The Tea-Table. A Town Eclogue.

Poems on Several Occasions. By Mr. John Gay.

John Gay

A pastoral singing-contest in which Doris and Melanthe take turns in assassinating the reputations of their friends Sylvia and Laura. The setting for the tea-party is Doris's fashionable residence near Saint James's. While the characters of the gossips Doris and Melanthe are interchangeable, Sylvia and Laura are distinct types, the former a flirt ("Sylvia the vain fantastic Fop admires, | The Rake's loose gallantry her bosom fires") and the latter a prude ("Laura rails at men, the sex reviles, | Their vice condemns, or at their folly smiles"). The inspiration for this eclogue is the fifteenth Idyllium of Theocritus, "The Syracusian Gossips," though Gay is more artful in the development of his argument, as insult is deftly added to insult in an undeniably pretty form of feminine prattle. The eclogue concludes as the objects of the gossips' scorn arrive and are, of course, made welcome with fulsome compliments.

William Howitt: "There is a far too considerable quantity of his writings which are utterly vile and filthy, and fit only to be bound up with Rochester, or rather not to be bound up at all; and it may he questioned whether the prudent lessons of his fables, and the better sentiments scattered through his other poetry, could by any means even neutralize the effect of his pages of defilement, were not the better more commonly read, and the worse left to oblivion by the purer spirit of the age" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent English Poets (1847) 1:144.

Richmond P. Bond: "The so-called 'town eclogue' probably owes little to Gay, but is rather a case of a recognized form used for satiric purposes. In 1710 Swift wrote the first, and those by Pope, Gay, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu are well known to students of the period. In these town eclogues satire on the life of the town was developed; the dialogue form and the conventional situations merely proved convenient" English Burlesque Poetry (1932) 113.

Saint James's noon-day bell for prayers had toll'd,
And coaches to the Patron's Levee roll'd,
When Doris rose. And now through all the room
From flow'ry Tea exhales a fragrant fume.
Cup after cup they sipt, and talk'd by fits,
For Doris here and there Melanthe sits.
Doris was young, a laughter-loving dame,
Nice of her own alike and others fame;
Melanthe's tongue could well a tale advance,
And sooner gave than sunk a circumstance:
Lock'd in her mem'ry secrets never dy'd;
Doris begun, Melanthe thus reply'd.

Sylvia the vain fantastic Fop admires,
The Rake's loose gallantry her bosom fires;
Sylvia like that is vain, like this she roves,
In liking them she but her self approves.

Laura rails at men, the sex reviles,
Their vice condemns, or at their folly smiles.
Why should her tongue in just resentments fail,
Since men at her with equal freedom rail?

Last Masquerade was Sylvia nymphlike seen,
Her hand a crook sustain'd, her dress was green;
An am'rous shepherd led her through the croud,
The nymph was innocent, the shepherd vow'd;
But nymphs their innocence with shepherds trust;
So both withdrew, as nymph and shepherd must.

Name but the licence of the modern stage,
Laura takes fire, and kindles into rage;
The whining Tragic love she scarce can bear,
But nauseous Comedy ne'er shock'd her ear;
Yet in the gall'ry mob'd, she sits secure,
And laughts at jests that turn the Box demure.

Trust not, ye Ladys, to your beauty's pow'r,
For beauty withers like a shrivell'd flow'r;
Yet those fair flow'rs that Sylvia's temples bind,
Fade not with sudden blights or winter's wind;
Like those her face defys the rolling years,
For art her roses and her charms repairs.

Laura despises ev'ry outward grace,
The wanton sparkling eye, the blooming face;
The beauties of the soul are all her pride,
For other beauties Nature has deny'd;
If affectation show a beauteous mind,
Lives there a man to Laura's merits blind?

Sylvia be sure defies the town's reproach,
Whose Deshabille is soil'd in hackney coach;
What though the sash was clos'd, must we conclude,
That she was yielding, when her Fop was rude?

Laura learnt caution at too dear a cost.
What Fair could e'er retrieve her honour lost?
Secret she loves; and who the nymph can blame,
Who durst not own a footman's vulgar flame?

Though Laura's homely taste descends so low;
Her footman well may vye with Sylvia's Beau.

Yet why should Laura think it is a disgrace,
When proud Miranda's groom wears Flander's lace?

What, though for musick Cynthio boasts an ear?
Robin perhaps can hum an Opera air.
Cynthio can bow, takes snuff, and dances well,
Robin talks common sense, can write and spell;
Sylvia's vain fancy dress and show admires,
But 'tis the man alone whom Laura fires.

Plato's wise morals Laura's soul improve:
And this no doubt must be Platonic love!
Her soul to gen'rous acts was still inclin'd;
What shows more virtue than an humble mind?

What, though young Sylvia love the Park's cool shade,
And wander in the dusk the secret glade?
Masqu'd and alone (by chance) she met her Spark,
That innocence is weak which shuns the dark.

But Laura for her flame has no pretence;
Her footman is a footman too in sense.
All Prudes I hate, and those are rightly curst
With scandal's double load, who censure first.

And what if Cynthio Sylvia's garter ty'd!
Who such a foot and such a leg would hide;
When crook-kneed Phillis can expose to view
Her gold-clock'd stoking, and her tawdry shoe?

If pure Devotion center in the face,
If cens'ring others show intrinsick grace,
If guilt to publick freedoms be confin'd,
Prudes (all must own) are of the holy kind!

Sylvia disdains reserve, and flys constraint:
She neither is, nor would be thought a Saint.

Love is a trivial passion, Laura crys,
May I be blest with friendship's stricter tyes;
To such a breast all secrets we commend;
Sure the whole Drawing-room is Laura's friend.

At marriage Sylvia rails; who men would trust?
Yet husband's jealousies are sometimes just.
Her favours Sylvia shares among mankind,
Such gen'rous love should never be confin'd.

As thus alternate chat employ'd their tongue,
With thund'ring raps the brazen knocker rung.
Laura with Sylvia came; the nymphs arise:
This unexpected visit, Doris crys,
Is doubly kind! Melanthe Laura led,
Since I was last so blest, my dear, she said,
Sure 'tis an age! they sate, the hour was set;
And all again that night at Ombre met.

[(1731) 2:85-90]