The Scriblerus Club
This club, formed in 1714, was more of a literary collective and was formed of some of the sharpest literary talents of the age including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell. It took its rather curious name from a cod scholar, Martinus Scriblerus, whom the group created to represent the kind of pedantic scholar who was to be the butt of their satire. Swift was given the nickname Martin by the group – a rather lame play on the ornithological derivation of his surname – and the pedant’s first name was given in his honour. Instead of concentrating on humanistic matters Scriblerus would spend his time in the Gradgrindian tasks of checking facts and trivial details.
The club’s aim was to develop a canon of literature that attacked the then trend for excessively literal approaches to academic subjects, ranging from medicine to philosophy. The members’ goal was to produce satirical commentary on the abuse of human learning, on the assumption that ridiculing these prevailing ideas and approaches was the best way of minimising their influence. They met occasionally, usually at Arbuthnot’s house.
The problem was that with such an array of mercurial talents in membership disputes were bound to occur and this sounded the death knell for the club. As Sir Walter Scott commented in his Life of Swift, “the violence of political faction, like a storm that spares the laurel no more than the cedar, dispersed this little band of literary brethren, and prevented the accomplishment of a task for which talents so various, so extended, so brilliant, can never again be united.”
Swift tried to play the role of peacemaker. He wrote a fable of Fagot where the ministers of the land are called upon to contribute their various badges of office to make the bundle strong and secure but his diplomatic entreaties fell on stoney ground. In a huff Swift retreated to Berkshire where he stayed in seclusion for some weeks.
Although short-lived as a club, the legacy of Martinus Scriblerus lived on. The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, published in 1741 in a volume of Pope’s works, although much of it was written by Arbuthnot, tells of his upbringing and education. Such was the energy and enthusiasm that they invested in this project that Pope confided to Swift in a letter that “the top of my own ambition is to contribute to that great work and I shall translate Homer by and by”. You can imagine the fun they had in creating their character.
Pope’s Dunciad Variorum, published in 1729, incorporates Scriblerus’ fastidious notes, penned by Pope. And probably the most famous product of the club was Swift’s own Travels of Lemuel Gulliver, the third book of which concerns the visit to Laputa and which betrays the stamp of Scriblerus. Gay’s Beggar’s Opera grew out of a suggestion made by Swift at the club and Henry Fielding’s The Welsh Opera (1731) was presented as a tribute to the Scriblerians and satirised the government. His pen name was Scriblerus Secundus, naturally.
A short-lived club that had a long-lasting influence on English literature.