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“ONE of those authors (the fellow that was pilloried, I have forgot his name) is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a rogue, that there is no enduring him," says Swift in a Letter concerning the Sacramental Test. He is speaking of Defoe.
"Now I know a learned man at this time, an orator in the Latin, a walking index of books, who has all the libraries of Europe in his head, from the Vatican at Rome to the learned collection of Dr. Salmon at Fleet Ditch; but he is a cynic in behavior, a fury in temper, impolite in conversation, abusive in language, and ungovernable in passion. Is this to be learned? Then may I still be illiterate,” says Defoe in the seventh volume of the Review. He is speaking of Swift.
Thus and thus only do these two great prose geniuses of their age greet each other.
The passages are characteristic of their authors; the former marked with pride, and the latter with humility; both qualities more apparent than real. Swift is abusive and contemptuous, but describes rather justly the nature of Defoe's political satire. Defoe seems to speak more in sorrow than in anger, suggesting the possibility of the useful employment of talents; not for the sake of good that might be done, but for the sake of reproaching the delinquent. As usual, it is Defoe who is probably in the right, and it is Swift with whom we sympathize. It is obvious that A Modest Proposal and An Argument against Abolishing Christianity owe much to the
Shortest Way with Dissenters, and that Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver are citizens of the same commonwealth. One feels that Defoe ought to have been something more to Swift than "the fellow that was pilloried;" but Swift, seeing in Defoe everything that was antipathetic to him in politics, society and religion, sneers scornfully at Defoe, who sighs maliciously at Swift.
"A walking index of books," with “all the libraries of Europe in his head," says Defoe, and the facts bear him out. After Swift took his none too creditable degree at Dublin in 1685, he entered upon a course of systematic reading in the classics and in French literature; in 1696 he was reading sixteen hours a day, and he must have been a rapid reader. “I came home early," he says in The Journal to Stella, “and have read two hundred pages of Arrian"; and to Pope he writes, “I borrowed your Homer and read it out in two evenings." All his letters and journals are full of intimate talk about books. Books seemed to him to have personalities and he played practical jokes on them. In the fifth of the Drapier letters he says, “I have likewise buried at the bottom of a strong chest your Lordship's (Lord Molesworth) writings under a heap of others that treat of liberty, and spread over a layer or two of Hobbes, Filmer, Bodin (all of whom Swift hated) and many more authors of that stamp, to be readiest at hand whenever I shall be disposed to take up a new set of principles in government.” Swift, regarding his letters as his most cherished possession, laid them for safety within the covers of despised and discarded books, such as the translation of Horace's Epistles by Charles Carthy, so that they might not be disturbed.
Grave authors are spoken of, not gravely, but in the ready and casual way which indicates definite knowledge. "But pray learn to be a manager," he writes to