Who ransack’d Kingdoms, and dispeopl’d Towns.
The Pict and Painted Britain, Treach’rous Scot,
By Hunger, Theft, and Rapine, hither brought.Norwegian Pirates, Buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-hair’d Offspring ev’ry where remains.
Who join’d with Norman-French, compound the Breed
From whence your True-Born Englishmen proceed.’
‘The True-Born Englishman. A Satire’
At first glance, it is difficult to know what to make of this poem. In its earliest stages the poem positively fumes acid from the earnest bigotry with which Defoe constructs stereotypes for just about every kind of nationality that existed at the time. Readers be reassured, however: this text was in fact intended as a critique of the racist elements of English society who thought the ‘True-Born Englishman’ was a being altogether superior to the rest of humanity. He does this by first listing all the faults that such racist detractors might identify with these supposedly inferior nationalities, and then by pointing out that the ‘True-Born Englishman’ of the title is in fact descended from all these various nations through Britain’s mottled history of invasions, raids, violence, and intermarriage (or similar). Thus he asserts the fundamental absurdity of claiming that any Englishman is ‘True-Born’, as they are all basically descended from what the racists would term ‘foreigners’. To avoid the risk of misinterpretation, Defoe provides the helpful pointer in his Preface that he is ‘one that would be glad to see Englishmen behave themselves better to Strangers’ (with 'strangers' in this context meaning foreigners).
Indeed, the importance of this Preface as a means of interpreting the poem would seem to be very great. At the Defoe Society’s biennial conference this week, Andreas Mueller gave a very interesting talk on later reprints of the text, in particular American reprints; somewhat amusingly, an abridged version was published in Philadelphia around the time of the British occupation of that same city during the American Revolutionary War. The removal of the Preface was one of various alterations which, Muller showed, had reconstructed the text as a depiction of the ‘True-Born Englishman’ as a somewhat vain and inglorious individual. Defoe would probably have been horrified.
For the aim of his original poem would seem to have been to promote racial integration rather than to just annoy everyone. Defoe claims in his poem’s Preface that ‘The End of Satire is Reformation’, referring here to the reform of absurd or offensive ideologies; in particular, he is keen to whip up support for the Dutch King William of Orange (the Protestant William III who, together with his wife Mary, had just usurped the English throne from Mary’s father James II). Yet the sense that this is primarily a piece of political propaganda is perhaps dispelled by considering the broader attitude towards foreigners that is featured across Defoe’s writings. As Angela Gehling demonstrated in her conference talk, Defoe was somewhat unique in his depiction (across various works) of Spaniards as paragons of honesty and courteousness. At the time, Spaniards were often regarded as being the complete opposite of this (a stereotype which Gehling demonstrated still features in popular culture today).
These are complex issues and this is a complicated poem, but don’t let this put you off: it is also an enormously engaging and thought provoking text, and the issues it deals with surrounding racism and politics remain vividly relevant in today’s political arena. Frankly, this is a poem that everyone should read, whether or not they regard themselves as ‘True-Born’ English.
Happy reading! As always, feel free to ask questions and leave comments!
You can find this poem:
(a digital edition of the original, first edition of Defoe’s poem, compiled by Luke Dawson; a very concise, useful, and free way to enjoy this text)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/True-Born-Englishman-Satire-Daniel-Defoe/dp/B00UL585MY/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1437847223&sr=1-4&keywords=true+born+englishman(a new printed version of the book… a word to the wise, though, don’t bother reading the Amazon reviews. One of them claims that this is ‘Austen from a man’s point of view’, and I have to admit it has been a very long time since I read a sentence that was such complete tosh!)
It is nonetheless interesting if you just want a quick snapshot of the style of the piece)
About the Defoe Society Conference:The Defoe Society ( http://www.defoesociety.org/ ) was established in 2006 to promote research upon, and interest in, the works of Daniel Defoe, and to basically just spread the word about what a masterful and engaging writer he is. This week’s conference was an opportunity for Defoe scholars from all over the world to come together and exchange ideas; the people I’ve referenced in my discussion above are only a very small sample of what was a vibrant and absorbing array of academic knowledge. To gain access to a broader range of the thoughts and ideas that were being mooted, search for the hashtag #Defoe15 on Twitter to look back over the excellent live-tweeting of Stephen Gregg ( @gregg_sh ) during the conference. Because literary research is for everyone, not just academics!
You can find out more about Defoe:
Encyclopædia Britannica (a more sophisticated, and perhaps more reliable, form of Wikipedia)