Page images

remotest antiquity, to be a comparatively modern forgery; and at the same time took an opportunity both of replying to the charge brought against him by Boyle (from which he appears to have vindicated himself), and of criticising the late edition of the Epistles with great severity, and with all the power of his vast erudition and unrivalled acumen. This, the first edition of Bentley's celebrated · Dissertation on Phalaris,' is now, in truth, universally considered to have established the spuriousness of the Epistles conclusively and unanswerably. An answer, however, was produced to it in the following year (1698), under the title of “ Dr. Bentley's Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris and the Fables of Æsop examined ;' to which Boyle's name was prefixed, but which is believed to have been chiefly the composition of his tutor, the celebrated Dr. Francis Atterbury, afterwards Bishop of Rochester, whose very considerable attainments in classical scholarship were enlivened and decorated by the finest spirit of wit and humour. Some others of the most distinguished among the Oxford men also contributed their blows or missiles; so that the cause of the old Sicilian tyrant against the denier and derider of his literary pretensions may be said to have been taken up and defended by the whole force and fury of the university. The laugh was turned for the moment against Bentley by this attack, which was for the most part a fierce personal invective; but he set at least the original question at rest, and effectually put down the pretensions of his assailants to cope with him in the field of learning and criticism, by a second and enlarged edi. tion of his Dissertation, which he brought forth after about another year's interval. To this a reply was

threatened, but none was ever made. Bentley's performance was in every way a masterpiece. " Professedly controversial,” observes a late writer, “it embodies a mass of accurate information relative to historical facts, antiquities, chronology, and philology, such as we may safely say has rarely been collected in the same space; and the reader cannot fail to admire the ingenuity with which things apparently trifling, or foreign to the point in question, are made effective in illustrating or proving the author's views. Nothing shows so well how thoroughly digested and familiar was the vast stock of reading which Bentley possessed. The banter and ridicule of his opponents are returned with interest, and the reader is reconciled to what might seem to savour too much of arrogance and the bitterness of controversy by a sense of the strong provocation given to the author."* We may add a few words from Mr. Hallam's notice of this controversy :—" It was the first great literary war that had been waged in England ; and, like that of Troy, it has still the prerogative of being remembered after the Epistles of Phalaris are as much buried as the walls of Troy itself. Both combatants were skilful in wielding the sword : the arms of Boyle, in Swift's language, were given him by all the gods;t but his antagonist stood

* Article on Bentley, in Penny Cyclopædia, iv. 250.

† Upon this assertion of Swift's, Boyle's son, John earl of Orrery, remarks, with a filial or family partiality that is excusable enough" I shall not dispute about the gift of the armour; but thus far I will venture to observe, that the gods never bestowed celestial armour except upon heroes whose courage and superior strength distinguished them from the rest of mankind; whose merits and abilities were already conspicuous; and who could wield, though young, the sword of Mars, and adorn it with all the virtues forward in no such figurative strength, master of a learning to which nothing parallel had been known in England, and that directed by an understanding prompt, discriminating, not idly sceptical, but still farther removed from trust in authority, sagacious in perceiving corruptions of language, and ingenious, at the least, in removing them, with a style rapid, concise, amusing, and superior to Boyle in that which he had most to boast, a sarcastic wit."* The Battle of the Books, here alluded to, the production of the afterwards renowned Jonathan Swift, did not, however, appear till the year 1704. In fact the dispute about the authenticity of the Epistles of Phalaris had formed all along only a branch of a larger controversy, which was kept up for some years after the question of Phalaris had been set at rest and abandoned on all hands. It was Swift's relation and patron, Sir William Temple, who had first called attention to the Epistles by a passage in one of his Essays, in which he endeavoured to maintain the superiority of the ancients over the moderns in all kinds of learning and knowledge, the physical and experimental sciences themselves not excepted. It was in answer to Temple's Essay, which was itself a reply to Perrault's' Parallèle des Anciens et Modernes, published at Paris in 1687, that Wotton wrote his ' Reflections, the first edition of which appeared in 1694, and expressed therein an opinion unfavourable to the antiquity of the Epistles, which Temple had both eulogised in warm terms and cited as of unquestionable authenticity. This argument between Temple as the champion-general of the ancients, and Wotton of the moderns, which produced a great many more publications from both, and from their respective partisans, is the main subject of the Battle of the Books, which was probably the last blow struck in the

of Minerva.”-Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Swift, 5th edition, p. 228. Charles Boyle was in truth a person of respectable talent; but, although in after life he wrote a comedy (As You Find It), and some other trifles, his wit does not appear to have ripened with his years, and nothing that he produced ever

excited any attention except his college publication in the Phalaris controversy.

*Lit. of Eur.,' iv, 14.


and ink war, and at any rate is the last that is now remembered.


The Tale of a Tub and the Battle of the Books, published together, were the first announcement of the greatest master of satire at once comic and caustic that has yet appeared in our language. Swift, born in Ireland in 1667, had already, in the last years of the reign of King William, made himself known by two volumes of Letters selected from the papers of his friend Temple, and also by a political pamphlet in favour of the ministry of the day, which attracted little notice, and gave as little promise of his future eminence as a writer.

To politics as well as satire, however, he adhered throughout his career—often blending the two, but producing scarcely anything, if we may not except some of his effusions in verse, that was not either satirical or political. His course of authorship as a political writer may be considered properly to begin with his · Letter concerning the Sacramental Test,' and another high Tory and high church tract, which he published in 1708; in which same year he also came forward with his ironical • Argument for the Abolition of Christianity,' and, in his

huinorous • Predictions,' first assumed his nom de
güerre of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, subsequently made so
famous by other jeux d'esprit in the same style, and by
its adoption soon after by the wits of the Tatler. Of
his other most notable performances, his Conduct of the
Allies was published in 1712; his Public Spirit of the
Whigs, in 1714; his Drapier's Letters, in 1724; his im-
mortal Gulliver's Travels, in 1727; and his Polite Con-
versation, which had been written many years before, in
1738. His poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, besides, had
appeared, without his consent, in 1723, soon after the
death of Miss Hester Van Homrigh, its heroine. The
History of the Four Last Years of Queen Anne (if his,
which there can hardly be a doubt that it is), the Direc-
tions for Servants, many of his verses and other shorter
pieces, and his Diary written to Stella (Miss Johnson,
whom he eventually married), were none of them printed
till after, some of them not till long after, his death,
which took place in 1745.
“O thou !” exclaims his friend Pope,

“ whatever title please thine ear
Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver !
Whether thou choose Cervantes' serious air,
Or laugh and shake in Rabelais' easy chair,
Or praise the court, or magnify mankind,

Or thy grieved country's copper chains unbind,—" lines that describe comprehensively enough the celebrated dean's genius and writings—what he did and what

And the first remark to be made about Swift is, that into everything that came from his pen he put a strong infusion of himself; that in his writings we read the man--not merely his intellectual ability, but his moral nature, his passions, his principles, his prejudices, his

[ocr errors]

he was.

« PreviousContinue »