Although this blog is primarily about scholars in the sixteenth century, Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books
(mentioned in my previous post The Battle of the Books: A seventeenth century war of words and ideas
) caught my interest. The debate over the merits of ‘ancient’ traditions against the on-coming tide of science and modernity took form in many different ways during the early modern period. The famous example of Galileo being sent to prison by an outraged Pope over his claims that the Earth was not, in actual fact, the centre of the universe nor that it was flat, is a case in point. Admittedly this example is in essence much more complicated than is made out in popular accounts but it nonetheless demonstrates the thought processes going on in the ‘early modern’ mind.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is best known now for his Gulliver’s Travels, however, in the seventeenth century Swift was known as both Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and for his career as a satirist, essayist and political pamphleteer (switching sides between the Whigs and the Tories). His ODNB biographer Clive Probyn describes Swift as a satirist with:
“no equal in English literature for range, subtlety, and power. His life and works continue to vex as well as instruct and amuse his readers”
Swift’s The Battle of the Books certainly fell into the category of a vexing and thought provoking text. Published in 1704 as a short satire within a larger work entitled A Tale of a Tub, Swift depicted a literal battle for supremacy between books in the King’s library as representative of their authors (and their ideas). Think Toy Story as told 300 years ago!
Each author – ancient on the one side and modern on the other – are described in military terms, as if they were each an army preparing for war:
“The Moderns were in very warm debates upon the choice of their leaders; and nothing less than the fear impending from their enemies could have kept them from mutinies upon this occasion. The difference was greatest among the horse, where every private trooper pretended to the chief command, from Tasso and Milton to Dryden and Wither. The light-horse were commanded by Cowley and Despreaux. There came the bowmen under their valiant leaders, Descartes, Gassendi, and Hobbes; whose strength was such that they could shoot their arrows beyond the atmosphere, never to fall down again, but turn, like that of Evander, into meteors; or, like the cannon-ball, into stars […] 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; the allies, led by Vossius and Temple, brought up the rear”
As the satire moves on we witness individual battles between ancients and moderns who were generally seen as in argument with each other. It’s a battle royale! Aristotle vs. Bacon; Homer vs. Gondibert; and Lucan vs. Blackmore. In most cases one or the other is victorious. Although the conclusion is left somewhat open ended as to who won overall, the text suggests Swift’s allegiance with the ancients which is also borne out from his other works and debates with William Wotton.
I particularly enjoyed the confrontation between Virgil and John Dryden where their individual personalities shine through very clearly:
“On the left wing of the horse Virgil appeared, in shining armour, completely fitted to his body […] He cast his eye on the adverse wing, with a desire to find an object worthy of his valour, when behold upon a sorrel gelding of a monstrous size appeared a foe, issuing from among the thickest of the enemy’s squadrons […] The two cavaliers had now approached within the throw of a lance, when the stranger desired a parley, and, lifting up the visor of his helmet, a face hardly appeared from within which, after a pause, was known for that of the renowned Dryden. The brave Ancient suddenly started, as one possessed with surprise and disappointment together; for the helmet was nine times too large for the head, which appeared situate far in the hinder part, even like the lady in a lobster, or like a mouse under a canopy of state […] and the voice was suited to the visage, sounding weak and remote. Dryden, in a long harangue, soothed up the good Ancient; called him father, and, by a large deduction of genealogies, made it plainly appear that they were nearly related. Then he humbly proposed an exchange of armour, as a lasting mark of hospitality between them. Virgil consented (for the goddess Diffidence came unseen, and cast a mist before his eyes), through his was of gold and cost a hundred beeves, the other’s but of rusty iron. However, this glittering armour became the Modern yet worsen than his own. Then they agreed to exchange horses; but, when it came to the trial, Dryden was afraid and utterly unable to mount.”
The rendition of Dryden reflects his personality perfectly. In 1717 Congreve wrote of Dryden that he ‘was of a Nature exceedingly Humane and Compassionate; easily forgiving Injuries, and capable of a prompt and sincere reconciliation with them who offended him’ (see ODNB for John Dryden
. Although, it would appear that Virgil won this particular encounter no concrete conclusion is noted by Swift. Although damage is done between books, for the most part, the conclusion remains uncertain.
My interest in this subject derives from researching a paper for the Anglo-American conference which will be held by the IHR on 5-6 July 2012. Although my paper has very little to do with Jonathan Swift’s satire or the debate between ancients and moderns in the seventeenth century, it is interesting to look ahead of my own research time-period to see where some of the debates in the late sixteenth century ended up.
If you are interested in looking more at the confrontations and continual intersection between ancient and modern cultures, then there is still room to book a place at this year’s Anglo-American. It takes place at Senate House, University of London between 5-6 July. For more information, a schedule, abstracts, and details for registration see the following link: Anglo-American conference 2012: Ancients and Moderns