The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

By Ricardo Quintana | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
CONTROLLING IDEAS

I

THE continuity of our critical study of Swift would be preserved were we now to proceed to the crowning work of the Moor Park period, The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. It seems the wiser course, however, to sacrifice continuity in the interest of a full understanding of the controlling ideas which, beginning with these two great satires, were the bone and sinew of everything that Swift wrote.

There is little in the present chapter which will not, it is believed, cast direct light upon A Tale of a Tub -- upon the Battle also, though the latter calls for considerably less. It is not to be expected, however, that the references to Swift work will be confined to A Tale of a Tub, for as befits one who entertained the doctrine of uniformity -- of which more shortly -- Swift's mature work is ideologically of an astonishing sameness. Sometime between the end of 1693 and his return to Temple in 1696 he reached intellectual maturity at a single bound, with the result that the first pages of the Tale conduct us straight into the country wherein Swift was henceforth to abide. With most great figures of literature there are preliminary episodes to engage our attention; our interest is properly accelerated as the lights go on one by one. But with Swift the full current is thrown on instantly, without warning. The initial difficulty thus imposed on those seeking to give and to find insight into his mind is great. It is next to impossible to adhere to the chronology of his writings. One must weave back and forth, drawing where necessary on the work of his early, middle, and late genius.


2

SWIFT'S writings, from end to end, are a magnificently firm and insistent exposition of a complex of ideas and attitudes given by the period of European culture into which

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