Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 15. His chief Satires: A Tale of a Tub; The Battle of the Books; Gulliver’s Travels

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 15. His chief Satires: A Tale of a Tub; The Battle of the Books; Gulliver’s Travels

One of the greatest and most characteristic of Swift’s general satires is A Tale of a Tub, written for the universal improvement of mankind, an early work, composed about 1696, and published, with The Battle of the Books, in 1704. In his later years, when his powers were failing, we are told that Swift was seen looking at this volume and was heard to say, “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” A considerable, but by no means the largest or ablest, portion of the work is occupied by an account of the quarrels of the churches, told in the famous story of three brothers, Peter, Martin and Jack, representing Roman catholics, Anglicans and puritans; of the coat bequeathed to them by their father, whose will, explaining the proper mode of wearing it, they first interpreted each in his own way, and then, after many ingenious evasions of it, locked up in a strong box; and of their subsequent quarrels concerning the will and its significance. Throughout, the brothers act in accordance with the doctrine that beings which the world calls clothes are, in reality, rational creatures or men, and that, in short, we see nothing but the clothes and hear nothing but them—a doctrine which Carlyle had in mind when he wrote his Sartor Resartus.

The manner in which Swift dealt with religious questions in this book led to suspicions as to the genuineness of his Christianity—a suggestion which Swift regarded as a great wrong. He said that he had attacked only Peter (who insisted, in turn, on being called “Mr. Peter,” “Father Peter” and “Lord Peter”) and Jack (who called his hatred of Peter zeal, and was much annoyed by Martin’s patience), and that he had not made any reflections on Martin. What he satirised was not religion, but the abuse of religion. This defence is not very convincing; though we need not doubt Swift’s orthodoxy, we cannot but feel that a scoffer would read the book with greater relish than a believer. The contempt poured on Roman catholics and dissenters is often in the worst taste, and touches upon doctrines and beliefs which an earnest member of the church of England would think it dangerous to ridicule. Such attacks on important doctrines may easily be treated as attacks on Christianity itself.

But A Tale of a Tub is far more than an account of the wrangles of the churches. It is a skilful and merciless dissection of the whole of human nature. To the satire on vanity and pride, on pedantry and on the search for fame, in the introductory dedication to Somers and the delightful dedication to prince Posterity, is added an attack on bad writing, which is continued, again and again, throughout the work. In conclusion, Swift observed that he was trying an experiment very frequent among modern authors, which is to write upon nothing: the knowledge when to have done was possessed by few. The work contains entertaining digressions, in one of which the author satirises critics. In former times it had been held that critics were persons who drew up rules by which careful writers might pronounce upon the productions of the learned and form a proper judgment of the sublime and the contemptible. At other times, “critic” had meant the restorer of ancient learning from the dust of manuscripts; but the third and noblest sort was the “true critic” who had bestowed many benefits on the world. A true critic was the discoverer and collector of writers’ faults. The custom of authors was to point out with great pains their own excellences and other men’s defects. The modern way of using books was either to learn their titles and then brag of acquaintance with them, or to get a thorough insight into the indexes. To enter the palace of learning at the great gate took much time; therefore, men with haste and little ceremony use the back door. In another digression, Swift treats of the origin, use and importance of madness in a commonwealth. He defined happiness as “a perpetual possession of being well deceived.” The serene and peaceful state was to be a fool among knaves. Delusion was necessary for peace of mind. Elsewhere, Swift confesses to a longing for fame, a blessing which usually comes only after death.

In wit and brilliancy of thought, Swift never surpassed A Tale of a Tub; and the style is as nearly perfect as it could well be. Swift here allows himself more colour than it to be found in his later writings. In spite of discursiveness and lack of dramatic interest, the book remains the greatest of English satires.

The famous Full and true Account of the Battle fought last Friday between the Ancient and the Modern Books in Saint James’s Library, generally known as The Battle of the Books, had its origin, as has been said, in the controversy respecting the relative superiority of ancient and modern learning, in which Sir William Temple had taken part. The controversy has now lost its interest, and Temple’s ill-judged defence of the genuineness of the “Epistles of Phalaris” does not concern us. Swift assumes the genuineness of the letters; but the merit of the work lies in its satirical power. It may be that Swift had read Le Combat des Livres of François de Callières (1688); but, if so, he owed little to it. Among Swift’s satires, the fragmentary Battle of the Books is relatively so little remembered, that its main features may be here recalled.

The piece is mainly an attack on pedantry, in which it is argued that invention may be weakened by overmuch learning. There were two tops to the hill Parnassus, the highest and largest of which had been time out of mind in the possession of the ancients, while the other was held by the moderns. The moderns desired to bring about a reduction in the height of the point held by the ancients. The ancients replied that the better course would be for the moderns to raise their own side of the hill. To such a step they would not only agree but would largely contribute. Negotiations came to nothing, and there was a great battle. But, first, we are told the story of the Bee and the Spider. A bee had become entangled in a spider’s web; the two insects quarrelled and Aesop was called in as arbitrator. The bee, who is to be taken as typifying the ancients, went straight to nature, gathering his support from the flowers of the field and the garden, without any damage to them. The spider, like the moderns, boasted of not being obliged to any other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from himself. The moderns, says Swift, produced nothing but wrangling and satire, much of the nature of the spider’s poison. The ancients, ranging through every corner of nature, had produced honey and wax and furnished mankind with “the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.” In the great battle between the books that followed, the moderns appealed for aid to the malignant deity Criticism, who had dwelt in a den at the top of snowy mountains, where there were spoils of numberless half-devoured volumes. With her were Ignorance, Pride, Opinion, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry and Ill-manners. She could change herself “into an octavo compass,” when she was indistinguishable in shape and dress from “the divine Bentley,” in person the most deformed of all the moderns. The piece ends abruptly with the meeting of Bentley and Wotton with Boyle, who transfixes the pair with his lance. We need not imagine that Swift held too seriously the views on the subject of the controversy expressed in this fragment: Temple, we are told, received a slight graze; and, says the publisher, the manuscript, “being in several places imperfect, we cannot learn to which side the victory fell.” The piece was largely inspired by the desire to assist his patron; but, besides being a brilliant attack on his opponents, it abounds in satire of a more general nature, and its interest for us is not affected by the fact that Temple was on the wrong side.