The Battle of the Books

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The Spider and the Bee Episode

Swift wrote The Battle of the Books primarily to defend the position taken by his patron Sir William Temple in the pamphlet war at the end of the 17C, regarding the rival claims to greatness of the Moderns and the Ancients. The essay presents this controversy in the form of an imaginary battle between two sets of books in the Royal Library of St. James. As the battle is about to begin, there is an unexpected interruption in the form of a quarrel between a spider who had woven a web on “the highest corner of a large window” and a bee who alighted by mistake upon “one of the outward walls of the spider’s citadel” (i.e. one of the threads of the spider’s web) which, “yielding to the unequal weight just sunk down to the very foundations.” Upon this ensues a verbal battle between the two insects, which stops short of a physical fight. The controversy is seen however by Aesop, one of the Ancients represented in the library, who now makes a speech. Aesop feels that the quarrel between the spider and the bee is emblematic or symbolic of the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. At the end of the speech, preparations for the battle of the books are renewed.

As has already been noted, Swift wrote the essay in support of William Temple’s An Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning where he had tried to present evidence in favour of the Ancients. Swift’s essay, as well as Temple’s earlier one, must be viewed in the context of the advances made in 17C England and Europe in the fields of Literature, Philosophy and Science. The empirical spirit if the Age expressed itself “in a whole-hearted devotion to the self-confident acquisition of information in the conviction that this alone led to truth.” This conviction Temple regarded as “the modern form of pride, the primal sin.” Swift largely agrees with this estimate, though he goes on to parody Temple’s essay.

The Spider and the Bee episode, like The Battle of the Books itself, belongs to the genre of the satirical argumentative discourse and the first texture we notice is the satirist’s favourite and effective device – namely the mask. In fact we find that there are two levels of the mask here. If The Battle of the Books is itself a mask and a dramatization of the arguments of the contemporary scholars in the ‘Ancients vs Moderns’ controversy, the quarrel between the spider and the bee is an inset drama within this drama and a mask within a mask as it were. While the device helps the author to achieve artistic distance – it is not Swift directly speaking, it is the spider and the bee as they are viewed by Aesop and the other writers and books in the library – the particular choice of the spider and the bee is also quite appropriate. The hyperbole involved in the description of the spider’s web and the bee’s intrusion into it presents the Ancients vs Moderns controversy in a humorous light; but the hyperbole is also appropriate because what is actually presented is not a quarrel between the two insects but a dispute between two diametrically opposed categories of scholars.

Swift provides a proper perspective to his technique by making one of his own characters in the essay, Aesop, comment on the appropriateness of the choice of the spider and the bee: “Was ever anything so modern as the spider in his air, his turns and his paradoxes,” asks Aesop. The spider becomes a symbol of the Modern’s spirit not only by his strengths, namely his skill in architecture and the improvement in mathematics, but also by his serious limitations – his boastful air of self-sufficiency and the disgusting nature of the materials he works with even if his methods are effective. The skill in architecture and the improvement in Maths are references to the advances made in England during the previous decades and to the improvements in navigation and fortification and also to the work of the Royal Society. On the disagreeable side, the materials with which the spider works, the spit and poison he uses both to build his house and to kill his opponents are representative of the material with which modern (17C) writer works – satire and invective. And, in general, the arrogant boast of the spider is illustrious o the proud self-sufficiency of the Moderns. As for the bee, like the Ancients, he is content to trace his nativity to heaven. His wings and his voice – which alone are his protection and support – are symbolic of the flight of imagination and the sweet idiomatic language of the Ancients. The substances he produces are not spit and venom but honey and wax which provide sweetness and light. These correspond to the twin benefits of pleasure and instruction which the Ancients provide. The spider and the bee are, thus, apt emblems for the Moderns and the Ancients.

The language employed by the two insects is again representative of the temper and spirit of the two disputants. The spider calls the bee ‘sirrah”, “vagabond”, “rogue” and, in general, uses the most abusive kind of language. The bee, on the other hand, displays a more patient spirit, calls the spider “friend”’ grants the spider’s merits (“In that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labour and method enough”) but goes on persuasively (giving out the sweetness of courtesy and the light of wisdom) to point out his serious shortcomings, employing a comely simile too (“If I may judge the licour in a vessel by what issues out”).

There is a contrast, too, in the syntactic structures employed by the spider and the bee which again seems to recapture the Modern and the Ancient styles of writing. The sentences of the spider are generally short, appropriate to the angry spirit of the Moderns. (For e.g., “Is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here? Could you not look before you and be d—d?”) The sentences spoken by the bee are longer, revealing a greater complexity of control over language and thought. Consider, for e.g., the sentence of the bee’s speech: “So that in short the question comes all to this ……wax.”

The sentence shows the ability of the Ancients to hold different and opposed ideas in the mind, weight hem and to arrive at a decision. The complexity of the sentence poses no problem to the reader because the grouping and the punctuation provide helpful clues tot eh organization of the thought. A similar complexity and lucidity are found naturally in the speech of Aesop (one of the Ancients) himself as see, for e.g., in the last sentence of that speech. This ability to combine syntactic complexity with cumulative lucidity was one of the attributes of Jonathan Swift himself.

A great part of our enjoyment of The Battle of the Books arises from the fact that it is written in the mock-heroic vein. Like all other writers of mock-heroic compositions, Swift too assumes a mock-heroic gravity while treating a trivial incident. He uses the lofty style of the epic to make his descriptions of trivial things effective. In the spider and the bee episode, the spider’s web, for instance, is described as a grand palace or citadel. Moreover, while describing the bee’s attempt to escape from the web in which he gets caught, Swift uses a favourite mannerism of the epic poets – the repetition of “thrice”: “Thrice he endeavoured to force his passage and thrice the center shook.” Again when he says, “The spider within, feeling the terrible convulsions supposed at first that nature was approaching to her final dissolution…”, we are reminded of Milton’s description of Eve’s tasting of the Forbidden Fruit: “Earth felt the wound and Nature, from her seat/Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe/That all was lost.”

It may be noted in passing that Swift employs irony as Mathew Arnold does. Swift’s sentences about the spider’s geometry and architecture are effective precisely because of their ironic tone. Though it is not bitter, as for e.g., in his other work, A Modest Proposal, or the last voyage in Gulliver’s Travels, it is powerful enough to direct the attention of the reader against the spider. Arnold’s irony is equally powerful but it takes the form of good-humoured banter. Arnold would no hurt a fly but Swift would not object even if he were accused of cynicism. His irony is witheringly sharp.

Matter divided into 7 parts as in Ancient Orators

1. Exordium – sketchy, indirect introduction
2. Narration – important facts, situation
3. Proposition – author’s aim
4. Division – elaboration of situation
5. Refutation – of the arguments of the opponents
6. Confirmation – findings that confirm the hypothesis
7. Peroration – summing up (not found in The Battle of the Books)