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FULL AND TRUE ACCOUNT
FOUGHT LAST FRIDAY,
ANCIENT AND THE MODERN BOOKS
IN SAINT JAMES'S LIBRARY.
A TRUE ACCOUNT, &c.
THE following jeu d'esprit, which appeared in the same volume with the Tale of a Tub, has relation to two keen and memorable controversies, which, at this time, divided the literary world, and, in some respects, were mingled with each other.
The first was the grand comparison between ancient and modern learning, a controversy which passed from France to Britain. Fontenelle and Perrault were the first modern authors who dared to assume to their own times a superiority over the ancients. The former denied the ancients any preference in philosophy and mathematics; and, upon much more questionable grounds, placed the moderns upon a level with them in poetry and oratory. Perrault supported Fontenelle in these conclusions, and claimed, moreover, for his own age, and for the French academy, the superiority in painting and architecture. He even pitched upon the champions whose strength he measured against those of antiquity; and it was with something like a sacred horror, that men of learning heard him compare the Bishop of Meaux to Thucydides; Bourdaloue to Nicias; Balsac to Cicero; Voiture to Pliny; Boileau * to Horace; and Corneille to all the Grecian and Roman dramatists. This juxtaposition of personages brought down a torrent of ridicule upon Perrault, before which he shrank, and finally retracted his opinions. The controversy, meanwhile,
Boileau, feeling more like a scholar than an author, assailed, with the following epigram, those who had raised him to a level with Horace ;
Quelq'un vint l'autre jour se plaindre au Dieu des vers
L'on traite d'auteurs froids, de poëtes steriles,
Les Homères et les Virgiles:
"Cela ne sauroit être, l'on se moque de vous,"
had been kindled in England, where some writers asserted the cause which Fontenelle and Perrault had abandoned. This doctrine was as unpalatable to the English scholars as it had been to those of France; and Sir William Temple, the most distinguished among them, by rank, talents, and the high offices of state which he had discharged, published, in answer, his Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning. Mr. Wotton ventured to reply to this treatise, and received some assistance from Dr. Bentley, of a nature to be hereafter mentioned; and thus standing the warfare about 1697, Swift's powers of satire were naturally exerted against Bentley and Wotton, in behalf of his patron. With what justice these learned persons are turned into such unqualified ridicule, must be greatly doubted by those who consider the controversy. That we have far exceeded the ancients in the knowledge necessary for the exercise of all useful arts, and in the philosophical principles on which these arts depend, cannot be disputed by their warmest admirers. On the other hand, it must be allowed, that, in poetry, oratory, and other exertions of the imagination, those who came first to the harvest-field reaped the richest part of the crop. We do not properly state Milton to have been inferior in genius to Homer, when we give precedence to the latter as the more original poet; for, although the same field was open to both, it is obvious that the modern must either avoid the track which had been occupied by his predecessor, or be contented to subject himself to the charge of having walked in his footsteps. Accordingly, in measuring the strength of the ancients and moderns, Swift has not failed to match the combatants in such a manner, as fully to avail himself of this advantage. Davenant and Wesley are overthrown by Homer, and Dryden by Virgil; but we have not the issue of the combat between Aristotle and Bacon; nor are we informed which of the ancient charioteers wounds the author of the discovery of the circulation of the blood. It is also remarkable, that Milton's name does not occur through the treatise, and that
"Où peut-on avancer une telle infamie?
Est ce chez les Hurons, chez les Topinambous!"
C'est à Paris. C'est donc à l'Hôpital de fous ;
Racine made another upon the same occasion, more particularly directed against Perrault;
D'ou vient, que Ciceron, Platon, Virgile, Homere,
the author has drawn no comparison between the ancient and modern dramatists.
A more private and petty subject of controversy, but which, perhaps, on that very account, was conducted with yet greater animosity, was involved in the grand comparative discussion of ancient and modern learning. About 1624, the Honourable Mr. Boyle, a young gentleman of high promise at Christ Church, was engaged in a new edition of the Epistles of Phalaris. While thus occupied, he applied to Dr. Bentley, then keeper of the King's Library, for the use of a manuscript of his author which was there deposited. This, according to Mr. Boyle's statement, was reluctantly lent, and hastily withdrawn-usage of which he complained in the preface to his edition of Phalaris. Nearly three years afterwards, when Mr. Wotton published his "Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning," Dr. Bentley supplied an appendix, in which he denied the authenticity of the Fables of Æsop, and of the Epistles of Phalaris, not without sharply retorting upon the honourable editor for the misemployment of his time in publishing a spurious author, and for the reflections he had thrown out in his preface touching the manuscript. This dissertation also affected Sir William Temple, as it vilified and degraded, as spurious, an author upon whose merit he had founded considerably in his controversy with Wotton. To these reflections Boyle answered in the treatise known by the title of Boyle against Bentley, to which Dr. Atterbury, and many of the Christ Church wits, are said to have contributed. Dr. Bentley retorted in another volume, which has been called Bentley against Boyle. The fashion of the day gave the victory to Boyle, and his more learned, though less popular rival, was for a short time the butt of general ridicule. At one time, he was painted in the brazen bull of the tyrant to whose epistles he had denied authenticity, still bellowing forth, however, "I had rather be roasted than boyled." On another occasion, Garth thus compliments his antagonist, at his expense, in the following lines:
So diamonds take a lustre from their foil,
Swift too, whose patron, Temple, did not escape some touches of Bentley's lash, has retaliated in his behalf, with an unsparing hand. Yet, after all that wit could allege, it has, I believe, been long an admitted point among scholars, that Bentley had decidedly the best of the argument; nor can we, who look back upon it at the distance of an hundred years, discern the least inferiority in his mode of conducting the warfare.