Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe was an English writer, trader, journalist, pamphleteer, and spy. He was born in London, became a soldier, and then took to journalism. He is one of the earliest, and in some ways, the greatest, of the Grub Street hacks. He worked for both the Whigs and the Tories, by whom he was frequently employed in obscure and questionable work. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and he was educated in a Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington run by Charles Morton. After leaving school and deciding not to become a dissenting minister, Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woolen goods, and wine. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley; six of their eight children lived into adulthood. After expanding into the import-export business for goods such as tobacco and alcohol, Defoe made some unwise investments and in 1692 declared bankruptcy. He was twice briefly imprisoned for his debts, negotiating his freedom with the aid of recognisance (guarantors) and becoming an accountant and investment advisor to the government and private business owners.

His Poetry

Defoe wrote some form of poetry all his life, but his great period of poetic composition was from 1699 to 1707. Here and there, especially in the Review, he left distichs, lampoons, pasquinades, fragments of songs, and ballads; he also included verses in his novels. One can track the development of his thought in the poems, his attachment to certain ideas, such as reform or morality, his theoretical interests in the language and style of poetry, his habit of casting poems into irony, and his skill in creating large poetic “fictions” that permit him to draw together numerous “characters” in recognizable patterns. Within his lifetime a few poems had considerable popularity, in, for example, the 1703 Poems on Affairs of State. The poems are taken up chronologically, with a few exceptions; and some efforts are made to create larger groupings of the poems, such as parliament poems, moral satires, and Scottish poems. The best texts of the poems, with annotations and headnotes, are to be found in Poems on Affairs of State: Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660-1714, volumes 6 and 7 (1970, 1975).

Political Writing

Like most of the other writers of his time, Defoe turned out mass political tracts and pamphlets. Many of them appeared in his journal, The Review, which, issued in 1704, is in several ways the forerunner of The Tatler and The Spectator. His ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ (1702) brought upon him official wrath and caused him to be fined, imprisoned, and pilloried. He wrote one or two of his political tracts in rough verses which are more remarkable for their vigor than for their elegance. The best known of his class is The True-born Englishmen (1710). In all his propaganda, Defoe is vigorous and acute, and he has a fair command of irony and invective.

His Fiction

His works in fiction were all produced in the later part of his life, at almost incredible speed. First came Robinson Crusoe (1719); then Duncan Campbell, Memories of a Cavalier, and Captain Singleton, all three books in 1720; in 1722 appeared Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Colonel Jacque; then Roxana (1724) and A New Voyage round the World (1725). This great body of fiction has grave defects, largely due to the immense speed with which it was produced. Before his death in April 1731, Defoe was plagued by debts and restlessly moved between several different lodgings. He is buried in Bunhill Fields, the cemetery for Nonconformists.