1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gay

William Lisle Bowles, Note in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 8:173-74n.



The most captivating trait of Pope's character is his duty and filial affection to his parents, particularly to his aged and infirm mother. "Whatever was his pride, to them (says Johnson) he was obedient; and whatever was his irritability, to them he was gentle."

Another pleasing and interesting circumstance in his life, besides his exemplary conduct and attachment to his parent, appears to be his warm and long-continued friendship with Gay.

The reason of this unvarying kindness and tenderness to him, may be found in Gay's peculiar talents and character. By all accounts, he appears to have been the least offensive of human beings; gifted with various powers, yet never obtruding on the province or sphere of talent in others; regarding Pope with a quiet and constant veneration, and pleased and flattered with his regard; without disguise, and without affectation; simple, yet capable of pleasing, and even of shining; according to his own Fable,

His care was never to offend,
And every circumstance was his friend.

It is impossible but that a mind, irritable and irritated as Pope's was, must dwell with peculiar complacency on a connection and communication, such as it had with Gay. The vehement and lofty, yet polished character of Atterbury; the amiable but uninteresting simplicity of Digby; the aspiring ambition, and conscious aristocracy of Bolingbroke; the eccentric benevolence and affection of Swift; could not mingle, if I may say so, with the stream of a mind like his. In almost all of these, there was at times a something that fretted and discomposed him: Atterbury wishing him to change his religion; Digby keeping him in perpetual fervor to say something fine; Bolinbroke astonishing him, and flattering him, but not soothing him; and Swift, after the long-promised happiness of living near him, leaving his house with the short ceremony of saying, "Two sick friends cannot live together." Gay had just that lower step of station and abilities, that prevented rivalship, and secured complacency and regard on one side, which was preserved by unassuming and unaffected gentleness on the other.

The reader, in contemplating Gay's general character, cannot, I think, avoid drawing a kind of parallel between him and Goldsmith. Goldsmith was more vain, and more irritable; but he had a simplicity so apparently like Gay's, that no one could perceive under it the penetration that was able to produce such accurate delineations of character, as are exhibited in "Retaliation;" such humour and insight into life, as could produce the comedy of the "Mistakes of a Night;" and such sweetness of versification, and command of imagery, which should distinguish the "Traveller," and "Deserted Village;" not to mention the simplicity and pathos in "Turn, Angelina." Like Gay, also, Goldsmith had a particular literary friend [author's note: Dr. Johnson], for whom he felt the same impression of kindness and veneration; and if, in a moment of vanity, he was sometimes disposed to rebel, the feelings of unequal competition were soon lost in returning warmth and tenderness. Perhaps I have said already too much; but I cannot conclude without wishing the Reader to keep in mind Gay's parallel character of outward simplicity, and those powers of mind, so apparently contrary, which produced the humour and novelty of the Beggar's Opera,, and the "What d'ye call it;" the characteristic traits and pleasing pictures of the "Welcome from Greece;" the Poems of Trivia, and Rural Sports, and the exquisitely simple Ballads, "All in the Downs," and "'Twas when the seas were roaring."

Goldsmith and Gay were nearly in the same circumstances; but one gained, or might have gained, a comfortable independence from the Booksellers, which the other in vain expected from the precarious favour of the Great. The real cause, however, of Gay's disappointment, has been before explained. Both received very considerable sums from the Theatre, and both were equally careless and improvident in the application.