Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus


ISBN: 1843910012 / Pub Date: July 2002 / Pages: 112 / Price £6.99 / Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Laura Steele


Martin Scriblerus' best known work is perhaps his Peri bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry. The Scriblerus Club, established in 1714 by Pope and Swift, met in the rooms of John Arbuthnot, author and physician to Queen Anne; Pope and Arbuthnot together furnished Martin with his memoirs, published here by Hesperus with a short foreword by Peter Ackroyd.

As an introduction, the editor relates how he met an old, decayed, harried but venerable Scriblerus hiding around the outside of St James's, having lately been pursued across Europe by an angry Spaniard who had misinterpreted the philosopher's interest in a marking on his wife's inner right thigh.

Then the memoirs begin with the beginning of Scriblerus proper, and it seems that from the first, Martin was destined to be a very great scholar, for Mrs Scriblerus, on the night of his birth, "dreamed she was brought to bed of a huge inkhorn, out of which issued several large streams of ink, as it had been a fountain." With a precocity latterly reminiscent of the much celebrated education of John Stuart Mill, young Martin advanced speedily through the learned languages: observing his son's love of gingerbread, Cornelius Scriblerus caused it to be stamped with the letters of the Greek alphabet, "and the child the very first day ate as far as iota." The early life and numerous academic achievements of our subject are profiled in short chapters. Later, his travels are summarised (they are three of Gulliver's adventures), and his romantic tryst with conjoined twin-beauties, Lindamira and Indamora, is burlesqued.

There are also sundry other documents, such as his father's instructions to Martin's playmates, 'A dissertation upon playthings':

To speak first of the whistle, as it is the first of all playthings; I will have it exactly to correspond with the ancient fistula, and accordingly to be composed septem paribus disjuncta cicutis.

I heartily wish a diligent search may be made after the true crepitaculum or rattle of the ancients, for that (as Archytas Tarentinus was of opinion) kept the children from breaking earthenware. The china cups in these days are not at all the safer for the modern rattles; which is an evident proof how far their crepitacula exceeded ours.

With no small measure of despair, one finds that many of the intellectual pieties of the twentieth century are already parodied here, only now their study has grown to industrial proportions: Martin's fellow pupil is Conradus Crambe, who was usually "contented with the words, and when he could but form some conceit upon them, was fully satisfied."

Thus Crambe would tell his instructor that all men were not singular, that individuality could hardly be predicated of any man, for it was commonly said that a man is not the same as he was, that madmen are beside themselves, and drunken men come to themselves; which shows that few men have that most valuable logical endowment, individuality.

Cornelius told Martin that a shoulder of mutton was an individual, which Crambe denied, for he had seen it cut into commons.

This is the kind of moral spirit of contempt Wyndham Lewis poured all over the place – so irresistible, whether one is sympathetic to the attack, the target, or both. Scriblerus and Crambe are also engaged with metaphysical questions such as "whether besides the real being of actual being there be any other being necessary to cause a thing to be?"

Scriblerus is ductile, pliant, he takes up the opinion of the last thing he reads and thus never loses an argument, "from which quality he acquired the title of the invincible doctor." We know that Scriblerus' works were usually published under other names – his poetry in particular - and his work continues to be done, as with Jesus, for he communicates "not only during his stay among us, but ever since his absence." Perhaps Scriblerus is born again in every generation, whenever the inseminating wind with its animalcula blows in the right direction, as Aristotle relates. In more recent times, he probably writes online book reviews...

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