Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By John Arbuthnot (1667–1735)

ARBUTHNOT’S place in literature depends as much on his association with the wits of his day as on his own satirical and humorous productions. Many of these have been published in the collections of Swift, Gay, Pope, and others, and cannot be identified. The task of verifying them is rendered more difficult by the fact that his son repudiated a collection claiming to be his ‘Miscellaneous Works,’ published in 1750.

John Arbuthnot was born in the manse near Arbuthnot Castle, Kincardineshire, Scotland, April 29th, 1667. He was the son of a Scotch Episcopal clergyman, who was soon to be dispossessed of his parish by the Presbyterians in the Revolution of 1688. His children, who shared his Jacobite sentiments, were forced to leave Scotland; and John, after finishing his university course at Aberdeen, and taking his medical degree at St. Andrews, went to London and taught mathematics. He soon attracted attention by a keen and satirical ‘Examination of Dr. Woodward’s Account of the Deluge,’ published in 1697. By a fortunate chance he was called to attend the Prince Consort (Prince George of Denmark), and in 1705 was made Physician Extraordinary to Queen Anne. If we may believe Swift, the agreeable Scotchman at once became her favorite attendant. His position at court was strengthened by his friendships with the great Tory statesmen.

Arbuthnot’s best remembered work is ‘The History of John Bull’; not because many people read or will ever read the book itself, but because it fixed a typical name and a typical character ineffaceably in the popular fancy and memory. He is credited with having been the first to use this famous sobriquet for the English nation; he was certainly the first to make it universal, and the first to make that burly, choleric, gross-feeding, hard-drinking, blunt-spoken, rather stupid and decidedly gullible, but honest and straightforward character one of the stock types of the world. The book appeared as four separate pamphlets: the first being entitled ‘Law is a Bottomless Pit, Exemplified in the Case of Lord Strutt, John Bull, Nicholas Frog, and Lewis Baboon, Who Spent All They Had in a Law Suit’; the second, ‘John Bull in His Senses’; the third, ‘John Bull Still in His Senses’; and the fourth, ‘Lewis Baboon Turned Honest, and John Bull Politician.’ Published in 1712, these were at once attributed to Swift. But Pope says, “Dr. Arbuthnot was the sole writer of ‘John Bull’”; and Swift gives us still more conclusive evidence by writing, “I hope you read ‘John Bull.’ It was a Scotch gentleman, a friend of mine, that writ it; but they put it on to me.” In his humorous preface Dr. Arbuthnot says:—

  • “When I was first called to the office of historiographer to John Bull, he expressed himself to this purpose:—‘Sir Humphrey Polesworth, I know you are a plain dealer; it is for that reason I have chosen you for this important trust; speak the truth, and spare not.’ That I might fulfill those, his honorable intentions, I obtained leave to repair to and attend him in his most secret retirements; and I put the journals of all transactions into a strong box to be opened at a fitting occasion, after the manner of the historiographers of some Eastern monarchs…. And now, that posterity may not be ignorant in what age so excellent a history was written (which would otherwise, no doubt, be the subject of its inquiries), I think it proper to inform the learned of future times that it was compiled when Louis XIV. was King of France, and Philip, his grandson, of Spain; when England and Holland, in conjunction with the Emperor and the allies, entered into a war against these two princes, which lasted ten years, under the management of the Duke of Marlborough, and was put to a conclusion by the treaty of Utrecht under the ministry of the Earl of Oxford, in the year 1713.”
  • The characters disguised are: “John Bull,” the English; “Nicholas Frog,” the Dutch; “Lewis Baboon,” the French king; “Lord Strutt,” the late King of Spain; “Philip Baboon,” the Duke of Anjou; “Esquire South,” the King of Spain; “Humphrey Hocus,” the Duke of Marlborough; and “Sir Roger Bold,” the Earl of Oxford. The lawsuit was the War of the Spanish Succession; John Bull’s first wife was the late ministry; and his second wife the Tory ministry. To explain the allegory further, John Bull’s mother was the Church of England; his sister Peg, the Scotch nation; and her lover Jack, Presbyterianism.

    That so witty a work, so strong in typical freehand character-drawing of permanent validity and remembrance, should be unread and its author forgotten except by scholars, is too curious a fact not to have a deep cause in its own character. The cause is not hard to find: it is one of the books which try to turn the world’s current backward, and which the world dislikes as offending its ideals of progress. Stripped of its broad humor, its object, rubbed in with no great delicacy of touch, was to uphold the most extreme and reactionary Toryism of the time, and to jeer at political liberalism from the ground up. Its theoretic loyalty is the non-resistant Jacobitism of the Nonjurors, which it is so hard for us now to distinguish from abject slavishness; though like the principles of the casuists, one must not confound theory with practice. It seems the loyalty of a mujik or a Fiji dressed in cultivated modern clothes, not that of a conceivable cultivated modern community as a whole; but it would be very Philistine to pour wholesale contempt on a creed held by so many large minds and souls. It was of course produced by the experience of what the reverse tenets had brought on,—a long civil war, years of military despotism, and immense social and moral disorganization. In ‘John Bull,’ the fidelity of a subject to a king is made exactly correspondent, both in theory and practice, with the fidelity of a wife to her husband and her marriage vows; and an elaborate parallel is worked out to show that advocating the right of resistance to a bad king is precisely the same, on grounds of either logic or Scripture, as advocating the right of adultery toward a bad husband. This is not even good fooling; and, its local use past and no longer buoyed by personal liking for the author, the book sinks back into the limbo of partisan polemics with many worse ones and perhaps some better ones, dragging its real excellences down with it.

    In 1714 the famous Scriblerus Club was organized, having for its members Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, Gay, Congreve, Lord Oxford, and Bishop Atterbury. They agreed to write a series of papers ridiculing, in the words of Pope, “all the false tastes in learning, under the character of a man of capacity enough, but that had dipped into every art and science, but injudiciously in each.” The chronicle of this club was found in ‘The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus,’ which is thought to have been written entirely by Arbuthnot, and which describes the education of a learned pedant’s son. Its humor may be appreciated by means of the citation given below. The first book of ‘Scriblerus’ appeared six years after Arbuthnot’s death, when it was included in the second volume of Alexander Pope’s works (1741). Pope said that from the ‘Memoirs of Scriblerus’ Swift took his idea of ‘Gulliver’; and the Dean himself writes to Arbuthnot, July 3d, 1714:—

  • “To talk of ‘Martin’ in any hands but Yours is a Folly. You every day give better hints than all of us together could do in a twelvemonth. And to say the truth, Pope, who first thought of the Hint, has no Genius at all to it, in my mind; Gay is too young; Parnell has some ideas of it, but is idle; I could put together, and lard, and strike out well enough, but all that relates to the Sciences must be from you.”
  • Swift’s opinion that Arbuthnot “has more wit than we all have, and his humanity is equal to his wit,” seems to have been the universal dictum; and Pope honored him by publishing a dialogue in the ‘Prologue to the Satires,’ known first as ‘The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,’ which contains many affectionate personal allusions. Aitken says, in his biography:—
  • “Arbuthnot’s attachment to Swift and Pope was of the most intimate nature, and those who knew them best maintained that he was their equal at least in gifts. He understood Swift’s cynicism, and their correspondence shows the unequaled sympathy that existed between the two. Gay, Congreve, Berkeley, Parnell, were among Arbuthnot’s constant friends, and all of them were indebted to him for kindnesses freely rendered. He was on terms of intimacy with Bolingbroke and Oxford, Chesterfield, Peterborough, and Pulteney; and among the ladies with whom he mixed were Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Betty Germain, Mrs. Howard, Lady Masham, and Mrs. Martha Blount. He was, too, the trusted friend and physician of Queen Anne. Most of the eminent men of science of the time, including some who were opposed to him in politics, were in frequent intercourse with him; and it is pleasant to know that at least one of the greatest of the wits who were most closely allied to the Whig party—Addison—had friendly relations with him.”
  • From the letters of Lord Chesterfield we learn that

  • “His imagination was almost inexhaustible, and whatever subject he treated, or was consulted upon, he immediately overflowed with all that it could possibly produce. It was at anybody’s service, for as soon as he was exonerated he did not care what became of it; insomuch that his sons, when young, have frequently made kites of his scattered papers of hints, which would have furnished good matter for folios. Not being in the least jealous of his fame as an author, he would neither take the time nor the trouble of separating the best from the worst; he worked out the whole mine, which afterward, in the hands of skillful refiners, produced a rich vein of ore. As his imagination was always at work, he was frequently absent and inattentive in company, which made him both say and do a thousand inoffensive absurdities; but which, far from being provoking, as they commonly are, supplied new matter for conversation, and occasioned wit both in himself and others.”
  • Speaking to Boswell of the writers of Queen Anne’s time, Dr. Johnson said, “I think Dr. Arbuthnot the first man among them. He was the most universal genius, being an excellent physician, a man of deep learning, and a man of much humor.” He did not, however, think much of the ‘Scriblerus’ papers, and said they were forgotten because “no man would be the wiser, better, or merrier for remembering them”; which is hard measure for the wit and divertingness of some of the travesties. Cowper, reviewing Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Poets,’ declared that “one might search these eight volumes with a candle to find a man, and not find one, unless perhaps Arbuthnot were he.” Thackeray, too, called him “one of the wisest, wittiest, most accomplished, gentlest of mankind.”

    Thus fortunate in his sunny spirit, in his genius for friendship, in his professional eminence, and in his literary capacity, Dr. Arbuthnot saw his life flow smoothly to its close. He died in London on February 27th, 1735, at the age of sixty-eight, still working and playing with youthful ardor, and still surrounded with all the good things of life.