Auden Musulin Papers through Computer Vision

Two edition documents contain indented impressions: the 1965 typescript of W. H. Auden’s German prose translation of his poem “Joseph Weinheber” and Auden’s letter to Stella Musulin from 10 June 1969. These were created through W. H. Auden’s specific use of the typewriter: the poet would insert backing sheets into the typewriter that were placed below those sheets of paper on which he typed his poetry, and subsequently reused them for correspondence and literary writing. The pressure of the typebars transferred to the backing sheet and left colorless, three-dimensional impressions in the paper. These impressions are not captured through standard image-digitization technologies. By means of raking light, they can be rendered visible, but remain largely undecipherable because of overlapping layers of text. Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) offers an interactive visualization of the documents’ surface structure as if illuminated from an oblique angle:

RTI Viewer

Click the light-bulb icon. Place the cursor over the viewer and press the left button of your mouse or trackpad. Keep it pressed and move the cursor across the viewer.

In order to reconstruct the hidden layers of text, computer-vision technologies used in the research of 3D cultural-heritage objects were employed. At the Computer Vision Lab of TU Wien, the documents in question were analyzed with the help of Photometric Stereo: from a set of source images, taken from the same angle, but illuminated from different directions, surface models were computed that allow for the reconstruction of the 3D typewriter impressions. The resulting visualizations have been published on Zenodo. The following two poetic texts have been retrieved from the indented impressions:

  1. a previously unknown, otherwise lost, early version of W. H. Auden’s poem “Epithalamium” (reversed in relation to the inked typescript overwriting it) [recto] [verso]
  2. an unpublished early version of Auden’s poem “Epistle to a Godson”, sent to Oxford scholar E. R. Dodds on 10 June 1969, now held in the Bodleian Libraries’ Special Collections [recto] [verso]

The methodology, results, and implications of this discovery are discussed in detail in Brenner, Frühwirth, and Mayer: Revealing ‘Invisible’ Poetry by W. H. Auden through Computer Vision: Using Photometric Stereo to Visualize indented impressions.

Title Date Latest Revisions Data Latest Revisions Content # of Facsimiles Document Type Document Hand Entities
Autograph Letter Signed W. H. Auden to Stella Musulin with Typescript W. H. Auden "Joseph Weinheber" 1965-04-28 and with Typescript W. H. Auden Translation "Joseph Weinheber" 1965-04-28
  • when: 2023-05-11
  • who: smayer tfruehwirth
CVL transcription inserted 8 letter #typed
  • 6 Place(s)
  • 6 Person(s)
  • 3 Work(s)
Autograph Letter Signed W. H. Auden to Stella Musulin 1969-06-10 1969-06-10
  • when: 2023-05-11
  • who: smayer tfruehwirth
CVL transcription inserted 6 letter #handwritten
  • 2 Place(s)
  • 2 Person(s)