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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

V. Arbuthnot and Lesser Prose Writers

§ 4. Arbuthnot, the Tory Wits, and The Memoirs of Scriblerus

The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, of which we have only the first book, is a curious collection of satires on the learned; it contains much wit, but a good deal of the satire cannot be understood without considerable knowledge of metaphysics and medicine. The earlier part of the work, which relates to the parentage and bringing-up of Scriblerus, gave many hints to Sterne for his account of Tristram Shandy and his father. Martin was born at Münster, the son of a learned gentleman, Cornelius, by profession an antiquary. When the child was born, his father remembered that the cradle of Hercules was a shield, and, finding an antique buckler, he determined that the child should be laid on it and brought into the study and shown to learned men; but the maid-servant, having regard to her reputation for cleanliness, scoured the shield and, in so doing, showed that a certain prominency, on which the antiquaries had speculated, was nothing but the head of a nail. The nurse was indignant at the father’s views about the proper food for the infant and about its early education. He found an assistant in a boy called Crambe, who had a great store of words and composed a treatise on syllogisms. Martin had the Greek alphabet stamped on his gingerbread, played games after the manner of the ancients and wore a geographical suit of clothes. Afterwards, he became a critic, practised medicine, studied the diseases of the mind, and endeavoured to find out the seat of the soul. Then, he went on his travels, and visited the countries mentioned in Gulliver’s Travels.

The Memoirs of Scriblerus were printed in the second volume of Pope’s prose works (1741), with a note from the booksellers to the reader which stated that the Memoirs, and all the tracts in the same name, were written by Pope and Arbuthnot, “except the Essay on the Origin of Sciences, in which Parnell had some hand, as had Gay in the Memoirs of a Parish Clerk, while the rest were Pope’s.” There cannot, however, be any doubt that the Memoirs are wholly, or almost wholly, by Arbuthnot, though suggestions were probably made by his friends; Pope’s earlier editors admitted that the knowledge of medicine and philosophy displayed marked many of the chapters as the work of “the Doctor.” “To talk of Martin,” wrote Swift to Arbuthnot, “in any hands but yours is folly. For you every day give us better hints than all of us together could do in a twelvemonth.”

The Memoirs abound in wit, and are written with delightful gravity; but some modern readers will find an element of truth in Johnson’s judgment that the absence of more of the Memoirs need not be lamented, for the follies ridiculed were hardly practised: “It has been little read, or when read has been forgotten, as no man could be wiser, better or merrier by remembering it.” Arbuthnot’s work was at its best when (as in John Bull) he was dealing with matters of the world of action. In the Memoirs of Scriblerus, he attacked follies which, for the most part, though not wholly, were obsolete; and, though this criticism applies, also, to some of the matter in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, yet the later humorist dealt with a wider field, which embraced much besides Mr. Shandy’s peculiarities, and he had a love for his characters which makes them live, and prevented him from allowing them to become grotesque.