- A Critical Study of Daniel Defoe’s Verse: Recovering the Neglected Corpus of His Poetic Work by Andreas K. E. Mueller
As Robert Mayer states in the Foreword, Defoe’s poetry has been the subject of excellent recent critical essays by J. Paul Hunter, Paula Backscheider, and D. N. DeLuna, and Defoe the poet has been discussed in biographies by Backscheider, Maximillian Novak, and John Richetti. Yet except for brief references in anthologies and histories of the age, Defoe’s verse—more than 20,000 lines, ranging from the vox populi True-Born Englishman to the magnum opus Jure Divino—has otherwise been ignored. A Critical Study of Daniel Defoe’s Verse is the first book-length effort to assess the work of one of England’s most prolific poets.
Mr. Mueller divides his ten chapters into three parts. In part I, he offers contextualized readings of Defoe’s religious meditations, ballads, satires, panegyrics, hymns, and propaganda poems, showing how Defoe transformed these Restoration-era genres as he put them to use in the service of post-Restoration causes. In part II, concentrating on The True-Born Englishman, he demonstrates that Defoe’s most famous poem was not merely a response to John Tutchin’s xenophobic The Foreigners, but also a powerful polemic on behalf of William III’s right to maintain a standing army in a time of peace. In part III, he reads the heterogeneous epic Jure Divino not as a Lockean manifesto gone awry, but as a topical poem on the issue of occasional conformity that evolved into an affirmation of liberty of conscience as inalienable natural law. For Mr. Mueller, Defoe’s success as a poet convincingly lay in the “willingness and great skill with which he appropriated and manipulated different poetic genres for his own purposes.”
Defoe’s first poems, the “Meditations” of 1681, are here collected in an Appendix, the first time they have been printed since the limited edition of 1946. They reveal an intensively religious sensibility in Defoe, one that owes more to Donne and Herbert than to Marvell or Dryden. The irregular length of the lines and stanzas of Defoe’s meditations [End Page 239] resemble the Pindarics of Cowley, and his use of triplets recalls Rochester, but the themes of “spiritual benightedness” and unworthiness of grace belong to the metaphysical tradition, to which Defoe was introduced by Charles Morton at the Newington Green academy. Though Defoe rapidly evolved into a satirist in the 1690s, his poetry never lost its moral edge: his hudibrastic poems of this period sought not only to defend Williamite political causes, but also to undermine the culture of Wit, in part by attempting to assimilate it. Wit, however, was never Defoe’s strength: he preferred his sense dressed plain.
It was once common to regard Defoe’s verse as “extraliterary,” as Frank H. Ellis did in his discussion of The True-Born Englishman in Poems on Affairs of State (1970). What Ellis meant by “extraliterary” was that Defoe’s political purposes outweighed considerations of correctness, a point that Defoe himself granted in his preface to the poem. Critics like Ellis compared Defoe’s artistry to that of Dryden and Pope and found Defoe wanting, resulting in a “blind spot in the scholarship on the period,” says Mr. Mueller. Critics after the 1970s, however, including those cited, have considered the suitability of the poem to its political purposes as part of its correctness, along with its fidelity to genre and form. Building on this work, Mr. Mueller restores the links between Defoe’s verse and the controversies of the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth. These controversies—over such matters as political corruption in Parliament and the city of London, the need for a standing army in peacetime, the right of dissenters to religious freedom, and the desirability of a union between England and Scotland—were not “extra” to literary activity, but were the very...