Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
John Arbuthnot (16671735)
[John Arbuthnot, born in 1667, was connected with the family of Lord Arbuthnot, and was the son of the minister of Arbuthnot in Kincardineshire, who was deprived in 1689 on account of adhering to the Episcopalian order. He was educated at the University of Aberdeen, and at University College, Oxford, and took the degree of M. D. at St. Andrews University. He published early in life some scientific treatises, and, settling in London, he first employed himself in teaching mathematics, and afterwards in his profession. In 1705, he was appointed Physician to the Queen, and soon after became one of the brilliant galaxy of wits who were connected with the Court and the Tory PartySwift, Pope, Gay, and Prior being amongst the number. On the death of the Queen and the fall of the Tories he lost his appointment at Court, and became suspected of Jacobite leaningshis family having always adhered to that cause, and one of his brothers having fought at Killiecrankie. The later part of his life was spent in the quiet pursuit of his profession, and in the indulgence of a literary taste, with little thought of literary profit or fame. He died in 1735.]
IN the little circle of wits who made the age of Anne so memorable, Arbuthnot occupied a position absolutely unique. He possessed a scientific knowledge to which none of the others could make any pretence. Whatever disagreements and jealousies might affect the rest, Arbuthnot stood at all times aloof from quarrels, with no thought of himself, able to share their designs and rival their wit, but yet advancing no claim to fame, and content rather to be the helper in the plans of others, to soothe their jealousies, appease their discontent, and compose their anger by the placid influence of his own unfailing humour. It is no small niche that he has attained in the temple of Fame as the friend and adviser of Swift and Popeaddressed by Pope as Friend to my life, and named by Swift as the one man, of whom, had the world contained a dozen, Gullivers Travels would have been burnt. But this is not Arbuthnots only title to a high place in English literature. Swift recognised him as his rival:
Arbuthnot is no more my friend
Who dares to irony pretend,
Which I was born to introduce,
Refined it first, and showed its use.
It was indeed for his personal qualitiesthe strength, as well as the weakness, that endeared him to themthat his friends prized him most. There is a passage in Bede, says Swift, highly commending the piety and learning of the Irish in that age, where, after abundance of praises, he overthrows them all by lamenting that, alas, they kept Easter at a wrong time of the year. So our doctor hath every quality and virtue that can make a man amiable or useful: but alas, he hath a sort of slouch in his walk. But strong as was the affection he inspired, Arbuthnot commanded respect by his own genius. Utterly careless as to the fate of his workallowing much of it to be lost, and suffering many vagrant pages that were unworthy of him to be attributed to his hand, Arbuthnot has yet left enough that is indubitably his, to give him a high place in the literature of humour. His scientific work was sound so far as it went. As a mathematician, Berkeley places him in the first rank. He valued too highly the scientific achievements of his age to overwhelm it all in the indiscriminate satire which Swift poured out upon the Royal Society. The short extract given below from his early work On the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning (1700) shows that he could rightly estimate the place of Sir Isaac Newton. But to this he adds a power of irony and homely wit, and alsowhat is a less entertaining, but perhaps also a rarer giftthat of travestying the arguments of superficial and pedantic philosophy.
The most important humorous works of Arbuthnot are two. The first is Law in a Bottomless Pit: or the History of John Bull, in which he portrays the outbreak and the fortunes of the war with France in the story of John Bull, and his embroilments with his family and his neighbours. It was first published in four separate parts, each with its own title, and afterwards issued as a whole under its better known name. The form of the story often reminds us of the manner in which Swift, in the Tale of a Tub, recounts the adventures of Peter, Martin, and Jack; but while the real value of Swifts satire lies in the digressions, Arbuthnots never goes beyond the beaten track of the story. There is therefore no comparison between the vast range of Swifts satire and the definite and narrow aim which Arbuthnot pursues: but it may be doubted whether, within this smaller range, the episodes are not more dramatic and the individuality of the characters better sustained by Arbuthnot. The next of his achievements in humour is the fragment (for it is little more) entitled The Memoirs of Scriblerus. This was part of a scheme in which Swift, Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot were to have shared, to have ridiculed all the false tastes in learning, under the character of a man of capacity enough, that had dipped into every art and science, but injudiciously in each (Pope). The others, however, failed to do their part. Swift says that Arbuthnot alone was capable of carrying out the plan: and the others felt, perhaps, that they were without the necessary equipment of scientific knowledge. What Arbuthnot has left us is not only by far the best of his work, but shows how high was the range of his humour, which could unite the grave irony of Swift, in the travesty of an elaborate argument, with the dramatic characterisation of Sterne, who in Tristram Shandy has drawn not a little inspiration from the early chapters of Arbuthnots fragment. The book was not published until 1741, six years after Arbuthnots death.
We have also many specimens of Arbuthnots letters. Unlike those of his friend Pope, these were written with no thought of being published, but they remain as admirable models of an epistolary stylefamiliar, playful, and easy, but always with the added interest of a background of warm affection and half humorous melancholy.