John Gay

William Duncombe, in London Journal (30 March 1728).


It has, I think, been generally agreed among Moralists, that all publick Sports and Entertainments should be regulated, as to have a Tendency to the Encouragement of Virtue, and the Discountenance of Vice and Immorality. The Practice established by the wisest Legislators, who were sensible how great an Influence Plays and other Diversions have on the Minds and Manners of the Populace, has been conformable to this salutary Maxim. How shocking then wou'd it have appeared to the venerable Sages of Antiquity, to have seen an Author bring upon the Stage, as a proper Subject for Laughter and Merriment, a Gang of Highwaymen and Pick-pockets, triumphing in their successful Villainies, and braving the ignominious Death they so justly deserve, with the undaunted Resolution of a Stoical Philosopher? The Courage express'd in the following Lines wou'd have become a Seneca or a Raleigh, but seems not so suitable to the Character of a Criminal:

The Charge is prepar'd; the Lawyers are met;
The Judges all rang'd (a terrible Show!)
I go, undismay'd. — For Death is a Debt,
A Debt on Demand. — So, take what I owe.

The chief End of Punishment is to prevent the Commission of the like Offences for the future; and therefore all good Subjects should endeavour, as far as it lies in their Power, to heighten the Terror of the Penalties annexed by the Laws to flagrant Crimes: But to place (on the contrary) these Penalties in a ludicrous Light, and to represent them as easie to be borne and contemptible, is in effect blunting the Edge of the Civil Sword, and opening the Flood-Gates (if I may so speak,) to the most outrageous Enormities. The Mischief will be still farther promoted, if the Lives of such abandon'd Wretches as Robbers and Night-Walkers are described as agreeable, and full of Mirth and Jollity. How far a celebrated Entertainment may have contributed (contrary to the Intention of the Author) towards those daring Attacks, which are daily committed on the Property of the Subject in the Streets of our Capital, (in Defiance of all Law, and, I believe, beyond the Example of former Ages,) I will not pretend to say. But, I am sure, nothing can be more proper to foment these Violences than such Lines as these:

See the Ball I hold!
Let the Chymists toil like Asses,
Our Fire their Fire surpasses,
And turns all our Lead to Gold.

The Agreeableness of the Entertainment, and its being adapted to the Taste of the Vulgar, and set to easy pleasant Tunes, (which almost every body can remember,) makes the Contagion spread the wider, and the Consequence the more to be dreaded. What Cicero says of the Poets in general may (with a little Alteration,) be more justly apply'd to the Songs now in Vogue: "Ita eunt dulces, ut non tantum avida bibantur aure, sed etiam ediscantur. Sic ad malam disciplinam, vitamque dissolutam, et effrenatiam, cum accesserunt hujusmodi Poetae, nervos omnis virtutis elidunt." — I shall conclude with a very just Observation of Mr. Addison in the 249th Spectator: "If (says he,) the Talent of Ridicule were employ'd to laugh Men out of Vice and Folly; it might be of some Use to the World; but, instead of this, we find that it is generally made use of to laugh Men out of Virtue and good Sense, by attacking every thing that is solemn and serious, decent and praise-worthy in human Life."

I am, SIR,

Your very humble Servant,