illustrated portrait of Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

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"What A Genius I Had When I Wrote That Book!"

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Last Updated on July 26, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

Context: Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was a master of clear, firm prose, a clergyman admired for his wit, and a satirist feared for his merciless tongue. His two earliest important works were published in 1704. One, The Battle of the Books, took the side of his employer Sir William Temple, in an argument about the comparative merits of the Ancients and the Moderns. Swift pictured books in the library taking part in the debate, and though in his prose mock-epic neither side is declared victor, it is evident that the author sides with the Ancients for their attempts to depict Nature. Entirely different was his other book, The Tale of a Tub, completed about five years earlier. In it appears the scorn of a vigorous man of thirty for effete pedantry. It satirizes divisions among Christians. A man has three sons, Peter (representing the Roman Catholics), Martin (representing the Protestants), and Jack (the dissenting churches). Upon his deathbed the man gives to each a coat that will last as long as its wearer lives, and will grow in proportion to the body, lengthening and widening so as always to fit. (The coat typifies the doctrines and faith of Christianity.) The father's will (that is, the New Testament) gives instructions about wearing and looking after the coats. In the tale, in spite of the father's injunctions not to make over the garments, each son begins to alter his according to his own wishes, while protesting the changes his brothers are making. The book was published anonymously, though a few friends knew the secret of its authorship. Many others tried to guess. During his lifetime Swift never publicly acknowledged it as his own, despite his pride in it. Nor did he make any money from it. (His only royalties from writing came from Gulliver's Travels (1726), and these only because a friend acted as his agent and insisted on payments in cash.) In the fifth edition, he provided a preface making fun of some of the attributions of authorship. With no income, to live on, Swift became dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. For knowledge of the author's opinion of The Tale of a Tub, the world is indebted to his cousin, Mrs. Martha Whiteway, daughter of Swift's Uncle Adam, who lived with Swift and looked after him in his later years, when he was declining in health. Her testimony has been quoted by two of Swift's biographers, Sir Walter Scott, who published a biography in 1814, and Sir Henry Craik, who devoted two volumes to Swift's life in 1882. In an appendix to the latter, the author presents evidence that many people knew Swift as the author of A Tale of a Tub. Following is the Craik version of the testimony, first recorded by Scott in 1814:

So generally accepted did the authorship at length become that Pulteney (Sir William Pulteney, 1684–1764, an English political leader), in a letter to Swift himself (June 3, 1740) actually names the book in some Latin verses, as one of the manifestations of his genius.
Lastly, in the period of almost speechless apathy which preceded his death, Swift was heard by Mrs. Whiteway to mutter, as he turned over the leaves of the book, "Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book!"

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