Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Saturday, 25 July 2015

'The True-Born Englishman. A Satire' - Daniel Defoe

‘A horrid Medly of Thieves and Drones,
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’
Daniel Defoe

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). 

Daniel Defoe, engraving by M. Van der Gucht,
after a portrait by J. Taverner, first half of the
18th century.  This copy was, er, 'borrowed' from
the Encyclopædia Britannica.  The earliest image
of Defoe was recently discovered by Joseph Hone,
and is an illustration on a pack of playing cards
(in which Defoe is depicted being pilloried as
punishment for penning some political pamphlets).
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)

(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!)

(This is a short extract from the poem on Poetry Foundation, which omits the most vitriolic aspects of the poem.  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 ( ) 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:

(The Defoe Society website pages have lots of fascinating info)


Encyclopædia Britannica (a more sophisticated, and perhaps more reliable, form of Wikipedia)

Friday, 17 July 2015

'The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat' - Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

‘The Queen of Birds, t'encrease the Regal Stock,
Had hatch'd her young Ones in a stately Oak,
Whose Middle-part was by a Cat possest,
And near the Root with Litter warmly drest,
A teeming Sow had made her peaceful Nest.
(Thus Palaces are cramm'd from Roof to Ground,
And Animals, as various, in them found.)’
(lines 1-7)

The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
(published 1713)

It sounds like the start of a joke, but the only humour here is of the darkest kind.  Three animals are
all living in the same tree, but one of them sees a chance of monopolising the situation and takes it.  By playing upon the fears of his neighbours, the cat finds a cunning way of coming out on top; there is no hero in this story, only a stark warning about being careful when taking advice that the advisor doesn't have their own best interests at heart.

Illustration from 1668 edition of Jean de La Fontaine's
Fables, Book III.  Woodcut by François Chauveau.
This image courtesy of:
The basic storyline comes from a French poem by Jean de La Fontaine, entitled ‘L’Aigle, la Laie, et la Chatte’, published in 1668 with the accompanying illustration by François Chauveau.  Yet Anne Finch’s poem is far more than a simple translation.  In analysing Finch’s work, both Charles H. Himnant and Paula R. Backsheider have noted how in Finch’s hands this little fable becomes a subtle political comment.  In 1688 William and Mary of Orange deposed Mary’s father, James II of England; differences of religion were the focus of the coup.  Yet while this incident is frequently referred to as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ because of the comparative peacefulness with which it took place, there were those who opposed the change.  Anne Finch and her husband, Heneage Finch, were amongst those who refused to support the new monarchs.  Fleeing London for the safety of the country, they remained active in support of James (with Heneage even ending up imprisoned for a time for having attempted to join James's exiled court in France).  For Anne, this activity was in the form of writing; through the cat’s smooth assumption of power in ‘The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat’ it is easy to see, as Paula Backsheider points out, the character of ‘the wily courtier, a figure risen from the middle ranks, who rejoices in sowing dissent’ (p. 47).  Though this is not strictly allegorical, and the politics surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ is much more complex and intricate than there is space to discuss here, this is certainly a poem that assumes a highly critical tone of those who use deceit and betrayal to usurp power.

I don’t want to get too heavy though: I originally chose this poem for inclusion here because, at least on first reading, it does seem rather funny.  A bit like an Aesop fable, it conveys a serious moral message through the means of entertainment.  It’s the kind of poem designed to make you first laugh at the gullibility of the eagle and the sow - then stop and realise that, actually, the author has quite a serious point.  Not least, it's aim is to provoke reflection upon gullibility more generally, and on the importance of not letting the selfish concern for personal safety create destructive panic.  The eagle and the sow both abandon their young because of the cat’s machinations, yet this is as much a result of their own preoccupation with self-preservation as of the cat’s deceit.    

One or two points to note before you read this: the first two lines look like a clumsy attempt at rhyme, but it’s useful to remember that pronunciation of words has changed a lot over time.  Linguistic historians would probably be able to explain it better, but basically don’t write her off as a poet just because her first couplet doesn’t seem to work; when she was writing, it probably did rhyme.  Also, when the poem refers to ‘Sow’s paps’ as a great delicacy, it is referring to mammary glands (I know, sounds disgusting: but then the cat is the villain of the piece, remember). The 'sycophant' referred to in the moral describes a person who is ingratiating towards another simply for their own gain (in this poem, the cat). 

Happy reading! And apologies to all the internet cat lovers out there!
As always, feel free to leave comments and ask questions!

You can find this poem:

(editions of Anne Finch’s poetry are not always easy to come by, so I would recommend readers use this free version of the poem available online, and from which I have taken the reading that follows.)

Other poems by Anne Finch can be found here:
(Poetry Foundation online: great free resource!!)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Carcanet Press Ltd,
(this is pretty much what it says on the tin: selected poems by Anne Finch.  Available from numerous places; I just put the link to Waterstones for variety.  And because they have a points card system…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!  Last time this came up in a blog post I entered up ordering a copy, which arrived in the post the other day… Look out for future blogs referring to poems in this exciting little anthology! There are plenty of economical priced second-hand copies of this available online too!)

The information for this blogpost was taken from the following sources:

Paula R. Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (JHU Press, 2005), p. 47
(This looks to be a fascinating and clear book; like many works of literary criticism, this might be a little expensive for small budgets (like mine), so I’ve attached a link to the pages relating to this poem, available via a preview on googlebooks)  

Charles H. Himnant, The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation (University of Delaware, 1994) pp. 194-6
(The link should lead to a googlebooks preview of the book that gives most of the relevant information about this poem)

Barbara McGovern, ‘Finch, Anne, countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 16 July 2015]
(sadly, this resource is accessible by subscription only)

Leslie Clifford Sykes, “Jean de La Fontaine”, Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2015 [accessed 17 July 2015]
(an excellent, and free, resource!)

(a website all about Jean de La Fontaine, written in French but accessible to to English-only speakers via google translate)
(a useful free dictionary online!  Always worth looking up unfamiliar words!)

You can also find out more about Anne Finch on her Wikipedia page:,_Countess_of_Winchilsea