1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gay

William Howitt, "John Gay" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:140-44.



GAY is certainly not one of our most eminent poets. He is clever, amiable, and displays much knowledge of life, both in town and country. It is rare, however, that he rises into anything like genuine poetry. When he does that, it is when he elevates his theme by a spirit of devotion, which, however, is not too often. The best instances of this are to be found, perhaps, in his Lines on Night, in the first canto of Rural Sports, in his Contemplation on Night, and in A Thought on Eternity. It were to be wished that description as vivid, had in Gay been oftener united to sentiment as elevated, in such lines as these:—

To Neptune's bounds I stray
To take my farewell of the parting day;
For in the deep the sun his glory hides,
A streak of gold the sea and laud divides,
The purple clouds their amber linings show,
And edged with flame rolls every wave below.
Here pensive I behold the fading light,
And o'er the distant billow lose my sight.

Now Night in silent state begins to rise,
And twinkling orbs bestrew th' uncloudy skies;
Her borrowed lustre growing Cynthia lends,
And in the main a glittering path extends;
Millions of worlds hang in the spacious air,
Which round their suns their annual circles steer.
Sweet contemplation elevates my sense,
While I survey the works of Providence.
O could the Muse in loftier strains rehearse
The glorious Author of the universe,
Who reins the winds, gives the vast ocean bounds,
And circumscribes the flaming worlds their rounds;
My soul should overflow in songs of praise,
And my Creator's name inspire my lays!

The Contemplation on Night is equally worthy of a true poet, and concludes with the following lines, which properly follow, and seem to continue, those just quoted.

When the pure soul is from the body flown,
No more shall Night's alternate reign be known;
The sun no more shall rolling light bestow,
But from the Almighty streams of glory flow.
Oh! may some nobler thought my soul employ,
Than transient, empty, sublunary joy.
The stars shall drop, the sun shall loss his flame,
But thou, O God! for ever shine the same.

Spite, however, of such occasional passages as these, and of much graphic depicting of town and country life and scenery; spite of the easy flow and the moral of his fables, John Gay cannot claim to be included here, except in the character of the close and life-long friend of Pope and Swift. So intimately is he mixed up with their homes and haunts, that it seems requisite to say something of his own. But where were these? His haunts may be traced, but home of his own he seems never to have had. Gay was an easy, good-natured fellow, but he had no great feeling of independence; and without being able or desirous to say that he was a mean, far less a disgraceful, hanger-on of the great, he was still a hanger-on. His home was at first in or near Barnstaple, Devonshire, where he was born; then a mercer's shop in London; then lodgings, and the literary coffee-houses of London; then the house of the Duchess of Monmouth; and finally that of the Duke of Queensbury. For several years before his death, the house of the Duke of Queensbury was his home, wherever that was, at Burlington Gardens, in town, or at Amesbury or Petersham, in the country. Gay was as regular a part of the ducal family as any old court minstrel was of a palace of old. The Duke was his treasurer, and the Duchess his warm and generous patroness and friend.

All that we can require to know of Gay, Johnson, in a more good-humoured vein than was his wont, has summed up for us.

It was in 1688, the year of the Revolution, that he was born at Barnstaple, where he received his education. In London, he soon quitted the mercer's shop, and became the secretary of the Duchess of Monmouth, in which capacity he found leisure enough to write and publish his Rural Sports, which he inscribed to Pope, and thus won his friendship. So much pleased was Pope with his manners and conversations that he soon became his fast and intimate friend, and introduced him to Swift. The three, as we have seen, formed a bond of attachment and of familiar intercourse, that Gay's death only put an end to. Of Gay's various publications it is not necessary here to speak. They are chiefly his Rural Sports, already mentioned; The Shepherd's Week; The Wife of Bath, a play; What d'ye call it, a mock tragedy; Three Hours after Marriage, a comedy; The Captives; The Beggar's Opera; Polly; The Distressed Wife; his Fables; Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets; The Fan; Tales; Epistles; Gondibert, a poem; and various small compositions.

His plays were seldom successful, with the exception of The Beggar's Opera, which was extremely so, and still continues so with certain classes. The origin of this singular production Pope has thus detailed.

"Dr. Swift had been observing once to Mr. Gay what an odd pretty sort of thing a Newgate Pastoral might make. Gay was inclined to try at such a thing for some time; but afterwards thought it would be better to write a comedy on the same plan. This was what gave rise to the Beggar's Opera. He began on it; and when first he mentioned it to Swift, the Doctor did not much like the project. As he carried it on, he showed what he wrote to both of us, and we now and then gave a correction, or a word or two of advice; but it was wholly of his own writing. When it was done, neither of us thought it would succeed. He showed it to Congreve, who, after reading it over, said, 'It would either take greatly, or be damned confoundedly.' We were all at the first night of it, in great uncertainty of the event; till we were very much encouraged by overhearing the Duke of Argyle, who sat in the next box to us, say, 'It will do, — it must do! I see it in the eyes of them!' This was a good while before the first act was over, and so gave us ease soon; that Duke, besides his own good taste, has a particular knack, as any one now living, in discovering the taste of the public. He was quite right in that, as usual: the good-nature of the audience appeared stronger and stronger every act, and ended in a clamour of applause."

Pope has also recorded the following particulars of its popularity. "This piece was received with greater applause than was ever known. Besides being acted in London sixty-three days without interruption, and received 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, etc. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days successively. The ladies carried about with them the favourite songs of it in fans, and houses were furnished with it in screens. The fame of it was not confined to the author only. The person 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."

From that time to the present, the effect has been, to a certain degree, the same, in a certain class; the songs of The Beggar's Opera have begun again to be sung, and a manifest tendency has been produced to exalt into this admiration of the multitude, highwaymen and women of the town. Neither can it be denied that it has given birth anew, in the shape of novels, to Newgate literature. The oddity of it was, that in opposition to the storm of reprehension which followed it from the press, Swift defended it for the excellence of its morality, and because it placed all kinds of vice in the strongest and most odious light." This was sufficiently contradicted by the public admiration of its heroes, heroines, its songs, and its very slang. Yet we find Gay representing himself, in a letter to Swift, as a martyr to morality. "For writing in the cause of virtue, and against the fashionable vices, I am looked upon at present as the most obnoxious person almost in England." If Gay's self-love could so far blind and persuade him, there can be no reader of his collected poems at the present day who can agree with him. There is a far too considerable quantity of his writings which are utterly vile and filthy, and fit only to be bound up with Rochester, or rather not to be bound up at all; and it may he questioned whether the prudent lessons of his fables, and the better sentiments scattered through his other poetry, could by any means even neutralize the effect of his pages of defilement, were not the better more commonly read, and the worse left to oblivion by the purer spirit of the age.

The origin of his Shepherds Week, which, though coarse, has much nature in it, is also curious. Steele, in some papers in the Guardian, had praised Ambrose Philips, as the Pastoral writer who was second only to Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. Pope, who had also published pastorals, not pleased to be overlooked, drew up a comparison of his own compositions with those of Philips's, in which he civilly gave himself the preference, while he seemed to disown it. So enraged was Philips, that he brought a sturdy cudgel to Button's coffee-house, and put it over the mantel-piece, saying, "That was for Pope when he could catch him there." Pope, on his part again, is supposed to have incited Gay to write The Shepherd's Week, to show that, if it be necessary to copy nature with minuteness, rural life must be exhibited such as grossness and ignorance have made it. But intended only to burlesque Philips, these pastorals became popular, and were eagerly read for their truth to country life, by those who took no interest in the literary squabble.

If we add to the places already mentioned, the house of Dr. Arbuthnot, at Hampstead, where Gay used occasionally to domicile himself, we have a sufficient index to his homes and haunts.