Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

By John Richardson | Go to book overview
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The Scriblerus Club

Peace preliminaries and Swift (1710-11)

The budding friendships of Swift, Pope and Gay in the years 1710 to 1714 with each other and with Harley culminated in the formation of the Scriblerus Club in 1714. This is a story which has been told before, but not in the context of the Tory ministry’s policy of obtaining the Asiento. 1 Because of that policy it is a story which is peculiarly relevant for this study. The club and its origins are important for us, first, because they mark the organized starting points of friendships that influenced writing. If we look at the writings of Martinus Scriblerus himself, in other words the jointly produced work of the members, ‘the quantity of his output is’, as Conal Condren says, ‘disappointing’. But the club and the events that led to its formation exerted a greater influence than is evident in its modest productions. There is, as Condren goes on to argue and as I have already mentioned, an impressive group of texts closely associated with the club, either through the cooperative work of members or through the common goals and methods that it helped identify. 2 The major works of Swift, Pope and Gay of the 1720s are all, to some extent, Scriblerian. This general observation can also be given a more particular, though very cautious, twist. The later works not only show the influence of the Scriblerus Club but they contain attitudes towards slavery, and the two things may be connected. Cause and effect are impossible to establish here, and I do not want to claim that Swift, for instance, entertained certain attitudes towards slavery in the 1720s because he worked for Harley in the 1710s. Rather, I would like to suggest more tentatively that the Tory ministry years may have exerted some kind of influence over later years.

The emergence of the Scriblerus Club is also important for this study in another way, that is, it provides a concrete context to supplement the rather abstract backgrounds of the previous chapters. The club grew out of the literary and political activity of 1710 to 1714; it grew in the protective shade of the Tory ministry; and all its members had some connection with the peace. The six members were John Arbuthnot, Gay, Harley, Thomas Parnell, Pope and


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