Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2009

A Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift


Jonathon Swift (1667-1745)

I knew from the first instalment from Daily Lit that this was not going to be easy.  What I did not know was whether it was going to be worth it, because it’s not a work that I had ever heard of.  Swift wrote it in 1697, and his sentence structure is challenging to say the least. Still there were only 42 instalments, and they’re short, so I decided to press on if for no other reason than to stretch the brain…

Instalment 2 turned out to be funny, and made me wonder whether or not we bloggers might not take heed of the writers whose prefaces Swift satirically quotes:

One begins thus: “For a man to set up for a writer when the press swarms with,” &c
Another: “The tax upon paper does not lessen the number of scribblers who daily pester,” &c
Another: “When every little would-be wit takes pen in hand, ’tis in vain to enter the lists,” &c
Another: “To observe what trash the press swarms with,” &c Another: “Sir, it is merely in obedience to your commands that I venture into the public, for who upon a less consideration would be of a party with such a rabble of scribblers,” &c

Well, there are a lot of us about now!

There are some very amusing contentions.  Having satirised his own ability to satirise, Swift tells is that

the wisdom of our ancestors being highly sensible, has, to encourage all aspiring adventures, thought fit to erect three wooden machines for the use of those orators who desire to talk much without interruption. These are the Pulpit, the Ladder, and the Stage-itinerant.

He obviously didn’t foresee the rise of blogging – where devotees may blunder about in prose without any interruption whatsoever!  (We can even block comments, though I think that’s a bit unsporting.)

It seems that the more things change, however, the more things stay the same.  Was it just last night we were bemoaning the modern tendency to dumb down VCE reading lists because young people can’t/won’t read anything complex?

But the greatest maim given to that general reception which the writings of our society have formerly received, next to the transitory state of all sublunary things, has been a superficial vein among many readers of the present age, who will by no means be persuaded to inspect beyond the surface and the rind of things; whereas wisdom is a fox, who, after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out.

Episode 8 brought me Section 2 and now I’m in deep water.  It seems to be a sort of fairy tale, with three brothers (triplets) bequeathed magical coats by their father.  These coats grow with the wearer, but also affect their fortunes should they fail to care for them properly.  Swift skips over the adventures these brothers must necessarily have, and brings us to their quest to win the hearts of three aristocratic ladies.  Swift mercilessly mocks the society which the brothers seek to join in order to be suitable suitors; but they are unmoved. So far so good…

But now Swift introduces a sect, which worships a cruel and gory idol.  They also believe:

 The universe to be a large suit of clothes which invests everything; that the earth is invested by the air; the air is invested by the stars; and the stars are invested by the Primum Mobile. Look on this globe of earth, you will find it to be a very complete and fashionable dress. What is that which some call land but a fine coat faced with green, or the sea but a waistcoat of water-tabby? Proceed to the particular works of the creation, you will find how curious journeyman Nature hath been to trim up the vegetable beaux; observe how sparkish a periwig adorns the head of a beech, and what a fine doublet of white satin is worn by the birch. To conclude from all, what is man himself but a microcoat, or rather a complete suit of clothes with all its trimmings?  As to his body there can be no dispute, but examine even the acquirements of his mind, you will find them all contribute in their order towards furnishing out an exact dress. To instance no more, is not religion a cloak, honesty a pair of shoes worn out in the dirt, self-love a surtout, vanity a shirt, and conscience a pair of breeches, which, though a cover for lewdness as well as nastiness, is easily slipped down for the service of both.

Completely perplexed now, I pressed on with Episode 9 which mercifully returns to the tale of the brothers. They are in a quandary.  The ladies they fancy and the tradesmen they deal with all reject them because their coats do not boast the latest fashion, a shoulder-knot. Their father’s instructions, however, prevent them from ever altering the coats:Their father’s will was very precise, and it was the main precept in it, with the greatest penalties annexed, not to add to or diminish from their coats one thread without a positive command in the will.

No sooner had the lads found a way around this by ‘interpreting’ the Latin precepts in the Will to suit themselves (pardon my pun) and got their shoulder-knots, than gold lace became all the rage.  Now, like those who interpret Revelations to find a meaning in everything and anything, they find a way round it again (none of which would I have understood had I not had a little Latin, for Mr Swift uses it extensively).   Next it was red lining for their coats, and then silver fringes, and each time the Will was able to be manipulated in order to effect ‘permission’ for the change.  It was about here that I began again to appreciate Swift’s satire, for the express prohibition against silver fringes (in the Will) is disregarded because

the brother so often mentioned for his erudition, who was well skilled in criticisms, had found in a certain author, which he said should be nameless, that the same word which in the will is called fringe does also signify a broom-stick, and doubtless ought to have the same interpretation in this paragraph. This another of the brothers disliked, because of that epithet silver, which could not, he humbly conceived, in propriety of speech be reasonably applied to a broom-stick; but it was replied upon him that this epithet was understood in a mythological and allegorical sense. However, he objected again why their father should forbid them to wear a broom- stick on their coats, a caution that seemed unnatural and impertinent; upon which he was taken up short, as one that spoke irreverently of a mystery which doubtless was very useful and significant, but ought not to be over-curiously pried into or nicely reasoned upon. And in short, their father’s authority being now considerably sunk, this expedient was allowed to serve as a lawful dispensation for wearing their full proportion of silver fringe.

I think this is rather droll….

This erudite brother, however, gets tired of his cogitations, and after sorting out the small matter of  ’embroidery with Indian figures of men, women, and children’ he decides to lock up the Will in a chest and not bother about it any more.  With all this experience in legales, he then turns his scholarly skills to turning out the rightful owners of a house and acquiring for himself. Clearly some sort of doom lies in store, but alas, just as I was starting to enjoy the story again, there is a Digression, and once more I am flummoxed!  He is satirising critics of his time (only some names of which I recognise).  There are allusions to classical mythology which I don’t know well enough to properly recognise, but I certainly understand Swift’s excoriating scorn about modern critics thinking that they know better than the ancients.

…through the assistance of our noble moderns, whose most edifying volumes I turn indefatigably over night and day, for the improvement of my mind and the good of my country. These have with unwearied pains made many useful searches into the weak sides of the ancients, and given us a comprehensive list of them. Besides, they have proved beyond contradiction that the very finest things delivered of old have been long since invented and brought to light by much later pens, and that the noblest discoveries those ancients ever made in art or nature have all been produced by the transcending genius of the present age, which clearly shows how little merit those ancients can justly pretend to, and takes off that blind admiration paid them by men in a corner, who have the unhappiness of conversing too little with present things…. I easily concluded that these ancients, highly sensible of their many imperfections, must needs have endeavoured, from some passages in their works, to obviate, soften, or divert the censorious reader, by satire or panegyric upon the true critics, in imitation of their masters, the moderns.

 The first is, that criticism, contrary to all other faculties of the intellect, is ever held the truest and best when it is the very first result of the critic’s mind; as fowlers reckon the first aim for the surest, and seldom fail of missing the mark if they stay not for a second.

Secondly, the true critics are known by their talent of swarming about the noblest writers, to which they are carried merely by instinct, as a rat to the best cheese, or a wasp to the fairest fruit. So when the king is a horseback he is sure to be the dirtiest person of the company, and they that make their court best are such as bespatter him most.

Lastly, a true critic in the perusal of a book is like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away, and consequently is apt to snarl most when there are the fewest bones.

At this point I briefly lost the sense of it again – is there some allusion I have missed?  There is some connection between critics, mirrors and brass, but he then he reverts to the tale of the three brothers so I pressed on.   One of the brothers has styled himself the eldest (though they were all miraculously born at the same time) and has become so big for his britches (if not his coat) that he has not only given himself a title but also bought the entire continent of Australia from the discoverers themselves, and then retailed it repeatedly to other gulls. He invented a cure for worms, and a whispering-office for the complaints of the melancholic, the hypochondriac and other whingers in general.  He also sold a snake-oil type of pickle and sent bulls descended from Jason’s bulls that guarded the Golden Fleece out to terrorise the neighbourhood.   

Fate steps in.  Lord Peter’s brain becomes overtaxed, and he begins to have fits and delusions.  There is an altercation with a magistrate, and with his brothers, but they give in to him because they fear his madness.

Lord Peter, even in his lucid intervals, was very lewdly given in his common conversation, extreme wilful and positive, and would at any time rather argue to the death than allow himself to be once in an error. Besides, he had an abominable faculty of telling huge palpable lies upon all occasions, and swearing not only to the truth, but cursing the whole company to hell if they pretended to make the least scruple of believing him. 

Then comes another digression.  Swift promises not to digress within his digression ‘as I have known some authors enclose digressions in one another like a nest of boxes’ – but he soon does, as I was by now expecting.  He goes on to report his  ‘very strange, new, and important discovery: that the public good of mankind is performed by two ways–instruction and diversion, and that mankind is not overly fond of instruction.’  This section could have sent me to Tim’s office for the Shorter Oxford Dictionary but I decided that I could live without knowing the meaning of ‘fastidiosity, amorphy, and oscitation’ and ‘edullas, excerpta quaedams, florilegias’ (for which I would need to dig out the old Latin dictionary too). He pokes fun at ‘his worthy and ingenious friend Mr. Wotton, Bachelor of Divinity’ whose ‘incomparable treatise of ancient and modern learning’ has revealed that HomerHomer:

  • failed to include everything in his ‘complete body of all knowledge, human, divine, political, and mechanic’; 
  • made a superficial reading of ‘Sendivogus, Behmen, or Anthroposophia Theomagica’ 
  • had a ‘poor and deficient account’ of the Opus Magnum’ and worse than that  
  • had a gross ignorance in the common laws of this realm, and in the doctrine as well as discipline of the Church of England.

Were some contemporary academics counting the children of Lady Macbeth to take time to read this little gem, the collective squirming might well set the foundations of academia rocking!

Swift then returns to the story of the three brothers.  Grave tension has now erupted.  Jack, determined to make himself as unlike Lord Peter as possible,  and to restore his coat to its original state, loses his temper and rents his precious coat. Then in a fit of jealousy because his brother Martin not only refuses to do the same but also remonstrates with him, Jack severs all connection with Martin.

And then – another digression!   A Digression in Praise of Digressions aknowledges that modern man is much too busy to be bothered with the fatigue of reading or of thinking and that the most accomplished way of using books at present is twofold: either first to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or, secondly, which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. (And I thought those how-to-brag-about-books-you-haven’t-read books were a modern invention!  Why, there may even be those who trawl LitBlogs rather than read the book, eh?)

The next digression, however, is about the ‘effluvium of wind’ the subject of which any experienced teacher of tiresome young boys already knows more than is desirable.  I found it tedious, not witty, and I was tired of digressions and wanted to find out the fate of the brothers.  I was in no mood for Digression X, so soon after Digression IX, and felt that they were taking over the story entirely. Indeed he has wandered over a ‘wide compass’ , a little like dinner party guests so endlessly witty and entertaining that they exhaust the company.   However he at last reverts to his story, regaling us with tales of Jack’s varied and vulgar use of his father’s Will, and the mishaps which he explains as the work of providence.  His antipathy towards Martin persists, and Peter is in trouble with the bailiffs – which was awkward, for his close resemblance to his brothers meant that they were frequently accosted by the law in his stead.  Their misfortunates multiplied, but Swift claims to have forgotten them and tells us he shall cease his tale ‘for fear of going too long’.  (He takes a good long while to tell us this.)  He requests of the reader that ‘he will not expect to be equally diverted and informed by every line or every page of this discourse, but give some allowance to the author’s spleen and short fits or intervals of dulness, as well as his own’.

Do we get an ending?  The brothers quarrel still more; and as rivals they are set upon and supported by all manner of people including Harry Huff the Lord of Albion – and others that may be recognised by those familiar with the history of the period – but not by me.  There is another digression on the Nature, Usefulness and Necessity of Wars and Quarrels:

The state of war [is] natural to all creatures. War is an attempt to take by violence from others a part of what they have and we want. Every man, fully sensible of his own merit, and finding it not duly regarded by others, has a natural right to take from them all that he thinks due to himself; and every creature, finding its own wants more than those of others, has the same right to take everything its nature requires. Brutes, much more modest in their pretensions this way than men, and mean men more than great ones. The higher one raises his pretensions this way, the more bustle he makes about them, and the more success he has, the greater hero. Thus greater souls, in proportion to their superior merit, claim a greater right to take everything from meaner folks. This the true foundation of grandeur and heroism, and of the distinction of degrees among men. War, therefore, necessary to establish subordination, and to found cities, kingdoms, &c., as also to purge bodies politic of gross humours. Wise princes find it necessary to have wars abroad to keep peace at home.

Back again to Martin & Co, but it’s a tumble of events that runs out of puff. Swift is as sick of these brothers and their follies as I am.  He won’t tell us any more!

Here the author being seized with a fit of dulness, to which he is very subject, after having read a poetical epistle addressed to . . . it entirely composed his senses, so that he has not writ a line since.

He promises to publish a map of Terra Australis Incognita and will publish it worldwide at no small profit to himself.   And that’s it!

Terra Australis Incognita

Wikipedia has a proper explanation of this text which was probably written by a scholar who knows what he’s talking about.  I am pleased to see that it says that The Tale of a Tub is Swift’s most difficult satire – so I don’t feel quite so dim about not understanding all of it!

PS: Why is it called the Tale of a Tub?

Author: Jonathan Swift
Title: A Tale of a Tub
Publisher: Daily Lit

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die..


  1. […] is going to be one of those ‘written-as-I-read-it’ ones (like Voss, Don Quixote and Tale of the Tub) because I want to record what I find interesting as I read it and I don’t want to have to […]


  2. […] to Swift, but the only one I recognised an allusion to gulliber’s travels.  So much for having waded through A Tale of a Tub).  But there was an allusion I pounced […]


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