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T is the melancholy privilege of a classical author
Swift has enjoyed this distinction to the full. It would be an interesting experiment to take a census of the number of ordinary readers who have any acquaintance with his writings beyond a boyish recollection of Gulliver's Travels and perhaps an impression that the too familiar pass-words "sweetness and light" are to be found in the Battle of the Books. Professional students of English literature must of course know their Swift; but the multitude of critical and biographical essays, that inevitably follow in the train of every classic, furnish the general reader with only too easy a mode of acquiring a surface knowledge at second or third hand, and the majority of the polite commonplaces that are always in stock about Swift may be traced to Thackeray's slight lecture, or to the brilliant but superficial chapter in Taine. We are all proud of our greatest satirist; but as to making a detailed study of his works, nobody thinks of such an adventure. A distant acquaintance with Gulliver, and an inquisitive interest in Stella and Vanessa, will carry one comfortably through the world, and it were unreasonable to require more of the harassed reader
in an age when every one is a Deucalion and every stone a book.
One disadvantage that Swift shares with his contemporary Defoe is his bulk. There is certainly something deterring to many tastes in a classic, let him be never so famous, who cannot be comfortably lodged in less than nineteen sizeable volumes. Scott's second edition, 1824, is still, in spite of its want of method and accuracy, the standard text of Swift, and it has recently been luxuriously and only too faithfully reprinted without any diminution of its size. Nineteen volumes, with never a novel among them, or at best an allegorical tale or two, and for subject first and last one gigantic pillory of the human species, may fairly be allowed to make a severe demand upon the jaded appetite of the modern reader. The true book lover knows how to appreciate long editions; I am not, however, thinking at present of book lovers, but of book readers, who need as careful preparation as ever Foulis or Bodoni bestowed upon their folios, though the preparation must be of a different or even opposite nature. Nineteen honest brown backs are dear to a lover of books, but they scare a mere reader, whose weaker faith must be fortified by small doses, and whose unaccustomed organs can only digest food when it has been well minced.
Thus it happens that Swift is not read except by a few avowed students. My own introduction to him in his entirety was under far more unfavourable auspices than Scott's. I claim to belong to the book lovers, and an edition that spreads along a whole shelf has no terrors for me. But I was condemned to learn my Swift in the most atrocious form that ever
printer and binder conspired to produce for the torment of their victims. The accident that compelled me to read Swift was an illness. There is nothing like a good long illness for the cultivation of pure literature. It should not be too severe or needlessly painful, for then you may overshoot the mark and be too weary to read or be read to. It is possible to have too much of even the best things. But a proper, comfortable illness, that keeps you in bed, yet leaves you free to read; that banishes all the interruptions of life, the constitutional walks, the stupid visits, the annoying correspondence, the dressing and the undressing, and all the other amenities of modern civilization, and allows you to lie at peace and read your fill, is among the best gifts of the gods. You soon forget to be sleepy and lazy; your mind displays an unwonted activity, and you become conscious of an insatiable craving for books.
At first the attentions of well-meaning friends will provide you with all the most recent additions to the circulating library, and you will daily consume your thirty-one-and-sixpenny-worth of guileless incapacity. But this will not last long; you will get rid of your friends, by natural brutality or by simulating an infectious disorder; you will refuse to pay the carriage of library parcels; and you will then abandon yourself to the luxury of reposeful reading of some great author who has stood neglected on your upper shelf for years, and has sadly listened to your glib criticisms of his works, when he knows you have never even taken him into your hands. You will read and re-read the neglected one as you have seldom read anything of late :slowly, with enjoyment of each well-turned sentence,
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.