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You may get much pleasure by reading chosen por. tions 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 selec. tion. 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 coarse. ness, 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 some. times 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 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 forgetful. ness 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
humanarum, the “ridiculous tragedy" of lise,-and is as applicable to the sollies and hypocrisies of the present day, as it was to the days of Wharton and Walpole. Man seen at Lilliput through the wrong end of a telescope is as fruitful of instructive humour as he was when Gulliver was first published; the contrasts between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos have as terrible a meaning now as then; the mocking laughter of the Tub and the Books rings as scornfully now as ever it did in the opening of the eighteenth century. Swift's satire is as enduring as our language, and will in turn delight and chill and terrify mankind so long as books have power.
There is something in this satire that is alone and without exact parallel in literature. It is always in terrible earnest. We smile with Thackeray, for we feel that the humourist is ridiculing himself as much as anybody, and is laughing with us while he pretends to anathematize. With Swift it is no laughing matter. He hates and loathes the meannesses and unrealities of life with the fervour of a prophet of old; he denounces, them with the Burden of Moab. Weakness and deception do not amuse but enrage him ; he does not pity the feeble race that descends to shams and subterfuge, he despises it heartily. His whole heart is filled with unspeakable contempt for “the antmal called man, and all his writings give utterance to his disgust.
But he did not sneer for the sake of sneering; hex showed the right while he scarified the wrong; he did not paint that loathsome picture of the Yahoos without a fellow portrait of the “Great Virtues of the Houyhnhnms," or satirize the vices of his country without contrasting the excellence of the government of Brob
dingnag. Swift was the Carlyle of his time, but with twice Carlyle's breadth and a thousand times his intellectual keenness. The “Philosophy of Clothes” is Swift's, as Sartor allows, and the general tenor of the two men's jeremiads is singularly parallel. Carlyle has a certain Teutonic idealism and romance which Swift hardly shows; nevertheless Swift had his standards as well as his Scottish successor. Each despises “the animal called man,” and each loves his Peter or Jack,his Sterling or Arbuthnot. “If there were but a dozen Arbuthnots in the world," wrote Swift, “I would burn my Travels." Each had the same belief in great men, and the same distrust of the multitude“mostly fools." Each lacked that broad sympathy which belongs to the very greatest natures, and each accordingly fell into that slough of gloomy despairing misanthropy, from which only wide sympathies can save those whose eyes are “quick to see offences." But the defects are integral parts of the character. You cannot pour the vials of wrath upon the world if you are able to see its better side; sympathy destroys the power of denunciation, and the lash will be laid on with a tremulous hand if the whipper is full of compassion for the whipped. The character that strikes cannot be joined to the heart that pities, or the blows will fall feebly and miss their aim. The highest natures may combine the sword that smites with the balm that heals, -as Shakspere did, -but it will be at the sacrifice of the sword's edge. Swift did not possess this highest nature ; he could love and pity on occasion, but his mission was to scourge, and like most executioners he grew hardened to his work. It is the too common fate of the schoolmaster.