Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Henry Austin Dobson
John Gay (16851732)
[John Gay was born at Barnstaple. Fairly educated, he began life in London as a silk-mercer; but soon relinquished that occupation for literature. His first poem was Rural Sports, a Georgic inscribed to Mr. Pope, 1713. In the following year he produced The Shepherds Week, a set of six pastorals. His principal remaining works are the farce of The What-dye Call-it, 1715; the mock-heroic poem of Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, 1716; Fables, 172738; and the famous Beggars Opera, 1728. His Poems on Several Occasions, including the pastoral tragedy of Dione, were published in 1720. He was also concerned in, and bore the blame of, the unlucky comedy of Three Hours after Marriage, to which Pope and Arbuthnot had largely contributed. He died in London in December, 1732.]
GAY appears to have been one of those easy-tempered, indolent, irresponsible good-creatures, whose lot in this world would probably be either pitiful or tragic, if a beneficent Fate did not provide them with charitable friends who watch over them with almost parental solicitude. Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, seem to have cherished a genuine affection for him; and in later life the Duke and Duchess of Queensbury received him into their house, and took care both of the helpless poet and his money. His first poem, Rural Sports, though it contains some happy descriptive passages, is of the toujours bien, jamais mieux order of performance. Its dedication, however, procured him the friendship of Pope. The Shepherds Week, his next effort, was in fact suggested by Pope, who, fresh from his covert attack in the Guardian (Monday, April 27, 1713) on the sham pastoral of Ambrose Philips, foresaw what powerful assistance Gays observant humour and knowledge of the country would furnish to his cause. The rustic life was to be depicted with the gilt off, and the right simple Eclogue essayed after the true ancient guise of Theocritus. Thou wilt not find my Shepherdesses, says the authors proem, idly piping upon 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. Like Fieldings novel of Joseph Andrews, the execution of The Shepherds Week was far superior to its avowed object of mere ridicule. In spite of their barbarous Bumkinets and Grubbinols, Gays eclogues abound with interesting folk-lore and closely-studied rural pictures. We see the country-girl burning hazel-nuts to find her sweet-heart, or presenting the faithless Colin with a knife with a posy on it, or playing Hot Cockles, or listening to Gillian of Croydon and Patient Grissel. There are also sly strokes of kindly satire, as when the shepherds are represented fencing the grave of Blouzelinda against the prospective inroads of the parsons horse and cow, which have the right of grazing in the churchyard; or when that dignitary, in consideration of the liberal sermon-fee,
Spoke the Hour-glass in her praisequite out.
These little touches (and there are a hundred more) make us sure that we are reading no mere caricature; but that the country-life of that age of Queen Anne, which her poet loyally declares to be the only Golden Age, is truly and faithfully brought before us.
The Shepherds Week was followed by Trivia, for which, the preface tells us, the author received several hints from Swift, with whose City Shower it has affinities. It is a lively and humourous description of the London streets circa 1716, and has an antiquarian as well as a poetical value. The farce of The What dye Call It contains the musical ballad Twas when the seas were roaring, which we quote. Gays only other important work (for the Beggars Opera does not come within our limits) is the Fables, which in 1726 he prepared for the edification of the young Duke of Cumberland. As a fabulist he is easy and colloquial; and his work is distinguished by good-humour and good-sense; but he fails to reach the happy negligence and the supreme art of La Fontaine. The Hare and many Friends is a fair sample of his manner; and it is of additional interest as being in some measure a personal utterance, though the records of his life show that, in spite of his disappointments of court favour, he seldom failed in finding a Monmouth or a Burlington to soothe his wounded feelings. Moreover, the profits from his works, which enabled him, in spite of losses, to die worth £6000, could not have been inconsiderable.
The Fables are Gays most extensive effort. His remaining works consist of Epistles, Town Eclogues, Tales, and Miscellaneous Pieces. The Epistles are sprightly and familiar. One of them, A Welcome from Greece, addressed to Pope on his having finished his translation of the Iliad, has an unexpected vivacity and lyric movement. It is in an ottava-rima earlier than Frere or Byron; and exhibits the poets contemporaries assembling to greet him after his six years toil. Prior, Congreve, Steele, Chandos, Bathurst,few of the illustrious names of the age are absent. Nor are the other sex unrepresented:
What ladys that, to whom he gently bends?
Who knows not her? ah! those are Wortleys eyes!
How art thou honoured, numbered with her friends!
For she distinguishes the good and wise.
The sweet-tongued Murray near her side attends;
Now to my heart the glance of Howard flies;
Now Hervey, fair of face, I mark full well,
With thee, Youths youngest daughter, sweet Lepell.
As to Gays Town Eclogues, they are neither better nor worse than Lady Marys own; and probably had a like origin, ridicule of Ambrose Philips. His Tales have the indelicacy but not the grace of Priors. Of his songs and ballads, that of Sweet Williams Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan is too well-known to need description; and too great a favourite to be omitted from any anthology. Damon and Cupid and The Ladys Lamentation are other examples of that singing faculty which Gay possessed in so marked a degree, and which contributed so triumphantly to the success of the Beggars Opera.