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The Poïesis of Non-Modern Modernity: Swift’s Battle of the Books

Nathalie Zimpfer
p. 157-170

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1One might begin by stating the obvious: Jonathan Swift’s works and entire career as a clergyman, satirist and pamphleteer are defined by his resistance to Modernity, which he repeatedly derided by assuming the persona of “the most devoted Servant of all Modern Forms” seeking to accomplish “the general Good of Mankind” (Prose Works 1.27; 77). Swift spent his life recording the manner in which traditional moral discourse mutates into modern commercial discourse. Significantly, the earliest citation that the OED gives for the term “modernism” is to be found in a letter of Swift to Pope dated 1737, where the term was meant to indict the proliferation of words accom­panying the rise of modernness as a positive intellectual value.

2Oddly enough, The Battle of the Books, the mock-heroic prose satire that Swift specifically devoted to the origins of Modernity, suffers from critical disaffection. This very first foray into the satiric genre is regularly alluded to but hardly ever studied for itself, and is more often than not reduced to the status of a companion piece for A Tale of a Tub. Admittedly, the history of its publication made for its dependent status: though separate works in both origin and conception, A Tale and The Battle were published together on 10 May 1704 within the same cover and shared the full title page, as had already been the case in the pre-publication newspaper advertisement the day before.

3Yet, The Battle of the Books is in some respects one of Swift’s most complex works, one that Sir Walter Scott perceptively called a “perfection of fictitious narrative” (Scott 1.497). It is an intricate lattice of generic and modal layers and interwoven networks of satiric, allegorical and mock-epic features. Marc Fumaroli goes as far as to call it “one of the most complete manifestos of the Ancients’ doctrine” (Fumaroli 11, my translation). He also contends that with the image of the spider and the bee, borrowed from Aesop, Swift created “the most complete and inexhaustible emblem of the Querelle” (Fumaroli 216), with the spider embodying “the dark side of modernity”:

the atrophy of memory, the negation of inherited riches, the most cerebral and predator-like violence inflicted on Nature and Humanity under the guise of positive objectivity, deadly sterility masked by the misleading excess of the achievements and the productions of technê. (Fumaroli 218, my translation).

4This complexity might be one of the reasons why the Battle is little studied. The (re)presentation of the Moderns and the Ancients is indeed more intricate and paradoxical than might be expected. The first paradox appears on the title page, where a quote from Lucretius’s De rerum natura is used to restate the age-old topos of originality. The structural configuration of the Battle is no less paradoxical: the text that presents itself as an ancient codex, replete with marginalia – a common authenticating device, here meant to assert the symbolic victory of Antiquity over Modernity –, lacunae and chasms, narrates a very recent event of extreme topicality. Crucially also, the Ancients sweep the victory over the Moderns in a genre, the mock-epic, which is essentially a product of modernity. Though “a very fine piece; written in favour of the ancients, and against the moderns,” as Mr Walden remarks to Miss Byron in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (75), it remains a modern accomplishment and thus indirectly champions the cause of the Moderns. Besides, even if the Ancients win the battle on Friday night in St James’s Library, the Moderns will most probably win the war, if only because numbers are on their side. And the seemingly final battle is from the outset declared incon­clusive: “we cannot learn on which side the Victory fell” (Battle in Tale 104).

5These paradoxes were certainly not lost on one of Swift’s fellow clergymen James Sterling, who was also a playwright and a poet. In his poem entitled “Verses on The Battle of the Books” (1734) – it is not known whether Swift ever read it – Sterling noted:

While thus he behaves, with more courage than manners,
And fights for the foe, deserting our banners;
While Bentley and Wotton, our champions, he foils,
And wants neither Temple’s assistants, nor Boyle’s;
In spite of his learning, fine reasons, and style,
– Would you think it? – he favours our cause all the while:
We raise by his conquest our glory the higher,
And from our defeat to a triumph aspire;
Our great brother-modern, the boast of our days,
Unconscious, has gain’d for our party the bays:
St. Jame’s old authors, so famed on each shelf,
Are vanquish’d by what he has written himself.
(The Poems of Jonathan Swift 404)

6More recently, Ann C. Kelly has argued that these paradoxes are symptomatic of Swift’s own contradictory position and that the Battle “epitomizes Swift’s existential stalemate as an author” (Kelly 96): though by definition not an Ancient, he was one by temperament, which might confine him to “a futile exercise in nostalgia” (ibid.); on the other hand, he was de facto one of those Moderns that he despised as lowbrow mercenaries, and was therefore poised between two worldviews, that of the Ancients, synonymous with an aesthetics of exclusion and an allegiance to the timeless perfection of the canon, and that of the Moderns, which propounded an aesthetics of inclusion as well as the importance of topicality.

7Kelly is not alone in reading Swift’s detestation of modernity as the symptomatic manifestation of misanthropic nostalgia. Thus, Myriam Starkman interprets Swift’s opposition to modernity as a rearguard struggle and a losing battle (86). Similarly, “in an essay more noticed than distinguished” (Deane 244), Orwell saw Swift as a “reactionary” whose ideal was “a static civilisation without curiosity”. Conversely, and rather provocatively, Swift’s repeated impersonation of the various forms of modernity’s assault on traditional values has been regarded as what makes him “so anomalously and yet decisively a modern writer” (Deane 244).

8These interpretations, however, do not account for the exuberant energy and “unparalleled wit” (Said 28) that characterise Swift’s satires in general and The Battle of the Books in particular. What emanates from these satires is not a sense of the nostalgic represen­tation of a golden age but their boundless energy. I would like to suggest that far from being the production of a writer at a stalemate, the Battle is unique in the Swiftian corpus in that the satiric norm is present explicitly as well as implicitly, and the essence of Modernism – in other words, all that is wrong with it according to Swift – is also clearly delineated. Besides, unlike what has been claimed, the main thrust behind the Battle is not destructive: the agonistic representation of the antagonism between the Ancients and the Moderns does not conclude in a field of ruins, but leads to the creation of a subversive form of modernity that might be termed non-modern modernity.


9The most striking feature of the Battle is probably the fact that the satiric norm is present in other than the form of a palimpsest, in two successive occurrences. It first appears in the initial rhetorical question asked by the bee, the emblem of the Ancients:

So that, in short, the question comes all to this –– Whether is the nobler being of the two, that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, which feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, produc[es] nothing at last but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by an universal range, with long search, much study, true judgement, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax. (Battle 112)

10It is then explicitly stated in the definition of the Ancients given by Aesop: the Ancients claim “nothing of [their] own beyond [their] flights and [their] language”; they fill their hives with “honey and wax” and subsequently furnish mankind with “sweetness and light” (Battle 113). Moreover, the allegedly undetermined and indeterminable ending of the Battle has in fact been determined before the end, as it were: after the bee’s summary of the question at stake, “the two parties of books”, waited “in suspense what would be the issue” and the latter “was not long undetermined”, since the bee “gr[ew] impatient at so much loss of time, [and] fled straight away to a bed of roses without looking for a reply, and left the spider like an orator, collected in himself, and just prepared to burst out” (Battle 112). No battle is in fact required: it is a waste of time because the conclusion is self-evident.

11What also appears in both the bee’s question and Aesop’s definition is the essence of Modernism as Swift saw it. The bee’s definition of Modernity shows that the question is from the outset envisaged in spiritual terms: the bee’s preoccupations are very limited and it feeds and engenders on itself; in other words, it is sinful because it is solipsistic, lazy, and proud. Modernity’s solipsism – the belief that only the self exists – is thus presented as a moral flaw, or rather, as an instance of amor sui, the Augustinian sin of Pride. Modern authorship is no other than the proud belief in one’s unaided perception, as is made even clearer in another passage where the Moderns present themselves as “more than willing to renounce any obligation they owed to the Ancients”, as they believe that “[their] horses are of [their] own breeding, [their] arms of [their] own forging, and [their] clothes of [their] own cutting out and sewing” (Battle 110). Similarly, the emblem of the Moderns, the spider, introduces itself as follows: “I am a domestic animal furnished with a native stock within myself. This large castle (to shew my improve­ment in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person” (Battle 111‑112). As to the “deity” Criticism, “her eyes [are] turned inward as if she looked only upon herself” (Battle 115).

12The question is therefore unmistakably posed by Swift in religious and spiritual terms. And indeed, though the origins of The Battle of the Books have been traced to “the splitting of humanism” (Tinkler 99), the quarrel in England was of a decidedly philosophical and theological turn in its incipient phase. The debate about the relative merits of the Ancients and the Moderns had been brewing since the mediaeval period but came to a boil toward the end of the seventeenth century, both in France and in England. As is well known, the precipitating event in the latter country was the publication in 1690 of Sir William Temple’s Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning, which provoked lengthy responses from two classical scholars, William Wotton and Richard Bentley. Both of them focused on factual errors in Temple’s work, notably in relation to his assertions regarding the authorship of the Epistles of Phalaris and Aesop’s Fables. But, as F. R. Jones has demonstrated, “[in England] the first definite quarrel between the ancients and the moderns” (Jones 11) was theological rather than literary in its import, so much so that “the absence of a literary and artistic aspect [was] remarkable” until very last years of the seventeenth century (Jones 19).

13The origin of the quarrel can indeed be traced to the moment when the then‑prevailing worldview of “linear decay”, whose chief proponent was the clergyman Godfrey Goodman, later bishop of Gloucester, was challenged by the alternative model of “circular [i.e., cyclical] progress.” In The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature Proved by Natural Reason (1616) Goodman held that the fall of man had led to the corruption of all nature. The natural corollary of this theory of linear decay was the idea that the farther a creature departed from the original mold, the more imperfect it became. Though Goodman never actually compared the Ancients and the Moderns, he did point out that all knowledge came from the Ancients, an idea refuted by George Hakewill in his Apologie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, Consisting in an Examination and Censure of the Common Errour Touching Nature’s Perpetual and Universal Decay (1627).

  • 1  The first edition of Burnet’s work appeared in 1681, in Latin; the second edition, in English, was (...)

14Thus, though the quarrel in England is often regarded as imported from France – typically, Temple’s text is commonly interpreted as a direct refutation of Fontenelle’s Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes (1688) to the detriment of the incentive provided by Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theorie of the Earth1 –, it seems more accurate to say that Temple “merely revived an English controversy that had begun to die down after raging furiously for some years” (Jones 22) and that this controversy was not in essence a literary quarrel. Accordingly, Swift clearly suggests in The Battle of the Books that he regarded Modernity as a spiritual rather than as a temporal evil: Modernity was no other than the mad literary version of religious schism, leading to endless division. Were it to triumph, hesitancy and interpretation would forever replace knowledge and truth, and the Church of England would be superseded by the propounders of all kinds of “new modish systems” (Poems 2: 97), be they religious, political or literary. In that respect, one should bear in mind that the Battle is followed by the Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, a text which satirises Dissent but also in a way acknowledges its victory.

15That Swift conceived of Modernity as a spiritual evil is self-evident from the manner in which the origin of the war between the Ancients and the Moderns is described: Modernity and Modern criticism date back to the moment when “the works of Scotus first came out” (Battle 108). By singling out the thirteenth-century philosopher and scholastic theologian as the original Modern villain, Swift presents Modernity as a shift from “things invisible” to materialism. Scotus is the arch Modern in that he established a distinction between metaphysics and theology, thus (unwittingly, one presumes) contributing to the modern split that defines the material and spiritual worlds as discontinuous discourses. In his wake, what all Moderns share, regardless of their field of enquiry, is a methodology that confuses the material with the spiritual, or even replaces the latter with the former, as is evinced in the bee’s response to the spider’s boastful assertions of self-creation: the spider’s castle “might [...] have been labour and method enough; but [...] ’tis too plain the materials are naught” (Battle 112; emphasis added). The same point is made in A Tale of a Tub with the allegory of the coats: the three brothers discover the use of critical theory to suit their own purposes and resort to ad hoc (simplistic) semiotics and Latinisms to obfuscate their base intentions under the guise of a learned methodology. They find in Aristotle their own “deity Criticism”, an abstract construction which has no intrinsic value but gains authority in its application.

16Neither is it coincidental that Scotus should also have been known for drawing philosophic distinctions so fine that his critics doubted their existence and dubbed him doctor subtilis. Modernity thus appears as synonymous with hair‑splitting distinctions that Swift explicitly equates with no less than demonic confusion: the troops of the Moderns are described as a “confused multitude” (Battle 114) while the Ancients are “much fewer” (Battle 114) but very orderly and disciplined – one paratactic sentence is enough to describe the names of the warriors in a manner mimetic of the unity, order, and discipline that characterises their ranks.

17Equally significant is the fact that the Moderns’ natural mode of communication rests on division and controversy. The spider thus embodies the “true spirit of controversy” in his determination to be “heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons without the least regard to the answers and objections of his opposite, and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction” (Battle 111). One might point out that Swift’s presentation ties in with the manner in which Scotus’s philosophy was most often discussed: in terms of the challenges that he raised against the theology of Thomas Aquinas. For Swift, therein resided the essence of Modernity: one’s reputation depended not on one’s intrinsic value but on the controversies created through the de(con)struction of existing theories.

18Unsurprisingly, the confusion motif in the Battle is therefore linked to that of destruction: the spider is “swollen up” because of “the destruction of an infinite number of flies” whose “spoils” are on the ground “like human bones before the cave of some giant” (Battle 110). Similarly, the goddess Criticism is first introduced as “extended in her den, upon the spoils of numberless volumes half devoured” (Battle 115). It is no coincidence either that the Moderns should be compared to “infinite swarms of calones” (Battle 114; emphasis added) and thus be turned into the contemporary equivalents of the Biblical plagues in Egypt. Finally, the hallmarks of Modernity are named after some of the deadly sins: the “lust”, “avarice” and “envy” (Battle 105) of the Moderns are the direct cause of the war with the Ancients.

19For all the witty punning on John Duns / Dunce Scotus in which Swift must have revelled – who if not Swift encouraged Pope to write The Dunciad? –, the description of the origin and of the Battle itself does prove that he viewed Modernity not merely as some kind of foolishness which had begun with this original dunce, but as an ominous and quite literally demonic force that had to be countered. The Moderns were no less than the instruments of “the great divider”, a point which was made even more clearly in A Tale, where the “true modern critic” is described as “a discoverer and collector” of the faults of Aquinas whose destructive work concludes in “a fellowship of Christ with Belial.”


20What is thus at stake in the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns according to Swift is a paradigmatic change from a God-oriented universe to a man‑centred world, and therefore also from knowledge to interpretation. This change is explicitly articulated by one of the emblematic figures of Modernity, the “malignant deity” Criticism: “‘Tis I who have deposed wit and knowledge from their empire over poetry, and advanced myself in their stead” (Battle 116). The entirety of the Battle is therefore structured along binary lines and offers the agonistic representation of the opposition between the Ancients and the Moderns, between two irredeemably antagonistic conceptions of both knowledge and authorship: humanistic knowledge against interpretation and criticism; the ancient conception of the author-as-speaker – each of the three books in the volume containing The Battle of the Books is called a “discourse” – as opposed to the Modern one, author-as-title-page label.

21For Swift, this clash of visions between Ancients and Moderns was first and foremost an epic struggle for power and the choice of the mock-heroic must have seemed like a natural one indeed. An interesting example of his rewriting of the epic tradition occurs in the Battle when Virgil, whose armour is depicted as “shining” (Battle 118) and made of gold (119), is blinded by the goddess Diffidence, who “cast a mist before his eyes” (ibid.), and therefore agrees to exchange his armour with Dryden’s, made of “rusty iron” (ibid.). The passage is inspired by The Illiad, where in Book 4 Glaucus is seen exchanging his golden armour, worth a hundred beeves, for Diomede’s brazen one. But beyond such rewritings, Swift’s sources of inspiration were not any specific epic but rather, the entire ancestry of the European epic and mock-epic tradition. As his most eminent biographer pointed out, “[in] the mock-heroic Swift does not attack the epic but the pretensions of men who hope to achieve greatness by putting on the trappings of Achilles” (Ehrenpreis 210). That is why in the Battle, confronting the Ancients on their own ground turns out to be a lethal experience for the Moderns. Characteristically, the Moderns’ armour is described as too large for them: Virgil’s “shining armour, completely fitted to his body” (Battle 118) is opposed to Dryden’s, whose helmet is “nine times too large for the head” (118).

22While the battle starts off as a mock-epic, rather innocuously and comically compared to “an engagement of porcupines” (Battle 107), it soon turns into a far more violent struggle which is repeatedly described as a “mighty” or “terrible” slaughter (119, 120). Homer is seen “hurl[ing]” Perrault on Fontenelle, as a result of which their brains are spilled out (118), a Modern is “trampled and choked in the dirt” (ibid.), and yet another is “cleft [...] in twain” after which “one half lay panting on the ground, to be trod in pieces by the horses’ feet; the other half was borne by the frighted steed through the field” (120).

23This violence, which so obviously characterises the Battle, has often surprisingly been downplayed, and has been variously accounted for. Claude Rawson’s shrewd remark about Swift’s satire in general is of particular relevance to the violence of the Battle: “it assumes not to be quite literal but flirts actively with its literal potential”. “Swift doesn’t ‘mean it,’ though he doesn’t not mean it either” (Rawson 195). In his book-length study on Swift’s satire of modernity Frank Boyle makes violence the ruling principle of all Swiftian satires. Using the Nemesis myth as the paradigmatic foundation of a new theoretical approach to satire, Boyle argues that Swift’s satire is best envisaged as “nemesistic” (Boyle 1). If one regards Nemesis as “a divinely sanctioned principle of indignation” (Boyle 11), a judge of righteousness who administers vengeance for a narcissistic crime, then the main ethical end of the satiric undertaking becomes destructiveness: “By identifying himself with Nemesis [...] Swift aligned his discourse – his satires – with the echoing art that destroys”; the aim is no longer “to reform or heal or rebuke, but to destroy and avenge” (Boyle 17).

24However, one might rather think with Howard D. Weinbrot that this violence is not synonymous with destructive vengefulness but directly proportional to the import of what is at stake: it “suggests great seriousness” and shows that one should by no means “trivialize the text” (225). One of the elements which confirm such an analysis is the fact that in this epic struggle for power, the difference between the Moderns and the Ancients is clearly marked: only the Moderns appear as bellicose, destructive, and vengeful while the Ancients are (re)presented as peaceful and amicable. The Ancients engage in the war “upon the defensive” (Battle 110) because they are threatened into it by the Moderns after being “time out of mind in quiet possession” (106) of the higher top of the Parnassus. Similarly, to the spider’s belligerence and scurrility is opposed the peacefulness of the bee, “posted securely at some distance” (111). This is evidence enough that only Modernity is equated with destruction; the logic of the text itself is not so much destructive as constructive. That is why, to conclude, I would like to argue that, ultimately, the outcome of the Battle is not so much the victory of either Ancients or Moderns – the text does, after all, dissolve into asterisks and ends with the notation “Deseunt caetera” – but the very text that Swift wrote.


25The concluding paragraph of the advertisement from “The Bookseller to the Reader” that introduces the Battle insists that the real war which is to be waged is of a textual nature:

I must warn the reader to beware of applying to persons what is here meant only of books, in the most literal sense. So when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the person of a famous poet called by that name, but only certain sheets of paper, bound up in leather, containing in print the works of the said poet; and so for the rest. (Battle 104)

  • 2   Kelly regards this as a form of Swift’s “contradictory strategies” (95).

26Far from being “contradictory” with this initial assertion, the fact that Swift then anthropomorphises these books as soldiers in the course of the text not only foregrounds the ancient notion of the author-as-speaker – as opposed to the new conception of author-as-title-page label –, but also reinvests these books with new life.2 Similarly, before the text dissolves into asterisks, what is again asserted is the potency of language: “happy and immortal shall you [Bentley and Wotton] be, if all my wit and eloquence can make you” (Battle 125). And as Ann C. Kelly rightly points out, the most central figure of the Battle, Aesop, “exemplifies textual endurance” (Kelly 99). Thus, the exter­minatory verbal extremism of the text matters less than its very existence: though dead, authors, Modern as well as Ancient, survive as textual entities. Swift’s text is not simply “the most important literary product of the conflict” between the Ancients and the Moderns in England (Jones 37), though it is that; it also modified the very nature of the conflict by turning it into an enduring literary battle over the meaning of “text”, and therefore also of authorship, which in turn raised the twofold question of authority and originality.

27Unlike the Moderns, Swift does not believe that an author can ever be “a domestic animal furnished with a native stock within [him]self” who builds his “castl[es] with [his] own hands [with] materials extracted altogether out of [his] own person” (Battle 111-12). In the self-parodic “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift.” the persona claims about Swift: “But what he writ was all his own” (Poems 493). Yet there is more to this than self-parody, since Swift lifted the line almost verbatim from Sir John Denham’s poem, “On Mr. Abraham Cowley” (1667): “Yet what he wrote was all his own.” In other words, Swift parodically appropriated a line about originality in a poem that ironically presents the diverse fortunes of his posthumous reputation. But parody is not merely a form of evaluative appropriation that acts as a strategy of disparagement. Because it is intertextual and parasitic by definition, it is often analysed in terms of the transformations – structural, thematic, and stylistic – through mimicry, distortion, and hyperbole that it operates on the source-text. I believe that equally crucial in Swift’s case is the very fact that it draws on anterior texts. In so doing, it reinscribes the new text within a tradition and de facto calls into question the Moderns’ claim that a writer’s production is always only ever his or her “own.” Signif­icantly

28The text thus produced exemplifies a new genre that might be called non-modern Modernity. This new genre is a form of poïesis, a notion which a brief incursion into Aristotle will illuminate. Significantly, and unlike what might have been expected, Aristotle’s definition of a work of art is to be found in his Metaphysics rather than in his Poetics. Rejecting the word ergon commonly used to designate a work for its lack of precision – as it refers both to the work itself and to the work that leads to it –, Aristotle then proceeds to distinguish between two kinds of actions, poïein and prattein, that is to say to do and to act. Poïesis might thus be defined as “reflexion‑in‑action” (Bellour 90). One might also say that a poïetic work “reproduces aesthetically the dynamic aspects of a reality which is usually held to be non-aesthetic” (Zéraffa, 53). Poïesis is at work in The Battle of the Books in that the text does not merely state Swift’s deepest beliefs about what an author is and what a work of art should be, but enacts these values.

29The narrator’s claim that he is a “historian,” “retained by neither party,” and therefore able to “writ[e] down a full impartial account thereof” (Battle 108) is to be regarded as a form of the traditional rhetorical disclaimer to which Swift resorts in all of his satires; yet it also indirectly lays the emphasis on the textual nature of the Battle: what Swift writes when penning “A Full and True Account” of the querelle between the Ancients and the Moderns is an admittedly entirely fabulous (one might almost say forged) account of events, but one which, unlike the spider, does not kill ancient authors but brings them back to life. Whereas Bentley’s perspective is judicial – his main concern is with the accuracy of chronology and authorship –, Swift’s commitment is with the creative, poïetic dimension of writing.

30The stylistic characteristics of his work further emphasise this creative dimension. The Battle is replete with figures of indeterminacy and subversion – allegory, paradox, irony – that might be regarded as anti-didactic rather than didactic: their main function is to surprise, to provoke, and to confuse; they tease readers into teaching themselves by challenging prevailing assumptions, conventions, and norms. In that respect, they are the very opposite of the egotistic assertion which is so characteristic of Modernity. While the Bentleys and Wottons of this world are busy weaving their taxonomic and authenticating web, Swift’s text flutters in the open fields along with the bee, furnishing mankind with “sweetness and light” (Battle 113).


31Ann C. Kelly’s claim that Swift’s Battle was also of a “personal” nature, as he anxiously wondered “whether he and his writings [would] be remembered by Posterity” (91), uncannily turns him into a Modern more preoccupied with the local than concerned with the universal. I believe rather that the very phrasing that Swift chose as a title shows that he had a clear understanding of what was at stake on his side of the Channel: not so much a querelle between Ancients and Moderns as a debate about the status of texts. It was with him that the English battle took a more literary turn. And far from merely expressing Swift’s beliefs about what the status of texts was and should remain, the Battle enacts them, as any reader of the text will perceive: reading The Battle of the Books means actually experiencing the relevance of Ancient authors. Authors are not some kind of disembodied text-bound auctoritas, but living men, and reading is no other than being in a conversation with men of the past. The beautiful paradox of the Battle resides precisely in this poïetic dimension, in that Swift resorts to ink, “the great,” but disembodied, “missive weapon in all battles of the learned” (Battle 107) not to set the battle between the Ancients and the Moderns in stone, but to give a new lease of life to authors that have long been dead.

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1  The first edition of Burnet’s work appeared in 1681, in Latin; the second edition, in English, was in 1684.

2   Kelly regards this as a form of Swift’s “contradictory strategies” (95).

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Nathalie Zimpfer, « The Poïesis of Non-Modern Modernity: Swift’s Battle of the Books »XVII-XVIII, HS3 | 2013, 157-170.

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Nathalie Zimpfer, « The Poïesis of Non-Modern Modernity: Swift’s Battle of the Books »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], HS3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Nathalie Zimpfer

Dr Nathalie Zimpfer specialises in the links between theology and literature in the Augustan period and has published several essays on the Anglicanism of both Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne. She is currently working on a monograph on Swift’s homiletics. She has also been pursuing a long-held interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, more particularly the travelogues of Captain James Cook and Samuel Hearne. Finally, she has published several articles on Mary Wollstonecraft and her critical translation into French of Wollstonecraft’s works is forthcoming.

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