The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Battle of the Books

One of the more famous writers of the eighteenth-century was Jonathan Swift, still remembered (despite endemic illiteracy) as the author of Gulliver's Travels, a piece I haven't read in years but one which I remember referring to as "the greatest and most perfect satire in the English language" (a strong statement from a 2nd year student). Given the vagaries and necessities of undergraduate (and graduate/master's) education, I neglected many of my cherished 18th century friends, especially the prose fiction writers. During the summer I had picked up some interesting volumes and I finally cracked one of them open: it is a collection of Swift's major works published by OUP, and it included Battle of the Books. Those of you who are at least familiar with the literature of the period know that this is too short to be the actual title; the complete title, with original spelling, is

A True and Full Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James's Library.

(Incidentally, I believe there is a book out there that is nothing but a listing of eighteenth-century titles in their entirety!)

I just read the said work and found it, as with other works from the period, ripping good fun. It is fairly short and can be found on the internet fairly easily, including here. The picture is of the original frontpiece.

Of course, the notion of a battle between the ancients and the moderns wasn't new. This work was, if I know my dates, completed in 1697. Perhaps the most famous work on the ancients vs. moderns controversy was Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesie (although the more correct, latinate form is Of Dramatic Poesie, An Essay), which was published in 1668.
In any case, I found Swift's work to be, well, Swiftian. I especially found the part where Virgil and Dryden square off in the battle to be especially funny since, not only did Dryden worship the ground Virgil walked on, he also famously translated his Aeneid in 1697. From what I have gathered, it is a somewhat inaccurate translation, but it has more literary merit than any 20th century translation I have seen.

As a side note (which I'm sure RK and Dr. J will like), I was looking around in Willow Books the other day (a second hand bookshop in downtown Toronto), which has a remarkably chaotic basement. To my surprise I found a paperback copy of A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, for which I ended up paying something like two bucks. Along with Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells us, it is one of those classic works of criticism (first published in 1904!) without which no discussion of Shakespeare is complete. I have only ever read bits and pieces, but I'm willing to bet that many of the ideas I have about Shakespeare, including unconscious ones, come from that. For those of you who studied Shakespeare in high school, many of your ideas concerning the imagery probably come from Spurgeon's work. It's really neat that, at this point in my life, I can actually go back and read criticism and say "so that's where that came from!"


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