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The Role of Alexander Pope

Pope's role was the most problematic, if only because he remained the club's most loyal member--the glue cementing them--and he was their only Catholic who kept his ties with the Protestant Whig wits, Addison and Steele, a stance placing him in an ambiguous, middle political position.

Moreover, his relation to his protégé John Gay was deeply homoerotic. Three years older than Pope, Gay was confused about his professional and personal course and revered Pope as an ultimate authority. To reciprocate, Pope submitted the drafts of his poems to Gay for commentary.

The symmetry of Swift and Parnell, Pope and Gay, parallel groups of leaders and disciples, was unavoidable and noted by the Scriblerians themselves in their prolific letters.

Arbuthnot and Oxford were less patterned, but there was genial irony in Pope's affection for Arbuthnot who, though old enough to be Pope's father, deferred to him on all literary matters.

The disparity of the members was also preeminent: Swift's isolation from the London literary world contrasted with Pope's meteoric rise there, and whereas Parnell was gloomy, Gay was sunny. Within these differences, the abundant Scriblerian correspondences confirm that Swift was vigorous in winning over Pope: to extract him from the Whig wits and permanently remove him from the camp of Addison and Steele.

A "Pope-Addison-Steele triumvirate," with a Whig rather than Tory Pope at its center, was too painful for Swift to contemplate. To complicate matters, Pope had yet to learn that intimacy with Swift inevitably elicited enmity from the rival Addisonians.

Meetings of the Club

Swift insisted the club remain small so that it could meet frequently and in modest accommodations, Harley being the only member of means, the one figure from another social class who exuded prestige. When Harley attended, the fare was grand; otherwise, modest in menu and drink.

Any public venue, such as an inn or coffeehouse, was unacceptable given the group's secret political agenda. Secrecy was doubly necessary when Harley attended in view of his post as England's Lord Treasurer, despite the club's urge to publicize his glamour and prestige. When the Court was in London, the club often met in Arbuthnot's room in St. James's Palace to accommodate him if the Queen summoned; on other occasions, in the various member's lodgings, taking turns and always without the presence of women.

Gatherings included walking parties as well as nocturnal excursions to country estates, suggesting the degree to which their intimacy extended beyond the familiar, although there is no extant evidence whatever of overt homosexual (genital) activity.

The Club's Agenda

The group shared an agenda: collaboration on a massive prose Works of the Learned exposing corruption in art and learning. This took the form of highly allusive prose "Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus," named for a fictional post-Lutherian Germanic family from Munster, whose pedantic hero-son "Martinus" epitomized all they despised.

Begun in 1714, the work took fifteen years to publish (1729), but the original club of six survived only a few months, from the autumn of 1713 to the summer of 1714, its members suffering ill fortune and rocked by the death of Queen Anne in August 1714.

The Breakup of the Original Club

Gay, Arbuthnot, and Harley all lost their posts at Court; broken and bitter over his treatment by the Whigs, Swift retired to Ireland, as did Parnell, though for different reasons. Only Pope remained dedicated to "Scriblerus"; as a Catholic without rights at Court, he was unaffected by the Queen's death and the Tory party's demise.

But the nation's political shift to Whig supremacy meant the club could not continue as it had; if it did, it would have to go even further underground. Only the intimate friendship of Gay, Pope, and Arbuthnot kept its Scriblerian spirit alive despite Parnell's sudden death in 1717 and Harley's in 1724. Even so, by the mid-1720s, it was clear that the original club had unraveled.

The Revival of the Club

It was Swift's remarkable visit to England in 1726, after an eleven-year absence, together with the collaborative literary projects of the three surviving members, that revived the group. Even if Swift generously encouraged their literary projects (for example, Pope's Dunciad [1728] and Gay's Beggar's Opera), both his visits had unfortunate consequences, especially his cooling off with Pope in a sequence of events that remains nebulous.

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