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Jonathan Swift

Irish Satirist


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Narrated by Simon Vance

Download mp3 file: A Tale of a Tub

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Once upon a time there was a man who had three sons by one wife and all at a birth, neither could the midwife tell certainly which was the eldest.  Their father died while they were young, and upon his death-bed, calling the lads to him, spoke thus:-

“Sons, because I have purchased no estate, nor was born to any, I have long considered of some good legacies to bequeath you, and at last, with much care as well as expense, have provided each of you (here they are) a new coat.  Now, you are to understand that these coats have two virtues contained in them; one is, that with good wearing they will last you fresh and sound as long as you live; the other is, that they will grow in the same proportion with your bodies, lengthening and widening of themselves, so as to be always fit.  Here, let me see them on you before I die.  So, very well!  Pray, children, wear them clean and brush them often.  You will find in my will (here it is) full instructions in every particular concerning the wearing and management of your coats, wherein you must be very exact to avoid the penalties I have appointed for every transgression or neglect, upon which your future fortunes will entirely depend.  I have also commanded in my will that you should live together in one house like brethren and friends, for then you will be sure to thrive and not otherwise.”

Here the story says this good father died, and the three sons went all together to seek their fortunes.

I shall not trouble you with recounting what adventures they met for the first seven years, any farther than by taking notice that they carefully observed their father’s will and kept their coats in very good order; that they travelled through several countries, encountered a reasonable quantity of giants, and slew certain dragons.

Being now arrived at the proper age for producing themselves, they came up to town and fell in love with the ladies, but especially three, who about that time were in chief reputation, the Duchess d’Argent, Madame de Grands-Titres, and the Countess d’Orgueil.  On their first appearance, our three adventurers met with a very bad reception, and soon with great sagacity guessing out the reason, they quickly began to improve in the good qualities of the town.  They wrote, and rallied, and rhymed, and sung, and said, and said nothing; they drank, and fought, and slept, and swore, and took snuff; they went to new plays on the first night, haunted the chocolate-houses, beat the watch; they bilked hackney-coachmen, ran in debt with shopkeepers, and lay with their wives; they killed bailiffs, kicked fiddlers down-stairs, ate at Locket’s, loitered at Will’s; they talked of the drawing-room and never came there; dined with lords they never saw; whispered a duchess and spoke never a word; exposed the scrawls of their laundress for billet-doux of quality; came ever just from court and were never seen in it; attended the levee sub dio; got a list of peers by heart in one company, and with great familiarity retailed them in another.  Above all, they constantly attended those committees of Senators who are silent in the House and loud in the coffeehouse, where they nightly adjourn to chew the cud of politics, and are encompassed with a ring of disciples who lie in wait to catch up their droppings.  The three brothers had acquired forty other qualifications of the like stamp too tedious to recount, and by consequence were justly reckoned the most accomplished persons in town.  But all would not suffice, and the ladies aforesaid continued still inflexible.  To clear up which difficulty, I must, with the reader’s good leave and patience, have recourse to some points of weight which the authors of that age have not sufficiently illustrated.

For about this time it happened a sect arose whose tenets obtained and spread very far, especially in the grand monde, and among everybody of good fashion.  They worshipped a sort of idol, who, as their doctrine delivered, did daily create men by a kind of manufactory operation.  This idol they placed in the highest parts of the house on an altar erected about three feet.  He was shown in the posture of a Persian emperor sitting on a superficies with his legs interwoven under him.  This god had a goose for his ensign, whence it is that some learned men pretend to deduce his original from Jupiter Capitolinus.  At his left hand, beneath the altar, Hell seemed to open and catch at the animals the idol was creating, to prevent which, certain of his priests hourly flung in pieces of the uninformed mass or substance, and sometimes whole limbs already enlivened, which that horrid gulph insatiably swallowed, terrible to behold.  The goose was also held a subaltern divinity or Deus minorum gentium, before whose shrine was sacrificed that creature whose hourly food is human gore, and who is in so great renown abroad for being the delight and favourite of the Egyptian Cercopithecus.  Millions of these animals were cruelly slaughtered every day to appease the hunger of that consuming deity.  The chief idol was also worshipped as the inventor of the yard and the needle, whether as the god of seamen, or on account of certain other mystical attributes, hath not been sufficiently cleared.

The worshippers of this deity had also a system of their belief which seemed to turn upon the following fundamental.  They held 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.

These postulata being admitted, it will follow in due course of reasoning that those beings which the world calls improperly suits of clothes are in reality the most refined species of animals, or to proceed higher, that they are rational creatures or men.  For is it not manifest that they live, and move, and talk, and perform all other offices of human life?  Are not beauty, and wit, and mien, and breeding their inseparable proprieties?  In short, we see nothing but them, hear nothing but them.  Is it not they who walk the streets, fill up Parliament-, coffee-, play-, bawdy-houses.  It is true, indeed, that these animals, which are vulgarly called suits of clothes or dresses, do according to certain compositions receive different appellations.  If one of them be trimmed up with a gold chain, and a red gown, and a white rod, and a great horse, it is called a Lord Mayor; if certain ermines and furs be placed in a certain position, we style them a judge, and so an apt conjunction of lawn and black satin we entitle a Bishop.

Others of these professors, though agreeing in the main system, were yet more refined upon certain branches of it; and held that man was an animal compounded of two dresses, the natural and the celestial suit, which were the body and the soul; that the soul was the outward, and the body the inward clothing; that the latter was ex traduce, but the former of daily creation and circumfusion.  This last they proved by Scripture, because in them we live, and move, and have our being: as likewise by philosophy, because they are all in all, and all in every part.  Besides, said they, separate these two, and you will find the body to be only a senseless unsavoury carcass.  By all which it is manifest that the outward dress must needs be the soul.

To this system of religion were tagged several subaltern doctrines, which were entertained with great vogue; as particularly the faculties of the mind were deduced by the learned among them in this manner: embroidery was sheer wit, gold fringe was agreeable conversation, gold lace was repartee, a huge long periwig was humour, and a coat full of powder was very good raillery.  All which required abundance of finesse and delicatesse to manage with advantage, as well as a strict observance after times and fashions.

I have with much pains and reading collected out of ancient authors this short summary of a body of philosophy and divinity which seems to have been composed by a vein and race of thinking very different from any other systems, either ancient or modern.  And it was not merely to entertain or satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but rather to give him light into several circumstances of the following story, that, knowing the state of dispositions and opinions in an age so remote, he may better comprehend those great events which were the issue of them.  I advise, therefore, the courteous reader to peruse with a world of application, again and again, whatever I have written upon this matter.  And so leaving these broken ends, I carefully gather up the chief thread of my story, and proceed.

These opinions, therefore, were so universal, as well as the practices of them, among the refined part of court and town, that our three brother adventurers, as their circumstances then stood, were strangely at a loss.  For, on the one side, the three ladies they addressed themselves to (whom we have named already) were ever at the very top of the fashion, and abhorred all that were below it but the breadth of a hair.  On the other side, 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.  Now the coats their father had left them were, it is true, of very good cloth, and besides, so neatly sewn you would swear they were all of a piece, but, at the same time, very plain, with little or no ornament; and it happened that before they were a month in town great shoulder-knots came up.  Straight all the world was shoulder-knots; no approaching the ladies’ ruelles without the quota of shoulder-knots.  “That fellow,” cries one, “has no soul: where is his shoulder-knot?”  Our three brethren soon discovered their want by sad experience, meeting in their walks with forty mortifications and indignities.  If they went to the playhouse, the doorkeeper showed them into the twelve-penny gallery.  If they called a boat, says a waterman, “I am first sculler.”  If they stepped into the “Rose” to take a bottle, the drawer would cry, “Friend, we sell no ale.”  If they went to visit a lady, a footman met them at the door with “Pray, send up your message.”  In this unhappy case they went immediately to consult their father’s will, read it over and over, but not a word of the shoulder-knot.  What should they do?  What temper should they find?  Obedience was absolutely necessary, and yet shoulder-knots appeared extremely requisite.  After much thought, one of the brothers, who happened to be more book-learned than the other two, said he had found an expedient.  “It is true,” said he, “there is nothing here in this will, totidem verbis, making mention of shoulder-knots, but I dare conjecture we may find them inclusive, or totidem syllabis.”  This distinction was immediately approved by all; and so they fell again to examine the will.  But their evil star had so directed the matter that the first syllable was not to be found in the whole writing; upon which disappointment, he who found the former evasion took heart, and said, “Brothers, there is yet hopes; for though we cannot find them totidem verbis nor totidem syllabis, I dare engage we shall make them out tertio modo or totidem literis.”  This discovery was also highly commended, upon which they fell once more to the scrutiny, and soon picked out S, H, O, U, L, D, E, R, when the same planet, enemy to their repose, had wonderfully contrived that a K was not to be found.  Here was a weighty difficulty!  But the distinguishing brother (for whom we shall hereafter find a name), now his hand was in, proved by a very good argument that K was a modern illegitimate letter, unknown to the learned ages, nor anywhere to be found in ancient manuscripts.  “It is true,” said he, “the word Calendae, had in Q. V. C. been sometimes writ with a K, but erroneously, for in the best copies it is ever spelt with a C; and by consequence it was a gross mistake in our language to spell ‘knot’ with a K,” but that from henceforward he would take care it should be writ with a C.  Upon this all further difficulty vanished; shoulder-knots were made clearly out to be jure paterno, and our three gentlemen swaggered with as large and as flaunting ones as the best.

But as human happiness is of a very short duration, so in those days were human fashions, upon which it entirely depends.  Shoulder-knots had their time, and we must now imagine them in their decline, for a certain lord came just from Paris with fifty yards of gold lace upon his coat, exactly trimmed after the court fashion of that month.  In two days all mankind appeared closed up in bars of gold lace.  Whoever durst peep abroad without his complement of gold lace was as scandalous as a ——, and as ill received among the women.  What should our three knights do in this momentous affair?  They had sufficiently strained a point already in the affair of shoulder-knots.  Upon recourse to the will, nothing appeared there but altum silentium.  That of the shoulder-knots was a loose, flying, circumstantial point, but this of gold lace seemed too considerable an alteration without better warrant.  It did aliquo modo essentiae adhaerere, and therefore required a positive precept.  But about this time it fell out that the learned brother aforesaid had read “Aristotelis Dialectica,” and especially that wonderful piece de Interpretatione, which has the faculty of teaching its readers to find out a meaning in everything but itself, like commentators on the Revelations, who proceed prophets without understanding a syllable of the text.  “Brothers,” said he, “you are to be informed that of wills, duo sunt genera, nuncupatory and scriptory, that in the scriptory will here before us there is no precept or mention about gold lace, conceditur, but si idem affirmetur de nuncupatorio negatur.  For, brothers, if you remember, we heard a fellow say when we were boys that he heard my father’s man say that he heard my father say that he would advise his sons to get gold lace on their coats as soon as ever they could procure money to buy it.”  “That is very true,” cries the other.  “I remember it perfectly well,” said the third.  And so, without more ado, they got the largest gold lace in the parish, and walked about as fine as lords.

A while after, there came up all in fashion a pretty sort of flame-coloured satin for linings, and the mercer brought a pattern of it immediately to our three gentlemen.  “An please your worships,” said he, “my Lord C—- and Sir J. W. had linings out of this very piece last night; it takes wonderfully, and I shall not have a remnant left enough to make my wife a pin-cushion by to-morrow morning at ten o’clock.”  Upon this they fell again to rummage the will, because the present case also required a positive precept, the lining being held by orthodox writers to be of the essence of the coat.  After long search they could fix upon nothing to the matter in hand, except a short advice in their father’s will to take care of fire and put out their candles before they went to sleep.  This, though a good deal for the purpose, and helping very far towards self-conviction, yet not seeming wholly of force to establish a command, and being resolved to avoid farther scruple, as well as future occasion for scandal, says he that was the scholar, “I remember to have read in wills of a codicil annexed, which is indeed a part of the will, and what it contains hath equal authority with the rest.  Now I have been considering of this same will here before us, and I cannot reckon it to be complete for want of such a codicil.  I will therefore fasten one in its proper place very dexterously.  I have had it by me some time; it was written by a dog-keeper of my grandfather’s, and talks a great deal, as good luck would have it, of this very flame-coloured satin.”  The project was immediately approved by the other two; an old parchment scroll was tagged on according to art, in the form of a codicil annexed, and the satin bought and worn.

Next winter a player, hired for the purpose by the Corporation of Fringemakers, acted his part in a new comedy, all covered with silver fringe, and according to the laudable custom gave rise to that fashion.  Upon which the brothers, consulting their father’s will, to their great astonishment found these words: “Item, I charge and command my said three sons to wear no sort of silver fringe upon or about their said coats,” &c., with a penalty in case of disobedience too long here to insert.  However, after some pause, 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.

A while after was revived an old fashion, long antiquated, of embroidery with Indian figures of men, women, and children.  Here they had no occasion to examine the will.  They remembered but too well how their father had always abhorred this fashion; that he made several paragraphs on purpose, importing his utter detestation of it, and bestowing his everlasting curse to his sons whenever they should wear it.  For all this, in a few days they appeared higher in the fashion than anybody else in the town.  But they solved the matter by saying that these figures were not at all the same with those that were formerly worn and were meant in the will; besides, they did not wear them in that sense, as forbidden by their father, but as they were a commendable custom, and of great use to the public.  That these rigorous clauses in the will did therefore require some allowance and a favourable interpretation, and ought to be understood cum grano salis.

But fashions perpetually altering in that age, the scholastic brother grew weary of searching further evasions and solving everlasting contradictions.  Resolved, therefore, at all hazards to comply with the modes of the world, they concerted matters together, and agreed unanimously to lock up their father’s will in a strong-box, brought out of Greece or Italy (I have forgot which), and trouble themselves no farther to examine it, but only refer to its authority whenever they thought fit.  In consequence whereof, a while after it grew a general mode to wear an infinite number of points, most of them tagged with silver; upon which the scholar pronounced ex cathedrâ that points were absolutely jure paterno as they might very well remember.  It is true, indeed, the fashion prescribed somewhat more than were directly named in the will; however, that they, as heirs-general of their father, had power to make and add certain clauses for public emolument, though not deducible todidem verbis from the letter of the will, or else multa absurda sequerentur.  This was understood for canonical, and therefore on the following Sunday they came to church all covered with points.

The learned brother so often mentioned was reckoned the best scholar in all that or the next street to it; insomuch, as having run something behindhand with the world, he obtained the favour from a certain lord to receive him into his house and to teach his children.  A while after the lord died, and he, by long practice upon his father’s will, found the way of contriving a deed of conveyance of that house to himself and his heirs; upon which he took possession, turned the young squires out, and received his brothers in their stead.

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