Category Archives: Readings

Why you shouldn’t call yourself a True-Born Englishman.

The belief that ancient family lineage enables a person to claim a superior legitimacy of national belonging has been given a shocking airing recently. So it’s worth remembering that Daniel Defoe punctured this poisonous myth over 300 years ago.

coo.31924013179399-14The True-Born Englishman. A Satyr was initially a counter-response to John Tutchin’s The Foreigners: an attack on William III’s rule by focusing on his Dutch origins. Yet it catalysed a much wider-ranging satire on xenophobia and the idea of ethnic purity. Defoe’s poem starts with the idea of ingratitude towards what he views as the nation’s saviour (William III) and accuses the English nation of pride. He aims to prick this ‘bubbled Nation’ (27):

To Englishmen their own beginnings show,

And ask them why they slight their neighbours so.

Go back to elder times, and ages past,

And nations into long oblivion cast;

To old Britannia’s youthful days retire.

And there for true-born Englishman enquire.

Britannia freely will disown the name,

And hardly knows herself from whence they came:

Wonders that they of all men should pretend

To birth and blood, and for a name to contend. (43-52)

National pride based on lineage gets a rough ride. Defoe’s scorching reminder that England’s history is one of continual invasion from Romans, Picts, Scots, and Normans:

From whose mixed relics our compounded breed,

By spurious generation does succeed;

Making a race uncertain and unev’n,

Derived from all the nations under Heav’n.(171-75)

The English, then, are an illegitimate race whose claim to ‘ancient pedigree’ is based on nothing more that,

’Tis that from some French trooper they derive,

Who with the Norman Bastard did arrive:

The trophies of the families appear;

Some show the sword, the bow, and some the spear,

Which their great ancestor, forsooth, did wear. (212-18)

Defoe’s energy is focused on undermining pride in status and lineage: with each repetition of the phrase ‘true-born Englishman,’ the emptier it becomes. To this end, one of the most repeated ideas that drives Defoe’s satire links illegitimacy and mixture:

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,

That het’rogenous thing, an Englishman:

In eager rapes and, a furious lust begot,

Betwixt and painted Briton and a Scot. (334-37)

This, Defoe scornfully cries, is the source of the ‘well-extracted blood of Englishmen’ (347). His incredulity, then, is to hear such people attack the non-English:

The wonder which remains is at our pride,

To value that which all wise men deride,

For Englishmen to boast of generation,

Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.

A True-Born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction. (368-73)

So, next time you begin to argue about what it is to be English (or indeed what being British means), just think on Defoe’s poem

Imagining the Storm

The Storm by Daniel Defoe cover pageThe Lord hath his way in the Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the dust of his Feet. (Nahum. 1:3)

Re-reading Defoe’s The Storm and looking out at the sometimes scudding, sometimes lowering clouds over the past month, it has been impossible not to connect the present UK weather with Defoe’s memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703. Published in 1704, it is a remarkable combination of eyewitness reports from all over England, folkloric, classical, scientific, and biblical explanations of storms, and Defoe’s own attempt to account for this ‘Dreadful TEMPEST’.[1]

The epigraph, quoted above, is perhaps an unsurprising gloss on a natural disaster for most people living in the early eighteenth century (even the most rational natural or experimental philosopher synthesised to some degree or other their scientific explanations with the divine order of things). And for anyone familiar with Defoe’s novels, it should come as little surprise that storms are the expression of God’s intervention in human life: think about the storms at sea in Robinson Crusoe or Roxana: atmospheric disturbances are a figure for the intimations from heaven. Clouds perform a similar function, they are ‘the dust of his Feet’, manifestations of divine warning and harbingers of God’s approach.

Clouds are also a reflection – albeit an unreliable one – of the wind’s movement. In a remarkable extended conceit that imagines the storm as an army marching to war, Defoe declares ‘I confess, I have never studied the Motion of the Clouds so nicely, as to calculate how much time the Army of Terror might take up in its furious March’ (60). The difficulty to provide a rational explanation for the movement of winds and the function of clouds is underlined when Defoe quotes natural philosopher Ralph Bohun:

‘The Winds,’ says the Learned Mr. Bohun, ‘are generated in the Intermediate Space between the Earth and the Clouds, either by Rarefaction or Repletion, and sometimes haply by pressure of Clouds, Elastical Virtue of the Air, &c. from the Earth or Seas, as by Submarine or Subterraneal Eruption or Descension or Resilition from the middle Region.’

All this, though no Man is more capable of the Enquiry than this Gentleman, yet to the Demonstration of the thing, amounts to no more than what we had before, and still leaves it as Abstruse and Cloudy to our Understanding as ever. (8-9)

Despite the clunky pun at Bohun’s expense, Defoe forcefully emphasises the gap left by the failure of human understanding about the weather, quoting John (3:8): ‘The Wind blows where it listeth, and thou hearest the Sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh’ (10).

Storm clouds (7462161170)Into this gap pours our fancy and our humours, both so easily swayed by the clouds within and without. The parallel between figurative and literal clouds are an image for that traditional association, already strong by the eighteenth century, between English weather and a national disposition to melancholy. Inserted strangely alongside the factual accounts of the storm is a pastoral poem in the style of Virgil fitted to the subject of the hurricane, ostensibly sent in by an ‘ingenious Author’ (41). Damon asks his friend, ‘the melancholy Shepherd’ Melibæus, ‘what Cloud dares overcast  your brow … ?’ (42). The author – whom I strongly suspect to be Defoe himself – exploits the gap between the pastoral form and the ‘havoc’ (43) of the weather to emphasise the serious affliction and corresponding duty facing the English nation.

As nature writer Richard Mabey sets out in Turned out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather (2013), there is an indissoluble link between our subjective experience of the weather and those macro-events that we call climate. Defoe’s account of the great storm, looking back over accounts of weather from classical discussions, events from the seventeenth-century, as well as the more immediate reports of his correspondents, moves between several different levels of time: human history; typological time, in which events are suffused with Biblical resonance; the recent and immediate period of English history; and the subjective and affective moment. The difficulty facing Defoe is how to negotiate and balance all these levels in order to, as he says, ‘bring the Story into a Compass tolerable to the Reader’ (270). The remarkable thing is to see how effectively The Storm succeeds.


[1] Daniel Defoe, The Storm: Or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (London, 1704), page references to this edition.

Robinson Crusoe: 1719, 1970, 2013

(Note: I’ve updated this post since the Art of Noise’s version of one the incidental themes is no longer available. April 2014).

April 2013 and I’m thinking about Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, first published in April 1719 (it was entered on the Stationer’s Register on April 23rd). Title page image from the first edition here (courtesy the Lilly Library exhibition).

However I was reminded of my first encounter. This was the the black and white Anglo-French TV series first produced in 1964 and shown on BBC TV in the late 60s and early 70s, usually in an afternoon slot during my school holidays. The memory of this is suffused with an aura of contentment – my own, that is – lazily watching TV on an afternoon. And my memory of it is selective since the dominant images that come from the series also construct the time of Crusoe’s shipwreck on the island rather like my own school holidays: exciting and yet boring, carefree and occasionally and perhaps unintentionally comic. And what really sticks in my mind is Crusoe’s building and making (see episode 5 http://youtu.be/NCr-W2PJLwE). Now, I’m not sure now why this should be, since I’m no DIY-er. But there were still places near the suburbs where I lived as a child in Leeds that were uncultivated and undeveloped: places where I could go on my own or with friends among weeds growing to shoulder height and explore woods (one with a derelict WWII bunker). So there was something in my solitary rambles of the isolation, freedom and making things with sticks that the TV series evoked. Yet seeing these episodes again, I realise I had completely forgotten the flashbacks to Crusoe’s time with his father in (a strangely rural) York. Was it because that – sitting in front of the TV – I had no need to know about fathers and parents and home? Or was it that the promise that what Crusoe himself called his ‘rambling’ impulse was precisely the opposite of the world of home and contentment, where men ‘went silently and smoothly thro’ the World’, as Crusoe’s father puts it.

Memories of my own life as child, images from the Crusoe TV series, and my memory of the effect of these images move and shift around themselves in peculiar ways. Now, as a Defoe scholar and a father of boys, inspecting my memory becomes a far more complicated task. Certainly, my nostalgia of childhood ‘rambling’ owes much to a projection of present-day loss: “would I let my own children now do the kind of solitary adventuring I did then?” But it’s also linked to the power of that TV series to pass on to me a myth of adventure which is actually a fairly sanitised version of Defoe’s 1719 novel: the TV version is slightly emptied of Defoe’s religious and moral rhetoric, and isolation is balanced by a kind of adventure experienced in front of the TV in the sitting room. And I even mentioned that I remembered watching the series with contentment…

Perhaps the strongest memory I have is of the series’ music: it is this that most precisely captures the mixed images of Crusoe’s poignant isolation and my nostalgia for carefree adventure. The opening theme’s grand, rolling strings evokes the crashing of seas and waves and suggesting the epic nature of escape, journey, and adventure; yet the haunting theme also manages to powerfully suggest isolation:

One the of incidental scores has an equally powerful place in my memory since it concentrates solely on giving shape to the underside of adventure, poignantly evoking the tedium and loneliness of shipwreck (this runs from about 0. 45 in, to 5.18).

A party in Pall Mall: location, location, location

While teaching Defoe’s Roxana to my students, I was sent an intriguing book entitled A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature by Suzette Field. Now I’m not qualified to talk about all the works discussed here: from the Book of Daniel through Proust to Hollinghurst there is surprising variety of balls, routs, revels, masques, orgies, feasts, banquets, proms, weddings, birthdays and even a wake (Finnegan’s, of course). But I am able to comment on what Field calls ‘A Little Ball at Roxana’s House’. In common with all the parties, each entry has sections entitled ‘The Hostess’, ‘The Invitation’, ‘The Venue’, ‘The Guest List’, The Food and Drink’, ‘The Dress Code’, ‘The Entertainment’, ‘The Outcome’, and ‘The Legacy’. It all works rather neatly for Roxana’s ball at which she appears in her Oriental masquerade (also, Field has obviously done her research: she even notes ‘there is no definitive evidence that Defoe wrote Roxana’). However, my eye was caught by Field’s description of the party’s location in Roxana’s ‘handsome apartments in Pall Mall’.[1]

Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref: www.motco.com
Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref: http://www.motco.com

Described by Edward Hatten as a ‘fine spacious’ street, Pall Mall’s grandeur reflected the lives of its wealthy, if transient, population of visiting dignitaries and pleasure-seekers.[2] John Macky described Pall Mall as ‘the ordinary residence of all Strangers’ because of its proximity to the ‘Palace, the Park, the Parliament-House, the Theatres, and the Chocolate and Coffee-Houses, where the best company frequents.’ In fact Macky painted the life in the Pall Mall area as one continual party, at least for men:

We rise at Nine, and those that frequent great Mens Levees find Entertainment at them until Eleven … about Twelve the Beau Monde assembles in several Coffee or Chocolate-Houses … If it is fine Weather we take a turn in the Park until about Two, when we go into Dinner, and if it be dirty you are entertained at Picket or Basset at White’s, or you may talk Politicks at Smyrna or St. James’s.

After dinner there was the theatre (Haymarket theatre was at the end of Pall Mall); and after that,

the best Company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s Coffee-Houses, near adjoining, where there is playing at Picket and the best of Conversation until Midnight. Here you will see Blue and Green Ribbons and Stars, sitting familiarly … Or if you like rather the Company of Ladies, there are Assemblies at most People of Qualities Houses.[3]

Clearly, Macky was fascinated by the pleasures of the area and the status of its denizens.

It’s a key context to Defoe’s Roxana, whose apartment in fashionable Pall Mall reflects her wish to appear as a ‘soi-disant wealthy widow’, as Field nicely puts it. Yet as she rightly points out, in one regard Roxana’s choice of location is not entirely well calculated: despite Macky’s excitement at the wealth on display in Pall Mall, the residents of the West end of London are also those who ‘tended to live beyond their means’. As Roxana declares, she finds herself harassed by ‘Fortune-Hunters and Bites … to make a Prey of me and my Money … Lovers, Beaus, and Fops of Quality’ (1724, p.210). Field picks up on Roxana’s fascination with status, noting, in the section entitled ‘The Invitation’, that ‘[n]evertheless she is not averse to a bit of social advancement’. Now this is either an ironic understatement more suitable to an Austen novel, or a fudging of Defoe’s intent to underline Roxana’s crucial weakness: ‘I aim’d at other things, and was possess’d with so vain an Opinion of my own Beauty, that nothing less than the KING himself was in my Eye’ (1724, p.210).

However, the voice in Field’s book is frequently that of the understated party hostess that does not obtrude upon or overly manage her guests. For example, in common with all the entries in the book, the next section is called ‘The Venue’. Here Field quotes Roxana’s description that her apartment was in a house ‘out of which was a private Door into the King’s Garden’ (1724, p.200). Defoe places Roxana’s comment some time before her comment on catching the King’s eye, separated as they are by the discussion of Roxana’s financial dealings with Sir Robert Clayton. Presumably Defoe intended for us to remember the significant topography of her apartment when he has Roxana admit her vanity. Coming immediately after her comment on social advancement, Field manages to infer just as much as Defoe intended about Roxana’s social vanity and her choice of location. In ‘The Outcome’, she comments, in another understatement, that ‘Roxana has succeeded in catching the royal eye’, footonoting that ‘It is perhaps no coincidence that Roxana resides on Pall Mall, as did the King’s most famous mistress, Nell Gwynne.’ Location, location, location: Defoe’s interleaving of sexuality, historical allusion and moral topography is clear in Roxana’s party.


[1] Suzette Field, A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature (London, Picador: 2012), pp.33-38.

[2] Edward Hatton, A New View of London. London, 1708, p.61.

[3] John Macky, A Journey Through England. London, 1714, pp. 107-109. Macky later breathlessly lists the members of the aristocracy living on Pall Mall and the streets around, p. 128.

Suzanne Beleau, a.k.a. Roxana.

Should we call Roxana ‘Suzanne Beleau’? This admittedly fanciful question turned into an interesting thought experiment while I have been teaching Defoe’s novel to my students. So, here’s my thinking.

It is worth emphasizing that the novel now known and published as ‘Roxana’ did not originally have that as its main title when it was first published in 1724. It was, as you can see hereThe Fortunate Mistress (image from Lilly Library, Indiana University).

The novel’s main title was not Roxana until the 1742 edition which, like all the subsequent editions in the eighteenth century, was significantly altered and amended (John Mullan usefully summarises the history of the various versions of Roxana throughout the eighteenth century in the 1996 Oxford edition). The original title, as a number of commentators have pointed out, might have been either reacting to or piggy-backing upon a novel published the previous year entitled Idalia; Or, The Unfortunate Mistress by another successful contemporary novelist, Eliza Haywood. It’s perhaps significant that Haywood chose to name her heroine and Defoe did not – was Defoe signalling that the theme of identity was going to be crucial in way that it wasn’t in Haywood’s novel? Certainly, the other two names mentioned on the title page of The Fortunate Mistress – ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ and ‘Countess de Wintelsheim’ – underline that this is going to be a ‘History’ of ‘Vast Variety’ and that our heroine’s ‘Fortunes’ are centrally concerned with an exciting and perhaps morally dubious kind of shape-shifting and self-fashioning.

All the subsequent versions after the 1724 edition, then, make one scene in the novel central: that of the ball held by our heroine (note I do not call her by that name yet):

At the finishing the Dance, the Company clapp’d and almost shouted; and one of the Gentlemen cry’d out, Roxana! Roxana! by —, with an Oath; upon which foolish Accident I had the Name of Roxana presently fix’d upon me all over the Court End of Town, as effectually as if I had been Christen’d Roxana. (1724, p.215)

Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Abingdon as Roxalana, Courtesy of jaded-mandarin.tumblr.com

So it is only at this point that our heroine becomes named as ‘Roxana’. It is at this point in the novel that she becomes mistress to a man with whom she is obliged to live ‘retir’d’ and conceal from us his name. It’s clearly an allusion to being mistress to Charles II (and an allusion to another famous name – that of Nell Gwynne; and like ‘Roxana’, she also lived in apartments at Pall Mall). Clearly, then, all the subsequent editions chose this moment as the emblem of our heroine’s career as a prostitute, representing the apogee of her reign as a mistress and courtesan of high status. However, it is also undoubtedly significant that this career high is achieved in conjunction with her masquerade in Oriental costume. It is as if when she is most artificial that she is named; that when she is in masquerade she is most herself – at least what other people understand to be herself. And it is an irony not lost on ‘Roxana’ (let’s call her that now) when she characterizes the naming as a ‘foolish Accident’. The irony deepens and darkens when the artificiality becomes a revelation:

it began to be publick, that Roxana was, in short, a meer Roxana, neither better or worse; and not that Woman of Honour and Virtue that was at first supps’d. (1724, p.223)

She now finds herself trapped in an identity not of her own choosing, one thrust upon her. It’s an irony that draws upon the contemporary notion that masquerades could actual reveal.

Defoe demonstrates an impressive control of the novel’s narrative arc when he later introduces her daughter, abandoned after the failure of her first marriage early in the novel. Her recognition of her mother depends upon her recognition of the Oriental costume ‘Roxana’ had worn at the ball, again linking disguise with revelation.

But importantly for my point, the daughter’s name is ‘Susan’ – as ‘Roxana’ remarks, ‘she was my own Name’ (1724, p.252). Defoe only reveals this in the latter third of the novel; he pointedly does not even give our heroine a name at the beginning of the novel. He also makes her family migrants, Protestant refugees fleeing France in the late seventeenth century, so that right at the opening of the novel Defoe loosens the ground beneath our heroine’s feet condemning (or freeing?) her to a life of constantly mutating identity. However, we know she was born in Poictiers, France. Given her French background, we might think of the name mentioned in the title page ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ to have been her birth-name, although one could also say that ‘Susan’ isn’t a particularly French-sounding name. But I was reminded of a comment Defoe has Crusoe offer about his own name: ‘I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe’ (1719, p.1). So Susan could have been a mutation in the same way. Perhaps, I thought to myself, her name could be Suzanne Beleau?

Now I know she isn’t a real person, so it’s fanciful to argue what her real name is. But as a pedagogical experiment I suggested to my students that we call her either Susan or Suzanne. There were some mixed reactions to this thought experiment in the class, and perhaps it was too contrived (although given how contrived ‘Roxana’s’ identity is, this might be appropriate). It did indeed feel strange to refer to her as Susan or Suzanne instead of ‘Roxana’, as we did in one of the classes. However, shuttling back and forth through the novel using the name Susan / Suzanne brought to light the novel’s insistent concerns of secrecy, naming and self-fashioning in a way that I’ve not been able to emphasise before. It helped open up that gap between the identities our heroine fashions for herself, to underline Susan / Suzanne’s anxieties about the daughter’s discovery of her real mother, to in effect reveal quite how far Susan / Suzanne had come from herself by the end of the novel.

Our Summer Friends the Swallows

It is a nice coincidence that I’m thinking about a scene concerning the migration of swallows in Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain just at the time when the swallows are returning for the British summer. Early in the Tour, describing the town of Southwold during the first circuit up the East coast, Defoe offers this ‘trifling’ digression:

At this Town in particular, and so at all the Towns on this Coast, from Orford-Ness to Yarmouth, is the ordinary Place where our Summer Friends the Swallows, first land when they come to Visit us; and here they may be said to Embark for their Return, when they go back into warmer Climates.[1]

What follows is Defoe’s memory of previous visit, when he saw swallows flocking for migration:

some Years before …about the beginning of October, and lodging in a House that looked into the Church-yard, I observ’d in the evening an unusual multitude of Birds sitting on the Leads of the Church. Curiosity led me to go nearer to see what they were, and I found they were all Swallows; that there was such an infinite Number that they cover’d the whole Roof of the Church, and of several Houses near. (1:83-84)

Defoe then relates a conversation with a ‘grave Gentleman’ who explains that the birds are waiting for the right wind:

you must then understand first, that this is the Season of the Year when the Swallows, their Food here failing, begin to leave us, and return to the Country, where-ever it be, from whence I suppose they came; and this being the nearest to the Coast of Holland, they come here to Embark. (1:84)

Given that at this time no-one knew for certain the swallows’ ultimate destination, it is perhaps understandable that Defoe presumed that if they are gathering on the coast they are about to fly over the nearest stretch of sea. In fact, we now know a fair amount about the migration habits of Hirundo rustica: rather than cross the North Sea to Holland from Suffolk, it is likely that the swallows were gathering to fly further south to cross the English Channel since their route would take them over France on their journey to Africa. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disappearance of birds in winter was a mystery and an active topic of debate. So what were some of the potential contexts for Defoe’s thinking on the migration of swallows?

Tim Birkhead’s wonderful history of bird lore and ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds, spends some time on the various theories concerning the disappearance of birds in winter. Since the classical period, the debate had veered between the conception of migration as we now understand it and the notion that birds, in a condition of ‘torpor’, hibernate inside trees, in rock crevices or even under water. But it was during the seventeenth century that ‘the view that swallows, along with swifts and martins, spent their winters under water  became increasingly entrenched. Sucked into the debate, some claimed to have witnessed the phenomena and seen swallows taken from their watery resting place.’ While by the mid-eighteenth century natural philosophers were increasingly likely to dismiss this, the idea of torpor and underwater hibernation persisted and the debate rumbled on over the course of the century.[2]

From the period most relevant here – the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – there were just a few tracts debating the question of bird migration, including those by John Ray, William Derham and Charles Morton. The move from theories of torpor and submersion to migration can be seen in the work of John Ray: in Ornithology he hedges his bets by including both possibilities for the Swallow: ‘To us it seems more probable that they fly away into hot Countries, viz. Egypt, Aethiopia, &c. then that either they lurk in hollow trees, or holes of Rocks and ancient buildings, or lie in water under the Ice in Northern Countries.’[3] But his later book, The Wisdom of God, focuses upon the idea of the ‘migration of Birds from an hotter to a colder Country, or from a colder to an hotter, according to the Seasons of the Year’ and he suggests, though without any confidence, that birds are reacting to either changes in temperature or food supply.[4] William Derham’s slightly later tract Physico-Theology  also posits that changes in temperature ‘are great Incentives to those Creatures to change their Habitation’, though, like Ray, is still baffled as to exactly why.[5] Most surprising of all is the argument put forward by Defoe’s old Dissenting Academy tutor, Charles Morton. Morton clearly dismisses the theories of submersion and torpor, but only to offer the theory that ‘it is not impossible that divers of these Fowls, which makes such Changes, and observe their Seasons, do pass and repass between this and the Moon.’[6]

By the time the first volume of Defoe’s Tour appeared, The Wisdom of God was in its eighth edition and Physico-Theology in its sixth, and Defoe may also have been aware of his old tutor’s tract on the subject. Defoe has his ‘grave Gentleman’ offer an explanation of the disappearance of swallows not unlike all three tracts, in that it is based upon migration. But the gentleman’s explanation for why they migrate is then amplified by Defoe:

Certain it is, that the Swallows neither come hither for warm Weather, nor retire from Cold, the thing is of quite another Nature; they, like the Shoals of Fish in the Sea, pursue their Prey; they are a voracious Creature, they feed flying; their Food is found in the Air, viz. the Insects; of which in our Summer Evenings, in damp and moist Places, the Air is full; they come hither in the Summer, because our Air is fuller of Fogs and Damps than in other Countries, and for that Reason, feeds great Quantities of Insects; if the Air be hot and dry, the Gnats die of themselves, and even the Swallows will be found famish’d for Want, and fall down dead out of the Air, their Food being taken from them: In like manner, when cold Weather comes in, the Insects all die, and then of Necessity, the Swallows quit us, and follow their Food where-ever they go; this they do in the manner I have mentioned above; for sometimes they are seen to go off in vast Flights like a Cloud; And sometimes again, when the Wind grows fair, they go away a few and a few, as they come, not staying at all upon the Coast. (1:85)

Defoe’s theory of the swallow’s migration carefully rejects one explanation – that they migrate simply in response to changes in the weather – in favour of a more complex one: that their migration is based upon feeding habits which in turn, and only secondarily, are dependent upon the weather. There is a satisfying significance that, on this subject, Defoe breaks ranks with his old tutor (considering Morton’s influence on Defoe’s world-view). Defoe does not offer an accurate account of the swallows’ journey; however, it is important to note that he does offer a substantially more refined explanation of migration than can be found in either Ray or Derham’s tracts. So, while Tim Birkhead relegates Defoe to a footnote, and the scene is a mere diversion in the epic Tour, Defoe’s ‘trifling’ digression is a forthright and carefully thought-through intervention in a small but significant debate in eighteenth-century natural history.


[1] Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724]); 1:83.

[2] Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), pp.131-72 (p.144).

[3] Ray, The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton (London, 1678) p.212.

[4] Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (London, 1701), p.143. The first edition was in 1691, although the swallows were not discussed until the enlarged third edition of 1701 and in subsequent editions.

[5] Derham, Physico-Theology: or, a demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from his works of creation (second ed.; London, 1714), p.358.

[6] Morton, An essay towards the probable solution of this question. Whence come the stork and the turtle, the crane and the swallow, when they know and observe the appointed time of their coming. Or where those birds do probably make their recess and abode, which are absent from our Climate at some certain Times and Seasons of the Year (1703), p.18.

Moving Parts

For a paper I was giving about Defoe and emotion, I began thinking  about the roots of the word ‘emotion’. So I was genuinely intrigued when I re-read a passage in Robinson Crusoe which seemed to draw a very mechanistic picture of ‘emotion’. It’s the moment when, after witnessing a shipwreck with all hands lost, Robinson Crusoe reflects on his ‘strange longing ‘ for a ‘fellow creature’.

There are some secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in View, or be it some Object, tho’ not in View, yet render’d present to the Mind by the Power of Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable.

Such were these earnest Wishings, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words O that it had been but One! A thousand Times; and the Desires were so mov’d by it, that when I spoke the Words, my Hands would clinch together, and my Fingers press the Palms of my Hands, that if I had had any soft Thing in my Hand, it wou’d have crusht it involuntarily; and my Teeth in my Head wou’d strike together, and set against one another so strong, that for some time I cou’d not part them again.

Let the Naturalists explain these Things, and the Reason and Manner of them; all I can say to them, is, to describe the Fact, which was even surprizing to me when I found it, though I knew not from what it should proceed; it was doubtless the effect of ardent Wishes, and of strong Ideas form’d in my Mind, realizing the Comfort, which the Conversation of one of my Fellow-Christians would have been to me.[1]

I’ll come back to this passage later, but you’ll have noticed Defoe doesn’t use the word ’emotion’ but there is plenty of ‘motion’. In this short paper I want to briefly emphasise this language of physical movement.

When we say that we are ‘moved’, we fail to recognise a link which is now largely forgotten. For Defoe (and his contemporaries) emotion as physical movement was part of the language used to imagine the workings of the mind, body and soul. The etymology root of ‘emotion’ is ‘motion’ and the OED documents the (now obsolete) inter-changeability of motion and emotion:

2. A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense). Obs.

4. a. fig. Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

A good example of how ‘emotion’ encompasses and crosses between physical and figurative senses can be found in John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693/ 1705) when he describes the advantages of cold baths during summer for a boy, except ‘when Exercise has at all warm’d him, or left any Emotion in his Blood or Pulse.’ Here, Locke evokes a mechanistic image of the body. Later, when he describes how to best to wean a child off ‘vain terrors’, using the example of a boy’s fear of a frog, he advises that the parent accustom him to it until he can ‘see it leap without Emotion’.[2] Clearly, Locke saw little confusion arising from this use: it implies an overlap between somatic and mental processes.

Certainly the old theory of the humours and ‘animal spirits’ allowed for this cross-over between emotion and motion. In Defoe’s Mere Nature Delineated, Defoe’s satirical debate on Peter the ‘wild’ boy of Germany, Defoe discusses Peter’s understanding as it relates to hearing: ‘like a Horse, or any Fellow Brute, his Ear could convey no Notions to his Understanding, of the Things he heard, … When a Battalion of Soldiers, exercising in the Park, fired their Volleys, the Horses, the Dogs, the Deer, all discovered an Emotion, but he none at all’. Defoe is describing a physical or physiological [somatic] reaction.[3] But it becomes clear that Defoe’s use of the term ‘Emotion’ as it relates to human animals should be intertwined with an imaginative sensibility, a sensibility that Peter lacks, for he is equally indifferent to all noises: ‘the spiriting chearful Trumpet rouzes him no more than the croaking of Frogs … or the Houling [sic] of a Dog foreboding Death’. However, the word gains an addition layer of meaning when Defoe concludes ‘Thus, without the least Emotion of his Spirit, suppose he received  all these differing Applications of Nature; so, in a Word, I do not find but his Ears are of very little Use to him’.[4]

What we see here is an attempt to represent the operations of the mind using a language that conjures images of physical movement. It certainly leads to the question about the seat of human spirit and plugs straight into the debate between the relationship between the body and the soul. ‘Spirit’  bridges both somatic and mental senses in the way that the Galenic conception of ‘animal spirits’ did: ‘superfine fluids which shuttled between the mind and the vitals, conveying messages and motion’ in Roy Porter’s succinct definition.[5] Moreover, for Defoe, Peter’s motionless ‘Spirit’ also indicates a lack of a soul (the point of this tract). This is doubly resonant since for Defoe the human soul and spirit conversed with the immaterial spirits of the Angelic world: ‘Now by what Agency must it be that we have Direction’, he asks ‘if some intelligent Being … had not caused the Emotion which alarms the Soul?’[6]

So far, this exemplifies Geoffrey Sill’s general argument about Defoe in The Cure of the Passions and the Origins of the English Novel – a substantial part of which was devoted to a discussion of Defoe’s works in relation to Christian and Galenic-humoural strands of thinking and Defoe’s perception of the relation between the passions, the soul and the body (although he does not examine Mere Nature Delineated).  Sill conceptualised Defoe’s world-view in physiological terms. But to what extent is Defoe indebted to the ‘new science’ of the body? Sill mobilises late 17thC physicians Thomas Sydenham and Giorgio Baglivi to argue that their diagnoses of hypochondria pointed to an emotional rather than a somatic cause, and so to support his claim for Defoe’s interest in the documenting the progress of human passions as the primary cause or origin.[7] But causes and symptoms were still hopelessly confused in the theories of nervous illness (and more than Sill has given credit for). Sir Richard Blackmore, in Treatise of the Spleen (1725), says that both body and mind are both cause and symptom of hypochondria. But in describing the commotion and ferment in a body’s defective nerves and juices, concludes that ‘this immoderate Emotion, Disturbance and Dissipation of Spirits will account for all Hypochondriacal Complaints, they will no less explain the Symptoms belonging to the Exercise of the intellectual Faculties.’ The interdependent and internal action of mind and body is clear here; but a later use of the word ‘emotion’ in relation to hysteria describes external motion:

These Persons are likewise by violent Convulsions, caused by the disorderly and unruly Motions of the Spirits, frequently afflicted with great Pains though all the Muscular Parts of the Body, involuntary Catchings up of the Limbs, and a sudden striking or stretching them out, ungovernable Agitations of the Arms,  tossing of the Head, and sometimes a stiff and rigid Posture of the Body, in which they continue a while inflexible; and at other times they strive and struggle with extraordinary Emotion.[8]

It’s at this point I want to return to my passage from Robinson Crusoe, and to point out the parallel between Blackmore’s description of hysteria and Crusoe’s state of mind (with my emphases):

There are some secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in View, or be it some Object, tho’ not in View, yet render’d present to the Mind by the Power of Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable.

Such were these earnest Wishings, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words O that it had been but One! A thousand Times; and the Desires were so mov’d by it, that when I spoke the Words, my Hands would clinch together, and my Fingers press the Palms of my Hands, that if I had had any soft Thing in my Hand, it wou’d have crusht it involuntarily; and my Teeth in my Head wou’d strike together, and set against one another so strong, that for some time I cou’d not part them again.

Let the Naturalists explain these Things, and the Reason and Manner of them; all I can say to them, is, to describe the Fact, which was even surprizing to me when I found it, though I knew not from what it should proceed; it was doubtless the effect of ardent Wishes, and of strong Ideas form’d in my Mind, realizing the Comfort, which the Conversation of one of my Fellow-Christians would have been to me.

The use of ‘Motion’ is intriguing. What precisely is it describing? The ‘that’ or ‘the’ refers the ‘Motion’ in this sentence to the ‘Springs in the Affection’ that have been ‘set a going’ by the ‘Imagination’. Clearly this use confuses physical, physiological and psychological connotations. While Defoe has Crusoe give up on a philosophical or medical explanation (‘let the Naturalists explain’), the parallel drawn between the workings of a clock or watch and the human mind is a strikingly mechanistic or materialist explanation for Defoe.

Intriguingly, the passage is altered in an abridged edition of 1719 (again, my emphases):

There are some secret Springs in the Affections which, when they are set a going by something in View, or not in View, yet render’d immediate to the Mind by the Force of Imagination, the Motion hurries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Loss of it is insupportable.

And thus were these eager Desires, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words, O that it had been but One! a thousand Times; and my Affections were so mov’d by it, that when I exprest the Words, my Hands would clinch together with a violent Emotion, and the Teeth in my Head strike together, and so strongly that I could not part them again easily.

Nor can I account for the Mystery of these Things; let the Naturalists explain them if they are able.[9]

The editor’s process of abridgment only partially accounts for the insertion of ‘Emotion’. It partly stands in as a short-hand to describe the emphasis in the original on the violent and involuntary movement of Crusoe’s hands. What is intriguing syntactically is that hands can have an emotion at all. Clearly the connotation  of emotion here includes physical motion (its etymological origin), but what else does the word connote? The insertion of the word ‘emotion’ draws upon the word’s other meanings that makes Crusoe’s violently perturbed state of mind more explicit than in the original.

Thinking about the images of physical movement in relation to emotion or the passions can be useful for Defoe studies, not because I want to undermine Defoe’s profound sense of the immaterial world, but rather because it gives us a deeper and more complex view of how and in what discourses Defoe envisioned the workings of the human mind.


[1] First edition. London: printed for W. Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster-Row, 1719, pp.222-23 (ESTC T072268, in the BL)

[2] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. by James L. Axtell (CUP, 1968) [from 1705 edition], pp. 12, 204. Thomas Dyche’s Dictionary (1732) under ‘Emotion’ has this definition: ‘a violent struggle of the Mind, a stirring or endeavour to go forth’. For ‘Motion’ one of the definitions is this: ‘Impulse or strong Inclination excited in the Mind’.

[3] See also Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, Book, II, Ch. I, § 23.

[4] Daniel Defoe, Mere Nature Delineated (London, 1726), pp.34, 35. See also The Family Instructor in Two Parts (1718) vol. 2, p.164.

[5] Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Allen Lane, 2003), p.47.

[6] He adds, ‘thus there is a Converse of Spirits … between our Spirits embodied and cased up in Flesh, and the Spirits unembodied’. Daniel Defoe, An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, ed. G.A Starr; in Satire, Fantasy and Writings on the Supernatural, eds, Furbank and Owens (Pickering and Chatto, 2005), 8: 45.

[7] Sill, Cure of the Passions, p.75.

[8] Sir Richard Blackmore, Treatise of the Spleen, pp.34-35, 137.

[9] Subtitled ‘now faithfully abridg’d’. London: printed for T. Cox at the Amsterdam Coffee-House near the Royal Exchange, 1719,  p.166 (ESTC T072298, in the BL).