Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although Gay was evidently aware of the pitfalls associated with writing a mock-heroic poem on the simple topic of walking the streets of London and entitling it an art—inviting his readers to compare it with Horace’s Ars Poetica (the art of poetry, c. 17 b.c.e.)—, he clearly saw his endeavor as having some utilitarian value for country folk and others who were less familiar with London thoroughfares than he was. His intent was to be of help to the uninitiated and the inexperienced, and he acknowledged toward the conclusion of his poem, “Yet shall I bless my labours, if mankind/ Their future safety from my dangers find.” His didacticism is therefore quite clear: He wants to be a guide, to be helpful—a commendable intention for a poet or a friend when in need. The reader is thus well disposed toward the poet and is ready to accept his guidance and even his predispositions and prejudices.

The issue or concern at the heart of the poem is the safety of a neophyte tourist in London, sightseeing on foot by day or night, in all the seasons. While the subject might seem devoid of poetic possibility, Gay’s selection of particular subject matter provides the basis for the poetry—rather than mere verse—to be found in almost all sections. Edgar Allan Poe argued in The Poetic Principle (1849) that there is no such thing as a long poem—that in actuality a long poem is a series of minor poems, each...

(The entire section is 465 words.)