Newness in Defoe’s Tour

In our MA in Literature, Landscape & Environment me and my students have been looking at the influence of Virgil’s Georgics in eighteenth-century literature, and the theme of change and decay came up fairly frequently in our discussions. Indeed, the ‘Preface’ to Daniel Defoe’s A Tour ‘thro the Whole Island of Great Britain emphasises this aspect as key to understanding Britain in the 1720s:

The Fate of Things gives a new Face to Things … plants and supplants Families, … Great Towns decay, and small Towns rise; … great Rivers and good Harbours dry up, and grow useless; again, new Ports are open’d, Brooks are made Rivers, … navigable Ports and Harbours are made where none were before, and the like.[1]

Defoe’s particular emphasis on change in the British nation can be seen by the simple expedient of counting up how many times he uses the word ‘new’ in the Preface (thirteen times). Even more striking is to see this visualisation of a word frequency analysis (using Voyant):

Click on image to access the full Voyant analysis

On the face of it, Defoe pays equal attention to rise and decay, but – like Virgil’s Georgics – the aspect of dynamism in the nation’s landscape that Defoe gets most excited about is one of vital newness. (For another reading of mutability in the Tour and the city of London, see my post ‘Defoe, Google, cities and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’.)

[1] Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (London: printed, and sold by G. Strahan, … MDCCXXIV [1724]), p. iv. [ECCO, 5/12/15].


2 thoughts on “Newness in Defoe’s Tour

  1. Dear Stephen, thank you! if it’s alright by you I’ll post this to my MA students. My module on Crime and Justice in 18th c England, so a good deal on MF and CJ used in conjuncton with the Old Bailey and Ordinary’s Accounts. Most of my students have also signed up for an experimental Wikipedia project, oen of the aims of which is to improve Wikipedia coverage of 18th c crime and justice. eg Andrew Moreton pamphlets (so far not covered) and improvements to existing articels. I think this could be is an interesting alternative to essay writing. Do publish this if you think… JC


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