Or, Anus Obvious Jokus. Waitus. Anus?
They didn't have television in the 18th Century. They didn't have video games, radio, or even frisbee, and though cricket was just coming into its own, it was still every bit as boring as it is today. So when your basic Englishman wasn't fretting about a war with Scotland or inquiring about a mercurial defense against the French, he was forced to find alternate means of entertainment.
Often enough, then, he had to resort to reading, and as our most excellent Mr. Scriblerus once noted, "paper also became so cheap, and Printers so numerous, that a deluge of authors covered the land: Whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause, yea of his money, by such as would neither earn the one, nor deserve the other." So how on earth was a poor, bored Londoner to know what to read?
He should, according to a select group of elitist authors, playwrights, and poets, defer to the authority and taste of a select group of elitist authors, playwrights, and poets. Happily early 18th Century London was not in short supply of such figures, and one such group took their club name from a fictional character they created to instruct the dizzy masses by antithetical example. The best and brightest the city, court, and coffeehouse had to offer conceived of Martinus Scriblerus as the satirized paragon of faulty modern scholarship and misguided taste, and by 1743 he had more work credited to his name than I ever will--unless of course a group of literary geniuses chooses to satirize me.
The Usual Suspects
What sort of mental deficients would spend all of their free time publishing reams of material under the auspices of a fictional identity? Some of your old favorites, provided you're the sort who spends a lot of time indoors desmudging your glasses. The Scriblerus Club, or Scriblerians, as they variously called themselves, enjoyed a brief collaboration in the 1720s, and the following were the most key of its members:
- Alexander Pope: Wiseacre, hunchback, had the hots for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who apparently burst out laughing when he brought it up. Understandably bitter. Works include The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock, Essay on Criticism.
- Jonathan Swift: Tory (most of the time), Irishman. Understandably bitter. Works include Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, Tale of a Tub.
- John Gay: Playwright, depressive, poor for most of his life. Understandably bitter. Works include The Beggar's Opera and Polly.
- John Arbuthnot: Physician to Queen Anne, satirist, mathematician, Fellow of the Royal Society. Incomprehensibly bitter. Works include nothing you'd know.
Various others of lesser stature in all senses but one also participated in the club, but history has generally remanded them to oblivion.
The Life and Times of a Hoax
The group got together around the idea of writing the mock biography of M. Scriblerus, who they imagined as the worst sort of modern dilettante. Intellectuals at the time were divided (if one can make such broad strokes in speaking historically) into two camps, ostensibly the Ancients and the Moderns, and the squabbles they joined in across tracts, essays, appendices, newspapers and journals made for some very interesting reading amongst very boring people. The Scriblerians fancied themselves Ancients, Men of Taste; they were erudite, discerning, refined, and classically trained. The Moderns, on the other hand, instead of relying on long-bred or natural sensibilities to glean the essentials from life and literature, resorted to obscure references, emphasis on technicalities, and what today would more or less be referred to as actual scholarship for their critical methodology. The group created Scriblerus as a card-carrying Modern, and would have doubtlessly given him a riotously satirical fictional life had they been able to concentrate or stand each other long enough. As it happened, they lost interest in the project, and given the subject matter, honestly, how could you blame them.
But they did not abandon the man entirely. Pope took it upon himself to collect and edit those materials they did manage to generate into Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, which he published in 1741, years after the group stopped meeting. But by then the figure had already enjoyed a twenty-year long career.
In 1728 Pope and Arbuthnot put together a satirical guide to bad writing in Scriblerus' name, entitled Peri Bathous: or, Martinus Scriblerus, His Treatise on the Art of Sinking in Poetry. An enjoyable snippet from that work: "Ye Gods! annihilate but space and time, / And make two lovers happy." One can debate the line's poetic merit, but the sentiment is spot on.
I am most familar with Scriblerus' work as the fictional editor of Pope's 1729 Dunciad Variorum, the second version of The Dunciad which was first published anonymously in 1728. The Variorum comes with an outlandish amount of supplementary material, most of which was composed by the Scriblerians and attributed to anyone but. In it, Martinus Scriblerus is by turns cantankerous, clearheaded, insightful, obtuse, contrary and conciliatory. His notes reflect several authorial voices and motivations; his Latin and Greek are excellent if too frequently misused, his references extensive if too frequently misapplied, and his defense of Pope as an author loyal if too frequently suspect. The first note to the poem he offers is an argument on the spelling of "Dunciad," and it rather gives one the sense that he might be wasting one's time.
Not Fooling Anyone
Of course the identity of Martinus Scriblerus was an open secret amongst those who bothered to get involved with him. Designed by committee and driven by the compulsion to satirize, Scriblerus was a very fine coterie effort, and his voice, variously Swift's, Pope's, Gay's, and so on, colors some of the greatest literary works of his age.
We have in Martinus Scriblerus a very well educated, highly verbose, tremendously pompous pedant of little taste and dubious integrity. He knows just enough about a quite a bit, peppers his discourse with classical references just to show off, rubs elbows with the truly talented but produces very little original material.
Remind you of anyone you know?