John Gay was born on June 30, 1685, at Barnstaple, in Devonshire. Apprenticed from 1702 to 1706 to a London silk mercer, Gay left the business world to make his living as a writer. For most of his life, he was plagued with financial problems, in part because of poor investments and in part because of difficulties in finding a long-standing patron. In 1712, he became secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, and in 1714, he joined the household of Lord Clarendon, a position he kept less than a year. During these years, he became an active and well-liked member of the circle surrounding Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift and remained close friends with both men all of his life.
In 1723, Gay received a government appointment that, along with an offer of lodgings at Whitehall, gave him a measure of financial security. His friendships with the royal circle, however, always made him hope for more substantial support, a hope that was perhaps unrealistic, since most of Gay’s friends were Tories, and the Whigs, led by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, were in control of the government. Gay may have become concerned that the acceptance of a government post would mean the loss of his literary freedom, for in 1727, he turned down the offer of the position of Gentleman Usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa.
Although Gay is consistently described as honest and congenial, and his works reflect his basically good-humored disposition, his struggles to achieve recognition and support left him somewhat disillusioned and disappointed. His dissatisfaction with the ruling party and with Walpole, whom he believed was responsible for blocking his own hopes, resulted in the strong vein of political satire that runs through his works. Walpole’s displeasure with the satire in The Beggar’s Opera, Gay’s most financially successful play, led to the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition of its sequel, Polly, in 1728. The resulting squabble cost Gay his lodgings at Whitehall, and he spent the last years of his life, increasingly bothered by a chronic ailment, with his patrons, the duke and duchess of Queensberry. Gay died suddenly in London on December 4, 1732; he is buried in Westminster Abbey.
John Gay was born at Barnstaple, North Devonshire, on June 30, 1685. His father, William Gay, died in early 1695, while his mother, a Hanmer (and a relative of the speaker of Parliament and editor of William Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Hanmer), had preceded her husband in death by only a few months (1694). An uncle, Thomas Gay (died 1702), took charge of both house and family, sending young John to the free grammar school at Barnstaple. There the boy received more than competent instruction in the classics and poetry from the Reverend Robert Luck, a young High Churchman from Westminster School, newly graduated from Christ Church, Oxford. After the death of his uncle, the boy set out for London to become an apprentice to a silk mercer, a vocation that quickly lost its appeal for him. In fact, he became so depressed that his health suffered, and so he returned, in 1706, to Barnstaple and the house of another uncle, the Reverend John Hanmer, a Nonconformist and a sincere Calvinist who died in July, 1707.
Upon Hanmer’s death, Gay once more set his course for London, where he served his former schoolmate and fellow poet, Aaron Hill, as a transcriber and general secretary. His first poem, Wine, came forth shortly thereafter; Gay announced that its sources were Miltonic, but the piece shows a strong influence of Ambrose Philips’s most noteworthy labor of verse, The Splendid Shilling. Interestingly enough, the poem did not appear in the first edition of his Poems on Several Occasions.
At any rate, Wine sent Gay into the profession of letters. He formed an acquaintance with Alexander Pope, and his reputation rose when, in 1712, Bernard Lintot’s Miscellany included his translation of one of Ovid’s narrative poems from The Metamorphoses in close proximity to the first version of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Early in 1713, Rural Sports, his georgic dedicated to Pope, appeared, followed, in the fall of that year, by a clever essay on the art of dress for Sir Richard Steele’s Guardian.
Although Pope tried his hand at improving Gay’s next major poetic effort, The Fan, the piece failed to engage the interest of its readers. Undaunted, Gay published The Shepherd’s Week, a series of eclogues in which Pope also played a prominent role. Apparently the bard of Twickenham required some assistance in his attack upon Ambrose Philips and that poet’s parodies of the pastoral form; Philips and Pope had published their separate volumes of pastoral poems in the same year (1709). Gay’s part in the conflict was to depict rustic life without the usual classical ornamentation; in other words, Pope wanted something in which cattle would be milked and pigs would stray from their sties. To his credit, however, Gay went beyond mere ridicule and managed to produce a series of eclogues containing interesting elements of pastoral folklore...
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