Sunday, September 25, 2016

Satiric Essay

Selected Prose and Poetry 
by Jonathan Swift

"The army of the Ancients was much fewer in number;  Homer led the Horse, and Pindar the Light-Horse;  Euclid was chief Engineer: Plato and Aristotle commanded the Bowmen, Herodotus and Livy the Foot, Hippocrates the Dragoons."

Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest satirists of his age and we still read his prose with delight for its wit and humor. This collection includes several examples of his satire with the essay "A Modest Proposal" being perhaps the best known. Early in his career as a prose stylist he wrote an essay that was equally witty while blending satire with polemics. That essay was "The Battle of the Books".

Mirroring an earlier literary argument in France was one in England where Sir William Temple published an answer to the "Moderns" entitled Of Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. His essay introduced two metaphors to the debate that would be reused by later authors. First, he proposed that modern man was just a dwarf standing upon the "shoulders of giants" (that modern man saw farther because he begins with the observations and learning of the ancients). They possessed a clear view of nature, and modern man only reflected or refined their vision. These metaphors, would be continued in Swift's satire and others. Temple's essay was answered by Richard Bentley, the classicist and William Wotton, the critic. Temple was supported by friends and clients, sometimes known as the "Christ Church Wits," referring to their association with Christ Church, Oxford and the guidance of Francis Atterbury, then attacked the "moderns" (and Wotton in particular). The debate in England lasted only for a few years.

Notably, Jonathan Swift was not among the participants, though he was working as Temple's secretary. Therefore, it is likely that the quarrel was more of a spur to Swift's imagination than a debate that he felt inclined to enter. He worked for William Temple during the time of the controversy, and Swift developed his short satire entitled "The Battle of the Books" in which, there is an epic battle fought in a library when various books come alive and attempt to settle the arguments between moderns and ancients. In Swift's satire, he skilfully manages to avoid saying which way victory fell. He portrays the manuscript as having been damaged in places, thus leaving the end of the battle up to the reader.

The battle is not just between Classical authors and modern authors, but also between authors and critics. The prose is a parody of heroic poetry and not any too easy a read for such a short essay. One section of the essay that helped this reader immensely was the interruption in the combat in the "Battle" with an interpolated allegory of the spider and the bee. A spider, "swollen up to the first Magnitude, by the Destruction of infinite Numbers of Flies" resides like a castle holder above a top shelf, and a bee, flying from the natural world and drawn by curiosity, wrecks the spider's web. The spider curses the bee for clumsiness and for wrecking the work of one who is his better. The spider says that his web is his home, a stately manor, while the bee is a vagrant who goes anywhere in nature without any concern for reputation. The bee answers that he is doing the bidding of nature, aiding in the fields, while the spider's castle is merely what was drawn from its own body, which has "a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison." 

This allegory was already somewhat old before Swift employed it, and it is a digression within the Battle proper. However, it also illustrates the theme of the whole work. The bee is like the ancients and like authors: it gathers its materials from nature and sings its drone song in the fields. The spider is like the moderns and like critics: it kills the weak and then spins its web (books of criticism) from the taint of its own body digesting the viscera. The moderns were depicted as narrow-minded, filled with poisonous prose, and in general intellectual upstarts. In spite of this depiction the ancients were not without faults and the essay does not conclude with either side winning.

As satire it is fascinating if not exactly fun, and it is especially interesting to see the early use of metaphors like that of modern thinkers "standing on the shoulders of giants". As a reader who values the ancient classics I appreciate this discussion recognizing that there is room for new ideas as long as we do not neglect the foundation provided by the giants of the past.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I have read A Modest Proposal but not The Battle of the Books.

It sounds very entertaining and relevant even today. Ironically, though I would argue that he is still a lot closer to us culturally as opposed to the writers of antiquity. Swift has become one of the giants of OUR past.

James said...


I agree with your assessment of Swift. He seems very relevant and clearly one of the Moderns, although still a giant for us to stand or lean on and listen to.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Your fine posting sends me into the dark closets filled with boxes of old books where I hope to find my tattered copy of Swift. Thanks for the wonderful provocation!

BTW, I've revised, renamed, and done a change of address on my blog, and I invite you to stop by and visit every now and then. My new reading project for the coming weeks is a study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short fiction, with a special focus on good and evil. Here is the link:

All the best from the Gulf coast,