John Gay Poetry: British Analysis - Essay

John Gay Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

To understand John Gay’s poetry—both individual poems and the entire poetic canon—one must understand the role of the Augustan satirist: the persona, the mask, the complex writer-character that Swift developed so naturally but so carefully and with such intensity in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729). Of all Augustan prose writers and poets who flitted in and out of the persona, either to obscure or to sharpen their satiric bites, Gay employed the technique with the greatest variety. In his early poetry—Wine, The Fan, Rural Sports, The Shepherd’s Week—he donned the mask of sophistication and tradition, of the highly literate, classical, rural Vergilian, of the suburban citizen of the world. At the height of success—the 1727 Fables and To a Lady on Her Passion for Old China—he assumed an air of quiet but intense morality. Finally, in the later pieces added to the Poems on Several Occasions and the second version of the Fables, Gay donned the garb of directness and obvious simplicity, trying very hard to press home the moral of a tale or to meet at least halfway the intellectual and artistic tastes of his readers. Gay succeeded as a poet and a satirist, according to Patricia Meyer Spacks, when he learned to manipulate his persona rather than hide behind it.


Gay’s first published poem, Wine, written when the poet was only twenty-two years old, proved that he knew something about his subject and that he could at least imitate with the best of poets and imbibers. The blank verse, as well as the subject, reflects the influence of John Philips’s Cyder (1708); the poem also demonstrates Gay’s familiarity with the mock-heroic form and his early command of humorous exaggeration. Most important, though, Wine suggests the potential of better poems to come. The reader recognizes that Gay has abandoned the traditional elegance of his more mature colleagues, turning instead to common scenes of lower-class life. Additionally, of course, the comic operas that would come later show the degree to which he sympathized with the poorer elements of London society. To the surprise of modern readers who take their poetry seriously (and perhaps fail to appreciate eighteenth century tastes), the authorized version of 1708 was pirated on no less than two occasions by one Henry Hills, a London bookseller, which meant that the young poet’s graphic descriptions of the seedier sides of London life proved attractive to more than a handful of his contemporaries. As all mere imitations (especially the immature ones) must fail, however, so did Wine fail to rise above the level of a schoolboy exercise.

The Shepherd’s Week

The perils of imitation are still evident in a more accomplished work, The Shepherd’s Week. Writing under the influence of Pope, Gay had to keep a sharp eye on Pope’s suggestion that he ridicule Ambrose Philips’s pastoral poems, while at the same time expressing his own devotion to rural England and displaying his knowledge of the rustic aspects of English life. If he had had a third eye, Gay certainly would have attended more carefully to his model, Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579). At any rate, the result of his effort was a hodgepodge of all three influences. Gay must have realized what was happening, for the introductory “Proem to the Courteous Reader” stands as an apology for the entire set of pastorals, wherein the poet asserts that no English versifier heretofore has successfully produced a proper and simple eclogue after the true form of Theocritus. He then attacks Philips’s outrageous conceits and proceeds to his own definition of the pastoral—an accurate imitation of the nature and manners of rustic life. In other words, Gay needed to tell his readers what he had done before they actually read the poem.


Gay did not always have to apologize. In the fifty-one fables in verse composed for the five-year-old Prince William, duke of Cumberland, and published a year before The Beggar’s Opera, his performance was quite authentic and more than satisfactory. In fact, both for his own generation and for posterity, the Fables may well be Gay’s most important poetic work. True, he had an adequate number of predecessors whom he could (and did) imitate—particularly Jean de La Fontaine, whose Fables choisies, mises en vers (1668-1694; Fables Written in Verse, 1735) was first published in 1668. He managed, however, perhaps for the first time as a poet, to generate an air of worldly wisdom and to give it substance through expressions of wit and lively verse. Obviously, Gay knew the state of the polite world—the same world that he had seen and felt during his “trivial” tour throughout London; but he also envisioned a moral world that might someday overcome the triteness and false elegance of his own age. The fables are light, genial, and even gay—of the stuff that would both interest and instruct a five-year-old child. Such pieces as “The Elephant and the Bookseller,” “The Lion and the Cub,” “The Two Owls and the Sparrow,” “The Two Monkeys,” and “The Hare and Many Friends” continue to make sense for today’s young and old alike.


The unfortunate aspect of Gay’s most characteristic poem, Trivia, and his most important poetic...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)