Scriblerus Club [Scriblerians] (act. 1714)
is the name given, from the later eighteenth century
(Goldsmith, 37; Johnson, 4.478, 296)
, to a literary grouping usually identified as Jonathan Swift
, Alexander Pope
, John Gay
, John Arbuthnot
, and Thomas Parnell
(Spence, no. 218, 1.95; Memoirs … of Martinus Scriblerus
, 27, 3519)
. Pope later told Joseph Spence that Queen Anne's lord treasurer, Robert Harley, first earl of Oxford, to whom several verse invitations were addressed, would also come and talk idly with them almost every night (Spence, no. 218, 1.95). According to Pope, the character of Martinus Scriblerus was originally conceived as a focus for the club's satire against current trends in culture and scholarship:
The design of the Memoirs of Scriblerus was to have ridiculed all the false tastes in learning, under the character of a man of capacity enough that had dipped in every art and science, but injudiciously in each. It was begun by a club of some of the greatest wits of the age: Lord Bolingbroke, the Bishop of Rochester, Mr. Pope, Congreve, Arbuthnot, Swift, and others. Gay often held the pen, and Addison liked it very well and was not disinclined to come into it. (Spence, no. 135, 1.56)
Pope may not have been distinguishing sharply here between what later commentators have referred to as the Scriblerus Club and an earlier, more broadly based project for a satirical periodical, The Works of the Unlearned
(21 Oct 1713, Pope, Correspondence
, 1.195; Spectator
, no. 457, 14 Aug 1712)
. The club that worked together on Scriblerus in spring 1714 was both more select and more exclusively tory in its political outlook. Swift, having left the whigs, wanted a group that guaranteed intimacy between key writers and the tory ministry, while Pope sought an alternative to his increasingly awkward association with Joseph Addison's whig circle. The only full meetings of the five writers that can now be documented took place in March and April 1714. Arbuthnot's lodgings at St James's Palace were probably a favourite venue.
The club never achieved anything like the institutional solidity of the contemporary whig Kit-Cat Club or, later, Johnson's literary club, and meetings very soon lapsed. By April 1714 Pope had retreated to the country with Parnell to work on his translation of Homer's Iliad
, and by May, Swift had left London in despair at the disarray of the tory leadership, returning to Ireland in August. In June 1714, when a meeting of the remaining members was attempted, Gay was appointed to an embassy to Hanover, which would end all too soon with Queen Anne's death on 1 August. Arbuthnot and Pope had no success in rekindling Swift's enthusiasm for Scriblerus; and in the coming years the task of completing the Memoirs
was not high on anyone's agenda. In the act of rebuffing Arbuthnot's suggestion (made on 26 June 1714) that the project be continued Swift gave a lively idea of the various characteristics of the club's members, and of the collaborative interplay between them:
You [Arbuthnot] every day give better hints than all of us together could do in a twelvemonth; And to say the Truth, Pope who first thought of the Hint has no Genius at all to it, in my Mind. Gay is too young; Parnel has some Ideas of it but is idle; I could putt together, and lard, and strike out well enough, but all that relates to the Sciences must be from you. (3 July 1714, Swift, Correspondence, 2.46)
But in the end it was Pope, the longest surviving active member, who was most influential in shaping the club's image for posterity.
The poet and clergyman Thomas Parnell, the shortest lived of the group, was Swift's protégé and, like him, a former whig. Having come to England from Ireland after the death of his wife, he contributed enthusiastically to Scriblerian collaborations, working particularly closely with Pope. Parnell's Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice, with the Remarks of Zoilus, to which is Prefix'd, the Life of the said Zoilus
(1717) brings together several typically Scriblerian strands: mock-heroic verse, mock-scholarly commentary, and defence of the work of a fellow member (in this case Pope's Homer). Parnell returned to Ireland after the queen's death, but, having visited London in 1718, died suddenly on his way home, and was commemorated by Pope in the dedicatory Epistle to Robert Earl of Oxford, and Earl Mortimer prefixed to his selective memorial edition of Parnell's work (Poems on Several Occasions
For him, thou oft hast bid the World attend,
Fond to forget the Statesman in the Friend;
For Swift and him, despis'd the Farce of State,
The sober Follies of the Wise and Great;
Dextrous, the craving, fawning Crowd to quit,
And pleas'd to 'scape from Flattery to Wit. (ll. 712)
Coloured by Oxford's suffering at the hands of the incoming Hanoverian regime in August 1714, the poem idealizes the club as part of a lost age.
The royal physician John Arbuthnot, already close to Swift and Oxford, was a pivotal figure in the group, contributing a quickfire inventiveness across fields ranging from politics, through classical scholarship, to scientific and medical topics. Of all the club's members he was apparently the least interested in claiming his contributions to collaborative work. He seems to have composed Virgilius restauratus
, the satire on Richard Bentley's and Lewis Theobald's methods of textual emendation that Pope attributed to Scriblerus when he included it in the appendices to his Dunciad variorum
in 1729. An Essay of the Learned Martinus Scriblerus Concerning the Origine of the Sciences
has also been attributed to Arbuthnot on grounds of style and subject. Like Parnell, Arbuthnot also became at the end of his life the subject of Pope's commemoration, in An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot
(1735). With this tribute, another element in Pope's representation of his Scriblerian friends fell into place.
John Gay, who had been collaborating with Pope since about 1711, was already experienced in farce and parody by the time of the club's documented meetings. He supported Pope against Ambrose Philips in The Shepherd's Week
(1714); and once back from Hanover he produced the mock-tragic satirical farce The What d'ye Call It
(1715), the mock-Georgic Trivia
(1716), and the satirical farce Three Hours after Marriage
(1717). Pope and Arbuthnot also contributed significantly to Three Hours after Marriage
, reviving the collaborative mode of the original Scriblerus Club, but incurring in the process a critical onslaught whose intended victim was Pope. Gay's aptness as a creative collaborator, and his acute sense of generic conventions and how they could be played upon for satiric effect, were complemented by his inventiveness with the parodic scholarly apparatus crucial to Scriblerian satire on modern learning (for example the commentary to The Shepherd's Week
or the bizarre index to Trivia
). His masterpiece, The Beggar's Opera
(1728), a further development of generic parody, is in part a response to a hint from Swift: what think you of a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there?
(30 Aug 1716, Pope, Correspondence
, 1.360; Spence, no. 244, 1.107)
. Pope linked The Beggar's Opera
with the partial reunion of club members during Swift's visit to England in 1726, reporting that 'twas writ in the same house with me and Dr. Swift (Spence, no. 137, 1.57). In the commentary to his 1729 Dunciad variorum
Pope would also celebrate Gay's triumph in terms that anticipate his own defiant political satire of the 1730s.
Jonathan Swift had crafted satirical personae before the Scriblerus Club came into being (notably in A Tale of a Tub
, 1704) and would go on doing so long after it lapsed (for example, M. B. Drapier, supposed author of The Drapier's Letters
, 1724, and Simon Wagstaff, projector of Polite Conversation
, 1738). He would also develop his parodic subversion of traditional genres (as in the poems on women and sexuality from his later years). Pope also commented that Swift's masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels
(1726), derived in part from the original Scriblerus project: It was from a part of these memoirs that Dr. Swift took his first hints for Gulliver (Spence, no. 135, 1.56). Moreover, in Pope's 1729 account of the genesis of the Dunciad
he declared Swift in a sort to be Author of the Poem insofar as the first sketch … was snatch'd from the fire by Dr. Swift (Pope, Dunciad, Variorum
, 1729 appx 1). The club, and his friendship with Swift in particular, had become a key element in Pope's self-construction. For Swift, writing to Pope in September 1723, the club's meetings seem to have been remembered as a brief glimpse of a largely impracticable ideal:
I have often endeavoured to establish a Friendship among all Men of Genius, and would fain have it done. they are seldom above three or four Cotemporaries and if they could be united would drive the world before them; I think it was so among the Poets in the time of Augustus, but Envy and party and pride have hindred it among us. (20 Sept 1723, Pope, Correspondence, 2.199)
After a last visit to England in 1727 Swift never saw the surviving members of the club again.
Alexander Pope, who came to the meetings of 1714 with the accomplished mock heroics of the enlarged Rape of the Lock
already behind him, would, as he moved into mid-career, give Scriblerus high-profile roles in several publications. After Arbuthnot's death in 1735 he acquired the Memoirs
materials, which he finally published in 1741 with other Scriblerian works, alongside his correspondence with Swift
(Spence, no. 134, 1.55; Memoirs
. As published, the Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus
remains an awkward construction, although its disparate styles and attempted links can be seen as offering some insight into the style of Scriblerian collaboration (Nokes, 228). In comparison, members' master-works like Gulliver's Travels
, The Beggar's Opera
, and the Dunciad
whatever their connection with the club's discussions of Queen Anne's last yeargained power from a mature indignation at Hanoverian rule under Sir Robert Walpole, and from a longer perspective, inflected by the writers' individual talents and concerns, on what they saw as its moral, political, and cultural degeneracy.
In introducing the Memoirs
Pope invokes the Reign of Queen Anne, only to add, in ironic parenthesis, which, notwithstanding those happy Times which succeeded, every Englishman has not forgot (Memoirs
, 91). Those happy Times of whig ascendancy and increasing commercialization of literature and scholarship had in fact already offered Scriblerus significant opportunities for satirical outings, making the Memoirs
, when they finally appeared, a belated prospectus for a literary persona who was already in the public domain and whose career did not fit particularly well with the detailed exploits of the Memoirs
. In preparing the ground for the first Dunciad
in 1728 Pope had presented the scholarcritic Scriblerus as the author of Peri Bathous, or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry
(a parody of the Longinian sublime so beloved of whig poets); and in 1729 he had deployed him as a commentator on the Dunciad variorum
, also taking the opportunity to attribute to him Arbuthnot's Virgilius restauratus
. Beyond the publication of the Memoirs
, however, Scriblerus had one more outing to look forward to. In the Dunciad in Four Books
(1743), and as part of a strategic commemoration of the club members' trials and triumphs, Scriblerus's Virgilius restauratus
was promoted from the appendices to be partially incorporated into the body of the commentary. In a new turn on an old joke, he would find his critical opinions subjected to patronizing critique by the fictionalized Bentley.
Whether or not, as posited in the influential but speculative account by Kerby-Miller, there was an agreed Scriblerian programme whose component works the members undertook to produce over the longer term, it is clear that the meetings of MarchApril 1714 provided a brief but intense cross-fertilization of attitudes and techniques that Parnell, Arbuthnot, Gay, Swift, and Pope continued to develop in individual ways as their careers matured and diverged. Appreciation of works associated with the club has highlighted their brilliant wit and generic inventiveness, the edgy mix of antagonism and fascination with which they confronted modernizing trends in contemporary culture, their deftly insinuating political subversiveness, and their conservative pessimism about human nature. The Scriblerus Club as subsequently identified by Goldsmith and Johnson has often been invoked as the highwater mark of eighteenth-century satire, and as a key influence on Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and later satirists.