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The Battle of the Books


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The Satiric Effect of Battle of the Books

Swift's The Battle of the Books examines the claims of "the modern" to be equal to the great names of the highly civilized classical past, and finds them wanting. The battle is a hilarious and very nearly allegorical affair. Swift handles the subject in a mock-heroic fashion as a battle between the actual volumes in the library which Bentley had confessed was in a state of dirt and confusion. His achievement arises from a cross-play of allusions and until these are recognized, the charm of the history cannot be appreciated. For example, when Swift opposes Dryden to Virgil we are to bear in mind that Dryden translated Virgil. Similarly, when Cowley faces Pindar, we recall Cowley wrote after the fashion of Pindar. The satiric effect is obtained by the allegorical battle, by the actions and talk of the emblematic insects, and by the comments of characters in the fiction, like Scaliger and Aesope.

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