JOHN GAY, a very popular English poet, was born in 1688, near Barnstaple, in Devonshire; and at the free-school there, acquired a taste for classical literature, but his family estate being much reduced, his fortune was not sufficient to support him as a gentleman; and his friends, therefore, bound him apprentice to a silk-mercer in London. But this step being taken without consulting the taste and temper of the youth, the shop soon became his aversion, and in a few years his master, upon the offer of a small consideration, willingly consented to give up his indentures. Being thus released, he indulged himself in that course of life to which he felt himself irresistibly inclined: poetry became at once his delight and his talent; and he suffered not his muse to be disturbed by any disagreeable attention to the expence of cultivating his mind.
These qualities recommended him to such company and acquaintance as delighted him most; and among others to Swift and Pope, who were struck with the sincerity, the simplicity of his manners, and the easiness of his temper. To the latter he addressed the first-fruits of his muse, entitled "Rural Sports, a Georgic," printed in 1711. This piece discovered a rich poetical vein, peculiar to himself, and met with some agreeable attestations of its merit, that would have been, enjoyed with a higher relish, had not the pleasure been interrupted by the state of his finances; which, by an uncommon degree of thoughtlessness and cullibility, were reduced now to a low ebb. Our poet's purse was an unerring barometer of his spirits; which, sinking with it, left him in the apprehension of a servile dependence, a condition he dreaded above any thing that could befal him. The clouds were, however, shortly dispelled by the kindness of the duchess of Monmouth, who appointed him her secretary in 1712, with a handsome salary. This seasonable favour seating him in a coach, though not his own, kindled his muse to new efforts. He first produced his celebrated poem called "Trivia; or the Art of Walking the Streets," and the following year, at the instance of Pope, he formed the plan of his "Pastorals." There is not perhaps in history a more remarkable example of the force of friendship in an author, than was the undertaking and finishing of this inimitable poem. Pope, in the subscription of the Hanover-club to his translation of the "Iliad," had been ill used by Philips their secretary, and his rival in this species of poetry. The translator highly resented the affront; and, meditating revenge, intimated to Gay how greatly it was in his power to pluck the bays from this envied rival's forehead. Gay immediately engaged in his friend's quarrel, and executed his request even beyond his expectation. The rural simplicity neglected by Pope, and admired in Philips, was found, though mixed with some burlesque, only in the "Shepherd's Week." This exquisite, piece of nature and humour came out in 1714, with a dedication to lord Bolingbroke, which Swift facetiously called the author's original sin against the court.
In the mean time the most promising views opened to him at court; he was caressed by some leading persons in the ministry; and his patroness rejoiced to see him taken from her house the same year, to attend the earl of Clarendon, as secretary in his embassy to the court of Hanover. But, whatever were his hopes from this new advancement, it is certain they began and ended almost together; for queen Anne died in fifteen days after their arrival at Hanover. This, however, did not prove an irreparable loss; his present situation made him personally known to the succeeding royal family; and returning home he made a proper use of it, in a handsome compliment to the princess of Wales, on her arrival in England. This address procured him a favourable admittance at the new court; and that raising a new flow of spirits, he wrote his farce, "The What d'ye call it," which appeared upon the stage before the end of the season, and was honoured by the presence of the prince and princess. The profits, likewise, brought some addition to his fortune; and his poetical merit being endeared by the sweetness and sincerity of his nature, procured him an easy access to persons of the first distinction. With these he passed his time with much satisfaction, notwithstanding his disappointment in the hopes of favours from the new court, where he met with nothing more valuable than a smile. In 1716 he made a visit to his native county at the expence of lord Burlington, and repaid his lordship with an humourous account of the journey. The like return was made for Mr. Pulteney's favour, who took him in his company the following year to Aix, in France.
This easy travelling, with some decent appointments, was one of the highest relished pleasures of Gay's life, and never failed of calling forth his muse. Soon after his return from France, he introduced to the stage "The Three Hours after Marriage." His friends Pope and Arbuthnot had both a hand in this performance, and the two principal characters were acted by two of the best comedians at that time, Johnson and Mrs. Oldfield; yet, with all these helps and advantages, it was very ill received, if not condemned the first night. Gay stood the brunt with an unusual degree of magnanimity, which seems to have been inspired by a hearty regard for his partners; especially Pope, who was greatly affected with it. In 1718 he accompanied Pope to lord Harcourt's seat in Oxfordshire, where they united in consecrating to posterity the death of two rustic lovers, unfortunately killed in the neighbouring fields by a stroke of lightning. In 1720 he again recruited his finances by a handsome subscription to his poems, which he collected and printed in 2 vols. 4to; but falling into the general infatuation of that remarkable year, he lost all his fortune in the South-sea scheme, and consequently all his spirits. Secretary Craggs had made him a present of some S. S. stock, and he was worth at one time £20,000 but neglecting to sell out, lost the whole. This stroke had almost proved fatal to him; he was seized with a violent colic; and after languishing some time, removed in 1722 to Hampstead, for the benefit of the air and waters; but, by the assistance of Dr. Arbuthnot, who constantly attended him, at length he recovered. He then began to write his tragedy called "The Captives;" which, when finished, he had the honour of reading in manuscript to the princess of Wales, in 1724. Her royal highness also promised him further marks of her favour, if he would write some fables in verse for the use of the duke of Cumberland; which task he accordingly undertook, and published them in 1726, with a dedication to that prince. All this was done against the advice of Pope, the duke being then only an infant; and the result was, as that friend presaged, very disagreeable to him. Swift says that in these fables "he was thought to be something too bold with the court."
Upon the accession of George II. to the throne, he was offered the place of gentleman-usher to the then youngest princess Louisa; a post which he thought beneath his acceptance: and, resenting the offer as an affront, in that ill-humour with the court, he wrote the "Beggar's Opera;" which, being brought upon the stage Nov. 1727, was received with greater applause than had ever been known on any occasion. For, besides being acted in London 63 days without interruption, and renewed the next season with success, it spread into all the great towns of England, was played in many places to the 30th and 40th time; at Bath and Bristol 50, &c. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed 24 days successively; and lastly, was acted in Minorca. 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: Miss Lavinia Beswick, who acted Polly, till then obscure, became 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 of her sayings and jests; and, to crown all, after being the mother of several ante-nuptial children, she obtained the title and rank of a duchess by her marriage with Charles third duke of Bolton. There is scarcely to be found in history an example, where a private subject, undistinguished either by birth or fortune, had it in his power to feast his resentment so richly at the expence of his sovereign. But this was not all; Gay went on in the same humour, and cast a second part in a similar mould; which, being excluded from the stage by the lord chamberlain, he was encouraged to print with the title of "Polly," by subscription; and this too, considering the powers employed against it, was incredibly large; and in fact he got nearly £1200 by it, while the Beggar's Opera did not yield more than £400. Neither yet did it end here. The duke and duchess of Queensberry took part in resenting the indignity put upon him by this last act of power; resigned their respective places at court; took the author into their house and family; and treated him with all the endearing kindness of an intimate and much-beloved friend.
These noble additions to his fame, his fortune, and his friendships, inspired him with fresh vigour, raised him to a degree of confidence and assurance, and he was even prompted to think that "The Wife of Bath," despised and rejected as it had been in 1714, when first acted, might, with some improvements which he could now give it, be made to taste the sweets of this happy change in his fortune. In this temper he revised and altered it, and brought it again upon the stage in 1729, but had the mortification to see all his sanguine hopes of its success blasted; it met with the same fate in the play-house as formerly. This rebuff happened in March 1729-30; and as he was easily depressed, produced a degree of melancholy, which, with the return of his constitutional distemper the colic, gave a new edge to the sense of his disappointments at court, with respect to the "Beggar's Opera." By that satire, he had flattered himself with the hopes of awing the court into a disposition to take him into favour, in order to keep so powerful a pen in good humour. But this last refinement upon his misery, added to former indignities, threw him into a dejection, which he in vain endeavoured to remove, by another tour into Somersetshire, in 1731. The state both of his body and mind cannot be so forcibly described, as it is in his own account of it to Pope. "My melancholy," says he, "increases, and every hour threatens me with some return of my distemper. Nay, I think I may rather say, I have it on me. Not the divine looks, the kind favours and expressions of the divine duchess, who hereafter shall be in place of a queen to me, nay, she shall be my queen, nor the inexpressible goodness of the duke, can in the least chear me. The drawing-room no more, receives light from these two stars. There is now (what Milton says in hell) darkness visible. O that I had never known what a court was! Dear Pope, what a barren soil (to me so) have I been striving to produce something out of! Why did not I 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 hard fate, I must get nothing, write for them or against them." In this disposition, it is no great wonder that we find him rejecting a proposal, made to him by this last-mentioned friend in 17321 of trying his muse upon the hermitage, then lately built by queen Caroline in Richmond-gardens; to which he answers with a fixed despondency, that he knew himself unworthy of royal patronage."
In the delightful retirement of Amesbury, however, a seat of his noble patron, near Stonehenge upon Salisbury-plain, he found lucid intervals enough to finish his opera called "Achilles;" and coming with the family to his grace's house in Burlington-gardens, to pass the winter season, he gave that piece to the play-house. The week after, he was suddenly seized with a violent inflammatory fever; which, ending in a mortification of the bowels, in three days put a period to his life, Dec. 11, 1732. In his short illness he was attended by two physicians, besides Dr. Arbuthnot, who particularly observed, that it was the most precipitate case he ever knew; meaning, after the fever shewed itself: for there were prognostics enough to predict his approaching end long before, and he himself was sensible of it. In October, he sent Pope his last gift, as a token to be kept in remembrance of his dying friend; declaring, that he found by many warnings, that he had no continuing city here. "I begin," says he, "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.
With what else you may think proper." This dying request was accordingly executed; and the whole epitaph inscribed on a very handsome marble monument, erected to his memory by the duke and duchess of Queensberry, who took care to have his body interred with a suitable funeral solemnity. The corpse was brought from his grace's house to Exeter-change in the Strand; where, after lying in state, it was removed to Westminster-abbey, and interred in the South-cross-isle, against the tomb of Chaucer, near the place where stands his monument.
The opera of "Achilles" was brought upon the stage soon after his death, and met with a very good reception, which was greatly promoted by the duke of Queensberry, who was uncommonly assiduous in patronizing it; and who, as Pope observes, acted in this, and every thing else, more than the part of a brother to his deceased friend. It was also through the influence of his example, that the profits of the representation were given by the managers of the play- house to our author's two widow sisters, Katharine and Joanna, relicts of Mr. Ballet and Mr. Fortescue, who, as heirs at law, shared his fortune (about £3000) equally between them; which disposition was agreeable to his own desire, and therefore he made no will. He left several MSS. behind him, some of which came into the hands of Pope, who took care no doubt (as he promised Swift) to suppress such as he judged unworthy of him. A few years after his death, there was published under his name a comedy, called "The Distressed Wife," the second edition of which was printed in 1750; and in 1754, a humorous piece, with the title of "The Rehearsal at Gotham."
The character of Gay may be fairly estimated from the preceding facts. He wanted firmness and consistency; and knew not, when it was in his power, to support the independence which he affected. Pope said "he was quite a natural man, wholly, without art or design, and spoke just what he thought, and as he thought it." From the same authority we learn that his affectionate friend, the duke of Queensberry, finding what a wretched manager he was, took his money into his keeping, beginning with what he got by the "Beggar's Opera" and "Polly," and let him have only what was necessary, which, as he lived with the duke, could never be much. It is this only that can account for his dying worth £3000. Pope also informs us that "he was remarkable for an unwillingness to offend the great by any of his writings. He had an uncommon timidity in relation to any thing of that sort; and yet you see what ill luck he had in that way, after all his care not to offend." Gay's character seems in many respects to have resembled that of Goldsmith.
Gay's merit as a poet has not been rated very high by modern critics. He wrote with terseness and neatness, but without any elevation, and frequently without any spirit. "Trivia" appears to be the best of his poems, and his "Fables" the most popular of all his works. The "Beggar's Opera" has, on the other hand, been extolled beyond its merits, and its immoral tendency cannot be denied. Dr. Johnson says, "We owe to Gay the ballad opera, and whether this new drama was the product of Judgment or good luck, the praise of it must be given to the inventor." Dr. Warton, more justly in our opinion, arraigns it as the parent of that most monstrous of all dramatic absurdities, the "Comic Opera," which, it is certain, has deluged the stage with more nonsense than could have gained admittance under any other name.