JOHN GAY, descended from an ancient but reduced family, was born at or near Barnstaple, in Devonshire, in 1688. After having received his education at the free-School of that city, he was apprenticed to a silk-mercer in London; but his aversion to trade soon led to the cancelling of his indentures, when he devoted himself wholly to literary pursuits. His first performance was a poem, called Rural Sports, which appeared in 1711, dedicated to Pope, who, admiring his talents, and pleased with his manners, about this time formed a friendship with him, which remained uninterrupted throughout their lives. The indolence and improvidence of Gay being likely to involve him in pecuniary embarrassments, he, in 1712, accepted the situation of secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth, under whose roof he found full leisure to pay his court to the muses. In the same year he published a mock-heroic poem, called Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London; and in 1714, his comedy of The Wife of Bath met with failure at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields; as it did also upon a subsequent representation in 1729. In the former year he ably burlesqued Ambrose Phillips' System of Pastoral, in a poem called The Shepherd's Week, which he dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke; by whose influence with the Tory party he was shortly afterwards appointed secretary to the Earl of Clarendon, in his embassy to the court of Hanover.
The death of Queen Anne, however, soon brought him back to England with clouded hopes, which were revived by a most affectionate epistle from Pope. "Whether returned a triumphant Whig or desponding Tory," he writes to Gay, "equally all hail! equally beloved and welcome to me." He concludes with advising him to get into court favour by addressing something to the king, the prince, or the Princess of Wales; the last of whom, the subject of our memoir accordingly took care to compliment in some verses on the occasion of her arrival in England. In 1715, he brought upon the stage his tragi-comical farce of What d'ye Call It, which was received with great applause; though at first, from the ambiguity of the satire, it had the singular effect of exciting tears in one portion of the audience, and laughter in another. He next had a share, with Pope and Arbuthnot, in the production of a farce, called The Three Hours after Marriage, which completely failed. This, added to his disappointment at receiving no substantial favours from any of the persons of distinction who at this time paid him much attention, preyed upon his spirits in such a manner, that, to divert his melancholy, Mr. Pulteney took him with him to France, in 1717; and in the following year he passed some months at Lord Harcourt's seat in Oxfordshire.
In 1720, he published his poems by subscription, which produced him £1,000 and a portion of South Sea stock, the whole of which he lost in that speculation, by refusing to sell in time, according to the advice of all his friends. This disappointment so seriously affected his health, that he was removed to Hampstead in a dangerous state, from which he did not recover until the close of 1722. In 1724, on the completion of his tragedy of The Captives, he had the honour of reading it in manuscript to the Princess of Wales. "When the hour came," says Johnson, "he saw the princess and her ladies all in expectation; and advancing with reverence too great for any other attention, stumbled at a stool, and, falling forwards, threw down a weighty Japan screen. The princess started, the ladies screamed, and poor Gay, after all the disturbance, was still to read his play." The tragedy was approved by the princess; and being encouraged by her to write a set of Fables in verse, for the use of the young Duke of Cumberland, he commenced upon those most celebrated of his performances, and published them in 1726, with a suitable dedication to the young prince. The only reward offered to him for this was the place of gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa, which be rejected in disgust and disdain. His feelings upon this occasion are vividly expressed in a letter to Pope some time afterwards, wherein he says, "Why did I not take your advice, before my writing Fables for the duke, not to write them; or rather to write them for some young nobleman? It is my very hard fate, — I must get nothing, write for them or against them."
In this spirit of mortification he composed The Beggars' Opera, which, after having been refused at Drury Lane, was brought out at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, in November, 1727; and Rich being the name of the manager, it was said that its success had the effect of making Gay rich, and Rich gay. It was soon played all over England; and, during a run of sixty-three nights in London, threw the whole metropolis into a state of excitement. House screens and ladies' fans were filled with its favourite songs; and, besides raising Miss Fenton, the actress who played Polly, previously obscure and unnoticed, to the rank of a duchess, it caused the Italian Opera to be utterly deserted during the season of its performance. This unparalleled success induced the author to follow up the plan of The Beggars, Opera, in a second part, called Polly; but the former piece had so offended the party in power, that this the lord chamberlain refused to license. Gay's disappointment was echoed by the greater part of the town, and with the assistance of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, who retired from court to take him under their protection, he published his Polly by subscription, which produced £1,200, being thrice the sum he had gained by its predecessor. But neither this success, nor the kindness of his friends, had the effect of relieving his melancholy, which being increased by an attack of the colick, at length reduced him to a state from which be, as well as his physician, Dr. Arbuthnot, seems to have considered himself irrecoverable. "I begin," he says, in a letter written about a month before his decease, "to look upon myself as one already dead, and desire my dear Mr. Pope, whom I love as my own soul, if you survive me, as you certainly will, if a stone should mark the place of my grave, see these words put upon it:—
Life is a jest, and all things shew it:
I thought so once, but now I know it.
"If anybody," he adds, "should ask how I could communicate this after death, let it be known, it is not meant so, but my present sentiments in life." He continued to reside with the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry till his last moments, and expired at their house in Burlington Gardens, London, on the 4th of December, 1732. He was buried near Chaucer's tomb, in Westminster Abbey, where a monument was erected to his memory, with the well known epitaph by Pope, commencing—
Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
In wit, a man; simplicity, a child.
The character of Gay is not strongly marked; he appears to have been an indolent and amiable man, with more abilities than ambition; the disappointment of which, however, he had neither the foresight to avoid nor the fortitude to sustain. At the instigation of Pope and others, he sought the smiles of power with an assiduity and patience destructive equally of his happiness and his independence. "Oh that I had never known what a court was!" he exclaims, in one of his letters to Pope. "What a barren soil have I been striving to produce something out of!" His indolence is well described by Swift, who always wrote to him with sincerity, and for whom Gay is said to have had an awful regard, as if he had been his father and preceptor. "You pretend," says the dean, in one of his epistles to the subject of our memoir, "to preach up riding and walking; yet, from my knowledge of you after twenty years, you always joined a violent desire of perpetually shifting places and company, with a rooted laziness, and an utter impatience of fatigue. A coach and six horses is the utmost exercise you can bear, and this only when you can fill it with such company as is best suited to your taste." In addition to the works before-mentioned, he had finished, a short time before his decease, his sonata of Acis and Galatea, and his opera of Achilles; and, about twenty years afterwards, came out a comedy, called The Distressed Wife, and a humorous piece, entitled The Rehearsal at Grantham, of which he was said to be the author. His ballads of Black-eyed Susan, and 'Twas when the Seas were Roaring, are among the most pleasing instances of his poetry; but his fame principally rests on his Fables and Beggars' Opera, which will never cease to be admired. The morality of the latter has been a subject of much controversy; and, in 1773, Sir John Fielding is said to have written to Garrick, remonstrating with him on the impropriety of acting The Beggars' Opera; as it was never represented on the stage without creating an additional number of thieves. Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a sermon against it; whilst in the opinion of Dean Swift, "it hath, by a turn of humour entirely new, placed vices of all kinds in the strongest and most odious light, and thereby done eminent service both to religion and morality." It is, however, probable, that whilst it exposes and satirizes many follies, it has neither promoted virtue nor increased vice, but maintains its reputation on account of its being the first and best ballad opera produced on the English stage, and because the most beautiful of our old melodies are enshrined in it.