Page images

each pregnant thought; the mere act of reading will be a delight, instead of the scramble it too often is, and you will remember that author as long as you live, and continue to read and re-read him when you know his every page by heart. If the gods could condescend to mortal literature, in such a way would they read. They may talk of an Academy for England; but what we most want is a statutory illness, which everyone shall be compelled to take at reasonable intervals, and during which he shall be locked up in the company of a real book, till he and it are grown firm friends. A Bill to banish the productions of circulating libraries from all sick rooms, and for the provision by the state of a sufficient diet of good authors, would almost serve the turn; but the compulsory illness is the true remedy for literary ignorance.

In such an illness I chanced to forgather with Swift. I had passed through the thirty-one-and-sixpenny phase, and was experiencing the inevitable reaction, when I remembered two solid volumes on the traditional top-shelf, which I had not explored. They contained Swift's works. I had no recollection when or why I bought them: and when I opened them for the first time, I marvelled greatly what perversity had led to such a purchase.

There are two ways of getting a literary gallon into a pint pot. One is the evaporative process, by which the thinner and airier portions of the fluid are suffered to depart in vapour, and a residue of sound liquor, mellowed by time and full of the distinctive bouquet of the vintage, preserves all of it that was worth keeping. This might be applied to Swift with success, for there is much that is unequal in his work, and it is

quite possible and desirable to distil the true essence out of the mixed brew that we find in the complete editions. The other method is one of mechanical compression, unknown to distillers, but familiar to buyers of books, whereby each particle of the liquor is squeezed and shaken into half its natural size, with the loss too often of taste and colour, and is then crammed into a mean vessel, of the thinnest and basest metal, which cannot be lifted without spilling the contents, and in which the pot-boy knocks a hole at every drawing.

My Swift had been subjected to the latter process. Two tall columns,-not "tall" in the celestial sense beloved of collectors, but only long of "form" and short of margin,-filled each page with closely serried ranks of undersized letters; and each volume held near a thousand such pages between its shattered boards. Here, indeed, was the whole of Swift,or more than the whole, for there was a good deal that he never wrote,-but so hustled and pressed and "cropped," that a moral effort was needed to keep the outraged sight upon the pages. Accident, however, ruled the event. There was nothing else to read; something printed was essential; and so the two huge volumes came down from their dusty obscurity, and Swift became my intimate companion, then and thenceforward. I have never ceased to be grateful to those two ungainly volumes, and the illness that forced me to study them: and though I now rejoice in the possession of Scott's luxurious edition, the mangled remains of the clumsy but painstaking edition of 1841 are still religiously preserved as objects of tender solicitude.

You may get much pleasure by reading chosen portions of an author, as I hope some will gain from these Selections; but to enjoy a great writer fully you must read him through and then read him again. It is a happy accident that forces one to read such a one in earnest; and however one may agree with Sir John in the general principle, there can be no doubt that such reading "upon compulsion " is the best fate that can befall a man. Selections have their justification. They serve a double object,-to introduce and to remind. They provide the unadventurous reader with the easiest way to learn a little of an author he feels he ought to know; and they recall the fruits of fuller study to the memories of those who have passed on to other fields. "The unlearned will thank me for informing, and the learned will forgive me for reminding them," was the exordium of the old scholar: and this is the best motto that can be prefixed to a book of selections from a great classic.

In Swift's case there are other reasons for such selection. Much of his work was concerned with the politics of his day, and this part has lost something of its flavour to all but historical students. Too often his best writings are defaced by a coarseness of illustration, which though it may find its parallel in the literature of the age can hardly be excused, and can certainly not be tolerated in a book for general reading. Swift's coarseness, however, is not of the worst kind, as anyone will allow who has made any extensive research among the pamphlets and skits of his time, nor is it so pervasive as is commonly imagined. It is quite possible to purge his text of every trace of indelicacy without injuring either his sense or his style. The number of

such omissions in the present selection is quite trifling; yet there remains not a line in this volume which might not be recited in a drawing-room.

Another reason for excision is that his satire sometimes stings a foe who has been so long forgotten that it takes an antiquary to discover the bite. Swift's remarks on the fleeting existence of a pun apply scarcely less closely to satire. Nothing, he says, is so very tender as a modern piece of wit, or is so apt to suffer in the carriage. "Some things are extremely witty to-day, or fasting, or in this place, or at eight o'clock, or over a bottle, or spoke by Mr. What d' y' call 'm, or in a summer's morning: any of which by the smallest transposal or misapplication is utterly annihilate. Thus wit has its walks and purlieus, out of which it may not stray the breadth of a hair, upon peril of being lost. The moderns have artfully fixed this mercury, and reduced it to the circumstances of time, place, and person. Such a jest there is that will not pass out of Covent Garden; and such a one that is nowhere intelligible but at Hyde-park corner. Now though it sometimes tenderly affects me to consider, that all the towardly passages I shall deliver in the following treatise will quite grow out of date and relish with the first shifting of the present scene, yet I must needs subscribe to the justice of the proceeding: because I cannot imagine why we should be at the expense to furnish wit for succeeding ages, when the former have made no sort of provision for ours." What Swift said ironically, for the benefit of the small wits of his time, applies in earnest to not a few of his own taunts, which have lost their savour merely because the exciting cause has been long buried. What can be less interesting than

a parody of an unknown poem or play? But this is the fate of many of Swift's jibes at the abuses of his age; and ignorance of the objects has brought neglect and inappreciation upon the jest. Swift's comments on Prior's journey, and Wharton's vices, and the theology of Mr. Collins, need a second commentator to make them intelligible to a latter-day reader.

But if satire has its perishable elements, it possesses also qualities that will commend it to the shrewder minds so long as the world lasts. "As wit is the noblest and most useful gift of human nature, so humour is the most agreeable; and where these two enter far into the composition of any work, they will render it always acceptable to the world." And of all forms of humour satire has perhaps the most durability. "Satire is a sort of glass," begins the preface to the Battle of the Books, "wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world." It will not win the widest popularity among the general, for it demands a sense of humour and perhaps a slight vein of cynicism which are not present in every mind, and it postulates a mind, which is not contained in every skull. But among those who are able to understand it, satire has a power of fascination that no other written thing possesses.

Swift exercises this peculiar fascination upon all who fairly come within reach of his pen. Some of his irony has lost its point by age and our forgetfulness of the past; but the great mass of his work is on that large field which embraces human nature without regard to time or place,-with the ludibrium rerum

« PreviousContinue »