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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Gay (1685–1732)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
“IN the great society of the wits,” said Thackeray, “John Gay deserves to be a favorite, and to have a good place.” The wits loved him. Prior was his faithful ally; Pope wrote him frequent letters of affectionate good advice; Swift grew genial in his merry company; and when the jester lapsed into gloom, as jesters will, all his friends hurried to coddle and comfort him. His verse is not of the first order, but the list of “English classics” contains far poorer; it is entertaining enough to be a pleasure even to bright children of this generation, and each succeeding one reads it with an inherited fondness not by any means without help from its own merits. And the man who invented comic opera, one of the most enduring molds in which English humor has been cast, deserves the credit of all important literary pioneers.  1
  Kind, lazy, clever John Gay came of a good, impoverished Devonshire family, which seems to have done its best for the bright lad of twelve when it apprenticed him to a London silk mercer. The boy hated this employment, grew ill under its fret and confinement, went back to the country, studied, possibly wrote poor verses, and presently drifted back to London. The cleverest men of the time frequented the crowded taverns and coffee-houses, and the talk that he heard at Will’s and Button’s may have determined his profession. Thither came Pope and Addison, Swift and Steele, Congreve, St. John, Prior, Arbuthnot, Cibber, Hogarth, Walpole, and many a powerful patron who loved good company.  2
  Perhaps through some kind acquaintance made in this informal circle, Gay obtained a private secretaryship, and began the flirtation with the Muse which became serious only after some years of coldness on that humorous lady’s part. His first poem, ‘Wine,’ published when he was twenty-three, is not included in his collected works: perhaps because it is written in blank verse; perhaps because his maturer taste condemned it. Three years later, in 1711, when the success of the Spectator was yet new, and Pope had just completed his brilliant ‘Art of Criticism,’ and Swift was editing the Examiner and working on that defense of a French peace, ‘The Conduct of the Allies,’ which was to make him the talk of London,—Gay sent forth his second venture; a curious, unimportant pamphlet, ‘The Present State of Wit.’ Late in 1713 he is contributing to Dicky Steele’s Guardian, and sending elegies to his ‘Poetical Miscellanies’; and a little later, having become a favorite with the powerful Mr. Pope, he is made to bring up new reinforcements to the battle of that irascible gentleman with his ancient enemy Ambrose Phillips. This he does in ‘The Shepherd’s Week,’ a sham pastoral, which is full of wit and easy versification, and shows very considerable talents as a parodist. This skit the luckless satirist dedicated to Bolingbroke, whose brilliant star was just passing into eclipse. Swift thought this harmless courtesy the real cause of the indifference of the Brunswick princes to the merits of the poet; and in an age when every spark of literary genius was so carefully nursed and utilized to sustain the weak dynasty, most likely he was right.  3
  For this reason or another, indifferent they were; and in a time when court favor counted enormously, poor indolent luxury-loving Gay had to earn his loaf by hard work, or go without it. He produced a tragi-comi-pastoral farce called ‘What D’ye Call It?’ which was the lineal ancestor of ‘Pinafore’ and the ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in its method of treating farcical incidents in a grave manner. But the town did not see the fun of this expedient, and the play failed, though it contained, among other famous songs, ‘’Twas When the Seas Were Roaring.’ In 1716 ‘Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London,’ put some money into the poet’s empty pocket, thanks to Pope’s good offices. A year later a second comedy of his, ‘Three Hours after Marriage,’ met with well-deserved failure. And now, as always, when his spirits sank, his good friends showered kindnesses upon him. Mr. Secretary Pulteney carried him off to Aix. Lord Bathurst and Lord Burlington were his to command. Many fine gentlemen, and particularly many fine ladies, pressed him to make indefinite country visits. In 1720 his friends managed the publication of his poems in two quarto volumes, subscribing for ten, twenty, and even fifty copies apiece, some of them, and securing to the poet, it is said, £1,000. The younger Craggs, the bookseller, gave him some South-Sea stock which rose rapidly, and at one time the improvident little gentleman found himself in possession of £20,000. All his friends besought him to sell, but Alnaschar Gay had visions of a splendid ease and opulence. The bubble burst, and poor Alnaschar had not wherewithal to pay his broker.  4
  The Duchess of Queensborough (Prior’s “Kitty, beautiful and young”) had already annexed the charmer, and now carried him off to Petersham. “I wish you had a little villakin in Mr. Pope’s neighborhood,” scolds Swift to him; “but you are yet too volatile, and any lady with a coach and six horses might carry you to Japan;” and again:—“I know your arts of patching up a journey between stagecoaches and friend’s coaches—for you are as arrant a cockney as any hosier in Cheapside. I have often had it in my head to put it into yours, that you ought to have some great work in scheme which may take up seven years to finish, besides two or three under ones that may add another thousand pounds to your stock; and then I shall be in less pain about you. I know you can find dinners, but you love twelvepenny coaches too well, without considering that the interest of a whole thousand pounds brings you but half a crown a day.” Gay went to Bath with the Queensberrys, and to Oxford. Swift complained to Pope:—“I suppose Mr. Gay will return from Bath with twenty pounds more flesh, and two hundred pounds less money. Providence never designed him to be above two-and-twenty, by his thoughtlessness and gullibility. He has as little foresight of age, sickness, poverty, or loss of admirers as a girl of fifteen.” And his dear Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk, took him affectionately to task:—“Your head is your best friend: it would clothe, lodge, and feed you; but you neglect it, and follow that false friend your heart, which is such a foolish, tender thing that it makes others despise your head, that have not half so good a one on their own shoulders. In short, John, you may be a snail, or a silkworm; but by my consent you shall never be a hare again.”  5
  He lived under other great roofs, if not contentedly, at least gracefully and agreeably. If his dependent state irked him, his hosts did not perceive it. To Swift he wrote, indeed, “They wonder at each other for not providing for me, and I wonder at them all.” Yet, for the nine years from 1722 to 1731 he had a small official salary, on which a thriftier or more industrious mortal would have managed to live respectably even in that expensive age; and for at least a part of the time he had official lodgings at Whitehall.  6
  In 1725 was published the first edition of his famous ‘Fables,’ which had been written for the moral behoof of Prince William, afterward Duke of Cumberland, of unblessed memory. The book did not make his fortune with the court, as he had hoped, and in 1728 he produced his best-known work, ‘The Beggar’s Opera.’ Nobody had much faith in this “Newgate Pastoral,” least of all Swift, who had first suggested it. But it took the town by storm, running for sixty-three consecutive nights. As the heroine, Polly Peachum, the lovely Lavinia Fenton captured a duchess’s coronet. The songs were heard alike in West End drawing-rooms and East End slums. Swift praised it for its morality, and the Archbishop of Canterbury scored it for its condonation of vice. The breath of praise and blame filled equally its prosperous sails, blew it all over the kingdom wherever a theatre could be found, and finally wafted it to Minorca. So well did the opera pay him that Gay wrote a sequel called ‘Polly,’ which, being prohibited through some notion of Walpole’s, sold enormously by subscription and earned Gay £1,200.  7
  After this the hospitable Queensberrys seem to have adopted him. He produced a musical drama, ‘Acis and Galatea,’ written long before and set to Handel’s music; a few more ‘Fables’; a thin opera called ‘Achilles’; and then his work was done. He died in London of a swift fever, in December 1732, before his kind Kitty and her husband could reach him, or his other great friend, the Countess of Suffolk. Arbuthnot watched over him; Pope was with him to the last; Swift indorsed on the letter that brought him the tidings, “On my dear friend Mr. Gay’s death; received on December 15th, but not read till the 20th, by an impulse foreboding some misfortune.” So faithfully did the “giants,” as Thackeray calls them, cherish this gentle, friendly, affectionate, humorous comrade. He seems indeed to have been almost the only companion with whom Swift did not at some time fall out, and of his steadfastness the gloomy great man in his ‘Verses on my Own Death’ could write:—
  “Poor Pope will grieve a month, and Gay
A week, and Arbuthnot a day.”
  8
  The ‘Trivia’ and the ‘Shepherd’s Week,’ the ‘Acis and Galatea’ and even the ‘Beggar’s Opera,’ gradually faded into the realm of “old, forgotten, far-off things”; while the ‘Fables’ passed through many editions, found their place in school reading-books, were committed to memory by three generations of admiring pupils, and included in the most orthodox libraries. Yet criticism now reverts to the earlier standard; approves the songs, and the minute observation, the nice phrasing, and the humorous swing of the pastorals and operas, and finds the fables dull, commonplace, and monotonous. Pope said in his affectionate epitaph that the poet had been laid in Westminster Abbey, not for ambition, but—
  “That the worthy and the good shall say,
Striking their pensive bosoms, ‘Here lies Gay.’”
If to-day the worthy and the good do not know even where he lies, not the less is he to be gratefully remembered whom the best and greatest of his own time so much admired, and of whom Pope and Johnson and Thackeray and Dobson have written with the warmth of friendship.
  9
 
 
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