1727
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Fable XLVII. The Court of Death.

Fables. By Mr. Gay.

John Gay


John Gay employs some Spenserian diction in his catalogue of diseases: Feaver, Gout, Veneral Disease, Stone, Consumption, Plague. In the fable Death's minions compete for the position of prime minister; in the absence of a physician, Death decides to award the palm to Intemperance, "Who fills with gold their zealous hand." Compare the more graphic allegorical descriptions of the diseases in William Thompson's Sickness. A Poem (1747) and Charles Emily's "Death, a Poem" in St. James's Magazine 1 (October 1762) 91-99.

John Gay to Jonathan Swift: "I have attended my distressed friend at Twickenham, and been his amanuensis, which you know is no idle charge. I have read about half Virgil, and half Spenser's Fairy Queen. I still despise court preferments, so that I lose no time upon attendance on great men; and still can find amusement enough without quadrille, which here is the universal employment of life" 22 October 1725; Works of Swift, ed. Nichols (1801) 12:205-06.

Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift: "Gay is writing tales for prince William: I suppose Mr. Philips will take this very ill, for two reasons; one that he thinks all childish things belong to him, and the other, because he will take it ill to be taught that one may write things to a child, without being childish" 10 December 1725; Works of Swift, ed. Nichols (1801) 14:49.

Samuel Johnson: "Of this kind of Fables the authors do not appear to have formed any distinct or settled notion. Phaedrus evidently confounds them with Tales, and Gay both with Tales and Allegorical Prosopoeias. A Fable or Apologue, such as is now under consideration, seems to be in its genuine state a narrative in which beings irrational, and sometimes inanimate, 'arbores loquuntur, non tantum ferae,' are for the purpose of moral instruction feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions. To this description the compositions of Gay do not always conform. For a Fable he gives now and then a Tale or an abstracted Allegory; and from some, by whatever name they may be called, it will be difficult to extract any moral principle. They are, however, told with liveliness: the versification is smooth, and the diction, though now and then a little constrained by the measure or the rhyme, is generally happy" "John Gay" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:283.

John Aikin: "in 1726, he composed the work by which he is best known, his Fables, written professedly for the young Duke of Cumberland, and dedicated to him. In the manner of narration there is considerable ease, together with much lively and natural painting, but they will hardly stand in competition with the French fables of La Fontaine. Gay naturally expected a handsome reward for his trouble; but upon the accession of George II. nothing better was offered him than the poet of gentleman-usher to the young Princess Louisa, which he regarded rather as an indignity than a favour, and accordingly declined" Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 238.

Robert Chambers: "His fables are still, however, the best we possess; and if they have not the nationality or rich humour and archness of La Fontaine's, the subjects of them are light and pleasing, and the versification always smooth and correct. 'The Hare with Many Friends' is doubtless drawn from Gay's own experience. In the Court of Death, he aims at a higher order of poetry, and marshals his 'diseases dire' with a strong and gloomy power" Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:572.

John Gay's Fables was among the most frequently reprinted of all eighteenth-century poems. A close imitation, called "The Court of Vice" was published in American Museum or Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces 5 (February 1789) 203.



Death, on a solemn night of state,
In all his pomp of terrors sate:
Th' attendants of his gloomy reign,
Diseases dire, a ghastly train,
Croud the vast court. With hollow tone
A voice thus thunder'd from the throne.

This night one minister we name,
Let ev'ry servant speak his claim;
Merit shall bear this eban wand.
All, at the word, stretch'd forth their hand.

Feaver, with burning heat possest,
Advanc'd, and for the wand addrest.

I to the weekly bills appeal,
Let those express my fervent zeal,
On ev'ry slight occasion near,
With violence I persevere.

Next Gout appears with limping pace,
Pleads how he shifts from place to place,
And ev'ry joint and sinew plys,
Still working when he seems supprest,
A most tenacious stubborn guest.

A haggard spectre from the crew
Crawls forth, and thus asserts his due.
'Tis I who taint the sweetest joy,
And in the shape of love destroy:
My thanks, sunk eyes, and noseless face
Prove my pretension to the place.

Stone urg'd his ever-growing force.
And, next, Consumption's meagre corse,
With feeble voice, that scarce was heard,
Broke with short coughs, his suit prefer'd
Let none object my lingring way,
I gain, like Fabius, by delay,
Fatigue and weaken ev'ry foe
By long attack, secure though slow.

Plague represents his rapid power,
Who thinn'd a nation in an hour.

All spoke their claim, and hop'd the wand.
Now expectation hush'd the band,
When thus the monarch from the throne.

Merit was ever modest known.
What, no physician speak his right!
None here! But sees their toils requite,
Let then Intempr'ance take the wand,
Who fills with gold their zealous hand.
You, Feaver, Gout, and all the rest,
(Whom wary men, as foes, detest,)
Forgo your claim; no more pretend:
Intemp'rance is esteem'd a friend,
He shares their mirth, their social joys,
And, as a courted guest, destroys;
The charge on him must justly fall,
Who finds employment for you all.

[pp.159-62]