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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

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...

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1203

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 and accurate descriptions of rural scenes.

Shortly after the publication of The Shepherd’s Week, Gay obtained a position as secretary to Lord Clarendon, probably as a result of Swift’s influence; the poet then accompanied his employer to the court of Hanover in 1714. However, the death of Queen Anne within the same year terminated Clarendon’s mission as well as his need for a secretary. Returning to England in September, 1714, Gay, acting on the advice of Pope and Arbuthnot, took to publishing poetry that would secure him some favor at court. The most obvious of these pieces was an “Epistle to a Lady, Occasion’d by the Arrival of Her Royal Highness,” written for the Princess of Wales, who came to England in mid-October, 1714. In that poem, he appealed directly for patronage and bemoaned the fact that he had been obliged to appeal for any type of employment.

The following year witnessed an upturn in the poet’s fortunes. Lord Burlington sent him to Devonshire, and that journey found its way into a verse epistle titled “A Journey to Exeter.” Then, in January, 1716, Trivia was published; Lintot paid him 43 for the effort, and he received at least 150 more from the sale of paperbound copies. Gay continued to serve the needs of the nobility and to compose verses in their honor. In July, 1717, William Pultney, soon to become earl of Bath, chose him as a companion for a trip to Aix. In 1718, he ventured to Cockthorpe, Oxfordshire, the seat of Lord Harcourt—which placed him near Pope, then hard at work on his translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.). Within two years, Lintot and Jacob Tonson published Gay’s poems in two quarto volumes; more important to Gay at that point than the actual poems was the impressive subscription list, bearing witness to the extent of the nobility’s willingness (at least at that moment during the reign of the first Hanoverian) to support its favorite men of letters. Gay allegedly earned in excess of 1000 from the two volumes, then lost it all (and much more, perhaps) in the disastrous South Sea speculation (1720).

Fortunately, Gay was rescued from both spiritual and financial failure by two of the more prominent subscribers to his 1720 Poems on Several Occasions, Catherine Hyde and her husband Charles, third duke of Queensbury. They took him into their home and into their circle of influential friends, thus easing Gay’s financial difficulties. He even managed to secure the post of lottery commissioner, for which he received 150 yearly from 1722 to 1731. His health continued to pose a problem, although his successful career as a dramatist was just beginning. By early 1728, with The Beggar’s Opera ready for production, he had already gained a foothold with his tragedy The Captives and by nomination as gentleman-usher to the small Princess Louisa (which he declined to accept). By the time that The Beggar’s Opera was halfway through its run of sixty-three days, Gay had already earned between 700 and 800. After the London season, the opera was performed widely throughout England and Scotland—and in Ireland, where it was given twenty-four times consecutively. Even the sequel, Polly, although it never reached the stage during Gay’s lifetime, brought the playwright between 1100 and 1200 from publication—far more than he could have achieved from actual performances.

Affluence, however, could not insulate Gay from sickness. In December, 1728, he suffered a serious attack of fever, and the duke and duchess of Queensbury took him to their country seat of Amesbury, in Wiltshire. There he remained, working on an expanded version of his Fables and producing several pastoral dramas, operas, and comedies that contributed little to his literary reputation. Late in November, 1732, he came to London to arrange for the production of his Achilles; he suffered an attack of inflammatory fever and died on December 4, 1732, attended by his friend and physician, Arbuthnot. He lay in state at Exeter Exchange and then was carried for burial to Westminster Abbey, where Queensbury had erected a handsome monument to his memory. The juvenile quality of the epitaph, written by Gay himself—“Life is a jest, and all things show it./ I thought so once, and now I know i”—hardly rises to the level of the writer’s status in life and the fact that his personal fortune, at his death, was in excess of 6000.

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