Places: A Tale of a Tub

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: A Tale of a Tub: To Which Is Added an Account of a Battle Between the Ancient and Modern Books in St. James’s Library; and the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, 1704

Type of work: Satire

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Grub Street

*Grub Tale of a Tub, AStreet. Minor district of London near the northwest edge of the old walled city in the vicinity of Moorfields. Daniel Defoe, who was a master of popular writing at the time, lived nearby, and the region became the symbol for the new commercial writing that supported writers who did not have noble patrons. Swift satirizes these writers as Grubaean Sages. Since Covent Garden, as well as the merchant centers of the city, are close by in greater London, these hack writers of Grub Street can also be attacked as prostitutes of literature, associated with the brothels in Covent Garden and as superficially commercial in their work in other ways as well. Although Swift himself created some brilliant hack writing which was very popular, he took great pride in the support he enjoyed from his noble patron Sir William Temple.

*Gresham College

*Gresham College. Educational institution located in the grand London mansion of Sir Thomas Gresham, who bequeathed the house to the city; a group of practical “Greshamists” started the scientific group that became the Royal Society of London. Partly because of its location in Gresham House and hence its commercial associations with Moorfields and with the city, the new science of the Royal Society comes under attack by Swift for its airy superficiality and its beating of the tub of self-promotion.

*Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam)

*Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam). Government lunatic asylum at Moorfields. Continuing his case for guilt by association of location deep in the center of greater London, Swift can attack both the hack writers and the new scientists as insane Bedlamites. Throughout most of the eighteenth century the public could pay admission to watch the institution’s inmates.

*Royal Library

*Royal Library. Library in St. James Palace in London’s West End in which the battle of the books, the appended narrative to the main tale, is fought. Not a great deal of elegance is achieved, however, by moving the action farther out, although Swift does articulate the ancient and modern theme most clearly in this shorter and simpler narrative. Nevertheless, the combatants are insects, so the satiric attacks on small grubbiness in writing continues despite the royal location.

*Moor Park

*Moor Park. Elegant country estate of Swift’s patron Sir William Temple. Swift lived on the estate for a time in the last decade of Temple’s life, and he conceived this text as he followed the heated debate over ancient as opposed to modern writing in which Temple played a role as essayist and translator. The universities were the real seat of the debate, and so Swift’s move to satirize and to trivialize the debate is effectively done by locating it close to commercial London. The ideal of Moor Park and of genuine intellectual thinking serves as the measure of the satiric attacks on superficial modernity.


*Leyden (LI-dehn). City in the Netherlands where Swift’s attack takes aim at the superficiality of religious enthusiasm, especially that expressed by the sects of Protestant fanatics that were not Anglican. He includes Martin Luther in this group, but his prime whipping boy is an Anabaptist named Jan Buckholdt. He was a tailor and known as “Jack of Leyden” during the religious debates that had become particularly bloody battles by Swift’s time. The text makes wonderful use of images of superficial coats sewn by such an enthusiastic tailor that the enemies of Swift suffer from the various characterizations of being airbags, insects, and prostitutes of ideas but also from being located in the grubby low countries of Europe, which were so similar to the commercially tainted centers of London. The many digressions in Swift’s text and, perhaps, some of its airiness make locations difficult to pin down. However, that may be a key point of the satire; the ancients possessed a more solid sense of place.

BibliographyClark, John R. Form and Frenzy in Swift’s “Tale of a Tub.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. Focuses on the artistry of Swift’s satire, exploring A Tale of a Tub as “a work of mimetic art.” Argues that Swift carries out his satiric intent with great originality while staying within the tradition.Harth, Phillip. Swift and Anglican Rationalism. The Religious Background of “A Tale of a Tub.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Rejects arguments that A Tale of a Tub has a unity that fuses the two objects of its satire, religion and learning, in one coherent whole. Learned investigation of the religious background.Paulson, Ronald. Theme and Structure in Swift’s “Tale of a Tub.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960. Emphasizes the moral import of A Tale of a Tub, stressing Swift’s penetrating insight into the nature of evil; pleads a case for Swift as an artist who gave A Tale of a Tub a “unified structure.”Smith, Frederik N. Language and Reality in Swift’s “A Tale of a Tub.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979. Finds in A Tale of a Tub two styles of language that coincide with two ways of knowing the world. Swift rejects the “intellectualized” approach in favor of the “experience-oriented.”Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub and Other Works. Edited with an introduction by Argus Rossand and David Woolley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Excellent, easily available paperback edition with illuminating introduction. Bibliography, chronology of A Tale of a Tub, notes, glossary, and appendices.
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