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The Learned and Candid Friend

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

Oh that Max Beerbohm had seen them! For, had he lived at the time of Queen Anne, there can be little doubt that he would have “done” the wits of the period in the manner of his delightful sketches, “Rossetti and His Circle.” “A sitting upon Scriblerus” would have been a temptation to an eighteenth century Beerbohm —and the frowning Swift, the wasp-like Gay, and the others varied as they were in talent and in personality, would have lent themselves to a nice fulfillment of the project.

In this Beerbohmesque version of the Queen Anne wits, a place of prominence would undoubtedly have been given to a man who is at present lost in the shadow of his two great associates. Between Swift and Pope stands The Doctor-little thought of today, in the eighteenth century he too had a place in the sun.

Dr. John Anbuthnot was indeed the mentor of the whole circle. Whatever the differences of politics, of ethics, or of personality that arose within that intimate assembly, all-Pope, Swift, Parnell, Gay, Lord Oxford, Bishop Atter-bury, and other less prominent men—were agreed upon one point—the intrinsic excellence of The Doctor. And why? Not because he was more clever than they, for he wasn’t. He hadn’t Swift’s imagination, Pope’s eloquence, nor even the talent of Gay; Dr. Anbuthnot’s signal claim to universal consideration and regard was his peculiar facility in seeming to accept every friend as his equal. He constituted “as it were another self to whom to tell our most secret thoughts.” He aided his friends in trouble, abetted them in their enthusiasms, but never patronized them. Pope, whose pen was always facile but seldom kind, confessed to Arbuthnot himself, “though you are as fit as any man to die, I can think of no man fitter to live, or more wanted by those who are in this world both as a comfort and as an example to them.”

Though doubtless deserving this tribute, The Doctor stood at the very center of the initiate of London society not more by virtue of his temperament and of his talent than by dint of circumstance. Mathematics at Aberdeen, the classics at Oxford, and medicine at St. Andrews all went toward his combined and varied experience—his was an adequate and even an excellent education. He received his M. D. in 1696, and in the traditional way, of young men then looked out upon the world as his oyster. It would be presumptuous to speak of John Anbuthnot as having the proverbial golden spoon in his mouth, but surely it is permissible to call him “fortunate.” Certainly it was a felicitous combination of his education, his personal charm, and a happy accident that in true fairy-story, fashion made of Arbuthnot, the young physician, the Doctor of his eighteenth century London.

What but fortuitous chance took him to Epsom at the moment of Prince George’s sudden illness? It was Anbuth-not’s skill that won him the royal patient’s esteem as a doctor at the same time that his delightful human qualities won him the Prince for a friend. Suddenly, Dr. Anbuthnot, who had few if any connections in London, found himself, as if by magic, in pleasant circumstances at court. Prominent patients flocked to him, even Queen Anne herself made him her Physician Extraordinary. Those who knew Dr. Arbuthnot at this time found him good looking, quite stout, for like many people of his time he was something of a gourmet, suave but not unctuous, and above all else interested in the minutia? of personality and of humanity. He had not yet come to be a positive influence in the affairs of state, for the antagonistic Duke of Marlborough, a Whig, was still in power; but through an ever warmer friendship with Robert Harley and Mrs. Hill, the Tory doctor was, as it were, in the direct line of succession. Lest his position be the anomalous one of “hanger-on,” he cleverly made himself indispensable to the Queen. It was in Arbuthnot’s own snite in the palace and in the presence of the Queen, that Mrs. Hill secretly married Samuel Masham. Perhaps it was upon learning that it was Arbuthnot who was acting for Her Majesty in the Gregg scandal that Peter Went-worth wrote, “Dr. Arbuthnot is a very cunning man, and not much talked of, but I believe that what he says is as much heard as any that gives advice.” Arbuthnot certainly had many irons in the fire, irons that were to glow more brightly as time went on.

When in 1710 the flagrant Sacheverell scandal took London by the ears, the net result was the fall of Marlborough’s Whig ministry and the elevation of Robert Harley to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the virtual Prime Minister of England. Harley was not alone in his new glory; the Tories were in full control; Arbuthnot was Har-ley’s confidential mediator in affairs of state and intrigue. Though there is little or no historical record of Anbuthnot’s important, if unofficial, share in the government of England, in the letters of the period there is strong testimony. Everyone of rank in social and political life took for granted Anbuthnot’s status of pseudo-minister without portfolio. He was at one time “the Queen’s domestic physician, and in great esteem with the whole court, a great philosopher, and reckoned the first mathematician of his age, with a character of uncommon virtue and probity.” He kept abreast of his medical interests, fulfilled his multiple social duties, and served in his political position of a benevolent Rasputin.

Not content, however, with this gargantuan task, he sought out the literary world. Here he met the men of letters whose work he was to share, with whom he was to be most congenial, and to whom he gave unremittingly of himself. He was readily, welcomed into that assembly of notables, convoked as it was by expediency and by compatibility, where friendship was certainly, the traditional “sweetener of life and solder of society.” Here in fraternal companionship with his peers, Arbuthnot proved himself to be truly The Doctor, to whom Pope dedicated his classic epistle and for whom he coined the happy phrase, “the learned and candid friend.”

The literary-political fellowship in which Dr. Arbuthnot found a place was a phenomenon of eighteenth century society that is quite unparalleled today, A pallid counterpart may exist in the modern guild of columnists and critics, but the F. P. A.’s, the Heywood Broun.’, and the Frank Sullivans of our time have at best only an ephemeral part in our national existence. They and their fellow henchmen of our organized press are quite incompatible with the spirit of sympathy and cooperation that existed between the eighteenth century prototype and the contemporary government. When speech was free and the newspaper still unknown, the pamphleteers are said to have constituted an estate of the English nation. At times they were more influential than the ministers whose accredited amanuenses they. were. Presumably the pamphlets mirrored the opinion of the government; yet instead of the simple, “I, Tertius, wrote this letter,” which is naively interpolated in an epistle which St. Paul once dictated to his scribe, there is in many an eighteenth century pamphlet an amazing and very revealing admixture of the writer’s opinion and personality with the original government prescription. Sometimes indeed this went too far; then the parliament “locked the pens of the pamphleteers.” Dr. Arbuthnot speaking for his colleagues then said, “Oh, Grub Street. Thou fruitful nursery of towering genius. How do I lament thv downfall! Thy ruin could never be meditated by any one who had meant well to English liberty.”

Arbuthnot was already one of the governors of the unchartered “University of Grub Street” when Jonathan Swift came knocking at its doors. Swift came to London on church business. He had reason to look to the Whigs, but the ready cordiality of the Tory leaders soon won him to their camp. Not long after his arrival, Swift was editing the Tory organ, the Examiner, and found himself an integral and valued member of a stimulating fraternity. The Doctor particularly welcomed the newcomer. Arbuthnot, in common with the others, found much in Swift congenial, but he outdid them in having a complete understanding of the Dean. Putting their heads together, these two, probably each first attracted by the sense of humor of the other, perpetrated the famous hoax of “The History of The Maids of Honor Since Harry, the Eighth.” They never set it down on paper, but contented themselves with circulating the rumor that here they had the proof that Maids of Honor had always made the best wives in the kingdom. The story spread like wildfire, and Swift wrote to Stella, “if they (the Maids of Honor) bite at it, it will be a good court jest— and the Queen will certainly have it.” “They” did bite avidly, and Swift and Arbuthnot got what they were after, minutes of schoolboy delight at their prank. The Doctor, who is said to have “loved mischief more than any good-natured man in England,” cleverly had the best of it; for as Swift said in telling of the jest, “that rogue Arbuthnot puts it all up on me.”

From such initial trivia as this Swift and Arbuthnot turned to more serious considerations, and came to a deep understanding of each other. Swift, an unusual experience for the cynical Dean, had an especial tenderness for Arbuthnot to whom he writes profoundly:

“But you are a philosopher and a physician, and can overcome by your wisdom and your faculty those weaknesses which other men are forced to reduce by not thinking of them. Adieu, and love me half as much as I do you.” It is difficult to understand at first how even the tactful, jesting, and withal wise, Doctor managed so completely to chasten Swift’s misanthropy. A careful study of the two men shows that it was because Arbuthnot was innately a perfectly balanced Swift. Arbuthnot was able to understand Swift because he too had cynicism in his heart. Both men were distressed and disgusted at the open folly and vice about them: Swift let his pain burn like an acid into his very soul, while Arbuthnot soothed his with quiet and apathetic irony. The Doctor, speaking of this very phase of his character, in a letter to Pope says that it is his habit, “calmly and philosophically to consider that treasure of vileness and baseness, that I always believed to be in the heart of man; and to behold them exert their insolence and baseness; every new instance instead of surprising and grieving me, as it does some of my friends, really diverts me, and in a manner improves my theory.” Swift was never diverted—the word is descriptive of too quiescent a reaction—for his feelings were almost self-annihilating in their severity; he looked at the world and then wrote “Gulliver’s Travels.” Arbuthnot, with a motive very similar to Swift’s, wrote “The History of John Bull”; in both books the purpose is satire, but the tone is very different; both are ironic it is true, but “The Travels” are bitter to heart-break, while “The History” is affability itself.

This especial and profound intimacy, of spirit bound the two men closely for many years—their letters are frank testimony to real sentiment and a complete intellectual compatibility—but this friendship with the great Dean did not isolate The Doctor. In general he continued active in society, and especially in those few phases of it that most interested him. Chief among these were The Brother’s Club and the mystery of Martin Scriblerus, “that learned phantom who is to be immortal.”

The Club was an unofficial fraternity of the Tory leaders. They, met at dinner once every week on “Society Day” to talk over the affairs of their common interest. The gathering was at the favorite coffee-house of the President for the week, at whose expense they dined. Swift, who sometimes complained of this expense, wrote to Stella after such an evening’s conviviality:

“Dr. Arbuthnot was President. His dinner was dressed in the Queen’s kitchens and was mighty fine. We ate it at Ozinda’s Coffee-house just by St. James’s. We were never merrier, nor better company, and did not part till after eleven—I met Lord Treasurer at Lady Masham’s. He would fain have carried me home for dinner. No, No, What! Upon a Society Day!”

Perhaps on that very evening Swift, Gay, Oxford, and some others, gathered over their port, may have discussed “Law is a Bottomless Pit” with its author, Dr. Arbuthnot. Certainly they were delighted with this first representation of England as John Bull, “in the main an honest plain fellow, choleric, bold, and of very inconsistent temper—very, apt to quarrel with his best friends, especially if they pretend to govern him—but withal generous and prone to fair dealing with everyone.” To these men thoroughly familiar as they were with The War of the Spanish Succession, the chief circumstance of the piece, it seemed a nicely constructed bit of work, full of humor, with the added charm of racy satire. And Holland, France, and England masquerading as Nicholas Frog, Lewis Baboon, and John Bull are still today creatures of vigor; they are bombastic, they quarrel, they are jingo-patriots, they compromise with a great show of reasonableness—all in the manner of men. Anbuthnot has used English of such clarity and strength that his figures of allegory, so often mere shams and hollow types, are become charming animated puppets with the illusion of life that hangs over a troupe of Tony Sarg’s marionettes. They act in an atmosphere of verisimilitude instead of in the usual vacuum of allegory. His contemporaries rated Anbuthnot’s humor higher than their own for “one needs oniy to follow his hints to be in an eternal business of mind,” or as Swift put it, “he has more wit than we all have, and more humanity than wit.” Arbuthnot gave free rein to his wit in “The History” and by bits of clever conversation, the ridicule of circumstance, and sublime buffoonery achieved an artistic triumph.

The pamphlet was a great success, and was followed by others in the same vein. There has been a great deal of discussion as to the possible share Swift and the others of the group had in the writing of these satires. Granting that many influential suggestions came to The Doctor from his friends, evidences of style and of content seem to proclaim Arbuthnot to be the real author. This uncertainty arose in part from Arbuthnot’s own diffidence in the matter; he did not care whether or not his work was finally attributed to him. Hp in no sense attempted to avoid responsibility, but he had not the slightest formal literary ambition. He was careless of his own fame, though ever zealous for that of his colleagues. Because of his lively interest in the work of others, Anbuthnot had an almost incalculable influence in the famous Scriblerus Club that began to meet in London in 1714. Indeed “The Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus” were mostly of his writing, but characteristically he did not lay claim to them: they were not regularly published until after his death, and then in a volume of Pope’s prose works.

The Scriblerus Club was really a special phase of The Brothers—with the avowed purpose to “ridicule all the false tastes in learning.” Their organ, a biography “of a man of capacity enough, that had dipped into every art and science, but injudiciously in each,” was to be a magnum opus of ridicule. Linked with “The Memoirs” are Pope’s “Dunciad” and Swift’s Gulliver,” for they seem to have had their first conception in the sanctuary of the Scriblerus Club. Arbuthnot certainly assisted in the planning of both books—his estimate of the world tallied with Swift’s, and The Doctor agreed with Pope about the number of dunces on the earth.

This feeling that “all are strange save thee and me” did not arise from overweening conceit as it would to-day, but rather from the archaic conception of intellectual society which the eighteenth century entertained. The Frenchman, who at this time talked glibly of “Liberty” and “the sovereignty of the people,” never for one mad moment considered universal suffrage. While Pope’s “Dunciad” is in large part the vehicle of personal spite, the fundamental of the poem was the conviction that he and his, the initiate, were an all but closed circle who were isolated upon the balcony of talent and could so survey the world—for as he wrote Anbuthnot, “mankind will be playing the fool in all weathers.” Whatever may be the modern reaction to this point of view, the upper strata of eighteenth century, society maintained it unconsciously and consistently. It was this state of blissful ignorance that made the Scriblerus Club possible—the members felt certain that real wit and true humor rested by some inalienable and almost divine right among themselves, for, as The Doctor put it, “mankind has an inexhaustible source of invention in the way of folly and of madness.”

When this coterie “sat upon Scriblerus,” contributions came from everyone—a notion from Gay, an epigram from Pope, while Swift offered many a savory burlesque, with Dr. Anbuthnot weaving the whole into the final fabric of mock gravity. Here was The Doctor acting typically, as the mentor of the circle, settling disputes as they arose, selecting contributions as they were spontaneously submitted, arranging, and rearranging as he saw fit, and making from time to time his own inimitable additions. Swift in a letter to The Doctor epitomized the situation; “to talk of Martin in any other hands but yours is a folly. You every day give better hints than all of us could do in a twelve-month, and to say the truth, Pope, who first thought of the hint, has no genius for it in my, mind. Gay is too young, Parnell has some idea of it, but is idle.”

“The Memoirs” contain the quintessence of the Club’s qnips on the things that entertained them and roused their indignation. They are superb satire, though less perfectly wrought than one would wish. They are too confused and too vertically piled up to have the lucidity of “The History of John Bull.”

“The Memoirs” are, as it were, the monument to Scriblerus. Like most memorials they fail to do the person justice. Martin was in truth the very personification of the intimacy and the comradeship of his sponsors—all were clever men and a few were great. With the final disbanding of the Club at the death of Queen Anne, “Scriblerus did not die, but kept his office at The Doctor’s new house on Dover Street.” Parnell and Pope remembering the days gone by wrote to Arbuthnot:

“Then it was that the immortal Scriblerus smil’d upon our endeavors, who now hangs his head in an obscure corner, pining for his friends that are scattered over the face of the world. Yet, art thou, if thou art alive, 0, Scriblerus, as deserving of our lucubrations, tua secta orbis nomina ducit, still shall half the learned world be called after thy, name.” Arbuthnot answered his friends in the same spirit:

“I am extremely obliged to you for taking notice of a poor, aged, distressed courtier, commonly the most despicable thing in the world. This blow has so roused Scriblerus that he has recovered his senses and thinks and talks like any man—Martin’s office is now the second door on the left hand of Dover Street—where he will be glad to see Dr. Parnell, Mr. Pope, and his old friends to whom he can still afford a half pint of claret. It is with pleasure that he contemplates the world still busy, and all mankind at work for him.”

Such was the flavor of the association, marked as it was with the magic power to make the playing with makebelieve more than a mere shadow. Sincerity and affection went into the making of the phantom Scriblerus, and as “The Memoirs” show his “haunt” was a powerful influence upon his sponsors. Martin, as Pope and Parnell spoke of him, is their effort to personify that magical, intangible gift which Dr. Arbuthnot gave to his friends.

Such was the share of the man whom Thackeray called “one of the wisest, most accomplished, gentlest of mankind,” in the congeniality that was his own special circle. He was zealous of the successes of his friends, he was unmindful of his own—for himself he wanted only the fun of doing the thing. Arbuthnot possessed the singular virtue of self-abnegation. In a period of controversy„ he quarrelled with no man; when attention was courted, by flagrant disregard of the conventions, he lived in obscure domesticity with a wife whose maiden name is not even known; in an age of libelling and slander, no breath of scandal touched The Doctor. The Earl of Chesterfield put Anbuthnot’s name in his volume of “Characters”; Swift included him in that quaint list of “My Distinguished Friends”; Lady Mary Wortley Montague looked to him for aid in her notorious quarrel with Alexander Pope—and beautifully paid her tribute to her friend:

“I give you sincere and hearty thanks for your intelligence and the obliging manner of it. I have ever valued you as a gentleman of sense and merit—I am not more insensible of his (Pope’s) injustice, than I am, sir, of your candour, generosity and good sense.”

Swift called The Doctor, “a perfectly honest man.” Pope, whose friendships were at best precarious, wrote to Anbuthnot, “in a friendship of twenty years, I have found no one reason of complaint from you.”

The oniy words of adverse criticism of The Doctor seem to be those of his friend Swift, who tenderly rebukes him as being “a man of too many acquaintance,” but as perfect as any. man “save for a slouch in his walk.” The Dean, however, more than repairs this damage to The Doctor’s reputation by his supreme eulogy. Seldom has one man so consummately given the essence of another’s worth, afforded so loyal and sincere a homage, or so successfully “raised a mortal to the skies” as did Swift when he said, “If there were a dozen Anbuthnots, I would burn Gulliver’s Travels.”


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