arrangement, atomism, and the logic of collection. Her experiment changes how we read her poetry, and helps us rethink the history of early reading practices as well as poetry’s contributions to atomistic philosophy during the rise of science.
Choose Your Own Poems and Fancies is a multimodal monograph studying atomism, arrangement, and the history of reading old and new media. At the heart of this project is a branching, rearrangable edition of Part I of Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies. Using the tool, readers can follow Cavendish’s two configurations, follow alternate paths that I will propose, or assemble their own paths through the text. Accompanying this edition will be a non-linear, nodal “Choose Your Own Introduction,” as well as research chapters studying the history of reading, the diversity of early modern atomism, and how Cavendish’s poetic project helps us reconceptualize work in the digital humanities.
Project in development. Forthcoming as Volume 2 in the Electric Books series.