Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Digression concerning Critics
By Jonathan Swift (16671745)
From The Tale of a Tub
ALTHOUGH I have been hitherto as cautious as I could, upon all occasions, most nicely to follow the rules and methods of writing laid down by the example of our illustrious moderns; yet has the unhappy shortness of my memory led me into an error, from which I must extricate myself, before I can decently pursue my principal subject. I confess with shame, it was an unpardonable omission to proceed so far as I have already done, before I had performed the due discourses, expostulatory, supplicatory, or deprecatory, with my good lords the critics. Towards some atonement for this grievous neglect, I do here make humbly bold, to present them with a short account of themselves, and their art, by looking into the original and pedigree of the word, as it is generally understood among us; and very briefly considering the ancient and present state thereof.
By the word critic, at this day so frequent in all conversations, there have sometimes been distinguished three very different species of mortal men, according as I have read in ancient books and pamphlets. For first, by this term was understood such persons as invented or drew up rules for themselves and the world, by observing which, a careful reader might be able to pronounce upon the productions of the learned, form his taste to a true relish of the sublime and the admirable, and divide every beauty of matter, or of style, from the corruption that apes it: in their common perusal of books, singling out the errors and defects, the nauseous, the fulsome, the dull, and the impertinent, with the caution of a man that walks through Edinburgh streets in a morning, who is indeed as careful as he can to watch diligently, and spy out the filth in his way; not that he is curious to observe the ordure; but only with a design to come out as cleanly as he may. These men seem, though very erroneously, to have understood the appellation of critic in a literal sense; that one principal part of his office was to praise and acquit; and that a critic, who sets up to read only for an occasion of censure and reproof, is a creature as barbarous as a judge who should take up a resolution to hang all men that came before him upon a trial.
The third and noblest sort, is that of the TRUE CRITIC, whose original is the most ancient of all. Every true critic is a hero born, descending in a direct line, from a celestial stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcætera the elder; who begat Bentley, and Rymer, and Wotton, and Perrault, and Dennis; who begat Etcætera the younger.
And these are the critics, from whom the commonwealth of learning has in all ages received such immense benefits, that the gratitude of their admirers placed their origin in heaven, among those of Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, and other great deservers of mankind. But heroic virtue itself has not been exempt from the obloquy of evil tongues. For it has been objected, that those ancient heroes, famous for their combating so many giants, and dragons, and robbers, were in their own persons a greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued; and therefore to render their obligations more complete, when all other vermin were destroyed, should, in conscience, have concluded with the same justice upon themselves. As Hercules most generously did, and has upon that score procured to himself more temples and votaries, than the best of his fellows. For these reasons, I suppose it is, why some have conceived, it would be very expedient for the public good of learning, that every true critic, as soon as he had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver himself up to ratsbane, or hemp, or leap from some convenient altitude; and that no mans pretensions to so illustrious a character should by any means be received, before that operation were performed.
Now, from this heavenly descent of criticism, and the close analogy it bears to heroic virtue, it is easy to assign the proper employment of a true ancient genuine critic; which is, to travel through this vast world of writings; to pursue and hunt those monstrous faults bred within them; to drag out the lurking errors, like Cacus1 from his den; to multiply them like Hydras heads; and rake them together like Augeass dung: or else drive away a sort of dangerous fowl, who have a perverse inclination to plunder the best branches of the tree of knowledge, like those Stymphalian birds2 that eat up the fruit.
These reasonings will furnish us with an adequate definition of a true critic: that he is discoverer and collector of writers faults; which may be further put beyond dispute by the following demonstration; that whoever will examine the writings in all kinds, wherewith this ancient sect has honoured the world, shall immediately find, from the whole thread and tenor of them, that the ideas of the authors have been altogether conversant and taken up, with the faults, and blemishes, and oversights, and mistakes of other writers: and, let the subject treated on be whatever it will, their imaginations are so entirely possessed and replete with the defects of other pens, that the very quintessence of what is bad, does of necessity distil into their own; by which means the whole appears to be nothing else but an abstract of the criticisms themselves have made.