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THE Tale of a Tub and the Battle of the Books, published together, were the first announcement of the greatest master of satire at once comic and caustic that has yet appeared in our language. Swift, born in Dublin in 1667, had already, in the last years of the reign of King William, made himself known by two volumes of Letters selected from the papers of his friend Temple (who died in 1699), and also by a political pamphlet in favor of the ministry of the day, which attracted little notice, and gave as little promise of his future eminence as a writer. To politics as well as satire, however, he adhered throughout his career, — often blending the two, but producing scarcely anything, if we may not except some of his effusions in verse, that was not either satirical or political. His course of authorship as a political writer may be considered properly to begin with his Letter concerning the Sacramental Test, and another high Tory and high Church tract, which he published in 1708; in which same year he also came forward with his ironical Argument for the Abolition of Christianity, and, in his humorous Predictions first assumed his nom de guerre of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, subsequently made so famous by other jeux d'esprit in the same style, and by its adoption soon after by the wits of the Tatler. Of his other most notable performances, his Conduct of the Allies was published in 1712; his Public Spirit of the Whigs, in 1714; his Drapier's Letters, in 1724; his immortal Gulliver's Travels, in 1727; and his Polite Conversation, which, however, had been written many years before, in 1738. His poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, besides, had appeared, without his consent, in 1723, soon after the death of Miss Hester Vanhomrigh, its heroine. The History of the Four Last Years of Queen Anne (if his, which there can hardly be a doubt that it is), the Directions for Servants, many of his verses and other shorter pieces, and his Diary written to Stella (Miss Johnson, whom he eventually married), were none of them printed till after, some of them not till long after, his death, which took place in 1745. “O thou !” exclaims his friend Pope,
“ whatever title please thine ear,
Or laugh and shake in Rabelais' easy chair,
Or thy grieved country's copper chains unbind,” – lines that describe comprehensively enough the celebrated dean's genius and writings — what he did and what he was. And the first remark to be made about Swift is, that into everything that came from his pen he put a strong infusion of himself; that in his writings we read the man — not merely his intellectual ability, but his moral nature, his passions, his principles, his prejudices, his humors, his whole temper and individuality. The common herd of writers have no individuality at all; those of the very highest class can assume at will any other individuality as perfectly as their own,
they have no exclusiveness. Next under this highest class stand those whose individuality is at once their strength and their weakness; their strength, inasmuch as it distinguishes them from and lifts them far above the multitude of writers of mere talent or expository skill ; their weakness and bondage, in that it will not be thrown off, and that it withholds them from ever going out of themselves, and rising from the merely characteristic, striking, or picturesque, either to the dramatic or to the beautiful, of both of which equally the spirit is unegotistic and universal. To this class, which is not the highest but the next to it, Swift belongs. The class, however, like both that which is above and that which is below it, is one of wide comprehension, and includes many degrees of power, and even many diversities of gifts. Swift was neither a Cervantes nor a Rabelais; but yet, with something that was peculiar to himself, he combined considerable portions of both. He had more of Cervantes than Rabelais had, and more of Rabelais than was given to Cervantes. There cannot be claimed for him the refinement, the humanity, the pathos, the noble elevation of the Spaniard — all that irradiates and beautifies his satire and drollery as the blue sky does the earth it bends over ; neither, with all his ingenuity and fertility, does our English wit and humorist anywhere dišplay either the same inexhaustible abundance of grotesque invention, or the same gayety and luxuriance of fancy, with the historian of the Doings and Sayings of the Giant, Gargantua. Yet neither Cervantes nor Rabelais, nor both combined, could have written the Tale of a Tub, or the Battle of the Books. The torrent of triumphant merriment is broader and more rushing than anything of the same kind in either. When
we look indeed to the perfection and exactness of the allegory at all points, to the biting sharpness and at the same time the hilarity and comic animation of the satire, to its strong and unpausing yet easy and natural flow, to the incessant blaze of the wit and humor, and to the style so clear, so vivid and expressive, so idiomatic, so English, so true and appropriate in all its varieties, narrative, didactic, rhetorical, colloquial, as we know no work of its class in our own language that as a whole approaches the Tale of a Tub, so we doubt if there be another quite equal to it in any language. Even a few extracts may give some notion of its wonderful spirit and brilliancy. Passing over some preliminary matter, — among other things the inimitable Dedication to Prince Posterity, — we come in what is entitled Section Second to the proper commencement of the story, the death-bed bequest by the father to his three sons, all born at a birth, of a new coat each, — the miraculous virtues of the garments being, that with good keeping they would last them fresh and sound as long as they lived, and that they would grow with the bodies of their wearers, lengthening and widening of themselves, so as always to fit. “Here,” said the father; “ let me see them on you before I die. So; very well; pray, children, wear them clean, and brush them often. You will find in my will — here it is — full instructions in every particular concerning the wearing and management of your coats; wherein you must be very exact, to avoid the penalties I have appointed for every transgression or neglect, upon which
future fortunes will entirely depend. I have also commanded in my will that you should live together in one house like brethren and friends, for
will be sure to thrive, and not otherwise." The will in question is the Bible. The three young men, after their father's death,
go forth all together to seek their fortunes. “I shall not trouble you,” says our author, “ with recounting what adventures they met with for the first seven years, any further than by taking notice that they carefully observed their father's will, and kept their coats in very good order; that they travelled through several countries, encountered a reasonable quantity of giants, and slew certain dragons.” And thus he dismisses the primitive ages of Christianity. Being now, however, arrived at the proper age for producing themselves,” he tells us, “ they came up to town, and fell in love with the ladies,” among the rest, and especially, with the Duchess d’Argent (Covetousness), Madame de Grands
Titres (Ambition), and the Countess d'Orgueil (Pride). We must refer the reader to the original for the account of the courses they took, with no effect, to gain the favor of these ladies, — giving themselves for that purpose to the acquisition and practice of all the fashionable ways of the town; and also for the full exposition of the facetious and profound theory that follows on the subject of dress, — that the universe is only a large suit of clothes, and that every part of nature, and man himself, is nothing more ; so that, argues our author, “what the world calls improperly suits of clothes are in reality the most refined species of animals, or, to proceed higher, that they are rational creatures or men.” 6 Is it not they,” he asks, “and they alone who walk the streets ?” “It is true, indeed,” he adds, that these animals, which are truly only called suits of clothes, or dresses, do, according to certain compositions, receive different appellations. If one of them be trimmed up with a gold chain, and a red gown, and a white rod, and a great horse, it is called a lord mayor; if certain ermines and furs be placed in a certain position, we style them a judge ; and so an apt conjunction of lawn and black satin we entitle a bishop.” The devotees of dress are represented as a sect that had lately arisen, whose tenets had spread extensively in the great world, and whose supreme deity was a tailor. “ They worshipped,” we are told, “ a sort of idol, who, as their doctrine delivered, did daily create men by a kind of manufactory operation. This idol they placed in the highest part of the house on an altar erected about three foot: he was shown in the posture of a Persian emperor, sitting on a superficies, with his legs interwoven under him. This god had a goose for his ensign: whence it is that some learned menopretend to deduce his original from Jupiter Capitolinus. At his left hand, beneath the altar, hell seemed to open and catch at the animals the idol was creating; to prevent which, certain of his priests hourly flung in pieces of the uninformed mass, or substance, and sometimes whole limbs already enlivened, which that horrid gulf insatiably swallowed, terrible to behold.” “ To this system of religion,” it is added, “ were tagged several subaltern doctrines, which were entertained with great vogue; as, particularly, the faculties of the mind were deduced by the learned among them in this manner: — embroidery was sheer wit, gold fringe was agreeable conversation, gold lace was repartee, a huge long periwig was humour, and a coat full of powder was very good raillery, — all
which required abundance of finesse and delicatesse to manage with advantage, as well as a strict observance of the times and fashions.” And then the story proceeds as follows:
These opinions therefore were so universal, as well as the practices of them, that our three brother adventurers, as their circumstances then stood, were strangely at a loss. For, on the one side, the three ladies they addressed themselves to, whom we have named already, were ever at the very top of the fashion, and abhorred all that were below it but the breadth of a hair. On the other side, their father's will was very precise; and it was the main precept in it, with the greatest penalties annexed, not to add or diminish from their coats one thread, without a positive command in the will. Now the coats their father had left them were, it is true, of very good cloth, and besides so neatly sewn you would swear they were all of a piece; but at the same time very plain, and with little or no ornament; and it happened that before they were a month in town great shoulder-knots came up; straight all the world wore shoulder-knots — no approaching the ladies' ruelles without the quota of shoulder-knots. That fellow, cries one, has no soul ; where is his shoulder-knot ? Our three brethren soon discovered their want by sad experience, meeting in their walks with forty mortifications and indignities. If they went to the playhouse, the doorkeeper showed them into the twelvepenny gallery ; if they called a boat, says a waterman, “I am first sculler;” if they stepped to the Rose to take a bottle, the drawer would cry,“ Friend, we sell no ale;” if they went to visit a lady, a footman met them at the door with “ Pray send up your message.” In this unhappy case they went immediately to consult their father's will, read it over and over, but not a word of the shoulder-knot. What should they do? What temper1 should they find ? Obedience was absolutely necessary, and yet shoulder-knots appeared extremely requisite. After much thought, one of the brothers, who happened to be more booklearned than the other two, said he had found an expedient. It is true, said he, there is nothing here in this will, totidem verbis, making mention of shoulder-knots; but I dare conjecture we may find them inclusive, or totidem syllabis. This distinction was immediately approved by all, and so they fell again to examine ; but their evil star had so directed the matter that the first syllable was not to be found in the whole writings. Upon which disappointment, he who found the former evasion took heart, and said, “ Brothers, there are yet hopes ; for, though we cannot find them totidem verbis, nor totidem syllabis, I dare engage we shall make them out tertio modo, or totidem literis. This
1 Middle course.
2 In so many words.