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Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to Harley (1712) and The British Academy (1712)   By: (1673-1742)

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Series Six: Poetry and Language

No. 1

John Oldmixon, Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to Harley (1712);


Arthur Mainwaring, The British Academy (1712).

With an Introduction by Louis A. Landa

The Augustan Reprint Society September, 1948 Price: 75 cents


RICHARD C. BOYS, University of Michigan EDWARD NILES HOOKER, University of California, Los Angeles H. T. SWEDENBERG, JR., University of California, Los Angeles


W. EARL BRITTON, University of Michigan


EMMETT L. AVERY, State College of Washington BENJAMIN BOYCE, University of Nebraska LOUIS I. BREDVOLD, University of Michigan CLEANTH BROOKS, Yale University JAMES L. CLIFFORD, Columbia University ARTHUR FRIEDMAN, University of Chicago SAMUEL H. MONK, University of Minnesota ERNEST MOSSNER, University of Texas JAMES SUTHERLAND, Queen Mary College, London

Lithoprinted from copy supplied by author by Edwards Brothers, Inc. Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A. 1948


The two tracts reprinted here, as well as Swift's Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue , which occasioned them, may be viewed in the context of the many seventeenth and eighteenth century suggestions for the formation of a British Academy. They are in part a result of the founding of the French Academy in 1635, although the feeling in England that language needed regulating to prevent its corruption and decline was not purely derivative. By the close of the seventeenth century an informed Englishman might have been familiar with a series of native proposals, ranging from those of Carew of Antony and Edmund Bolton early in the century to that of Defoe at the close. Among the familiar figures who urged the advantages of an Academy were Evelyn, the Earl of Roscommon, and Dryden. Of these Dryden was particularly vocal; but Evelyn's suggestion, associated as it was with the Royal Society, was rather more spectacular. In 1665 he set forth for the Society's Committee for Improving the Language an exhaustive catalogue of the forces tending to the corruption of the English tongue. Those, he declared, are "victories, plantations, frontiers, staples of commerce, pedantry of schools, affectation of travellers, translations, fancy and style of court, vernility and mincing of citizens, pulpits, political remonstrances, theatres, shops, &c." There follows Evelyn's careful formulation of the problems facing those who would refine the language and fix its standards.

This sense of the corruption of the language and of the urgent need for regulation was communicated to the eighteenth century, in which a number of powerful voices called for action. Early in the period Addison advocated "something like an Academy that by the best Authorities and Rules ... shall settle all Controversies between Grammar and Idiom" ( The Spectator , No. 135). He was followed by Swift, who in turn was followed by such diverse persons as Orator Henlay, the Earl of Orrery, and the Earl of Chesterfield. Curiously, Johnson's appears to be the only weighty voice in opposition: "the edicts of an English Academy," he insisted, "would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them."

But if the two tracts reprinted here may be viewed in this context, they may also be seen from another vantage as part of the interminable wrangling in the period between Whigs and Tories, even over a matter so apparently non political as the founding of an Academy. Since it was Swift's "petty treatise on the English Language" the epithet is Johnson's which provoked these two replies, we must look briefly at his handiwork. Swift was undoubtedly guilty of pride of authorship with respect to his Proposal , which appeared on May 17, 1712, in the form of a Letter to the Earl of Oxford ... Continue reading book >>

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