1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gay

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 351.



Gay's Pastorals are said to have taken with the public, not as satires on those of Ambrose Philips, which they were meant to be, but as natural and just imitations of real life and of rural manners. It speaks little, however, for the sagacity of the poet's town readers, if they enjoyed those caricatures in earnest, or imagined any truth of English manners in Cuddy and Cloddipole contending with Amabaean verses for the prize or song, or in Bowzybeus rehearsing the laws of nature. If the allusion to Philips was overlooked, they could only be relished as travesties of Virgil, for Bowzybeus himself would not be laughable unless we recollected Silenus.

Gay's Trivia seems to have been built upon the hint of Swift's Description of a City Shower. It exhibits a picture of the familiar customs of the metropolis that will continue to become more amusing as the customs grow obsolete. As a fabulist he has been sometimes hypercritically blamed for presenting us with allegorical impersonations. The mere naked apologue of Aesop is too simple to interest the human mind, when its fancy and understanding are past the state of childhood or barbarism. La Fontaine dresses the stories which he took from Aesop and others with such profusion of wit and naivete, that his manner conceals the insipidity of the matter. "La sauce vaut mieux que le poisson." Gay, though not equal to La Fontaine, is at least free from his occasional prolixity; and in one instance, (the Court of Death,) ventures into allegory with considerable power. Without being an absolute simpleton, like La Fontaine, he possessed a bonhommie of character which forms an agreeable trait of resemblance between the fabulists.