Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Epistle Dedicatory, to His Royal Highness Prince Posterity
By Jonathan Swift (16671745)
From The Tale of a Tub
SIR,I here present your highness with the fruits of a very few leisure hours, stolen from the short intervals of a world of business and of an employment quite alien from such amusements as this the poor production of that refuse of time, which has lain heavy upon my hands, during a long prorogation of parliament, a great dearth of foreign news, and a tedious fit of rainy weather: for which, and other reasons, it cannot choose extremely to deserve such a patronage as that of your highness, whose numberless virtues, in so few years, make the world look upon you as the future example to all princes; for although your highness is hardly got clear of infancy, yet has the universal learned world already resolved upon appealing to your future dictates, with the lowest and most resigned submission; fate having decreed you sole arbiter of the productions of human wit, in this polite and most accomplished age. Methinks, the number of appellants were enough to shock and startle any judge, of a genius less unlimited than yours: but, in order to prevent such glorious trials, the person, it seems, to whose care the education of your highness is committed, has resolved (as I am told) to keep you in almost a universal ignorance of our studies, which it is your inherent birthright to inspect.
It is amazing to me, that this person should have the assurance in the face of the sun, to go about persuading your highness, that our age is almost wholly illiterate, and has hardly produced one writer upon any subject. I know very well, that when your highness shall come to riper years, and have gone through the learning of antiquity, you will be too curious, to neglect inquiring into the authors of the very age before you: and to think that this insolent, in the account he is preparing for your view, designs to reduce them to a number so insignificant as I am ashamed to mention; it moves my zeal and my spleen for the honour and interest of our vast flourishing body, as well as of myself, for whom I know by long experience he has professed, and still continues, a peculiar malice.
It is not unlikely, that, when your highness will one day peruse what I am now writing, you may be ready to expostulate with your governor, upon the credit of what I here affirm, and command him to show you some of our productions. To which he will answer (for I am well informed of his designs), by asking your highness, where they are? and what is become of them? and pretend it a demonstration that there never were any, because they are not then to be found. Not to be found! who has mislaid them? are they sunk in the abyss of things? it is certain, that in their own nature, they were light enough to swim upon the surface for all eternity. Therefore the fault is in him, who tied weights so heavy to their heels, as to depress them to the centre. Is their very essence destroyed? who has annihilated them? were they drowned by purges, or martyred by pipes? But, that it may no longer be a doubt with your highness, who is to be the author of this universal ruin, I beseech you to observe that large and terrible scythe which your governor affects to bear continually about him. Be pleased to remark the length and strength, the sharpness and hardness, of his nails and teeth: consider his baneful, abominable breath, enemy to life and matter infectious and corrupting: and then reflect, whether it be possible, for any mortal ink and paper of this generation to make a suitable resistance. Oh! that your highness would one day resolve to disarm this usurping maître du palais of his furious engines, and bring your empire hors de page.
It were needless to recount the several methods of tyranny and destruction, which your governor is pleased to practise upon this occasion. His inveterate malice is such to the writings of our age, that of several thousands produced yearly from this renowned city, before the next revolution of the sun, there is not one to be heard of: Unhappy infants! many of them barbarously destroyed, before they have so much as learnt their mother tongue to beg for pity. Some he stifles in their cradles; others he frights into convulsions, whereof they suddenly die; some he flays alive, others he tears limb from limb. Great numbers are offered to Moloch; and the rest, tainted by his breath, die of a languishing consumption.
But the concern I have most at heart is for our corporation of poets; from whom I am preparing a petition to your highness, to be subscribed with the names of one hundred and thirty-six of the first rate; but whose immortal productions are never likely to reach your eyes, though each of them is now an humble and earnest appellant for the laurel, and has large comely volumes ready to show, for a support to his pretensions. The never-dying works of these illustrious persons, your governor, sir, has devoted to unavoidable death; and your highness is to be made believe, that our age has never arrived at the honour to produce one single poet.
We confess Immortality to be a great and powerful goddess; but in vain we offer up to her our devotions and our sacrifices, if your highnesss governor, who has usurped the priesthood, must, by an unparalleled ambition and avarice, wholly intercept and devour them.
To affirm that our age is altogether unlearned, and devoid of writers in any kind, seems to be an assertion so bold and so false, that I have been some time thinking, the contrary may almost be proved by uncontrollable demonstration. It is true, indeed, that although their numbers be vast, and their productions numerous in proportion, yet are they hurried so hastily off the scene, that they escape our memory, and elude our sight. When I first thought of this address, I had prepared a copious list of titles to present your highness, as an undisputed argument for what I affirm. The originals were posted fresh upon all gates and corners of streets; but, returning in a very few hours to take a review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones in their places. I inquired after them among readers and booksellers; but I inquired in vain; the memorial of them was lost among men; their place was no more to be found; and I was laughed to scorn for a clown and a pedant, without all taste and refinement, little versed in the course of present affairs, and that knew nothing of what had passed in the best companies of court and town. So that I can only avow in general to your highness, that we do abound in learning and wit; but to fix upon particulars is a task too slippery for my slender abilities. If I should venture in a windy day to affirm to your highness that there is a large cloud near the horizon, in the form of a bear; another in the zenith, with the head of an ass; a third to the westward, with claws like a dragon; and your highness should in a few minutes think fit to examine the truth, it is certain they would all be changed in figure and position: new ones would arise, and all we could agree upon would be, that clouds there were, but that I was grossly mistaken in the zoography and topography of them.
But your governor perhaps may still insist, and put the question,What is then become of those immense bales of paper, which must needs have been employed in such numbers of books? Can these also be wholly annihilate, and so of a sudden, as I pretend? What shall I say in return of so invidious an objection? Books, like men their authors, have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are ten thousand to go out of it, and return no more.
I profess to your highness, in the integrity of my heart, that what I am going to say is literally true this minute I am writing: what revolutions may happen before it shall be ready for your perusal, I can by no means warrant: however, I beg you to accept it as a specimen of our learning, our politeness, and our wit. I do therefore affirm, upon the word of a sincere man, that there is now actually in being a certain poet, called John Dryden, whose translation of Virgil was lately printed in a large folio, well bound and, if diligent search were made, for aught I know, is yet to be seen. There is another, called Nahum Tate, who is ready to make oath, that he has caused many reams of verse to be published, whereof both himself and his bookseller (if lawfully required), can still produce authentic copies, and therefore wonders why the world is pleased to make such a secret of it. There is a third, known by the name of Tom Durfey, a poet of a vast comprehension, a universal genius, and most profound learning. There are also one Mr. Rymer, and one Mr. Dennis, most profound critics. There is a person styled Dr. Bentley, who has written near a thousand pages of immense erudition, giving a full and true account of a certain squabble, of wonderful importance, between himself and a bookseller: he is a writer of infinite wit and humour; no man rallies with a better grace, and in more sprightly turns. Further, I avow to your highness, that with these eyes I have beheld the person of William Wotton, B.D., who has written a good sizeable volume against a friend of your governor (from whom, alas! he must therefore look for little favour), in a most gentlemanly style, adorned with the utmost politeness and civility; replete with discoveries equally valuable for their novelty and use; and embellished with traits of wit, so poignant and so apposite, that he is a worthy yokemate to his forementioned friend.
Why should I go upon further particulars, which might fill a volume with the just eulogies of my contemporary brethren? I shall bequeath this piece of justice to a larger work, wherein I intend to write a character of the present set of wits in our nation: their persons I shall describe particularly and at length, their genius and understandings in miniature.
In the meantime, I do here make bold to present your highness with a faithful abstract, drawn from the universal body of all arts and sciences, intended wholly for your service and instruction: nor do I doubt in the least, but your highness will peruse it as carefully, and make as considerable improvements as other young princes have already done, by the many volumes of late years written for a help to their studies.