This eminent Wit was descended of an ancient family in Devonshire, and educated at the free-school of Barnstaple in the same county, order the care of Mr. William Rayner, an excellent master.
Mr. Gay had a small fortune at his disposal, and was bred, lays Jacob, a Mercer in the Strand; but having a genius for high excellences, he considered such an employment as a degradation to it, and relinquished that occupation to reap the laurels of poetry.
About the year 1712 he was made secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, and continued in that station 'till he went over to Hanover, in the beginning of the year 1714, with the earl of Clarendon, who was sent there by Queen Anne; upon whose death he returned to England, and lived in the highest esteem and friendship with persons of the first quality and genius. Upon Mr. Gay's arrival from Hanover, we find among Mr. Pope's letters one addressed to him dated September 23, 1714, which begins thus,
Welcome to your native soil! welcome to your friends, thrice welcome to me! whether returned in glory, blessed with court-interest, the love and familiarity of the great, and filled with agreeable hopes; or melancholy with dejection, contemplative of the changes of fortune, and doubtful for the future. Whether returned a triumphant Whig, or a desponding Tory, equally all hail! equally beloved and welcome to me! If happy, I am to share in your elevation; if unhappy, you have still a warm corner in my heart, and a retreat at Binfield in the word of times at your service. If you are a Tory, or thought so by any man, I know it can proceed from nothing but your gratitude to a few people, who endeavoured to serve you, and whole politics were never your concern. If you are a Whig, as I rather hope, and as I think your principles and mine, as brother peers, had ever a bias to the side of liberty, I know you will be an honest man, and an inoffensive one. Upon the whole, I know you are incapable of being so much on either side, as to be good for nothing. Therefore, once more, whatever you are, or in whatever date you are, all hail!"
In 1724 his tragedy entitled the Captives, which he had the honour to read in MS. to Queen Caroline, then Princess of Wales, was acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane.
In 1726 he published his Fables, dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland, and the year following he was offered the place of gentleman usher to one of the youngest Princesses, which, by reason of some slight shewn him at court, he thought proper to refuse. He wrote several works of humour with great success, particularly The Shepherd's Week, Trivia, The What d'ye Call It, and The Beggars Opera, which was acted at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields 1728.
The author of the Notes on this line of the Dunciad, b. iii. l. 326. "Gay dies unpensioned with a hundred friends;" observes that this opera was a piece of satire, which hits all tastes and degrees of men, from those of the highest quality to the very rabble. That verse of Horace "Primores populi arripuit populumque tributim," could never be so justly applied as in this case. The vast success of it was unprecedented, and almost incredible. What is related of the wonderful effects of the ancient music, or tragedy, hardly came up to it. Sophocles and Euripides were less followed and famous; it was acted in London sixty three days uninterrupted, and renewed the next season with equal applause. It spread into all the great towns of England, was played in many places to the thirtieth and fortieth time; at Bath and Bristol fifty. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days together. It was lastly acted in Minorca. The fame of it was not confined to the author only; the ladies carried about with them the favourite songs of it in fans and houses were furnished with it in screens. The girl who acted Polly, 'till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town, her pictures were engraved, and sold in great numbers; her life written; books of letters and verses to her published; and pamphlets made even of her sayings and jests. Furthermore, it drove out of England, for that season, the Italian Opera, which had carried all before it for ten years; that idol of the nobility and the people, which Mr. Dennis by the labours and outcries of a whole life, could not overthrow, was demolished by a single stroke of this gentleman's pen.
Dr. Swift in his Intelligencer Numb. 3. has given us a vindication of Mr. Gay, and the Beggars Opera; he observes, "that though an evil taste be very apt to prevail both in Dublin and in London; yet, there is a point which whoever can rightly touch, will never fail of pleasing a very great majority; so great that the dislikers, out of dullness, or affectation, will be silent, and forced to fall in with the herd; the point I mean is, what we call humour, which, in its perfection, is allowed to he much preferable to wit, if it he not rather the moll useful, and agreeable species of it. — Now I take the comedy, or farce (or whatever name the critic will allow it) called The Beggar's Opera, to excel in this article of humour, and upon that merit to have met with such prodigious success, both here and in England." The dean afterwards remarks, "that an opinion obtained, that in this opera, there appears to be some reflexions on courtiers and statesmen. It is true indeed (says he) that Mr. Gay hath been somewhat singular in the course of his fortunes, attending the court with a large flock of real merit, a modest and agreeable conversation, a hundred promises, and five hundred friends, hath failed of preferment, and upon a very weighty reason; he lay under the suspicion of having written a Libel, or Lampoon, against a great minister, it is true that great minister was demonstratively convinced, and publickly owned his conviction, that Mr. Gay was not the author, but having laid under the suspicion, it seemed very just that he should suffer the punishment, because in this most reformed age the virtues of a great minister are no more to be suspected, than the chastity of Caesar's wife."
The dean then tells us, that our author in this piece has, 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 so religion and morality. "This appears from the unparalleled success he has met with; all ranks, parties, and denominations of men, either crowding to see his Opera, or reading it with delight in their closets; even ministers of state, whom he is thought most to have offended, appearing frequently at the Theatre, from a consciousness of their own innocence, and to convince the world how unjust a parallel, malice, envy and disaffection to the government have made. — In this happy performance of Mr. Gay, all the characters are just, and none of them carried beyond nature, or hardly beyond practice. It discovers the whole system of that commonwealth, or that imperium in imperio of iniquity established among us, by which, neither our lives, nor our properties are secure, either in highways, or in public assemblies, or even in our own houses; it shews the miserable lives and constant fate of those abandoned wretches; for how small a price they sell their souls, betrayed by their companions, receivers, and purchasers of those thefts and robberies. This comedy contains likewise a satire, which though it doth by no means affect the present age, yet might have been useful in the former, and may possibly be so in ages to come, I mean where the author takes occasion of comparing those common robbers of the public, and their several stratagems of betraying, undermining, and hanging each other, to the several arts of politicians in the time of corruption. This comedy likewise exposes, with great justice, that unnatural taste for Italian music among us, which is wholly unsuitable to our Northern climate, and the genius of the people, whereby we are overrun with Italian effeminancy. An old gentleman said to me many years ago, when the practice of an unnatural vice grew so frequent in London, that many were prosecuted for it; he was sure it would be the forerunner of Italian operas and singers, and then we should want nothing but stabbing, or poisoning, to make its perfect Italians. Upon the whole I deliver my judgment; that nothing but servile attachment to a party, affectation of singularity, lamentable dullness, mistaken zeal, or studied hypocrisy, can have any objection against this excellent moral performance of Mr. Gay."
The astonishing success of the Beggar's Opera induced our author to add a second part, in which, however, he was disappointed, both in profit and fame. His opera entitled Polly, designed as a sequel of the former, was prohibited by the lord chamberlain from being represented on the stage, when every thing was ready for the rehearsal of it, but was soon after printed in 4to. to which the author had a very large subscription. In the preface Mr. Gay gives a particular account of the whole affair in the following manner; "On Thursday December 12 (says he) I received this answer from the chamberlain, that it should not be allowed to be acted, but suppressed. This was told me in general without any reasons assigned, or any charge against me of my having given any particular offence. Since this prohibition I have been told, that I am accused, in general terms, of having written many disaffected libels, and seditious pamphlets. As it hath ever been my utmost ambition (if that word may be tiled upon this occasion) to lead a quiet and inoffensive life, I thought my innocence in this particular would never have needed a justification and as this kind of writing is what I ever detested, and never practiced, I am persuaded so groundless a calumny can never be believed, but by those who do not know me. But when general aspersions of this sort have been cast upon me, I think myself called upon to declare my principles, and I do with the strictest truth affirm, that I am as loyal a subject, and as firmly attached to the present happy establishment, as any of those who have the greatest places or pensions. I have been informed too, that in the following play I have been charged with writing immoralities; that it is filled with slander and calumny against particular great persons, and that Majesty itself is endeavoured to be brought into ridicule and contempt.
"As I know that every one of these charges was in every point absolutely false, and without the lead grounds, at first I was not at all affected by them; but when I found they were still insisted upon, and that particular passages which were not in the play were quoted, and propagated to support what had been suggested, I could no longer bear to lye under those false accusations; so by printing it, I have submitted, and given up all present views of profit, which might accrue from the stage, which will undoubtedly be some satisfaction to the worthy gentlemen, who have treated me with so much candour and humanity, and represented me in such favourable colours. But as I am conscious to myself, that my only intention was to lash in general the reigning and fashionable vices, and to recommend, and set virtue in as amiable a light as I could; to justify and vindicate my own character, I thought myself obliged to print the opera without delay, in the manner I have done."
The large subscription Mr. Gay had to print it, amply recompens'd any loss he might receive from it's not being acted. Tho' this was called the Sequel to the Beggars Opera, it was allowed by his best friends, scarce to be of a piece with the first part, being in every particular, infinitely beneath it.
Besides the works which we have already mentioned, Mr. Gay wrote several poems, printed in London in 2 vol. 12mo.
A Comedy called The Wife of Bath, first acted in 1715, and afterwards revived, altered, and represented at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields.
Three Hours after Marriage, a Comedy; acted at the Theatre-Royal, in which he was assisted by Pope and Arbuthnot, but had the mortification to see this piece very ill received, if not damned the first night.
He wrote likewise Achilles, an Opera; acted at the Theatre in Covent Garden. This was brought on the stage after his death, and the profits were given to his Sisters.
After experiencing many vicissitudes of fortune, and being for some time chiefly supported by the liberality of the duke and duchess of Queensberry, he died at their house in Burlington Gardens, of a violent inflammatory fever, in December 1732, and was interred in Westminster, by his noble benefactors just mentioned, with the following epitaph written by Mr. Pope, who had the sincerest friendship for him on account of his amiable qualities.
Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
In wit a man, simplicity a child;
Above temptation in a low estate,
And uncorrupted even amongst the great;
A safe companion, and an easy friend,
Unblamed thro' life, lamented in thy end;
These are thy honours! not that here thy bust
Is mix'd with heroes, or with kings thy dust,
But that the worthy and the good shall say,
Striking their pensive bosoms — here lies GAY;
Then follows this farther inscription,
Here lie the ashes of Mr. John Gay;
The warmest friend;
The most benevolent man:
In low circumstances of fortune;
In the midst of a corrupt age;
And that equal serenity of mind,
Which conscious goodness alone can give
Thro' the whole course of his life.
Favourite of the muses
He was led by them to every elegant art;
Refin'd in taste,
And fraught with graces all his own:
In various kinds of poetry
Superior to many,
Inferior to none,
His works continue to inspire
What his example taught,
Contempt of folly, however adorned;
Detestation of vice, however dignified;
Reverence of virtue, however disgraced.
Charles and Catherine, duke and duchess of Qeensberry, who loved this excellent man living, and regret him dead, have caused this monument to be erected to his memory.
Mr. Gay's moral character seems to have been very amiable. He was of an affable, sweet disposition, generous in his temper, and pleasant in his conversation. His chief failing was an excessive indolence, without the least knowledge of oeconomy; which often subjected him to wants he needed not otherwise have experienced. Dean Swift in many of his letters entreated him, while money was in his hands, to buy an annuity, lest old age should overtake him unprepared; but Mr. Gay never thought proper to comply with his advice, and chose rather to throw himself upon patronage, than secure a competence, as the dean wisely advised. As to his genius it would be superfluous to say any thing here, his works are in the hands of every reader of taste, and speak for themselves; we know not whether we can be justified in our opinion, but we beg leave to observe, that of all Gay's performances, his Pastorals seem to have the highest finishing; they are perfectly Doric; the Characters and dialogue are natural and rurally simple; the language is admirably suited to the persons, who appear delightfully rustic.