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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 18/The Present State of Wit

THE


PRESENT STATE


OF


W I T.


IN A LETTER TO A FRIEND IN THE COUNTRY.


FIRST PRINTED IN MAY 1711.




"Dr. Friend was with me, and pulled out a twopenny pamphlet just published, called the State of Wit[1], giving a character of all the papers that have come out of late. The author seems to be a whig; yet he speaks very highly of a paper called The Examiner, and says he supposes the author of it is Dr. Swift. But above all things he praises the Tatlers and Spectators; and I believe Steele and Addison were privy to the printing of it. Thus one is treated by those impudent dogs!"




THE PRESENT STATE


OF


W I T, E T C.





SIR,
WESTMINSTER, MAY 3, 1711.
 


YOU acquaint me, in your last, that you are still so busy building at ——, that your friends must not hope to see you in town this year; at the same time you desire me, that you may not be quite at a loss in conversation among the beau monde next winter, to send you an account of the present state of wit in town; which, without farther preface, I shall therefore endeavour to perform, and give you the histories and characters of all our periodical papers, whether monthly, weekly, or diurnal, with the same freedom I used to send you our other town news.

I shall only premise, that as you know I never cared one farthing either for whig or tory; so I shall consider our writers purely as they are such, without any respect to which party they may belong.

Dr. King has for some time lain down his Monthly Philosophical Transactions, which, the titlepage informed us at first, were only "to be continued as they sold[2];" and though that gentleman has a world of wit, yet, as it lies in one particular way of raillery, the town soon grew weary of his writings; though I cannot but think, that their author deserves a much better fate than to languish out the small remainder of his life in the Fleet prison.

About the same time that the doctor left off writing, one Mr. Ozell[3] put out his Monthly Amusement, which is still continued; and, as it is generally some French novel or play indifferently translated, is more or less taken notice of as the original piece is more or less agreeable.

As to our weekly papers; the poor Review[4] is quite exhausted, and grown so very contemptible, that, though he has provoked all his brothers of the quill round, none of them will enter into a controversy with him. This fellow, who had excellent natural parts, but wanted a small foundation of learning, is a lively instance of those wits, who, as an ingenious author says, "will endure but one skimming."

The Observator[5] was almost in the same condition; but, since our party struggles have run so high, he is much mended for the better; which is imputed to the charitable assistance of some outlying friends. These two authors[6] might, however, have flourished some time longer, had not the controversy been taken up by much abler hands.

The Examiner is a paper which all men, who speak without prejudice, allow to be well written. Though his subject will admit of no great variety, he is continually placing it in so many different lights, and endeavouring to inculcate the same thing by so many beautiful changes of expression, that men who are concerned in no party may read him with pleasure. His way of assuming the question in debate is extremely artful; and his letter to Crassus is, I think, a masterpiece. As these papers are supposed to have been written by several hands, the criticks will tell you, that they can discern a difference in their styles and beauties, and pretend to observe, that the first Examiners abound chiefly in wit, the last in humour.

Soon after their first appearance, came out a paper from the other side, called The Whig Examiner[7], written with so much fire, and in so excellent a style, as put the tories in no small pain for their favourite hero: every one cried, Bickerstaff must be the author; and people were the more confirmed in this opinion upon its being so soon laid down, which seemed to show that it was only written to bind the Examiners to their good behaviour, and was never designed to be be a weekly paper. The Examiners therefore have no one to combat with at present, but their friend the Medley; the author of which paper, though he seems to be a man of good sense, and expresses it luckily enough now and then, is, I think, for the most part, perfectly a stranger to fine writing[8].

I presume I need not tell you, that The Examiner carries much the more sail, as it is supposed to be written by the direction, and under the eye, of some great persons who sit at the helm of affairs, and is consequently looked on as a sort of publick notice which way they are steering us[9]. The reputed author is Dr. Swift, with the assistance sometimes of Dr. Atterbury and Mr. Prior.

The Medley is said to be written by Mr. Oldmixon, and supervised by Mr. Maynwaring, who perhaps might entirely write those few papers which are so much better than the rest[10].

Before I proceed farther in the account of our weekly papers, it will be necessary to inform you, that, at the beginning of the winter, to the infinite surprise of all men, Mr. Steele flung up his Tatler; and, instead of Isaac Bickerstaff, esq., subscribed himself Richard Steele to the last of those papers, after a handsome compliment to the town, for their kind acceptance of his endeavours to divert them. The chief reason he thought fit to give, for his leaving off writing, was, that, having been so long looked on in all publick places and companies as the author of those papers, he found that his most intimate friends and acquaintance were in pain to act or speak before him. The town was very far from being satisfied with this reason; and most people judged the true cause to be, either that he was quite spent, and wanted matter to continue his undertaking any longer, or that he laid it down as a sort of submission to, or composition with, the government, for some past offences; or, lastly, that he had a mind to vary his shape, and appear again in some new light.

However that were, his disappearing seemed to be bewailed as some general calamity: every one wanted so agreeable an amusement: and the coffeehouses began to be sensible, that the esquire's lucubrations alone had brought them more customers than all their other newspapers put together.

It must indeed be confessed, that never man threw up his pen under stronger temptations to have employed it longer; his reputation was at a greater height than, I believe, ever any living author's was before him. It is reasonable to suppose that his gains were proportionably considerable; every one read him with pleasure and good will; and the tories, in respect to his other good qualities, had almost forgiven his unaccountable imprudence in declaring against them. Lastly, it was highly improbable, if he threw off a character the ideas of which were so strongly impressed in every one's mind, however finely he might write in any new form, that he should meet with the same reception.

To give you my own thoughts of this gentleman's writings, I shall in the first place observe, that there is this noble difference between him and all the rest of our polite and gallant authors: the latter have endeavoured to please the age by falling in with them, and encouraging them in their fashionable vices, and false notions of things. It would have been a jest some time since, for a man to have asserted that any thing witty could be said in praise of a married state; or that devotion and virtue were any way necessary to the character of a fine gentleman. Bickerstaff ventured to tell the town, that they were a parcel of fops, fools, and vain coquettes; but in such a manner, as even pleased them, and made them more than half inclined to believe that he spoke truth.

Instead of complying with the false sentiments or vicious tastes of the age, either in morality, criticism, or good breeding; he has boldly assured them, that they were altogether in the wrong, and commanded them, with an authority which perfectly well became him, to surrender themselves to his arguments for virtue and good sense.

It is incredible to conceive the effect his writings have had on the town; how many thousand follies they have either quite banished, or given a very great check to; how much countenance they have added to virtue and religion; how many people they have rendered happy, by showing them it was their own fault if they were not so; and, lastly, how entirely they have convinced our fops and young fellows of the value and advantages of learning.

He has indeed rescued it out of the hands of pedants and fools, and discovered the true method of making it amiable and lovely to all mankind. In the dress he gives it, it is a most welcome guest at tea-tables and assemblies, and is relished and caressed by the merchants on the Change; accordingly, there is not a lady at court, nor a banker in Lombard street, who is not verily persuaded, that captain Steele is the greatest scholar and best casuist of any man in England.

Lastly, his writings have set all our wits and men of letters upon a new way of thinking, of which they had little or no notion before; and though we cannot yet say that any of them have come up to the beauties of the original, I think we may venture to affirm, that every one of them writes and thinks much more justly than they did some time since.

The vast variety of subjects which he has treated of in so different a manner, and yet all so perfectly well, made the world believe that it was impossible they should all come from the same hand[11], This set every one upon guessing who was the squire’s friend; and most people at first fancied it must be Dr. Swift; but it is now no longer a secret, that his only great and constant assistant was Mr. Addison.

This is that excellent friend to whom Mr. Steele owes so much, and who refuses to have his name set before those pieces which the greatest pens in England would be proud to own. Indeed, they would hardly add to this gentleman's reputation, whose works in Latin and English poetry long since convinced the world that he was the greatest master in Europe of those two languages.

I am assured from good hands, that all the visions, and other tracts in that way of writing, with a very great number of the most exquisite pieces of wit and raillery throughout the lucubrations, are entirely of this gentleman's composing; which may in some measure account for that different genius which appears in the winter papers from those of the summer, at which time, as the Examiner often hinted, this friend of Mr. Steele was in Ireland.

Mr. Steele confesses, in his last volume of the Tatler, that he is obliged to Dr. Swift for his Town Shower, and the Description of the Morning; with some other hints received from him in private conversation.

I have also heard, that several of those letters which came as from unknown hands were written by Mr. Henley[12]; which is an answer to your query, who those friends are whom Mr. Steele speaks of in his last Tatler.

But to proceed with my account of our other papers. The expiration of Bickerstaff's Lucubrations was attended with much the same consequences as the death of Melibœus's ox in Virgil: as the latter engendered swarms of bees, the former immediately produced whole swarms of little satirical scribblers.

One of these authors called himself the Growler; and assured us, that, to make amends for Mr. Steele's silence, he was resolved to growl at us weekly, as long as we should think fit to give him any encouragement. Another gentleman, with more modesty, called his paper the Whisperer. And a third, to please the ladies, christened his the Telltale.

At the same time came out several Tatlers; each of which, with equal truth and wit, assured us that he was the genuine Isaac Bickerstaff[13].

It may be observed, that when the squire laid down his pen, though he could not but foresee that several scribblers would soon snatch it up, which he might, one would think, easily have prevented, he scorned to take any farther care about it, but left the field fairly open to any worthy successor. Immediately some of our wits were for forming themselves into a club, headed by one Mr. Harrison, and trying how they could "shoot in this bow of Ulysses;" but soon found that this sort of writing requires so fine and particular a manner of thinking, with so exact a knowledge of the world, as must make them utterly despair of success.

They seemed indeed at first to think, that what was only the garnish of the former Tatlers was that which recommended them, and not those substantial entertainments which they every where abound in.

Accordingly they were continually talking of their maid, nightcap, spectacles, and Charles Lillie. However, there were now and then some faint endeavours at humour, and sparks of wit; which the town, for want of better entertainment, was content to hunt after, through a heap of impertinences: but even those are at present become wholly invisible, and quite swallowed up in the blaze of the Spectator.

You may remember I told you before, that one cause assigned for the laying down the Tatler was want of matter; and, indeed, this was the prevailing opinion in town, when we were surprised all at once by a paper called the Spectator, which was promised to be continued every day, and was written in so excellent a style, with so nice a judgment, and such a noble profusion of wit and humour, that it was not difficult to determine it could come from no other hands but those which had penned the Lucubrations.

This immediately alarmed these gentlemen; who (as it is said Mr. Steele phrases it) had "the censorship in commission." They found the new Spectator come on like a torrent, and swept away all before him; they despaired ever to equal him in wit, humour, or learning (which had been their true and certain way of opposing him); and therefore rather chose to fall on the author, and to call out for help to all good christians, by assuring them again and again, that they were the first, original, true, and undisputed Isaac Bickerstaff.

Meanwhile, the Spectator, whom we regard as our shelter from that flood of false wit and impertinence which was breaking in upon us, is in every one's hand, and a constant topick for our morning conversation at tea-tables and coffeehouses. We had at first, indeed, no manner of notion, how a diurnal paper could be continued in the spirit and style of our present Spectators[14]; but, to our no small surprise, we find them still rising upon us, and can only wonder from whence so prodigious a run of wit and learning can proceed; since some of our best judges seem to think that they have hitherto, in general, outshone even the squire's first Tatlers. Most people fancy, from their frequency, that they must be composed by a society: I, with all, assign the first place to Mr. Steele and his friend.

I have often thought that the conjunction of those two great geniuses (who seem to stand in a class by themselves, so high above all our other wits) resembles that of two famous statesmen in a late reign, whose characters are very well expressed in their two mottos, viz. prodesse quam conspici[15]; and otium cum dignitate[16]. Accordingly the first was continually at work behind the curtain; drew up and prepared all those schemes and designs, which the latter still drove on; and stood out exposed to the world, to receive its praises or censures.

Meantime, all our unbiassed well wishers to learning are in hopes, that the known temper and prudence of one of these gentlemen will hinder the other from ever launching out into party, and rendering that wit, which is at present a common good, odious and ungrateful to the better part of the nation.

If this piece of imprudence does not spoil so excellent a paper, I propose to myself the highest satisfaction in reading it with you, over a dish of tea, every morning next winter.

As we have yet had nothing new since the Spectator[17]; it only remains for me to assure you, that I am

Yours, &c.

J. G.


P. S. Upon a review of my letter, I find I have quite forgotten the British Apollo[18]; which might possibly happen from its having of late retreated out of this end of the town into the city; where I am informed, however, that it still recommends itself by deciding wagers at cards, and giving good advice to the shopkeepers and their apprentices.


  1. The light thrown by this little tract on the various periodical papers of the time when it was written will, we doubt not, be deemed a sufficient reason for having preserved it in this Collection. It is somewhat remarkable, that it was advertised at the end of the original Examiner of May 17, and not at all in the Spectator. Though published anonymously; from the initials J. G. being placed at the conclusion, and from its singular impartiality; there is great reason to suppose it the production of Mr. Gay.
  2. Monthly Transactions began in January 1708-9; and ended in September 1709.
  3. John Ozell, a voluminous translator; who, having incurred the displeasure of Mr. Pope, was very severely handled by him and his Commentator, in the Dunciad and the notes upon it. Mr. Ozell published hardly any thing original; and his translations are not in much repute. He was auditor general of the city and bridge accompts, of St. Paul's cathedral, and of St. Thomas's hospital; and is said to have been a very worthy man, and an excellent companion. He died Oct. 15, 1743.
  4. This paper was entirely the production of Daniel de Foe, who was equally famous for politicks and poetry. He set out in life as a hosier; but in that situation being very unsuccessful, he was induced to apply to his pen for subsistence. He was invited in 1694 to settle at Cadiz, as an agent to the English merchants; which he declined from patriotick motives; and was some time after appointed accomptant to the commissioners of the glass duty. For one of his performances he was condemned to the pillory; and, when exalted above his fellows, he cheerfully underwent the punishment, and wrote "A Hymn to the Pillory," as a defiance to the ministry. He published many books and pamphlets; but is perhaps at present best known by his "History of Robinson Crusoe." He died at Islington, in easy circumstances, and at a very advanced age, April 26, 1731.
  5. The Observator was begun April 1, 1702, by John Tutchin, who was concerned on the side of Monmouth in the time of Charles II; and, for a political piece which he wrote in favour of him afterward, was sentenced by Jefferies to be whipped through several towns in the west, and handled so severely, that he petitioned James II to be hanged. When that king died in exile, he wrote an invective against his memory, occasioned by some humane elegies on his death. Becoming obnoxious to the tories, he received a severe beating in August 1707; and died in much distress Sept. 23, aged 44.
  6. Good portraits of de Foe and Ridpath (who are styled "The British Libellers") were engraved under a head of Steele (in the character of "Isaac Bickerstaff, esq., the British Censor"), as an ornament to a whimsical poem in folio, called "The Three Champions," printed about 1711, a copy of which (perhaps an unique) is among the many curious tracts bequeathed by archbishop Secker to the Lambeth Library.
  7. Five numbers only of this paper were published under that title, by Mr. Addison and Mr. Arthur Maynwaring: and, from its being laid down to make room for "The Medley," Mr. Oldmixon concludes it to have been principally the work of the latter. Both were published in professed opposition to "The Examiner." At the end of the 25th Medley, May 26, 1712, appeared the following curiosity: "In a few days will be published an improvement of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift's late proposal to the most honourable the lord high treasurer, for correcting, improving, and ascertaining, the English tongue; wherein, beside abundance of other particulars, will be more clearly shown, that to erect an academy of such men, who (by being no christians) have unhappily prevented their ecclesiastical preferment; or (by being buffoons and scandal bearers) can never expect the employment of an envoy from those who prefer such services at home, to the doing them no service abroad; and that to give them good pensions, is the true and only method toward the end proposed; in a letter to a gentleman, that mistook the doctor's project." And in the Medley following, stood this advertisement: "Whereas, since my last, there has been published a very ingenious pamphlet, called, Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter: This has prevented the coming out of a pamphlet, entitled, Reasons for not correcting, &c.' which was advertised in my paper of Monday last, and was intended to be published the Thursday following." This was to have been called, "Reasons for not correcting, improving, and ascertaining, the English Tongue at this time. In a Letter to Dr. Swift." See The Medley, No. 24. Rudely, however, as Dr. Swift was in many instances attacked by Mr. Maynwaring, it must be owned he was the politest of his opponents.
  8. This reflection was certainly intended for Oldmixon, being by no means applicable to Mr. Maynwaring.
  9. Lord Orrery, who commends the Examiners for their "nervous style, clear diction, and great knowledge of the true landed interest of England," observes, that "their author was elated with the appearance of enjoying ministerial confidence;" that "he was employed, not trusted." Remarks, &c. Letter iv. The earl of Chesterfield asserts, that "the lie of the day was coined and delivered out to him, to write Examiners and other political papers upon." It may be proper, however, to take notice, that neither of these noble peers appear to have seen Swift's "Preface" to his "History of the Four last Years of the Queen." Yet, with all due deference to these great authorities, [[[w:John Nichols (printer)|the present editor]] cannot but be of opinion, that Swift's manly fortitude and very accurate discernment of the human heart would prevent his being a dupe to the duplicity of a statesman, however dignified. He himself assures us, "that he was of a temper to think no man great enough to set him on work;" that "he absolutely refused to be chaplain to the lord treasurer, because he thought it would ill become him to be in a state of dependance." Indeed his whole conduct in that busy period (in which "it was his lot to have been daily conversant with the persons then in power; never absent in times of business or conversation, until a few weeks before her majesty's death; and a witness of every step they made in the course of their administration") demonstrates the respectable situation he then so ably filled. And when at last the time arrived in which he was to be rewarded for his services, in how different a light does he appear from that of a hireling writer! He frankly told the treasurer, "he could not with any reputation stay longer here, unless he had something honourable immediately given to him." And, whilst his patrons were undetermined whether he should be promoted to St. Patrick's or to a stall at Windsor, he openly assured lord Bolingbroke, "he would not stay for their disputes." And we find he exerted his interest so effectually with the duke of Ormond, as to overrule a prejudice that nobleman had conceived against Dr Sterne, whose promotion to the see of Dromore made the vacancy at St. Patrick's. "The duke, with great kindness, said, he would consent; but would do it for no man else but me." Swift acknowledges "this affair was carried with great difficulty;" but adds, "they say here, it is much to my reputation, that I have made a bishop in spite of the world, and to get the best deanery in Ireland."
  10. This was exactly true. Mr. Oldmixon, in his Life of Mr. Maynwaring, attributes each number of the Medley to its proper writer.
  11. Dr. Felton tells us, "The grave and facetious squire Bickerstaff hath drawn mankind in every dress, and every disguise of nature, in a style ever varying with the humours, fancies, and follies, he describes;" that, "he hath shown himself a master in every turn of his pen, whether his subject be light or serious;" and, from his having "laid down the rules of common life with so much judgment, in such lively and agreeable language," recommends him as a model of manners and of style.
  12. Anthony, son of sir Robert Henley, of the Grange, was bred at Oxford; where he distinguished himself by an early taste for polite learning, and an intimate acquaintance with the ancient poets; which naturally exciting a congenial spirit, he became no inconsiderable writer. Being on all occasions a zealous asserter of liberty, he was the mover of the address for promoting Mr. Hoadly; and occasionally assisted in some of the whig publications. The 31st number of the Medley, in particular, is by his hand; as are many of the Tatlers, particularly in the fifth volume. He affected a low simplicity in his writings; was remarkably happy in touching the manners and the passions; and died, much lamented, in August, 1711.
  13. "Upon Steele's leaving off, there were two or three Tatlers came out; and one of them holds on still, and to day it advertised against Harrison's; and so there must be disputes which are genuine, like the straps for razors." Journal to Stella, Jan. 13.
  14. The ablest of our modern writers, who hath himself succeeded so happily in the Rambler, thus characterizes the Spectator: "It comprises precepts of criticism, sallies of invention, descriptions of life, and lectures of virtue; it employs wit in the cause of truth, and makes elegance subservient to piety: it has now for more than half a century supplied the English nation, in a great measure, with principles of speculation, and rules of practice; and given Addison a claim to be numbered among the benefactors of mankind."
  15. The motto of lord Somers.
  16. That of the earl of Halifax.
  17. "The Spectators are printed in a larger and a smaller volume: so I believe they are going to leave them off; and indeed people grow weary of them, though they are often prettily written." Journal to Stella, Nov. 2, 1712. We fear there was (to say the best of it) some prejudice in this prediction. A similar reflection is thrown out on the Tatler, in p. 35.
  18. "The British Apollo, or Curious Amusements for the Ingenious; to which are added the most material Occurrences foreign and domestick. Performed by a Society of Gentlemen." This paper, which was published twice a week, began Feb. 15, 1708; and was continued on that plan till March 26, 1711, when three folio volumes were completed: after that time, it got into a fresh channel, and sunk into obscurity.