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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

§ 13. Gay’s love of ease; His Friends

Gay’s later years were uneventfully spent in the house of his faithful patrons the duke and duchess of Queensberry, at Amesbury and at Burlington gardens. The duchess and Gay wrote some amusing joint letters to Swift, who entered into the correspondence with zest, beginning his reply low on the page as a mark of respect—receiving her grace, as it were, at the bottom of the stairs. Yet Swift’s fondness for Gay himself was genuine, as may be discerned in more than one touching letter. The duchess looked after the gentle parasite’s little comforts, and kept his money under lock and key, while the duke invested his savings for him, so that when he died, intestate, about £6000, or thereabouts, was left to be divided between his sisters. After an idle life which, on the whole, notwithstanding his unmanly repining, was one in which good fortune preponderated, Gay died suddenly, of inflammatory fever, on 4 December, 1732. He was interred with much pomp in Westminster abbey, where an imposing monument, erected by the unwearying duke and duchess, bears, together with Pope’s, the light-minded poet’s own characteristic epitaph:

  • Life is a jest, and all things show it;
  • I thought so once, and now I know it.
  • His easy-going, affectionate disposition made Gay a general favourite, even though, as Johnson observed, the wits regarded him rather as a playfellow than a partner. He was utterly devoid of energy; and though, in complaining of his treatment by the court, he laments “My hard fate! I must get nothing, write for or against,” it is very far from clear what duties he would have been fit to discharge, had they been imposed upon him. He was, in truth, predestined on every account, in Pope’s phrase, to “die unpension’d with a hundred friends.”

    Gay’s longer poems, with the exception of The Shepherd’s Week and Trivia, are dead. Of the shorter, some of the eclogues, such as The Birth of the Squire, The Toilette, The Tea-Table and The Funeral, contain many witty passages; and the epistles are all interesting, especially Mr. Pope’s Welcome from Greece, the ottava rima of which has a spontaneous flash and felicity. Written on the completion of Pope’s translation of The Iliad, it represents all the poet’s friends as gathering to meet him on his return to town, each being characterised in one or two apt lines, or by a brief pert epithet, in the happiest possible manner. Among the miscellaneous pieces which deserve to escape neglect is the sprightly Ladies’ Petition to the Honourable the House of Commons, in which the maids of Exeter protest against their loss of the chance of marriage through the interloping competition of windows.