Session 3

[Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)]

Lecture 3
Daniel Defoe:
A Journal of the Plague Year (1665 / 1722)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Daniel Defoe (1660-1731): from A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
  • Samuel Pepys: from The Diary (1665-66)
  • Richard West: from The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe, Writer (1998)

[March 1665]:

The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times; in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since. Whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it – that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications – I know not; but certain it is, books frighted them terribly, such as Lilly's Almanack, Gadbury's Astrological Predictions, Poor Robin's Almanack, and the like; also several pretended religious books, one entitled, Come out of her, my People, lest you be Partaker of her Plagues; another called, Fair Warning; another, Britain's Remembrancer; and many such, all, or most part of which, foretold, directly or covertly, the ruin of the city. Nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who, like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, 'Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.' I will not be positive whether he said yet forty days or yet a few days. Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, 'Woe to Jerusalem!' a little before the destruction of that city. So this poor naked creature cried, 'Oh, the great and the dreadful God!' and said no more, but repeated those words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror, a swift pace; and nobody could ever find him to stop or rest, or take any sustenance, at least that ever I could hear of. I met this poor creature several times in the streets, and would have spoken to him, but he would not enter into speech with me or any one else, but held on his dismal cries continually.

These things terrified the people to the last degree, and especially when two or three times, as I have mentioned already, they found one or two in the bills dead of the plague at St Giles's.

Next to these public things were the dreams of old women, or, I should say, the interpretation of old women upon other people's dreams; and these put abundance of people even out of their wits. Some heard voices warning them to be gone, for that there would be such a plague in London, so that the living would not be able to bury the dead. Others saw apparitions in the air; and I must be allowed to say of both, I hope without breach of charity, that they heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared; but the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed. And no wonder, if they who were poring continually at the clouds saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air, and vapour. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city; there they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried; and there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied, and the like, just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon. So hypochondriac fancies represent Ships, armies, battles in the firmament; Till steady eyes the exhalations solve, And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.

I could fill this account with the strange relations such people gave every day of what they had seen; and every one was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly on the one hand, and profane and impenetrable on the other. One time before the plague was begun (otherwise than as I have said in St Giles's), I think it was in March, seeing a crowd of people in the street, I joined with them to satisfy my curiosity, and found them all staring up into the air to see what a woman told them appeared plain to her, which was an angel clothed in white, with a fiery sword in his hand, waving it or brandishing it over his head. She described every part of the figure to the life, showed them the motion and the form, and the poor people came into it so eagerly, and with so much readiness; 'Yes, I see it all plainly,' says one; 'there's the sword as plain as can be.' Another saw the angel. One saw his very face, and cried out what a glorious creature he was! One saw one thing, and one another. I looked as earnestly as the rest, but perhaps not with so much willingness to be imposed upon; and I said, indeed, that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side by the shining of the sun upon the other part. The woman endeavoured to show it me, but could not make me confess that I saw it, which, indeed, if I had I must have lied. But the woman, turning upon me, looked in my face, and fancied I laughed, in which her imagination deceived her too, for I really did not laugh, but was very seriously reflecting how the poor people were terrified by the force of their own imagination. However, she turned from me, called me profane fellow, and a scoffer; told me that it was a time of God's anger, and dreadful judgements were approaching, and that despisers such as I should wander and perish.

The people about her seemed disgusted as well as she; and I found there was no persuading them that I did not laugh at them, and that I should be rather mobbed by them than be able to undeceive them. So I left them; and this appearance passed for as real as the blazing star itself.

Another encounter I had in the open day also; and this was in going through a narrow passage from Petty France into Bishopsgate Churchyard, by a row of alms-houses. There are two churchyards to Bishopsgate church or parish; one we go over to pass from the place called Petty France into Bishopsgate Street, coming out just by the church door; the other is on the side of the narrow passage where the alms-houses are on the left; and a dwarf-wall with a palisado on it on the right hand, and the city wall on the other side more to the right.

In this narrow passage stands a man looking through between the palisadoes into the burying-place, and as many people as the narrowness of the passage would admit to stop, without hindering the passage of others, and he was talking mightily eagerly to them, and pointing now to one place, then to another, and affirming that he saw a ghost walking upon such a gravestone there. He described the shape, the posture, and the movement of it so exactly that it was the greatest matter of amazement to him in the world that everybody did not see it as well as he. On a sudden he would cry, 'There it is; now it comes this way.' Then, 'Tis turned back'; till at length he persuaded the people into so firm a belief of it, that one fancied he saw it, and another fancied he saw it; and thus he came every day making a strange hubbub, considering it was in so narrow a passage, till Bishopsgate clock struck eleven, and then the ghost would seem to start, and, as if he were called away, disappeared on a sudden.

I looked earnestly every way, and at the very moment that this man directed, but could not see the least appearance of anything; but so positive was this poor man, that he gave the people the vapours in abundance, and sent them away trembling and frighted, till at length few people that knew of it cared to go through that passage, and hardly anybody by night on any account whatever.

This ghost, as the poor man affirmed, made signs to the houses, and to the ground, and to the people, plainly intimating, or else they so understanding it, that abundance of the people should come to be buried in that churchyard, as indeed happened; but that he saw such aspects I must acknowledge I never believed, nor could I see anything of it myself, though I looked most earnestly to see it, if possible.

These things serve to show how far the people were really overcome with delusions; and as they had a notion of the approach of a visitation, all their predictions ran upon a most dreadful plague, which should lay the whole city, and even the kingdom, waste, and should destroy almost all the nation, both man and beast.

- Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year, ed. Anthony Burgess (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978): 43-45.

[Rob Waller: 8 Types of Critics (2008)]

Critical Methodologies

What is a "reading" (so-called)?

Perhaps the best analogy is with modelling (in scientific terms). A reading is a kind of computer model of a work of art, not incorporating everything that's in the original -- since if it did it would simply be that original -- but accounting for as many aspects as possible.

We can therefore talk about rich readings, or reductionist readings, or ideological readings without committing ourselves to a belief in the truth and/or falsity of any reading of, say, a novel. It's a good reading insofar as we find it useful in accounting for the individual features and oddities of that particular work of art.

Another prevalent distinction is between clean readings and dirty readings.

A "clean" reading (and the term is, intentionally, a loaded one) is - for the purposes of this argument - one which confines itself to the formal features of a work of art, without straying outside it into the fields of biography, history or cultural politics. New Critics, Structuralists (and even certain post-structuralists) have an ideological predisposition for this type of reading. It's principal practical device is the "Close reading," pioneered by I. A Richards in England and the Southern Agrarian critics in the United States. Many teachers still find this intentional self-limiting a useful pedagogical aid, particularly in junior classes.

A "dirty" reading, by contrast, is one which concerns itself with historical and cultural agency. It depends on a certain amount of knowledge of a number of fields on the part of the critic, and is therefore a somewhat less popular means of instruction at undergraduate level.

You'll perceive, on my part, a tendency to prefer dirty readings over clean readings throughout the body of this course. This is not so much because I like showing off the fact that I've read some history, as because I have certain difficulties with the basic postulates of the confined, ahistorical reading.

Take the simple matter of textual integrity, for instance. One of the early critical reading of Herman Melville's autobiographical novel White-Jacket (1850) made great play with a scene where the hero falls from the mast of a ship at sea and, as he sinks beneath the waves, is touched by "some soiled fish of the deep."

But then it turned out that "soiled" was in fact a misprint for the far less resonant "coiled."

What can you do about things like that? Misprints, errors of punctuation or spacing, editorial intrusions on the author's original intentions? You have to get dirty, I'm afraid. There's no choice but to enter the complex and vexed arena of textual criticism.

Some texts are (relatively) stable and reliable. Does one really have to know which are which before beginning to scrutinise their more minute and telling details? I can't myself see much alternative, I'm afraid.

But of course it doesn't stop there. Can one read (say) Daniel Defoe's fiction with no knowledge of the cultural history of the early eighteenth century? Quite possibly so - many people do, at any rate. Because we're not really conscious of the weight of cultural baggage which enables us to make sense of his fusion of the strands of historical and confessional prose which would eventually lead to the bourgeois novel (so-called).

Such information recedes, inexorably, with the passage of time. Some can be recovered or recreated by adroit inquiry. Some is no longer accessible to us.

What is the difference between a hoax and a fiction? We're certainly not going to find a definitive answer to this question, but that doesn't mean it's not worth asking.

It's a bit difficult to see how one could read this particular book without asking it, in fact.

[Gateshead Plaques]

Workshop 3
The Plague

Plague, n. In ancient times a general punishment of the innocent for admonition of their ruler, as in the familiar instance of Pharaoh the Immune. The plague as we have it to-day is merely Nature's fortuitous manifestation of her purposeless objectionableness.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary. 1911. Ed. E. J. Hopkins. 1967 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971): 245-46.

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 3:
Writing a Journal Entry

Everything we see, or hear, or read is a source of cultural information. It just needs to be decoded according to some set of conventions: aesthetic, anthropological, economic or psychological. You can organise these observations into an essay or article. Alternatively, you can record them in a choppier, more immediate form in a journal / diary / logbook. Think of it as a quarry for future use.

  • Cut out a photo, or a short piece of text, from any newspaper or magazine you’ve been reading (or photocopy it, if it comes from a book).
  • Attach it to a sheet of paper, then write down a short description of the cutting, as well as why it interested you, underneath.
  • Go on to describe exactly what you were doing when you came across it. How was your day, in fact?
  • How did you feel while you were doing the exercise? Interested? Resigned? Bored? Puzzled? Write that down also.
  • Does this exercise seem to you to relate to other things we’ve been reading or discussing in the course so far? If so, how? If not, why not?

Next week:

Exercise 4: Content vs. Form and Seminars on Mary Chesnut's Civil War due.

[Matthew Brady: The Dead of Antietam (1862)]

No comments: