1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gay

Edmund Gosse, in "Essay on Pastoral Poetry" Complete Works of Spenser, ed. Grosart (1882-84) 3:xliii-xlv.



When the frigid tunelessness of Philips and the puerile smartness of Pope clashed together with so loud a clatter, they produced, as if in spite of their own petty discordance, a very melodious and considerable echo. This was the Shepherd's Week of Gay, a work over which the writer of English pastoral poetry is tempted to linger only too long, and of which almost the sole fault is the burlesque taint which mars the verse wherever Pope persuaded Gay to try and annoy Ambrose Philips by parodying him. For the first time since the reign of Elizabeth, a serious attempt was made to throw to the winds the ridiculous Arcadian tradition of nymphs and swains, and to copy Theocritus in his simplicity. Gay's preface to the Shepherd's Week, in spite of its tiresome frivolity of tone, is exceedingly interesting on account of its tribute to the vigour of Theocritus, and of its warm recognition of Spenser, then all but forgotten by English readers. As a statement of Gay's own theory of pastoral writing, we may quote this passage, addressed to the reader of his English eclogues:—

"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 flocks from wolves, because there are none, as Master Spenser well observeth.

Well is known that since the Saxon king
Never was wolf seen, many or some
Nor in all Kent nor in Christendom.

For as much, as I have mentioned Master Spenser, soothly I must acknowledge him a bard of sweetest memory."

He goes on to point out the great defect of the Shepherd's calendar as pure pastoral poetry — namely, that the idyllist permits his clowns to discuss ecclesiastical rules and affairs of State which are foreign to their low degree. But, in fine, Gay demands from us very special attention in this particular inquiry, on account of the direct way in which he imitates Spenser's plan:—

"Moreover, as he called his eclogues, The Shepherd's Calendar, and divided the same into the twelve months, I have chosen (paradventure not over rashly) to name mine by the days of the week, omitting Sunday or the Sabbath, ours being supposed to be Christian shepherds, and to be then at church worship."

Gay was a country man, and as full of memories of his rustic childhood in Devonshire, as Browne had been a century before. That he misses the delicacy and aerial melody of Browne [of Tavistock] it is needless to say, but it is an act of not unnecessary justice to point out that he excels his Elizabethan predecessor quite as much in concision and propriety, and in a sort of bright Dutch realism of style. The Shepherd's Week, as a purely literary composition, is undoubtedly Gay's masterpiece, though his Fables and his Trivia, in each of which he is writing more for the public and less for himself, have always held a higher place in general estimation. The picturesque touches which adorn his pastorals are the best things of their kind produced in the early part of the eighteenth century, and leave all his competitors, except Lady Winchilsea, far behind.