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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

§ 2. His association with Harley and the Court of Queen Anne

When the negotiations for the union of England and Scotland were in progress, in 1706, Arbuthnot assisted in removing the prejudices of his countrymen by publishing at Edinburgh A Sermon preached to the People at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh on the subject of the Union, and, before long, he was in close touch with Robert Harley, who had begun to plot against the duke and duchess of Marlborough. Abigail Hill, Harley’s cousin, became bedchamber-woman and was secretly married, in Arbuthnot’s lodgings in the palace, to Samuel Masham, of prince George’s household. In 1710, Arbuthnot’s position was still further secured both in his profession and at court: he was made a fellow of the college of physicians and was constantly with the queen. The downfall of the whigs followed the impeachment of Dr. Sacheverell, and Peter Wentworth expressed his belief that Arbuthnot was “as much heard as any that give advice now.” In September, Swift came to London from Ireland, and undertook the management of the tory periodical The Examiner; but it is not until the following year that we find references to Arbuthnot in Swift’s Journal to Stella. The acquaintance of Swift and Arbuthnot soon ripened into intimacy, and allusions to meetings between them, practical jokes which they perpetrated, and to the patronage which lay in Arbuthnot’s way, become frequent. Arbuthnot, like Swift, may have had a hand in the attack on the Marlboroughs called The Story of the St. Alb-n’s Ghost; but, however that may be, we know he was responsible for a series of pamphlets published, in 1712, with the object of convincing the public of the desirability of bringing to a close the war with France. The first of these pamphlets, published on 6 March, was called Law is a Bottomless Pit, exemplified in the case of the Lord Strutt, John Bull, Nicholas Frog, and Lewis Baboon, who spent all they had in a Law Suit. Other pamphlets, published between March and July, were called John Bull in his Senses, John Bull still in his Senses, An Appendix to John Bull still in his Senses and Lewis Baboon turned Honest, and John Bull Politician. Afterwards, these pieces were rearranged and printed in Pope and Swift’s Miscellanies of 1727 as The History of John Bull. These pamphlets carried on, in their own way, the work done by Swift in his Conduct of the Allies and The Examiner; but it would appear that Arbuthnot was alone responsible for them. Arbuthnot, Pope told Spence, “was the sole writer of John Bull.”

In October, Arbuthnot published an amusing pamphlet entitled The Art of Political Lying, and he was one of the society of tory statesmen and writers who called each other “brother” and had weekly meetings. At a dinner in April, 1713, George Berkeley, a young Irishman recently come to London, was present; afterwards, he wrote:

  • Dr. Arbuthnot is the first proselyte I have made of the Treatise I came over to print: his wit you have an instance of in the Art of Political Lying, and in the Tracts of John Bull, of which he is the author. He is the Queen’s domestic physician, and in great esteem with the whole Court, a great philosopher, and reckoned the first mathematician of the age, and has the character of uncommon virtue and probity.
  • Pope was introduced to Arbuthnot by Swift, in 1713, and, soon afterwards, we hear of the Scriblerus club, of which Pope, Swift and Arbuthnot, Gay, Parnell, Congreve, Lord Oxford and Atterbury were members. The wits decided to publish the Memoirs of Scriblerus and other pieces intended to ridicule, as Pope says, “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.” The Memoirs of Scriblerus were not published until 1741; but other pieces connected with the scheme were included in the Miscellanies of 1727 and in The Dunciad.

    From time to time, there were serious reports of the queen’s health, and Gay, in his Shepherd’s Week, referred to Arbuthnot as a skilful leech who had saved the queen’s life. There were now serious dissensions in the ministry, Oxford struggling hard against his enemies; but, by July, Bolingbroke’s friends felt sure of triumph. Oxford’s fall came on 27 July, 1714; but the cabinet council which was to have met on the 29th was postponed owing to the illness of the queen. Everything that was possible was done by Arbuthnot and other doctors; but it was clear that she was sinking, and steps were taken to secure the peaceful succession of the elector of Hanover. Fuimus tories, was Arbuthnot’s witty comment on the fall of the party. On the queen’s death, he removed to Chelsea and, soon after, paid a visit to a brother in France. On his return, he took a house in Dover street, which became, as he called it, Martin’s office, where old friends were always welcome.

    An unmerciful attack, in 1715, on Gilbert Burnet, called Notes and Memorandums of the six days preceding the Death of a late Right Reverend …, has been attributed to Arbuthnot; but it has nothing of his characteristic style. Arbuthnot printed, in 1716, The Humble Petition of the Colliers, Cooks, Cook-Maids, … and others, and, in 1717, he had a hand in the play called Three Hours after Marriage, for which, however, Gay was chiefly responsible. He may or may not be the author of a pamphlet called An Account of the sickness and death of Dr. Woodward (1719). Probably, he wrote a piece, printed in 1724, entitled Reasons humbly offered by the Company exercising the trade and mystery of Upholders against part of the Bill for the better viewing, searching and examining of drugs, medicines, etc. Two pieces relating to a wild boy named Peter, who had been brought to England and committed to Arbuthnot’s care, are of doubtful authenticity. They are called It cannot rain but it pours (1725), and The most wonderful wonder that ever appeared to the wonder of the British Nation (1726). Arbuthnot was seriously ill in September, 1725, when Swift wrote, “If the world had but a dozen Arbuthnots I would burn my Travels.” Swift’s visit to London, in 1726, to arrange for the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, enabled him to see his friends, and he was introduced by Arbuthnot to the princess of Wales, shortly afterwards to become queen Caroline. After Swift’s return to Ireland, Arbuthnot, who was very musical, recommended singers for the choir at St. Patrick’s. In the following year, he published Tables of Ancient Coins, Weights and Measures, a larger version of the little book of 1705; and he was named an elect by the college of physicians, and delivered the Harveian oration. He may have contributed to The Craftsman in 1726–8. There is no doubt he contributed to The Variorum Dunciad (1729); but his share cannot be identified. He may be the author of an attack on Bentley called An account of the state of learning in the Empire of Lilliput, and of Critical Remarks on Capt. Gulliver’s Travels, by Doctor Bantley.

    Arbuthnot’s wife died in 1730, and his own health was bad; but Pope told Swift that he was unalterable in friendship and quadrille. In February, 1731, he published A Brief Account of Mr. John Ginglicutt’s Treatise, concerning the Altercation or Scolding of the Ancients, and, later in the year, he printed a valuable medical work called An Essay concerning the nature of Aliments. This was followed, in 1733, by An Essay concerning the effects of Air on Human Bodies, and by a poem called Know Yourself (1734). His friends were now much troubled by his ill-health, which caused him to move to Hampstead for the sake of the air; but recovery was impossible. Pope visited his friend, and we have touching letters between Arbuthnot and Pope and Swift. In January, 1735, Pope published his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, to whom he referred as the friend who had helped him “through this long disease, my life.” Arbuthnot died on 27 February, in Cork street. Swift wrote that the death of “his friends, Gay and the Doctor, had been terrible wounds near his heart.” Afterwards, Lord Chesterfield wrote of him as both his physician and his friend, entirely confided in by him in both capacities. Johnson said of him, “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 humour.” Thackeray called him “one of the wisest, wittiest, most accomplished, gentlest of mankind.”

    A collection entitled Miscellaneous Works of the Late Dr. Arbuthnot, in two volumes, was published at Glasgow in 1750. Arbuthnot’s son, George, inserted an advertisement in the papers, declaring that the contents “are not the works of my late father, Dr. Arbuthnot, but an imposition on the public.” Some of the pieces are certainly not Arbuthnot’s, and others are of doubtful authenticity; but a considerable portion are genuine, and the advertisement must be taken to mean only that the collection was unauthorised and untrustworthy. Fortunately, there is no doubt as to Arbuthnot’s claim to the best of the work attributed to him, and the remainder may very well be neglected.