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Defoe's Spirits, Apparitions and the Occult


1. One such “ghost story” appeared early in Defoe’s career. In The Vision, a little known poem published in Edinburgh around 14 November 1706, Defoe imagined Lord Beilhaven, who had made a tearful speech against the Union of England and Scotland, as a sorcerer conjuring up imaginary ghosts:

And now the Exorcist in turn
Like a Ghost in a Circle arises,
Without any Tears he can Mourn
He is Extasies all and Surprises.

Although the context is satiric, that Defoe should have employed the image of the orator as sorcerer is perhaps indicative of his continuing interest in the subject. The pattern appears to involve fascination and doubt. In his Review of 29 March 1705, while admitting the biblical basis for the existence of spirits, he had his Scandal Club warn against a “Bewildered Imagination” that was capable of creating spirits “in the Head … for the meer sake of its own Delusion” (Defoe’s “Review” 2.42-3).

2. Encountering Defoe years after the problems of the political wars were over, Henry Baker simply thought of Defoe as a famous and successful author, a status to which he aspired. Baker was later to praise the popularity of Robinson Crusoe in The Universal Spectator. For Baker’s view of Defoe, see Novak, 648–50. For Jonathan Swift’s comment on Defoe as “illiterate,” see Swift’s Prose Works, 3.23.

3. See Manuel Schonhorn (ed.), Accounts of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal.

4. For the Cambridge Platonists on spirits, see Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 700–701, and Thomas Burnet’s The Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1.452.

5. See Henry Lee, Anti-Scepticism; or, Notes upon Each Chapter of Mr. Lock’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1702).

6. For example Hagar (Genesis 21:19) is shown the source of water she was unable to see until the angel of God revealed it to her.

7. See for example, John Locke, Of Education, 243–44. Almost a century later, Maria Edgeworth and her father, in their work on education, were making the same complaint about the influence of servants and their superstitions upon children.

8. The best account of these pamphlets is in Rodney Baine’s Defoe and the Supernatural, 109–28. Baine has a more serious take on Defoe’s toying with prophecy than I do.

9. References to Defoe’s Review are given by volume and page number.

10. See Swift, Prose Works, 2.142–92.

11. Baker’s statement is factually true, since the first edition did appear in Newcastle, several months before Baker’s edition (Moore 81–82).

12. All subsequent references to The Second-Sighted Highlander are from the 1715 edition.

13. It is significant that in his Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, Defoe dismissed the notion of floating islands in Loch Lomond as nonsense (2.839). Mount Aphlec may be Ben Ivlec near the lake.

14. Defoe told this story several times. See for example, Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 61–2, and The Political History of the Devil, 215 (note to 31–32:9).

15. See the speculations of F. Bastian in Defoe’s Early Life, 2, 35–36.

16. The text of Shakespeare’s play seems to support the idea that the vision is Brutus’s “evil spirit,” but the scene direction has “Enter the Ghost of Caesar”; see p. 719 of the facsimile edition of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies published by Yale University Press in 1954. This facsimile of the first folio does not have full scene and line numbers, but modern editing usually has it as IV.iii.275–87.

17. See the remarks of the editors of The Political History of the Devil, 367. It seems to me that Defoe’s poem has to be a kind of paraphrase of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

18. See The Commentator, 11 January 1720.


Baine, Rodney. Defoe and the Supernatural. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968. Print.

Bastian, F. Defoe’s Early Life. London: Macmillan, 1981. Print.

Burnet, Thomas. The Sacred Theory of the Earth. 2 vols. London, 1719. Print.

Congreve, William. Complete Plays. Ed. Herbert Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Print.

Cudworth, Ralph. The True Intellectual System of the Universe. London, 1678. Print.

Defoe, Daniel. The Commentator. 11 January 1720. Print.

- - -. The Complete English Tradesman. Revised by Samuel Richardson. 4th ed. 2 vols. London, 1738. Print.

- - -. Defoe's “Review,” Reproduced from the Original Editions with an Introduction and Bibliographical Notes by Arthur Wellesley Secord. 22 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. Print.

- - -. An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions. London, 1727. Print.

- - -. The Political History of the Devil. Ed. Irving Rothman and R. Michael Bowerman. New York: AMS Press, 2003. Print.

- - -. The Second-Sighted Highlander. London, 1713. Print.

- - -. The Second-Sighted Highlander. Being Four Visions of the Eclypse, and Something of What May Follow. London, 1715. Print.

- - -. Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. London, 1720. Print.

- - -. A System of Magick. London, 1727. Print.

- - -. A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal. London, 1706. Print.

- - -. Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 2 vols. London: Davies, 1927. Print.

Furbank, P.N., and W.R. Owens. A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1998. Print.

Lee, Henry. Anti-Scepticism; or, Notes upon Each Chapter of Mr. Lock’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, 1702. Print.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1894; rpt. NewYork: Dover, 1959. Print.

- - -. Of Education. 6th ed. London, 1709. Print.

Moore, John Robert, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960. Print.

Novak , Maximillian. Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Schonhorn, Manuel, ed. Accounts of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal. Augustan Reprint Society No. 115. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1965. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Ed. Helge Kökeritz. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954. Print.

Starr, George. “Why Defoe Probably Did Not Write The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 15 (2003): 427–50. Print.

Sutherland, James. Defoe. 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1950. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Herbert Davis et al. 14 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1939–1968). Print.

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