Abbreviated title
A discourse concerning the mechanical operation of the spirit
JSA Identification Number
Teerink/Scouten Number
ESTC Number
Copy and its Location
CUL , Williams 268
Publisher and Printer
A tale of a tub. Written for the universal improvement of mankind. To which is added, an account of a battel between the antient and modern books in St. James’s library, Vol. , pp 280-322.
London, Nutt, John, 1704.


Often referred to narrowly as A Tale of a Tub, this book contains two further texts, only one of which is mentioned in the full title, A Full and True Account of the Battel , Fought last Friday, between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library or, as it is more widely known, the Battel of the Books . The third is A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit.

A Tale of the Tub was first printed on 10 May 1704, anonymously, and under the imprint of a trade publisher. John Nutt handled the distribution of the book and allowed his imprint to be used so that Swift’s connection with the text might be obscured. In a modern sense the publisher of Tale was in fact Benjamin Tooke, Jr (1671–1723), an important printer of Swift’s works and papers belonging to Swift’s employer, the diplomat and author Sir William Temple (1628–1699). Tooke arranged the publications of the third part of the Temple Miscellanea (1701), the third part of the Temple Memoirs (1709), the Project for the Advancement of Religion (1709), and Swift’s Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1711). Swift would later refer to Tooke in the Journal to Stella as ‘my bookseller’.

Swift left Trinity College Dublin in January 1689, spent some time with his mother in Leicester, and then took up residency at Moor Park, the home of Temple, son of the Swifts’ benefactor in Ireland, Sir John Temple. Until Temple’s death in January 1699, Swift acted as his secretary, amanuensis and, perhaps, as his emissary to the court of William III. In Temple’s library he read widely in political and ecclesiastical history, travel writing, French literature, and the classics. Here, in the mid-1690s, much of the Tale was conceived and written, including most notably the allegory of the three brothers representing the three main branches of western Christianity: Roman Catholicism (Peter), Anglicanism (Martin), and Dissenting Protestantism (Jack). Noted for its openly indecent sexual symbolism, Swift’s Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit is a relentless attack on religious enthusiasm. Presented as a “fragment”, its relationship with the other texts included in this book has been open to debate. Indeed, its authorship remains uncertain: it has been attributed to both Jonathan Swift and his cousin Thomas. After examining copies of the text held at Cornell and at Columbia, in 1967 Robert M. Adams supported Thomas Swift’s claim to have written Discourse and sections of the Tale proper. His argument rests on the internal evidence which seems to prove that Edmund Curll’s dubious A Complete Key to the Tale of a Tub made use of the marginal notes made by Thomas. In response Dipak Nandy cast doubt on Adams’s argument for ‘a process of joint authorship in which the two young men may have worked very closely together to produce a composite manuscript’ (Adams, ‘Authorship’, p. 205), and concluded that Thomas Swift’s role in the composition is marginal at best. However, it is not unfeasible that Thomas expressed some thoughts on the project to Jonathan at Trinity College Dublin or at Moor Park in 1694 and 1696. On his own admission, Thomas had not seen the manuscript during 1697 and 1704, and could not have been party to any of the substantial developments and revisions in that period. Publicly, Jonathan ridiculed Thomas’s claims to authorship. In the Postscript to the Apology he writes: ‘if any Person will prove his Claim to three Lines in the whole Book, let him step forth and tell his Name and Titles, upon which the Bookseller shall have Orders to prefix them to the next Edition, and the Claimant shall from henceforward be acknowledged the undisputed Author’.

Despite the long gestation of the text the 1704 printing is riddled with errors. In “An Apology For the &c.”, in the fifth edition of Tale (1705), Swift indicates that he originally gave his publisher a preliminary copy of the work, while he kept a blotted copy at his own hand and lent other copies to friends including one to Thomas Swift, his “parson cousin”. This second edition (corrected) appeared soon after the error-ridden first edition. A third followed in June 1704 and a fourth in May 1705.

References: James L. Clifford, ‘Swift’s Mechanical Operation of the Spirit’, in Pope and his Contemporaries: Essays Presented to George Sherburn, ed. James L. Clifford and Louis Landa (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1949), pp. 135–46; Robert M. Adams, ‘Jonathan Swift, Thomas Swift, and the Authorship of A Tale of a Tub’, Modern Philology, 64 (1967), pp. 198–232; Dipak Nandy, ‘Jonathan Swift, Thomas Swift, and the Authorship of A Tale of a Tub’, Modern Philology, 66 (1969), pp. 333–7

Daniel Cook