Battle of the Books

Related Overviews

Jonathan Swift (1667—1745) writer and dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

Homer Greek epic poet

Epistles of Phalaris

William Temple (1628—1699) diplomat and author

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A prose satire by Swift, written 1697, when Swift was residing with Sir W. Temple, published 1704.

Temple had written an essay on the comparative merits of ‘Ancient and Modern Learning’ (the subject at that time of an animated controversy in Paris), in which by his uncritical praise of the spurious Epistles of Phalaris he had drawn on himself the censure of William Wotton and Bentley. Swift treats the whole question with satirical humour. The ‘Battle’ originates from a request by the moderns that the ancients shall evacuate the higher of the two peaks of Parnassus which they have hitherto occupied. Before the actual encounter a dispute arises between a spider living in the corner of the library and a bee that has got entangled in the spider's web. Aesop sums up the dispute: the spider is like the moderns who spin their scholastic lore out of their own entrails; the bee is like the ancients who go to nature for their honey. Aesop's commentary rouses the books to fury, and they join battle. The ancients, under the patronage of Pallas, are led by Homer, Pindar, Euclid, Aristotle, and Plato, with Sir W. Temple commanding the allies; the moderns by Milton, Dryden, Descartes, Hobbes, Scotus, and others, with the support of Momus and the malignant deity Criticism. The fight is conducted with great spirit. Aristotle aims an arrow at Bacon but hits Descartes. Homer overthrows Gondibert. Virgil encounters his translator Dryden, in a helmet nine times too big. Boyle transfixes Bentley and Wotton.

Subjects: Literature.

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