1720
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Espousal. A Sober Eclogue. Between two of the People called Quakers.

Poems on Several Occasions. By Mr. John Gay.

John Gay


A burlesque eclogue gently mocking the affectations of the Quaker sect. Caleb and Tabitha negotiate their affection by exchanging jealous fears and rehearsing the history of their courtship. Thus Caleb: "When to the brethren first with fervent zeal | The spirit mov'd thy yearnings to reveal, | How did I joy thy trembling lip to see | Red as the cherry from the Kentish tree; | When Ecstasie had warm'd thy look so meek, | Gardens of roses blushed on thy cheek." Her resistance at an end, Tabitha agrees to make love the antinomian way: "Espousals are but forms. O lead my hence, | For secret love can never give offence." The "simplicity" of Quaker manners is compared to that of the rustics in conventional pastoral. Quaker simplicity (developed here through contrast with worldly fashion) would later become a topical thread in Spenserian verse.

The substance of Gay's eclogue is conventional, the wit deriving from the original turn given to the topic of Theocritean superstition. While did not receive much attention from the critics, this seems to be a cardinal poem in the pastoral tradition, one of the first to take ethnicity as a topic. The Quakers are marked as a group by their characteristic clothing, manners, speech, dietary restrictions, and modes of courtship and worship, precisely the list of attributes that would later come to define cultural discourse. In Gay's poem one sees how this derives from the orientalism in the Song of Solomon tradition, present here by a "sober" inversion. Over the course of the eighteenth century the formula developed by Gay would be applied to all manner of social groups as pastoral abandoned Arcadia to concentrate on local particulars in contemporary life. Spenser had already anticipated this in his "west-country" eclogue, the diction of which had been ridiculed by Pope in Guardian No. 40.

The idea of a Quaker pastoral had originally been mooted by Swift in a letter to Pope that foreshadows later developments in burlesque pastoral with remarkable clarity: it would become a lens through which economic specialization and social differentiation could be examined in minute local detail.

Jonathan Swift to Alexander Pope: "There is a young ingenious quaker in this town who writes verses to his mistress, not very correct, but in a strain purely what a poetical quaker should do, commending her look and habit, &c. It gave me a hint that a set of quaker pastorals might succeed, if our friend Gay could fancy it, and I think it a fruitful subject; pray hear what he says. I believe farther, the pastoral ridicule is not exhausted; and that a porter, footman, or chairman's pastoral might do well. Or what do you think of a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there? 30 April 1716; Works of Swift, ed. Nichols (1801) 14:11.



CALEB. TABITHA.
Beneath the shadow of a beaver hat,
Meek Caleb at a silent meeting sate;
His eye-balls oft' forgot the holy trance,
While Tabitha demure, return'd the glance.
The Meeting ended, Caleb silence broke,
And Tabitha her inward yearnings spoke.

CALEB.
Beloved, see how all things follow love,
Lamb fondleth lamb, and dove disports with dove;
Yet fondled lambs their innocence secure,
And none can call the turtle's bill impure;
O fairest of our sisters, let me be
The billing dove, and fondling lamb to thee.

TABITHA.
But, Caleb, know that birds of gentle mind
Elect a mate among the sober kind,
Not the mockaws, all deck'd in scarlet pride,
Entice their mild and modest hearts aside;
But thou, vain man, beguil'd by Popish shows,
Doatest on ribbands, flounces, furbelows.
If thy false heart be fond of tawdry dyes,
Go, wed the painted arch in summer skies;
Such love will like the rainbow's hue decay,
Strong at the first, but passeth soon away.

CALEB.
Name not the frailtys of my youthful days,
When vice mis-led me through the harlot's ways;
When I with wanton look thy sex beheld,
And nature with each wanton look rebell'd;
Then parti-colour'd pride my heart might move
With lace; the net to catch unhallow'd love.
All such-like love is fading as the flower,
Springs in a day, and withereth in an hour:
But now I feel the spousal love within,
And spousal love no sister holds a sin.

TABITHA.
I know thou longest for the flaunting maid,
Thy falsehood own, and say I am betray'd;
The tongue of man is blister'd o'er with lies,
But truth is ever read in woman's eyes;
O that my lip obey'd a tongue like thine!
Or that thine eye bewray'd a love like mine!

CALEB.
How bitter are thy words! forbear to teaze,
I too might blame — but love delights to please.
Why should I tell thee, that when last the sun
Painted the downy peach of Newington,
Josiah led thee through the garden's walk,
And mingled melting kisses with his talk?
Ah Jealousy! turn, turn thine eyes aside,
How can I see that wretch adorn thy side?
For verily no gift the sisters take
For lust of gain, but for the giver's sake.

TABITHA.
I own, Josiah gave the golden toy,
Which did the righteous hand of Quare employ;
When Caleb hath assign'd some happy day,
I look on this and chide the hours delay:
And when Josiah would his love pursue,
On this I look and shun his wanton view.
Man but in vain with trinkets trys to move,
The only present love demands is love.

CALEB.
Ah Tabitha, to hear these words of thine,
My pulse beats high, as if inflam'd with wine!
When to the brethren first with fervent zeal
The spirit mov'd thy yearnings to reveal,
How did I joy thy trembling lip to see
Red as the cherry from the Kentish tree;
When Ecstasie had warm'd thy look so meek,
Gardens of roses blushed on thy cheek.
With what sweet transport didst thou roll thine eyes,
How did thy words provoke the brethren's sighs!
Words that with holy sighs might others move,
But, Tabitha, my sighs were sighs of love.

TABITHA.
Is Tabitha beyond her wishes blest?
Does no proud worldly dame divide thy breast?
Then hear me, Caleb, witness what I speak,
This solemn promise death alone can break;
Sooner I would bedeck my brow with lace,
And with immodest fav'rites shade my face,
Sooner like Babylon's lewd whore be drest
In flaring di'monds and a scarlet vest,
Or make a curtsie in Cathedral pew,
Than prove inconstant, while my Caleb's true.

CALEB.
When I prove false, and Tabitha forsake,
Teachers shall dance a jig at country wake;
Brethren unbeaver'd then shall bow their head,
And with prophane mince-pies our babes be fed.

TABITHA.
If that Josiah were with passion fir'd,
Warm as the zeal of youth when first inspir'd;
In steady love though he might persevere,
Unchanging as the decent garb we wear,
And thou wert fickle as the wind that blows,
Light as the feather on the bed of Beaus;
Yet I for thee would all thy sex resign,
Sisters, take all the rest — be Caleb mine.

CALEB.
Though I had all that sinful love affords,
And all the concubines of all the Lords,
Whose coaches creak with whoredom's sinful shame,
Whose velvet chairs are with adult'ry lame;
Ev'n in the harlot's hall, I would not sip
The dew of lewdness from her lying lip;
I'd shun her paths, upon thy mouth to dwell,
More sweet than powder which the merchants sell;
O solace me with kisses pure like thine!
Enjoy, ye Lords, the wanton concubine.
The spring now calls us forth; come, sister, come,
To see the primrose and the daisie bloom.
Let ceremony bind the worldly pair,
Sisters esteem the breth'rens word sincere.

TABITHA.
Espousals are but forms. O lead my hence,
For secret love can never give offence.

Then hand in hand the loving mates withdraw.
True love is nature unrestrain'd by law.
This tenet all the holy sect allows.
So Tabitha took earnest of a spouse.

[(1731) 2:97-202]