Background by H Craik
Of 'The Battle Of The Books' by Jonathan Swift

THIS, perhaps the earliest of Swift's satirical works, was written in great part, if not entirely, about 1697, and it may then have been passed from hand to hand amongst the circle of Moor Park; but it was not published until 1704, when it appeared in the same volume with the Tale of a Tub. It would be waste of labour to attempt to assign the Tale of a Tub to any special phase of contemporary controversy; but the Battle of the Books forms an episode in a very definite literary conflict of the day, and the circumstances which led Swift to interfere in that conflict may be distinctly traced.

Amongst other results of the triumphant complacency of the France of Louis XIV, was a claim advanced on her behalf that the achievements of that country and that age transcended all that humanity had yet imagined. The praise that had hitherto been given to the great names of antiquity was, according to this theory, only the effect of the glamour that surrounded them, and had no solid foundation. The first to advance this paradox was Fontenelle: and it was repeated in Perrault's Siècle de Louis le Grand, a poem read before the Academy in 1687. But even in France, and even amongst those whom its supporters had attempted to please by their flattery, the theory met with little acceptance. Boileau laughed the claim to scorn: and the taste of France in the age of the Grand Monarch was sufficiently superior to her vanity, to render her intolerant of such criticism.

The topic had already been discussed for some time in France when Swift's patron, Sir William Temple, introduced it to England in a treatise upholding the superiority of Ancient to Modern Learning. The Essay was not a critical one, nor did it aim at a careful treatment of the subject. It was rather a collection, half-playful and half-serious, of reflections on literary genius, couched in a graceful literary style. The illustrations, drawn indiscriminately from classical legend and literature, are not put forward as having any real historical basis: and Macaulay's ridicule of their flimsiness is therefore misplaced. A reply to this treatise was written by William Wotton, a youthful prodigy of scholarship belonging to Catherine Hall at Cambridge, whose classical references are as much more accurate than Temple's, as in humour and style he is inferior. One opinion which Temple had hazarded, in favour of .the genuineness of the so-called Epistles of Phalaris, formed a subject of easy attack: and on the other hand, the brilliant, but superficial, scholars of Christ Church, Oxford, took up the cudgels on his behalf, and published, under the name of Charles Boyle, afterwards Earl of Orrery, a new edition of the Epistles. Boyle did not, indeed, as Macaulay wrongly represents, maintain the genuineness of the Epistles. He expressly refrains from doing so, and indeed points out the arguments that tell the other way. But he came into collision with another opponent of the Christ Church clique, of stronger calibre than Wotton. For the purposes of his edition he had borrowed from the Royal Library at St. James's a manuscript of the spurious Letters: and the sudden withdrawal of the manuscript, before its collation was complete, by Dr. Bentley, the librarian, led Boyle to comment in his preface on Bentley's churlish act, as one in keeping with his usual manners — pro solitâ humanitate suâ. Stung by the attack, Bentley added an appendix to a new edition of Wotton's Reflections, in which he ridiculed the flimsy scholarship of the Oxford faction, and proved by overwhelming arguments the absolute spuriousness of the Letters. Bentley showed that the opposite contention was so obviously absurd, and so entirely inconsistent with the known facts of antiquity, that even a passing doubt on the subject convicted any man of ignorance. If the Epistles were true, Phalaris had borrowed money from men who lived 300 years after his death, had destroyed towns that were not founded, and conquered nations that had no names ; had falsified the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and had written in a dialect which he could not possibly have understood.

At this stage in the dispute, Swift stepped into the arena to assist in his patron's defence, and contributed the sole work connected with the controversy which has obtained immortality. Argument and scholarship were not required, and in them Swift would have been no match for Bentley. It is curious, indeed, that Swift's allegory assumes, what Boyle had not affirmed, the genuineness of the Letters. But he had a weapon of sarcastic humour which Bentley was powerless to wield, and before which Bentley's erudition grew pale. Swift, it need not be said, espoused the cause of the Ancients, and he did so, not only because his patron had appeared for that side, but also because the whole tendency of his own taste lay in that direction. Wotton attempted to reply. He accused Swift of plagiarism, and claimed to have been informed that the Battle of the Books was taken from `a French book, entitled Combat des Livres.' Johnson repeated the same charge; Scott even adduced Courtray as the author of this hypothetical Combat; and Mr. Forster, claiming to have a copy of the book, which was unique, accepts the author's name from Scott. As a fact the book appears in the British Museum: it is without an author's name; but it was written by François de Callieres, a well-known Academician and diplomatist: and its contents amply prove that, though the book might, and probably did, pass through Swift's hands, and perhaps suggested certain incidents in his own narrative, it yet possesses no claim whatever to have been the basis of the main structure of his satire. Swift's part in the controversy may have been at first determined by the attitude of his patron; but it was also consistent with the whole bent of his taste and opinions. The Battle of the Books marks the period when his genius began to find its fitting employment, and when, discarding ' Pindarics,' he turned to satire, and learned the power which belonged to him by right of that faculty of sarcastic humour in which he stands unsurpassed.