The Tale of a Tub was first published, anonymously, in 1704; but it had been sketched out and composed, if not while Swift was at Trinity College, Dublin, at least during his first residence with Sir William Temple at Moor Park, in or after 1692. Swift would never acknowledge himself to be the author; but one or two indirect allusions in his writings, and other evidencesto say nothing of the unmistakable power of the allegory and character of the styleleave, and almost from the very first allowed, no room for doubt on that point. Under the allegory of three sons altering, neglecting, observing, or mistaking, the will of their father, Swift satirises unsparingly the corruptions and pretensions of the Church of Rome, and the extremes and follies of the Dissenting bodies; and describes with approval, or at least without conspicuous offensiveness, the origin and establishment of the Reformed Churches, particularly that of England. At the same time, in his Preface and Digressions, he stops and turns aside to deal piercing thrusts and crushing downstrokes at arrogant, feeble, pretentious, and scurrilous critics, pedants, and authors, of his own and all time. Though in its day and way it did service to the interests of the High Church party, the work could not escape the imputation of levity and irreligion; and most of all Swift's writings it stood in the way of that preferment in the Church, the long delay and limited measure of which so bitterly disappointed him.
The Battle of the Books was written at Moor Park, during Swift's second residence there; but though believed, with the Tale of a Tub, to have been arranged for publication before Sir William Temple's death in 1699, it was not published till 1704. The occasion of it was Sir William's entering, on the side of the ancients, into a controversy that had been initiated by Perrault and Fontenelle in France; who contended that the modern was far superior to the ancient learning. To Temple's Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning, a reply on the side of the moderns was made by Sir William Wotton, B.D., and the learned Dr Bentley; the former attacking Temple's main argument, the latter, in an appendix, assailing the genuineness of the Epistles of Phalaris and the Fables ofÆsop, which Temple had cited as
p.42examples, and warmly lauded, in his Essay. Bentley's appendix brought into the field the Hon. Charles Boyle, afterwards Earl of Orrery, who a little time before had sent forth a new edition of the Epistles; and Dr Bentley rejoined. Through gratitude at once to his patron, Sir William Temple, and to his friends of Oxford University (which had conferred on him the degree of D.D.,) whence Temple and Boyle drew countenance and aid, Swift was deeply interested in the controversy; and made, under the form of an account of a battle between the ancient and modern books in the royal library at St James's, a vigorous and witty attack upon the vindicators of the moderns, in which blows are unmercifully dealt at many reputations, some of which not only were then, but are still, considerable. The idea of the allegory was alleged (though in the Author's Apology it is denied) to be taken from a French author, Courtay, who wrote a book entitled: Histoire Poëtique de la Guerre nouvellement declarée entre les Anciens et les Modernes. The style and treatment are copied, with a liberal dash of the burlesque, from Homer's narrations of the combats around Troy.