Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by John W. Hales
Daniel Defoe (1661?–1731)
[Daniel Foe—so his father wrote his name, and so Daniel himself in his earlier life, whatever the reason for which he subsequently prefixed the “De”—was born in 1661, the son of a butcher living in St. Giles’s Parish, Cripplegate, London, a rigid dissenter. He was educated for the Presbyterian ministry, though he never became a minister. “It was my disaster,” he writes, “first to be set apart for, and then to be set apart from, that sacred employ.” From the beginning he was an eager politician. In 1685 he joined the rising of the Duke of Monmouth, but managed to escape the bitter consequences by a sojourn on the Continent. Returning he was for some years in business in Freeman’s Court, Cornhill, as a hose-factor; but was not successful in that line, failing in 1692, though he eventually paid all his creditors in full. Then he established tile-kiln and brick-kiln works at Tilbury on the Thames; but his prosperity there, whatever its degree,—he himself states it to have been considerable,—was destroyed by his imprisonment in 1703 for “libelling” the Tory party in his famous pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. In fact politics, and what we should call journalism, irresistibly attracted and exactly suited him; and to them he presently devoted all his time and energy. Even in Newgate his literary enterprise was active, and he started his serial The Review. With his release in 1704, through Harley’s intervention, the history of Defoe’s life becomes obscure, and his conduct, to say the least, highly dubious, and, after the accession of George I., worse than dubious, for then, though really as always a Whig, he connected himself with certain Tory journals, having a clandestine arrangement with the Whig Government, that while seeming to be under its frown, and nominally serving the Tories, he should actually be a sort of spy in the Tory camp, and should so use his position as to make their counsels of none effect. Defoe appears to have thought that his end was so good that he was justified in employing any means for its attainment. His was an age of low morality in many respects; and, if not worse, he was certainly no better than his age. No wonder if Mist, one of the editors whom for some eight years he had thus deluded and disabled, fiercely assaulted him on discovering the trick of which he had been the victim. What is curious is Defoe’s surprise at Mist’s very natural fury. It was in the midst of those intrigues—and the fact that it was so is an admirable instance of Defoe’s marvellous facility—that he wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719) and his other pieces of fiction, as The Life and Piracies of Captain Singleton (1720), The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (1721), The Life of Colonel Jacque, who was born a Gentleman but bred a Pickpocket (also 1721), A Journal of the Plague (1723), etc. Mist’s assault on Defoe took place in 1726, and probably from that time, Defoe’s Jesuitical practices having been discovered, he was severely discredited as a political writer. But he continued as industrious as ever in other literary ways; and, for whatever reason, he got into fresh trouble. What is probably the last writing of his extant is a letter to his son-in-law (Henry Baker, the naturalist), in which he represents himself as in hiding “under a very heavy weight of illness,” his family ruined and his heart broken, through “the injustice, unkindness, and I must say inhuman dealing of my own son.” On the 24th April 1731 his strange wonderful activity came to an end; he died of apoplexy in Ropemaker’s Alley, Moorfields, in the parish of his birth, and was buried in “Tindall’s,” now known as Bunhill Fields.]  1
DEFOE is one of the most voluminous of English writers. During a long life his pen was scarcely ever out of his hand. A complete edition of his works has never yet been, and, the ephemeral interest of many of them considered, is scarcely ever likely to be published; nor probably, for all the industry of Mr. William Lee and others, has a complete list of them yet been made out, so much that he wrote being anonymous. Some years ago some 210 books and pamphlets could be plausibly assigned to his authorship. Such immense practice gave him a wonderful facility of style. Probably from the beginning he wrote with little effort. Certainly—later in life he wrote as readily as he thought. He expressed whatever ideas came into his mind—and his mind was never idle—with the utmost ease and fluency. He formed the habit of thinking aloud, so to speak, of thinking in a printable way; that is, it became as natural to him to write as to think. His thoughts took at once a literary, at least a journalistic shape.  2
  Of matter there was never any lack. He was a man of endless curiosities and interests. He might truly say that for him nihil humanum, or even nihil mundanum, was alienum. He lived in a time of innumerable and pauseless controversies. And there were few of these in which he did not take part. His brain was singularly active and fecund. He had his own views upon all the current questions, and he was eager and resolute to say his say about them. And many questions he himself started, and urged upon his age with characteristic pertinacity and vigour. He was an indefatigable journalist, and struck out new lines in journalism, so that he has left a permanent impression upon our periodical press. The leading article may be said to be one of his creations, or a development of one of them. He was a trenchant pamphleteer, and twice received from the government the painful compliment of imprisonment for his brilliant success in that department. In the fierce clamours of his time one may incessantly—one might almost say always—detect his voice, clear, irrepressible, effective.  3
  Such incessant occupation with burning questions, and such amazing productiveness might well have prepared us to expect little or nothing of permanent literary value from Defoe. The shrewd remark that easy writing makes hard reading at once recurs to us. The man whose tongue is never quiet seldom utters anything worth hearing. The thoughts of him who perpetually thinks aloud are apt to be wanting in finish and in weight. The calamus that is always currens must surely run away with him who holds it, or tries to hold it. But all such criticisms must be applied with caution to the case of Defoe. He had in an eminent degree the gift of ready writing, and this gift he assiduously cultivated, so that to write, and what is more to write with success, was as easy to him as to speak. He never let his gift of ready writing prove his ruin. For usually men are betrayed and ruined by such facility. They cease to be the masters but become the mere slaves of it. They are confounded and confused by their own abundance. Defoe kept his gift well in hand. He never permitted himself to be merely self-confident and careless. Nor, after all, incessantly as he wrote, did he ever yield idly to the impulse to say something when in fact he had nothing to say.  4
  But he never aimed at being a stylist in the ordinary sense of the term—at writing elaborately and with the idea of producing what was exquisite in form and expression for its own sake or partly for its own sake. He had no æsthetic purpose; but was always eminently earnest and practical and didactic, a man of affairs and of business. His great object was to speak clearly and forcibly, not to turn out sentences of fine rhythm and choice phrasing. What he specially studied was directness and cogency. For the most part, till the last dozen years of his life, he dealt merely with the questions of the day; he addressed an audience that was excited and inflamed, on which any elegancies of style would have been wholly wasted. Thus for any ornamenting of his weapon, to speak metaphorically, he cared little or nothing; his one supreme care was that it should be trenchant—that it should do its work and go home.  5
  And few men have more completely succeeded in their aim than Defoe. He became a potent master of language, and made it do exactly his bidding, such as it was. To play with words—to group them in new and surprising and charming combinations (Horace’s callidæ juncturæ), to place them in novel situations and bring out unrecognised graces—this was not at all his way, not at all his end. Language was with him a mere instrument of expression, not in itself a thing of beauty with claims of its own for consideration. It was his slave rather than his mistress.  6
  But it would be a great misuse of terms to say that Defoe was no artist. Rather within his limits he was an admirable and a most successful artist. He produced precisely the effects he wished to produce; and used always his material with singular judgment and skill. We may feel his world of thought somewhat narrow, and, as we enter it, may be keenly aware that there are more things in heaven and earth—so many more!—than are dreamt of in his philosophy; but in that world he is supreme. Thus no one has ever equalled Defoe in the art of literary deception, that is, in the art of making his own inventions pass for realities, in the art of “lying like truth”: no one has ever so frequently and completely taken in his readers. Again and again his fictions have been cited as genuine and original records: from time to time even now is heard a doubt whether The Memoirs of a Cavalier, for instance, is not really a transcript of some seventeenth-century MS. It was once said that Defoe had in fact Alexander Selkirk’s papers before him when he wrote Robinson Crusoe; but there is not the least shadow of support for that statement. It is undoubtedly baseless. This art of deception he evidently studied with infinite zest and care. Populus vult decipi, he might have said to himself, and perhaps did say, et decipiatur. In his actual life there was much dissembling and much simulation, however he reconciled his conduct with his conscience. In his novels he carried this art, such as it is, to the highest possible perfection. On internal evidence only it is often not possible to distinguish his fiction from fact. The imposition is absolute. Defoe is the arch deceiver of literature.  7
  In his Robinson Crusoe this sovereign lord of illusion has given us one of the most popular books of the world. And here happily we have not only to admire the incomparable realism of the rendering, but to be grateful for a quite inestimable embodiment of a resolute and indomitable spirit, not to be crushed by any adversities, but making good out of bad—making the best out of the worst. Rousseau might well except it from the ban he pronounced on the literature commonly put into the hands of children. This is certainly Defoe’s most important claim on our remembrance; it is in it that he still lives and moves and has his being amongst us. The author of such a book must for ever be held in high esteem as a friend of the human race.  8
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