JOHN GAY, a well-known poet, was born at or near Barnstaple, in Devonshire, in 1688. After an education at the free-school of Barnstaple, he was sent to London, where he was put apprentice to a silk-mercer. A few years of negligent attendance on the duties of such a station procured him a separation by agreement from his master; and he not long afterwards addicted himself to poetical composition, of which the first-fruits were his Rural Sports, published in 1711, and dedicated to Pope, then first rising to fame. In the following year, Gay, who possessed much sweetness of disposition, but was indolent and improvident, accepted an offer from the Duchess of Monmouth to reside with her as her secretary. He had leisure enough in this employment to produce in the same year his poem of Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, which proved one of the most entertaining of its class. It was much admired; and displayed in a striking manner that talent for the description of external objects which peculiarly characterised the author.
In 1714, he made his appearance from the press on a singular occasion. Pope and Ambrose Philips had a dispute about the respective merits of their pastorals; upon which, Gay, in other to serve the cause of his friend, undertook to compose a set of pastorals, in which the manners of the country should be exhibited in their natural coarseness, with a view of proving, by a sort of caricature, the absurdity of Philips's system. The offer was accepted; and Gay, who entitled his work The Shepherd's Week, went through the usual topics of a set of pastorals in a parody, which is often extremely humorous. But the effect was in one respect different from his intended purpose; for his pictures of rural life were so extremely natural and amusing, and intermixed with circumstances so beautiful and touching, that his pastorals proved the most popular works of the kind in the language. This performance was dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke; and at this period Gay seems to have obtained a large share of the favour of the Tory party then in power. He was afterwards nominated secretary to the Earl of Clarendon, in his embassy to the court of Hanover; but the death of Queen Anne recalled him from his situation, and he was advised by his friends not to neglect the opportunity afforded him to ingratiate himself with the new family. He accordingly wrote a Poetical epistle upon the arrival of the Princess of Wales, which compliment procured him the honour of the attendance of the prince and princess at the exhibition of a new dramatic piece.
Gay had now many friends, as well among persons of rank, as among his brother-poets; but little was yet done to raise him to a state of independence. A subscription to a collection of his poems published in 1720, cleared him a thousand pounds; and some South-sea stock presented to him by secretary Craggs, raised his hopes of fortune at one time to a considerable height; but the loss of the whole of this stock affected him so deeply as to throw him into a dangerous degree of languor, for his recovery from which he made trial of the air of Hampstead. He then wrote a tragedy called The Captives, which was acted with applause; and in 1726, he composed the work by which he is best known, his Fables, written professedly for the young Duke of Cumberland, and dedicated to him. In the manner of narration there is considerable ease, together with much lively and natural painting, but they will hardly stand in competition with the French fables of La Fontaine. Gay naturally expected a handsome reward for his trouble; but upon the accession of George II. nothing better was offered him than the poet of gentleman-usher to the young Princess Louisa, which he regarded rather as an indignity than a favour, and accordingly declined.
The time, however, arrived when he had little occasion for the arts of a courtier to acquire a degree of public applause greater than he had hitherto experienced. In 1727, his famous Beggar's Opera was acted at Lincolns-inn-fields, after having been refused at Drury-lane. To the plan of burlesquing the Italian operas by songs adapted to the most familiar tunes, he added much political satire derived from his former disappointments; and the result was a composition unique in its kind, of which the success could not with any certainty be foreseen. "It will either (said Congreve) take greatly, or be damned confoundedly." Its fate was for some time in suspense; at length it struck the nerve of public taste, and received unbounded applause. It ran through sixty-three successive representations in the metropolis, and was performed a proportional number of times at all the provincial theatres. Its songs were all learned by heart, and its actors were raised to the summit of theatric fame. This success, indeed, seems to indicate a coarseness in the national taste which could be delighted with the repetition of popular ballad-tunes, as well as a fondness for the delineation of scenes of vice and vulgarity. Gay himself was charged with the mischiefs he had thus, perhaps unintentionally, occasioned; and if the Beggar's Opera delighted the stage, it encountered more serious censure in graver places than has been bestowed on almost any other dramatic piece. By making a highwayman the hero, he has incurred the odium of rendering the character of a freebooter an object of popular ambition; and, by furnishing his personages with a plea for their dishonesty drawn from the universal depravity of mankind, he has been accused of sapping the foundations of all social morality. The author wrote a second part of this work, entitled Polly, but the Lord Chamberlain refused to suffer it to be performed; and though the party in opposition so far encouraged it by their subscriptions that it proved more profitable to him than even the first part, it was a very feeble performance, and has sunk into total neglect.
Gay, in the latter part of his life, received the kind patronage of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, who took him into their house, and condescended to manage his pecuniary concerns. At this time he employed such intervals of health and spirits as he enjoyed, in writing his Acis and Galatea, an opera called Achilles, and a Serenata. His death took place in 1732, at the early age of forty-four, in consequence of an inflammation the bowels. He was sincerely lamented by his friends; and his memory was honoured by a ment in Westminster Abbey, and an epitaph in a strain of uncommon sensibility by Pope.