The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/An Answer to Bickerstaff






I HAVE not observed, for some years past, any insignificant paper to have made more noise, or be more greedily bought, than that of these predictions. They are the wonder of the common people, an amusement for the better sort, and a jest only to the wise: yet, among these last, I have heard some very much in doubt, whether the author meant to deceive others, or is deceived himself. Whoever he was, he seems to have with great art adjusted his paper both to please the rabble, and to entertain persons of condition. The writer is, without question, a gentleman of wit and learning, although the piece seems hastily written in a sudden frolick, with the scornful thought of the pleasure he will have, in putting this great town into a wonderment about nothing: nor do I doubt but he, and his friends in the secret, laugh often and plentifully in a corner, to reflect how many hundred thousand fools they have already made. And he has them fast for some time: for so they are likely to continue until his prophecies begin to fail in the events. Nay, it is a great question whether the miscarriage of the two or three first, will so entirely undeceive people, as to hinder them from expecting the accomplishment of the rest, I doubt not but some thousands of these papers are carefully preserved by as many persons, to confront with the events, and try whether the astrologer exactly keeps the day and hour. And these I take to be Mr. Bickerstaff's choicest cullies, for whose sake chiefly he writ his amusement. Meanwhile he has seven weeks good, during which time the world is to be kept in suspense; for it is so long before the almanackmaker is to die, which is the first prediction: and, if that fellow happens to be a splenetick visionary fop, or has any faith in his own art, the prophecy may punctually come to pass, by very natural means. As a gentleman of my acquaintance, who was ill used by a mercer in town, wrote him a letter in an unknown hand, to give him notice that care had been taken to convey a slow poison into his drink, which would infallibly kill him in a month; after which, the man began in earnest to languish and decay, by the mere strength of imagination, and would certainly have died, if care had not been taken to undeceive him, before the jest went too far. The like effect upon Partridge would wonderfully rise Mr. Bickerstaff's reputation for a fortnight longer, until we could hear from France, whether the cardinal de Noailles were dead or alive upon the fourth of April, which is the second of his predictions.

For a piece so carelessly written, the observations upon astrology are reasonable and pertinent, the remarks just; and as the paper is partly designed, in my opinion, for a satire upon the credulity of the vulgar, and that idle itch of peeping into futurities, so it is no more than what we all of us deserve. And, since we must be teased with perpetual hawkers of strange and wonderful things, I am glad to see a man of sense, find leisure and humour to take up the trade, for his own and our diversion. To speak in the town phrase, it is a bite; he has fully had his jest, and may be satisfied.

I very much approve the serious air he gives himself in his introduction and conclusion, which has gone far to give some people, of no mean rank, an opinion that the author believes himself. He tells us, "He places the whole credit of his art on the truth of these predictions, and will be content to be hooted by Partridge and the rest for a cheat, if he fails in any one particular;" with several other strains of the same kind, wherein I perfectly believe him; and that he is very indifferent whether Isaac Bickerstaff be a mark of infamy or not. But it seems, although he has joined an odd surname, to no very common Christian one, that in this large town there is a man found to own both the names, although, I believe, not the paper.

I believe it is no small mortification to this gentleman astrologer, as well as his bookseller, to find their piece, which they sent out in a tolerable print and paper, immediately seized on by three or four interloping printers of Grub street, the title stuffed with an abstract of the whole matter, together with the standard epithets of strange and wonderful, the price brought down a full half, which was but a penny in its prime, and bawled about by hawkers of the inferiour class, with the concluding cadence of a halfpenny apiece. But sic cecidit Phaeton: and, to comfort him a little, this production of mine will have the same fate: tomorrow will my ears be grated by the little boys and wenches in straw hats; and I must a hundred times undergo the mortification to have my own work offered me to sale at an under value. Then, which is a great deal worse, my acquaintance in the coffeehouse will ask me whether I have seen the Answer to 'squire Bickerstaff's Predictions, and whether I knew the puppy that writ it: and how to keep a man's countenance in such a juncture, is no easy point of conduct. When, in this case, you see a man shy either in praising or condemning, ready to turn off the discourse to another subject, standing as little in the light as he can to hide his blushing, pretending to sneeze, or take snuff, or go off as if sudden business called him; then ply him close, observe his look narrowly, see whether his speech be constrained or affected, then charge him suddenly, or whisper and smile, and you will soon discover whether he be guilty. Although this seem not to the purpose I am discoursing on, yet I think it to be so; for I am much deceived if I do not know the true author of Bickerstaff's Predictions, and did not meet with him some days ago in a coffeehouse at Covent Garden.

As to the matter of the predictions themselves, I shall not enter upon the examination of them; but think it very incumbent upon the learned Mr. Partridge to take them into his consideration, and lay as many errours in astrology as possible to Mr. Bickerstaff's account. He may justly, I think, challenge the 'squire to publish the calculation he has made of Partridge's nativity, by the credit of which, he so determinately pronounces the time and the manner of his death; and Mr. Bickerstaff can do no less, in honour, than give Mr. Partridge the same advantage of calculating his, by sending him an account of the time and place of his birth, with other particulars necessary for such a work. By which, no doubt, the learned world will be engaged in the dispute, and take part on each side according as they are inclined.

I should likewise advise Mr. Partridge to inquire, why Mr. Bickerstaff does not so much as offer at one prediction to be fulfilled, until two months after the time of publishing his paper. This looks a little suspicious, as if he were desirous to keep the world in play as long as he decently could; else it were hard he could not afford us one prediction between this and the 29th of March; which is not so fair dealings as we have even from Mr. Partridge and his brethren, who give us their predictions (such as they are indeed) for every month in the year.

There is one passage in Mr. Bickerstaff's paper, that seems to be as high a strain of assurance, as I have any where met with. It is that prediction for the month of June, which relates to the French prophets here in town; where he tells us, "They will utterly disperse, by seeing the time come, wherein their prophecies should be fulfilled, and then finding themselves deceived by contrary events." Upon which, he adds, with great reason, "his wonder how any deceiver can be so weak, to foretel things near at hand, when a very few months must discover the imposture to all the world." This is spoken with a great deal of affected unconcernedness, as if he would have us think himself to be not under the least apprehension, that the same in two months will be his own case. With respect to the gentleman, I do not remember to have heard of so refined and pleasant a piece of impudence; which I hope the author will not resent as an uncivil word, because I am sure I enter into his taste, and take it as he meant it. However, he half deserves a reprimand, for writing with so much scorn and contempt for the understandings of the majority.

For the month of July, he tells us "of a general, who, by a glorious action, will recover the reputation he lost by former misfortunes." This is commonly understood to be lord Galloway; who if he be already dead, as some newspapers have it, Mr. Bickerstaff has made a trip. But this I do not much insist on; for it is hard if another general cannot be found under the same circumstances, to whom this prediction may be as well applied.

The French king's death is very punctually related; but it was unfortunate to make him die at Marli, where he never goes at that season of the year, as I observed myself during three years I passed in that kingdom: and, discoursing some months ago with monsieur Tallard, about the French court, I find that king never goes to Marli for any time, but about the season of hunting there, which is not till August. So that there was an unlucky slip of Mr. Bickerstaff, for want of foreign education.

He concludes with resuming his promise, of publishing entire predictions for next year; of which the other astrologers need not be in very much pain. I suppose we shall have them much about the same time with The General History of Ears. I believe we have done with him for ever in this kind; and though I am no astrologer, may venture to prophesy that Isaac Bickerstaff esq. is now dead, and died just at the time his predictions were ready for the press: that he dropped out of the clouds about nine days ago, and, in about four hours after, mounted up thither again like a vapour; and will, one day or other, perhaps, descend a second time, when he has some new, agreeable, or amusing whimsey to pass upon the town; wherein, it is very probable, he will succeed as often as he is disposed to try the experiment; that is, as long as he can preserve a thorough contempt for his own time, and other people's understandings, and is resolved not to laugh cheaper than at the expense of a million of people.