Twin Peaks

The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age

by Joseph M. Levine
Cornell University Press, 428 pp., $29.95

For the greater part of human history mountaintops were imagined rather than visited. As well as being desolate and difficult to reach they had in many cases been appropriated by gods and goddesses, either as permanent homes or as settings for special effects designed to overawe the humbler creation. Moses ascended the smoking and quaking mountain in the wilderness of Sinai unscathed, but only because he was there by special invitation. The rest of the children of Israel very prudently stood afar off. Petrarch, the indefatigable fourteenth-century interpreter of the Greek and Roman classics, is said to have been one of the first men in modern times to climb a mountain. The ancient authors he was studying would probably have shunned such an enterprise for fear of offending some resident deity. Even in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the pioneers of modern mountaineering first set out to climb the Matterhorn, local people assured them that it was the home of demons who would lure them to their deaths.

And so when Swift at the end of the seventeenth century began his satire The Battle of the Books with an account of a quarrel at the summit of Mount Parnassus he had no means of knowing what the top of the mountain was really like. He had to invent his own high-altitude topography, sustained by what Joseph Levine rightly calls “a curious kind of imaginative power so far unequaled in English literature.” Swift’s Parnassus had two peaks, one higher than the other and each inhabited by some rather seedy demigods. Those on the upper summit were patrons of the ancient authors of Greece and Rome while those on the lower favored more modern writers such as Milton, Dryden, Descartes, and Hobbes.

All these deities were surprisingly domesticated and had so far forfeited the usual privileges of divinity as to have to do their own digging. The moderns on the lower peak threatened to “come with their shovels and matlocks” and hack away at the upper one until it was brought down to their level. The ancients suggested instead that the lower peak should be raised and offered to help with the necessary spadework. Their offer was spurned and battle was joined not only on the mountaintop but also in the king’s library, where the librarian was so shockingly prejudiced in favor of books written by the moderns that the works of the ancients had to leave their shelves and fight it out. The great writers and thinkers of ancient times, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, were pitted against such eminent seventeenth-century authors as Bacon, Hobbes, Milton, and Dryden.

In one respect at least Swift’s imagination had not deceived him. Parnassus had two peaks. Although the mountain in its heyday was sacred to Apollo it had earlier been the preserve of Dionysus, a very different and far less disciplined god. Even at Delphi, Apollo’s shrine cradled in the foothills of Parnassus, there were memories of older and bloodier rites. The…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.