What is the main theme of John Gay's The Shepherd's Week?
The main theme of John Gay's The Shepherd's Week is the contrast between the crude reality of rural life and the artificiality of pastoral poetic descriptions of it.
Gay's The Shepherd's Week is a mock pastoral that makes fun of the artificiality of the pastoral genre. Pastoral poetry is courtly poetry: it is an idealized version of the rural life as imagined by those who don't actually have to live it. Raymond Williams calls it an "enameled" version of real country life. Pastoral poetry is scrubbed clean of all the dirt, poverty, and labor of rural existence. It is this slippage that Gay builds his comedy on.
For example, in "Monday," Gay parodies a singing contest in Virgil's Eclogues. (Virgil and other classical poets were often the source of English pastoral poetry.) Gay's poem opens by stating that in the real world, unlike Virgil,
No chirping Lark the Welkin [heavenly] sheen [light] invokes.
As in the Eclogues, two rural swains decide to have a contest to see who can best praise his beloved. Lobbin Clout is smitten with Blouzelinda. Cuddy, in turn, is fixated on Buxoma.
Their ridiculous names—the clownish "Clout" and "Cuddy"—make fun of pastoral poetry. These are not gentlemen delivering refined speeches about their beloveds but actual crude rural people. And as befits such real workers, their praises bring out the poverty of rural life. For example, Cuddy contrasts the roast beef that the local "landlord" eats with his beloved's simple meatless fare, "White-pot," that shows her poorer state:
But White-pot thick is my Buxoma's Fare.
While she loves White-pot, Capon ne'er shall be,
Nor Hare, nor Beef, nor Pudding, Food for me.
This poem ends, too, with the reminders of the work of farm laborers as Cloddipole, the judge, belittles the two men's poetic attempts as deserving a beating and sends them off to do their tasks. He reminds them that the cattle need to be given water. They are thirsty because the men have been distracted by pastoral nonsense instead of doing their real work:
But see the Sun-Beams bright to Labour warn,
And gild the Thatch of Goodman Hodges' barn.
Your Herds for want of Water stand adry,
They're weary of your Songs—and so am I.
This juxtaposition of the inflated pastoral love poetry of the leisure classes with the crude reality of rural labor draws laughs and pokes fun at the pastoral poetry being written in the early eighteenth century.
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