1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gay

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:570-72.



The Italian opera and English pastorals-both sources of fashionable and poetical affectation — were driven out of the field at this time by the easy, indolent, good-humoured JOHN GAY, who seems to have been the most artless and the best-beloved of all the Pope and Swift circle of wits and poets. Gay was born at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, in 1613. He was of the ancient family of the Le Gays of Oxford and Devonshire; but his father being in reduced circumstances, the poet was put apprentice to a silk-mercer in the Strand, London. He disliked this mercenary employment, and at length obtained his discharge from his master. In 1711, he published his "Rural Sports," a descriptive poem, dedicated to Pope, in which we may trace his joy at being emancipated from the drudgery of a shop:—

But I, who ne'er was blessed by Fortune's hand,
Nor brightened ploughshares in paternal land;
Long in the noisy town have been immured,
Respired its smoke, and all its cares endured.

Fatigued at last, a calm retreat I chose,
And soothed my harassed mind with sweet repose,
Where fields, and shades, and the refreshing clime
Inspire the sylvan song, and prompt my rhyme.

Next year, Gay obtained the appointment of domestic secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth, on which he was cordially congratulated by Pope, who took a warm interest in his fortunes. His next work was his "Shepherd's Week, in Six Pastorals," written to throw ridicule on those of Ambrose Philips; but containing so much genuine comic humour, and entertaining pictures of country life, that they became popular, not as satires, but on account of their intrinsic merits, as affording "a prospect of his own country." In an address to the "courteous reader," Gay says, "Thou wilt not find my shepherdesses idly piping on oaten reeds, but milking the kine, tying up the sheaves; or, if the hogs are astray, driving them to their styes. My shepherd gathereth none other nosegays but what are the growth of our own fields; he sleepeth not under myrtle shades, but under a hedge; nor doth he vigilantly defend his flock from wolves, because there are none." This matter-of-fact view of rural life has been admirably followed by Crabbe, with a moral aim and effect to which Gay never aspired. About this time the poet also produced his "Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London," and "The Fan," a poem in three books. The former of these is in the mock-heroic style, in which he was assisted by Swift, and gives a graphic account of the dangers and impediments then encountered in traversing time narrow, crowded, ill-lighted, and vice-infested thoroughfares of the metropolis. His paintings of city life are in the Dutch style, low and familiar, but correctly and forcibly drawn. The following sketch of the frequenters of book-stalls in the streets may still be verified:—

Volumes on sheltered stalls expanded lie,
And various science laces the learned eye;
The bending shelves with ponderous scholiasts groan,
And deep divines, to modern shops unknown;
Here, like the bee, that on industrious wing
Collects the various odours oft the spring,
Walkers at leisure learning's flowers may spoil,
Nor watch the wasting of the midnight oil;
May morals snatch from Plutarch's tattered page,
A mildewed Bacon, or Statgyra's sage:
Here sauntering 'prentices o'er Otway weep,
O'er Congreve smile, or ever D'Urfey sleep;
Pleased sempstresses the Lock's famed Rape unfold;
And Squirts read Garth till apozems grew cold.

The poet gives a lively and picturesque account of the great frost in London, when a fair was held on the river Thames:—

O, roving muse! recall that wondrous year
When winter reigned in bleak Britannia's air;
When hoary Thames, with frosted oziers crowned,
Was three long moons in icy fetters bound.
The waterman, forlorn, along the shore,
Pensive reclines upon his useless ear:
See harnessed steeds desert the stony town,
And wander roads unstable not their own;
Wheels o'er the hardened water smoothly glide,
And raze with whitened tracks the slippery tide;
Here time fat cook piles high the blazing fire,
And scarce the spit can turn the steer entire;
Booths sudden hide the Thames, long streets appear,
And numerous games proclaim the crowded fair.
So, when a general bids the martial train
Spread their encampment o'er the spacious plain,
Thick-rising tents a canvass city build,
And the lend dice resound through all the field.

In 1713, Gay brought out a comedy entitled "The Wife of Bath;" but it failed of success. His friends were anxious in his behalf, and next year (July 1714), he writes with joy to Pope — "Since you went out of the town, my Lord Clarendon was appointed envoy-extraordinary to Hanover, in the room of Lord Paget; and by making use of those friends, which I entirely owe to you, he has accepted me for his secretary." The poet accordingly quitted his situation in the Monmouth family, and accompanied Lord Clarendon on his embassy. He seems, however, to have held it only for about two months; for on the 23d of September of the same year, Pope welcomes him to his native soil, and counsels him, now that the queen was dead, to write something on the king, or prince, or princess. Gay was an anxious expectant of court favour, and he complied. with Pope's request. He wrote a poem on the princess, and the royal family went to see his play of "What D'ye Call It?" produced shortly after his return from Hanover, in 1714. The piece was eminently successful; and Gay was stimulated to another dramatic attempt of a similar nature, entitled "Three Hours After Marriage." Some personal satire and indecent dialogues in this piece, together with the improbability of the plot, sealed its fate with the public. It soon fell into disgrace; and its author being afraid that Pope and Arbuthnot would suffer injury from their supposed connexion with it, took "all the shame on himself." Gay was silent and dejected for some time; but in 1720 he published his poems by subscription, and realised a sum of £1000. He received, also, a present of South-Sea stock, and was supposed to be worth £20,000, all of which, he lost by the explosion of that famous delusion. This serious calamity to one fond of finery in dress and living only prompted to further literary exertion. In 1724, Gay brought out another drama, "The Captives," which was acted with moderate success; and in 1726 he wrote a volume of fables, designed for the special improvement of the Duke of Cumberland, who certainly did not learn mercy or humanity from them. The accession of the prince and princess to the throne seemed to augur well for the fortunes of Gay; but he was only offered the situation of gentleman usher to one of the young princesses, and considering this an insult, he rejected it. His genius proved his best patron. In 1726, Swift came to England, and resided two months with Pope at Twickenham. Among other plans, the dean of St Patrick suggested to Gay the idea of a Newgate pastoral, in which the characters should be thieves and highwaymen, and the "Beggar's Opera" was the result. When finished, the two friends were doubtful of the success of the piece, but it was received with unbounded applause. The songs and music aided greatly its popularity, and there was also the recommendation of political satire; for the quarrel, between Peachum and Lockit was an allusion to a personal collision between Walpole and his colleague, Lord Townsend. The spirit and variety of the piece, in which song and sentiment are so happily intermixed with vice and roguery, still render the "Beggar's Opera" a favourite with the public; but as Gay has succeeded in making highwaymen agreeable, and even attractive, it cannot be commended for its moral tendency. Of this we suspect the Epicurean author thought little. The opera had a run of sixty-three nights, and became the rage of town and country. Its success had also the effect of giving rise to the English opera, a species of light comedy enlivened by songs and music, which for a time supplanted the Italian opera, with all its exotic and elaborate graces. Gay tried a sequel to the "Beggar's Opera," under the title of "Polly;" but as it was supposed to contain sarcasms on the court, the lord chamberlain prohibited its representation. The poet had recourse to publication; and such was the zeal of his friends and the effect of party spirit, that while the "Beggar's Opera" realised for him only about £400, "Polly" produced a profit of £1100 or £1200. The Duchess of Marlborough gave £100 as her subscription for a copy. Gay had now amassed £3000 by his writings, which he resolved to keep "entire and sacred." He was at the same time received into the house of his kind patrons the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, with whom he spent the remainder of his life. His only literary occupation was composing additional fables, and corresponding occasionally with Pope and Swift. A sudden attack of inflammatory fever hurried him out of life in three days. He died on the 4th of December 1732. Pope's letter to Swift announcing the event was indorsed by the latter: "On my dear friend Mr. Gay's death. Received, December 15th, but not read till the 20th, by an impulse foreboding some misfortune." The friendship of these eminent men seems to have been sincere and tender; and nothing in the life of Swift is more touching or honourable to his memory, than those passages in his letters where the recollection of Gay melted his haughty stoicism, and awakened his deep though unavailing sorrow. Pope, always more affectionate, was equally grieved by the loss of him whom he has characterised as—

Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
In wit a man, simplicity a child.

Gay was buried in Westminster abbey, where a handsome monument was erected to his memory by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. The works of this easy and loveable son of the muses have lost much of their popularity. He has the licentiousness, without the elegance, of Prior. His fables are still, however, the best we possess; and if they have not the nationality or rich humour and archness of La Fontaine's, the subjects of them are light and pleasing, and the versification always smooth and correct. "The Hare with Many Friends" is doubtless drawn from Gay's own experience. In the Court of Death, he aims at a higher order of poetry, and marshals his "diseases dire" with a strong and gloomy power. His song of "Black-Eyed Susan," and the ballad beginning "'Twas when the seas were roaring," are full of characteristic tenderness and lyrical melody. The latter is said by Cowper to have been the joint production of Arbuthnot, Swift, and Gay.