Swift and Defoe: early journalists

Defoe in the pillory after the publication of 'The Shortest Way with Dissenters'.

Defoe in the pillory after the publication of 'The Shortest Way with Dissenters'.

Jonathan Swift

Portrait of Jonathan Swift.

A typical coffee-house in London at the end of the seventeenth century. Coffee-houses were very popular centers for political discussions. Newspapers and pamphlets were distributed there or pinned up for all to read.

A typical coffee-house in London at the end of the seventeenth century. Coffee-houses were very popular centers for political discussions. Newspapers and pamphlets were distributed there or pinned up for all to read.

In 1695 England gained freedom of the press. It did not happen very dramatically and no one was very pleased about it at the time, but it happened much earlier than in most of the countries in Europe.


In 1663, three years after Charles II was restored to the throne of England, a so-called Licensing Act was passed by Parliament. This said that before any written work could be printed it had to be officially 'licensed' by the Stationer's Hall in London. This was in case it should contain any criticisms of the government. A special officer, called the Surveyor of Imprimery, had the job of trying to stop all illegal or unlicensed printing and of destroying the presses from which it came.


This licensing Act was renewed from time to time by Parliament and on each occasion given a set time to run. But in 1695 Parliament did not renew it. This was not because the members thought the press should be free but because the censors had been doing their job very badly and making themselves look ridiculous. So now books no longer had to be licensed and anything could be printed.


There was one snag, however – and a big one. Though the government no longer censored books, it could prosecute their authors for writing seditious libel, and almost any criticism of the government could be called seditious libel. From that one might think the press was muzzled as before, but this is not so. Libel cases in the courts often gave more publicity to critical remarks than they would have had if let alone, so the government only prosecuted occasionally.


The result was that after 1695 there was a flood of political pamphlets, which were eagerly seized on by the public and read. These pamphlets would not be very interesting to read now were it not for the fact that many of them were written by two men of genius – Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.


Jonathan Swift

Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. He was educated at Kilkenny Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin. He got a degree, with difficulty, as he had many arguments with the college authorities. In 1689 he came to England to try to make a career in the church but found it very hard to get a job. Most of his life he spent either in Dublin or near London, and in 1713 he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He died in Dublin in 1745, after a long illness which affected his brain.


Swift is one of the greatest writers of English prose. His sentences are simple and powerful, and they are at their best when attacking something or somebody – which he usually was. Swift was disgusted by the human race, though to his friends he could be very loyal. Like Defoe, he often used the weapon of irony in his writing – that is to say, instead of saying what he wanted directly he said the opposite, but in such a way as to make it seem ridiculous. An example of this occurs in 'Gulliver's Travels', where Swift makes Gulliver, staying in a land peopled by intelligent horses, described with pride the wonderful methods man has invented for fighting wars and killing his fellows. The result on the reader is to make war seem horrible and man vile for engaging in it. And here is another example. It occurs in a pamphlet called 'A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor from being a Burden to their Parents or Country':


'I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a healthy young child well nursed is as a year old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it would equally serve in a Fricasie, or a Ragout... I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who. As they have already devoured most of the parents seem to have the best title to the children'.


Swift develops his horrific theme with gusto. It must have been a vicious blow to some of the selfish rich of the day.


Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe was born in about 1660. He was the son of a butcher called James Foe, but Daniel thought the name sounded better with an aristocratic "de" in front of it. He married and had a large family which he tried to support by writing. He wrote on an extraordinary variety of topics, but he had a wonderful gift, when describing something, of making the reader feel he was there and watching it.


For example, he wrote 'A Journal of the Plague Year', which claims to be an eye-witness account of London in the year 1665. It is almost impossible to believe, as one reads it, that the writer did not see all the horrors he so vividly describes. But in the plague year Defoe was 5 years old. Like Swift, Defoe used irony. But he used it once too often. In 1702, he wrote a pamphlet called 'The Shortest Way with Dissenters'. This advised that everyone who was not a member of the Church of England should be hanged or thrown into prison.


He was really parodying some extreme writers whose views were very near to this, but most of his readers took him seriously. When they discovered it was all a hoax, they condemned him to stand in the pillory, hoping the Londoners would give him the usual treatment and pelt him with rotten eggs. But they were kind and pelted him with flowers.


The coffee-houses

Defoe and Swift were the greatest journalists of their age. They are more famous today for being the authors of the two first great English novels, 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Gulliver's Travels'. These novels are as enjoyable to read today as they were 300 years ago.


The main achievement of Defoe and Swift was to write clear, straightforward English prose which the simple members of the middle class could understand. In the previous century, English prose had been much more scholarly, full of classical quotations and difficult scientific and philosophical allusions. The new style of simple writing was largely due to the influence of the coffee-houses which flourished during the reign of Queen Anne.


These new simple literary standards had been established at the turn of the century in the coffee-houses of what is called the Augustan Age or English literature. It is also called the 'classical age' or the 'age of reason' because it was thought that all writing, whether poetry or prose, should resemble the clear and simple style of the ancient Latin writers. All these ideas were discussed in the coffee-houses.


The 'father' of the literary coffee-houses is the great poet, dramatist and critic John Dryden (1631–1700). He would spend his evenings in Will's coffee-house giving his ideas about literature to young men like Addison and Steele, who were later to popularize knowledge in magazines such as the 'Spectator' and 'Tatler'. Addison said it was his ambition to bring philosophy 'out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses'.


When Dryden died in 1700, Addison took over as the arbiter of literary taste, first at Will's and later at Button's coffee-house.


The literature of this age is friendly and cheerful. The upper and middle classes were pleased with life and their chief wish was that 'life might be more comfortable yet'.


During the reigns of George I and George II the literary men were very powerful both in politics and in society. Powerful politicians like Godolphin, Harley, and Bolingbroke employed writers to put forward political arguments to the public. Both Defoe and Swift were used in this way.