Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556
Swift wrote The Battle of the Books in 1697 to buttress his beleaguered patron Sir William Temple in a controversy over the relative merits of ancient learning and modern learning. Gentlemen with old Tory money or new Whig pretensions affected a haughty disdain for the new philosophy of Descartes and the new social science of Hobbes, and their disdain affected Swift. They saw in modernism a childish self-absorption, disregard for the classics, disrespect for traditional authorities, and bad manners. Swift ridiculed the new trends by contrasting them with the sound wisdom and graceful art of the old masters.
In the library of Saint James, the modern books square off against the ancients in a mock-epic battle. Before they clash, a bee breaks through a spider’s web, to the discomfiture of both. The spider chides the bee for destroying its intricate trap. Wiping off the obnoxious threads of the web, the bee spurns the spider for erecting such a petty and disgusting contrivance. Their witty sparring goes to the heart of their differing natures. The spider represents modernism; the bee, classicism. They hurl vituperative charges at each other. The bee accuses the spider of spinning everything out of his own guts, such as the regurgitated threads of its web and the venom that it injects into entangled flies. The spider accuses the bee of being no better than a thief, visiting one beautiful flower after another only to steal nectar and flee. The bee replies that the flowers are multiplied, not destroyed, by his beneficial rapine; he returns to the hive with honey and wax, thus furnishing sweetness and light.
Armed with their ink made of bitter venom, the moderns issue an ultimatum to the ancients: either abandon their glory-smitten summits of prestige or let the moderns come with their spades to level the peaks that overshadow the lower tops of modern mountains. When the ancients refuse, the moderns close ranks. The bumblings of a modern librarian have caused confusion on the shelves. René Descartes has been set beside Aristotle, Plato shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomas Hobbes, and Vergil hemmed in between the modern poets John Dryden and George Wither. The ancients are captained by Temple and Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom. The moderns are led by Momus, god of faultfinding, who calls on the malignant deity Criticism in her cave, where she dwells with Ignorance, her father and husband; Pride, her mother; and her children, Noise, Impudence, Dullness, Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-Manners. Criticism comes to the library to rally her troops, but the moderns fall into disarray. Descartes is felled by Aristotle’s arrow. The poet Abraham Cowley hurls his spear at the poet Pindar, but misses. Pindar disables a dozen or so of the Cavalier poets. The modern poet Dryden swaps armor with Vergil (Dryden had translated his epic poem Aeneid into English), but he finds Vergil’s helmet nine times too big for him. Homer slays the modern poet John Denham. Another modern poet, John Oldham, falls to Pindar. Clearly, the ancients have carried the day, but peace talks are convened, and the matter ends inconclusively.
Swift’s mockery is devastatingly effective, witty, and fun. His sarcastic jest is proven true: Some of these modern authors would have been all but forgotten were it not for Swift’s record of their clash with the ancients.
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