The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Tale of a Tub, A, and The Battle of the Books

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TALE OF A TUB, A, and THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS. Swift's ‘A Tale of a Tub’ was written for the most part about 1696, but was not published till 1704, when it appeared in a volume with ‘The Battle of the Books.’ The author wittily dedicated it to Prince Posterity, and to this day it has generally been regarded as one of the two or three great prose satires in English. Not the least interesting parts of it are the digressive chapters on critics and criticism and on madness, in which the theory is advanced that happiness consists in being well deceived. Its most fruitful fancy is of the sect who took the tailor for their idol, and held the universe to be a large suit of clothes — the germ of Carlyle's ‘Sartor Resartus.’ The allegorical narrative presents the fortunes of three brothers, Peter, Martin and Jack, standing respectively for the Roman, the Anglican, and the Dissenting churches. Their father on his death-bed bequeathes them each a coat with two virtues: “One is, that with good wearing they will last you as long as you live. The other is, that they will grow in the same proportion with your bodies.” For a time the boys wear their coats in accordance with their father's will. Later they come up to town and fall in love with the three ladies then most in reputation, the Duchess d'Argent, Madame de Grands Titres and the Countess d'Orgueil. Desiring to be in the fashion they violate their father's will, covering their coats with shoulder-knots, silver fringe and figured embroidery. Peter becomes dictatorial and insists on being addressed by his brothers as Mr. Peter, Father Peter and finally as My Lord Peter. Martin and Jack revolt from his authority, and, in token of repentance, attempt to remove the embellishments from their coats, in which process Martin, reforming with moderation, restores his garment to something like its original state, but Jack in a fanatical fury rends his from top to bottom. Swift asserted that he had written as a good churchman, ridiculing only Popery and Dissent. The wits were delighted with his attack; but sober Anglicans were alarmed at its implications; and it is undeniable that its disgusting coarseness and brutal levity were inimical to every form of religious reverence. The satire was assailed and explained by William Wotton; but his explanations were maliciously seized upon and made to serve as annotations in subsequent editions. As an old man Swift is said to have exclaimed: “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.”

‘The Battle of the Books,’ written about 1697, was Swift's contribution to the famous literary controversy of the 17th century regarding the relative merits of ancient and modern writers. In England the discussion was rendered rather insignificant by the curious confusion of the champions, the wits of the day appearing as defenders of the ancients, and the great classical scholar of the age as a leader of the moderns. The conflict was opened over the ‘Letters of Phalaris,’ which Sir William Temple, in his ‘Essay Upon the Ancient and Modern Learning’ (1692), declared “have more of grace, more spirit, more force of wit and genius than any others I have seen, either ancient or modern” — yet the ‘Letters of Phalaris,’ said Temple, is one of the the two most ancient books in prose that we possess. William Wotton, championing the moderns, replied in 1694 with ‘Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning.’ In 1695 Charles Boyle brought out an edition of the extolled Letters, in behalf of the ancients. In 1697 Wotton published a second edition of the ‘Reflections,’ including an essay by the learned Richard Bentley, showing that the ‘Letters of Phalaris’ were forgeries and, relatively, modern. At about this point Swift comes in with his ‘Battle of the Books,’ written for the defense of the ancients and in support of his patron, Temple, the immediate object being to turn the laughter of the town upon Wotton and Bentley. Swift was on the wrong side with respect to the Phalaris question and with respect to the scholarship of the enemy. But he releases a flight of nicely pointed arrows against pedantry and sour-tempered criticism and the vanity and egotism of the modern spirit. In the course of the dispute between the Spider and the Bee he strikes out an idea and a phrase which Matthew Arnold adopted and popularized as the epitome of his gospel of culture — “sweetness and light.” Consult lives of Swift by Samuel Johnson, Sir W. Scott, J. Forster, H. Craik, L. Stephen, P. M. Simon, etc.; also Saintsbury's ‘History of Criticism’; Spingarn's ‘Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century’; ‘Cambridge History of English Literature’ (Vol. IX).

Stuart P. Sherman,
Professor of English, University of Illinois.