Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 11. John Gay and his early literary efforts; Rural Sports; The Shepherd’s Week; The What D’ ye Call it; Trivia; Gay and the Queensberrys

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 11. John Gay and his early literary efforts; Rural Sports; The Shepherd’s Week; The What D’ ye Call it; Trivia; Gay and the Queensberrys

The spoiled child of the queen Anne fraternity of poets was the pliant fabulist John Gay. The younger son of William Gay, John was baptised at Barnstaple old church on 16 September, 1685. The family was impoverished, and, when his mother and father died, respectively, in 1694 and 1695, the boy was left to the care of his uncle Thomas Gay of Barnstaple, by whom, after being educated at the free grammar school of the town, the lad was apprenticed to a silk mercer in London. In London, after leaving the shop and spending some months in lounging unprofitably in his old home, Gay found an abettor in his old school-mate Aaron Hill, and another in a Westminster hall bookseller, who, in May, 1708, brought out his first experiment in verse, an indifferent poem, in blank verse, with the title Wine, suggested by the Cyder of John Philips. This was followed by A Tragical Comical Farce, said (rather doubtfully) to have been acted in 1712 near the watch house in Covent garden, and detecting the “dudes” or “nuts” of the time in those dread aversions of Swift’s, the Mohocks. In May, 1712, Gay contributed a translation of the story of Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to The Rape of the Lock volume of Lintot’s Miscellaneous Poems and Translations; and, five months later, he became secretary or domestic steward in the house of the highminded widow of the duke of Monmouth beheaded in 1685. In January, 1713, he inscribed to Pope, as the first of contemporary poets, his trim georgic called Rural Sports. It is a smooth reflection of Pope’s own pastoral, saturated with the false sentiment and poetic diction, so-called, of the period, and replete with “feather’d choirs” and “finny broods” (it contains, indeed, a minute and rather grotesque description of fly-fishing). Swift laughed at the modern Theocritus, who knew more about kine than Pope did, but yet could not distinguish rye from barley. In poetic taste, Pope was accepted by Gay as an unfailing mentor, and it was by Pope’s express encouragement that, in December, he went on to supply the world with another heroic poem in three books on that “agreeable machine” The Fan. After a poor and unsuccessful comedy, The Wife of Bath, Gay’s next work of any importance was his pleasing poem The Shepherd’s Week (15 April, 1714), in six pastorals, with a prologue addressed to Bolingbroke, containing familiar flattering allusions to some of the greatest ladies of the day who might be tempted into becoming his patronesses. These pastorals of actual, as opposed to fashionable, rusticity, were written originally to cast ridicule upon those of Ambrose (“Namby-Pamby”) Philips; for Gay was a born parodist. But they were so full of comic humour and droll portraiture of country life that they were soon popular on their own merits as rural poems. The grotesque passages (like those of Greene’s pastorals) helped to conceal the flimsiness of the texture, and the scheme thus serves as a link between the Calender of Spenser and The Gentle Shepherd of Allan Ramsay, while the historical method adopted specially approved itself to Crabbe. Gay was an occasional contributor to Steele’s Guardian; but his versatility in letters did not make up to the duchess of Monmouth for his deficiencies as domestic steward: in the summer of 1714 his position in her household came to an end, and he would have been in a bad case but for the kindness of literary friends. Swift procured him a secretaryship to Lord Clarendon envoy extraordinary at Hanover; and there is a curious rhymed petition to Lord Oxford, in which Gay solicits funds to enable him to set out on his journey. When, a few months later, queen Anne died, the embassage was at an end, and Gay was called to find a brief anchorage with Pope at Binfield. While there, he wrote, with a hint or two from Pope and Arbuthnot, a satirical tragi-comi-pastoral farce The What D’ye Call it, which gives us a distinct foretaste of his clever light librettist vein, and of his happy knack for a ballad (Black-eyed Susan and ’T was when the Seas were roaring were both his). It ridiculed, after the manner of The Rehearsal, a number of plays in vogue; and, in one of the offended dramatists, Steele, Gay lost a friend. His profits amounted to £100. In the following year, he composed, what is probably his best remembered poem, Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, in three books, an elaborate imitation and expansion of Swift’s Tatler poems The City Shower and the photographic Morning. The idea is good, the versification neat, and the mock heroic style admirable, while nearly every couplet is of historic interest to the antiquary and the student of eighteenth century street humours. This was published by Lintot 26 January, 1716, during part of which year Gay found a temporary home with Lord Burlington in Devonshire. A year later, Pulteney took him in his train to Aix, and, in 1718, he was at Nuneham with Lord Harcourt. The number of his patrons justified his collecting and publishing his poems in 1720 in two large quarto subscription volumes, brought out jointly by Lintot and Tonson. He realised £1000 by the venture, which he invested in South Sea stock. For the moment, he was the nominal holder of £20,000 worth; but it vanished in the crash, while he was deliberating what to do with it. Soon afterwards, his hopes of advancement in the new reign were dashed, while his dignity was offended by his nomination as gentleman usher to the princess Louisa, a child under three. In the meantime, he had brought out his Fables (1727) in octosyllabic verse, wherein he surveys mankind for the benefit of the youthful duke of Cumberland. Gay had now become a more or less regular inmate in the household of the duchess of Queensberry, Bolingbroke’s “Sa Singularité” and Prior’s Kitty, younger sister of Lady Jane Hyde, the “blooming Hyde with Eyes so Rare” of his own prologue to The Shepherd’s Week. Gay had spent a great deal of time in polishing his Fables, elaborate trifles, the publication of which by Tonson had been still further delayed by costly expenditure on plates after Kent and Wootton. Ambling, colloquial and, occasionally, slipshod, like the bard himself, it cannot be said Gay’s Fables maintain an inordinately high standard; yet their novelty and glossy ease won them an assured success which lasted for a hundred years before it began to wane. Apart from one or two later fables by Cowper and by Northcote, they are still, probably, the best that have been written in English verse: nor would it be easy for any fabulist to better the narrative of

  • The hare who in a civil way
  • Complied with everything like Gay,
  • a charming fabliau with a touch of personal application—disillusion, for the most part—quite in the manner of the early masters. Gay’s Fables suffer, it is true, from juxtaposition with the terse masterpieces of La Fontaine. Compared with the immortal bonhomme, Gay took but little trouble with his work. The fables were applauded; but the draftsman of the illustrations, it is said, had the lion’s share of the profit. A second set, adding sixteen to the original fifty, appeared in 1738.