Barnstaple, in Devonshire, has the honour of producing John Gay, who was born there in 1688, and received his grammatical education in that town. His family and connections were respectable, but reduced; and Gay, as himself says, "Ne'er brighten'd ploughshares in paternal land." In consequence of this want of hereditary riches, he was, at the proper age, apprenticed to a silkmercer in London; but his aspiring genius could not long brook the confinement of a shop; and having obtained a discharge from his master, he became, on what interest is now unknown, secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth, with a suitable salary.
He now found leisure to indulge his taste for study; and the muses having gained his exclusive devotion, he soon produced his poem on Rural Sports, which being dedicated to Pope, procured him the friendship of that distinguished character — a friendship which was only broken by death. On the suggestion of Pope, it is said he wrote the Shepherd's Week, in ridicule of Phillips' pastorals, which Steele had obliquely preferred to those of the bard of Windsor Forest.
His Trivia; or, the Art of Walking the Streets in London, and other works appeared at intervals, which, added to his amiable manners and inoffensive conduct, produced not only fame but affection. Gay, however, never had the good fortune to receive any permanent public employment: he was indeed secretary to the Earl Clarendon on his embassy to Hanover; but this appointment was of short duration, and attended with little emolument.
In 1720 he published his poems by subscription, and it is said cleared £1000 by this speculation. As a dramatic writer, he had experienced various success before this time; and having attracted the notice of the Princess of Wales, he undertook the task of composing Fables for the young Duke of Cumberland, which he executed in such a superior style, as must ever entitle him to the highest praise. In fact, on this work and the Beggar's Opera, his popularity in a great measure rests. The Beggar's Opera, indeed, was perhaps the most successful piece that ever was brought out on the English stage, if we except the School for Scandal: it was acted for sixty-three nights successively; but it is supposed that what he gained in celebrity he lost in good will, by this ingenious though immoral production. The Chamberlain's licence was refused to the second part, under the name of Polly, and this circumstance combining with other disappointments is said to have hastened his end. The latter part of his life, he was warmly patronised by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, who received him into their house; but his spirits were broken, by real or imaginary injuries, and he died December 4, 1732, in the forty-fourth year of his age.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his monument is charged with the well-known epitaph by his friend Pope; we have preserved it in the selections from that poet.
He is allowed, not only by all his biographers, but all his contemporaries, to have been very amiable; "of an affable sweet disposition, generous in his temper, and pleasant in his conversation: universally beloved and esteemed, and his chief fault excessive indolence, without the least knowledge of economy." His friend Pope says, "Gay was a natural man, without design: who spoke what he thought, and just as he thought it." Yet in the Dunciad, observes Anderson, he says, with just indignation, "Gay dies unpension'd with a hundred friends."