(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Gay 1685-1732

English poet, dramatist, and essayist

Despite an uneven, often controversial writing career, Gay was both beloved and admired by some of the greatest minds of his time. He secured his place in literary history with one of the most original dramatic works ever written, The Beggar's Opera, and ended his career by writing some of the least memorable plays of the era. Although Gay's reputation now rests mainly on the success of the Opera, he had long before achieved popular success with his poetry. His own works and collaborations with some of the best-known writers of his age brought him nearly unparalleled acclaim. Had he been more careful financially, he would have made more money than any other poet at that time. Gay, however, experienced many financial, personal, and professional disappointments.

Biographical Information

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Gay was born in 1685 in the Devonshire town of Barnstaple. As a younger son in a large family, Gay was destined to apprenticeship in a trade. He left Barnstaple as a teenager, after receiving a basic grammar school education, and became an apprentice to a silk-mercer named Willet in London. He returned home in 1706, earlier than expected; his early release from his apprenticeship is often interpreted as a failure at trade. He began writing shortly afterwards, publishing his first poem, Wine, in 1708 (the year in which he met Alexander Pope), and a short essay on the flourishing trade in literary periodicals, The Present State of Wit, in 1711. Around 1708, he began working for Aaron Hill, a playwright and editor; by 1712, his first play, The Mohocks, was published. In 1713, Gay formed an association with a group of writers knows as the Scriblerians. Members of the Scriblerus Club included Dr. Arbuthnot, Bishop Atterbury, the dramatist William Congreve, Lord Oxford, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, and Pope. The same year, Gay obtained a position as secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth; after the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he found a job in the George I's Hanoverian court as secretary to Lord Clarendon. During his early years with the Scriblerians, Gay developed the literary and political preoccupations that would mark his brief career, toying with the pastoral in Rural Sports (1713), The Shepherd's Week (1714), and...

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Major Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Gay's most famous work by far is his Beggar's Opera, whose place in the literary canon was confirmed by Bertold Brecht's twentieth-century adaptation, The Threepenny Opera. Gay's most important early works were poems that adapted the pastoral tone. His earliest works—Wine, Rural Sports, The Fan—were quickly forgotten, but his pastoral satire The Shepherd's Week demonstrated more of his promise. The poem is likely Gay's commentary on a dispute between poet Ambrose Phillips and Gay's friend Pope over the pastoral genre, but both in its realism and in its respect for rural life Gay's collection of eclogues surpasses mere parody. His next major poem, Trivia, uses the pastoral form, especially allusions to Virgil's Georgics, to draw a satiric picture of London city life. In vivid detail, Gay portrays the highest and lowest of city scenes, often juxtaposed for ironic effect. His most famous poetry, however, is his first collection of fifty Fables, another literary form that offered Gay the potent combination of rustic innocence and sharp satire. In them, Gay uses animal stories to highlight the misguided self-importance of man; yet although the work is satirical, it reflects the Augustan sensibility that the universe was ordered and coherent. Among his early plays, the so-called "Tragi-Comi-Pastroal Farce" The What D'Ye Call It most clearly indicates Gay's development as a dramatist, with its odd...

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Critical Reception

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

During his lifetime, Gay was widely considered one of the most gifted writers of his era. He was greatly admired by his friends Pope and Swift, and later eighteenth-century authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and Tobias Smollett spoke warmly of his "genius." Not long after his death, however, his reputation began to suffer. In particular, Samuel Johnson's characterization of him in The Lives of the English Poets (1779) as a poet "of a lower order" seems to have dogged his posthumous career through the twentieth century. The moralism of nineteenth-century criticism further darkened his reputation because of his tendency to depict the lowest realms of society. Only in the mid-twentieth century did scholars begin again to agree that Gay's works had a place among those of his Scriblerian friends, long considered "major" authors while Gay was nearly forgotten. In 1938, Phoebe Fenwick Gaye renewed the investigation into Gay's rightful place in the eighteenth-century literary canon, placing him on more of an equal footing with the authors such as Pope and Swift who were his contemporaries and friends. Later book-length studies by Adina Forsgren (1964) and Patricia Meyer Spacks (1965) further advanced Gay's cause, stressing Gay's skill as a poet and not allowing The Beggar's Opera to overshadow his other artistic and popular achievements. Many recent scholars have focused on Gay's blending of forms and his mixed use of classical and popular allusion, especially in his poem Trivia. Others, such as Carolyn Williams (1988) and Yvonne Noble (1988), have attempted to call attention to Gay's later drama, emphasizing his continued experimentation with genre and political satire following the success of the Opera. Gay's politics, especially in The Beggar's Opera, have been a consistent subject of critical interest; Sven Armen's often-quoted 1966 study of John Gay: Social Critic has been followed by the work of William A. McIntosh (1974), Peter Elfed Lewis (1976), and Winton Calhoun (1993), among others. As frequent twentieth-century revivals of The Beggar's Opera indicate, Gay's acute perception of the values of a commercially driven society continue to resonate with modern audiences.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Wine [anonymous] (poem) 1708

To the Learned Ingenious Author of Licentia Poetica Discuss'd (poem) 1709

The Present State of Wit [anonymous] (essay) 1711 An Argument proving that the present Mohocks and Hawkubites are the Gog and Magog mention'd in the Revelation (satire) 1712

The Mohocks (drama) 1712

Rural Sports (poem) 1713

The Wife of Bath (drama) 1713; revised and altered edition, 1730

Reproof and Flattery [in the periodical The Guardian] (essay) 1713

The Fan (poem) 1714

The Shepherd's Week (poem) 1714

A Letter to a Lady (poem) 1714

The What D'ye Call It (drama) 1715

Two Epistles; One, to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington; The Other, to a Lady (poems) 1715

Trivia: or; The Art of Walking the Streets of London (poem) 1716

Three Hours after Marriage (drama) 1717

Acis and Galatea (libretto) 1719; first published 1732*

Poems on Several Occasions (poems, drama) 1720

A Panegyrical Epistle to Mr. Thomas Snow [anonymous] (poem) 1721

The Captives (drama) 1724

Newgate's Garland [anonymous] (ballad) 1725

To a Lady on her Passion for (Old China [anonymous] (poem) 1725

Fables (fables) 1727

The Beggar's Opera (drama) 1728

Polly (drama) published 1729; first produced 1777

Achilles (drama) 1733

Fables [second volume] (fables) 1738

The Distress'd Wife (drama) 1734; first published 1743

The Rehearsal at Goatham (drama) 1754

Plays Written by Mr. John Gay (dramas) 1750

The Works of Mr. John Gay. 4 vols. (poems, satires, and dramas) 1770

Poetry and Prose 2 vols. (poems, satires, and essays) 1974

Dramatic Works 2 vols. (dramas) 1983

*Handel's Acis and Galatea, for which Gay provided the libretto, was privately performed in 1719 but not publicly performed until 1731.

Polly, Gay's sequel to The Beggar's Opera, was long banned from the stage, and was not revived for its first performance until long after his death and the death of those who opposed it.

G. C. Faber (essay date 1926)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Doubtful or Disputed Poems" in The Poetical Works of John Gay, edited by G. C. Faber, Oxford University Press, 1926, pp. xxiii-xxxiv.

[In the following essay, Faber outlines his reasons for including or excluding several poems from his collection of Gay's work. His analysis of the problem of authorship offers a concise overview of Gay's publishing history, his literary connections, and his literary style.]

By far the most embarrassing problem, with which a conscientious editor of an eighteenth-century poet is confronted, is the problem of determining what he is to include as his author's. It is an embarrassing problem, and yet the labour spent upon it is...

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Phoebe Fenwick Gaye (essay date 1938)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Chapter 18" and "Chapter 19," in John Gay: His Place in the Eighteenth Century, Collins, 1938, pp. 301-19; 320-45.

[In the following excerpt, Fenwick Gaye focuses on the years 1727 and 1728, when Gay wrote and then premiered The Beggar's Opera. She pays particular attention to Gay's influential relationships with fellow Scriblerians Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and to Gay's difficult relationship with the English court and government, including Prime Minister Robert Walpole.]

"Amidst our hopes, Fate strikes the sudden wound."


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Donald Bond (essay date 1947)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to "The Present State of Wit" by John Gay, Augustan Reprint Society, Ser. I, No. 3, May 1947, pp. 1-5.

[In the following essay, Bond discusses the possible political biases revealed in Gay's review of the periodicals circulating in London coffeehouses of the early eighteenth century. With some attention to Gay's treatment of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Bond suggests that this early work may indicate Whig leanings that predate Gay's association with the more Torysympathetic Swift and Pope.]

Gay's concern in his survey of The Present State of Wit is with the productions of wit which were circulating among the coffee-houses of 1711,...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "John Gay: A Satirist's Progress," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1964, pp. 156-70.

[In the following essay, Spacks considers the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's satiric efforts, concentrating on his satiric epistles and the Fables. Comparing Gay primarily to Pope, Spacks suggests that Gay's recognition of his own feelings may have blunted the point of some of his satire.]

Several years ago, in 'The Muse of Satire', Maynard Mack, reminding us that 'all good satire … exhibits an appreciable degree of fictionality', isolated three distinguishable 'voices' characteristic of the personae in Pope's formal satires: those of the satirist...

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Adina Forsgren (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Shepherd's Week," in John Gay: Poet "Of a Lower Order," Natur Och Kultur; Broderna Lagerstrom AB, 1964, pp. 105-167.

[In the following excerpt, Forsgren. examines Gay's pastoral poems in both their political and their literary contexts, discussing The Shepherd's Week's connections not only to classical antecedents, but to Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar and his peer Pope's pastorals, including "Windsor Forest." Forsgren maintains that the period of peace following the treaty of Utrecht during the reign of the Stuart Queen Anne was an important influence in the revival of pastoral poetry during the early eighteenth century.]

The Shepherd's...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Early Masks and Models" in John Gay, Twayne Publishers; Inc., 1965, pp. 17-40.

[In the following excerpt, Spacks examines Gay's earliest poetry, demonstrating how the poet developed both his voice and his major artistic concerns. Although his early work is uneven, Spacks argues, it prefigures his more successful efforts at marrying the pastoral form with a more sophisticated tone, and adapting traditional genres to new uses.]

Not until 1713, when he was twenty-eight years old, did John Gay begin to discover models which made extended poetic expression possible for him. He then described himself, in the first version of Rural Sports, as having "courted...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Beggar's Triumph," in John Gay, Twayne Publishers; Inc., 1965, pp. 145-61.

[In the following excerpt, Spacks suggests that in The Beggar's Opera Gay developed a dramatic form that ideally suited both his artistic voice and his political concerns. Spacks also looks at the Opera's less successful sequel, Polly, to illuminate the reasons for the Opera's popular and critical acclaim, in both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.]

It is, of course, for The Beggar's Opera that Gay is remembered in the twentieth century, even among people with no particular interest in eighteenth-century poetry or drama. The play was revived...

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Martin C. Battestin (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Menalcas' Song: The Meaning of Art and Artifice in Gay's Poetry," in JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXV, 1966, pp. 662-79.

[In the following essay, Battestin calls for a new understanding of Gay's use of the pastoral in his poetry, suggesting that Gay's skill with form and artifice reflect an Augustan aesthetic akin to that of Pope.]

For Gay, no less than Pater, art was necessary because life was deficient in form. This is the essential point, not only about the manner of Gay's verse—that "delicate and sophisticated craftsmanship," as Professor Sutherland has remarked, producing objets as precious and frail as Chelsea...

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Sven M. Armens (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Beggar's View of Courtly Love," in John Gay: Social Critic, Octagon Books, 1966, pp. 128-54.

[In the following excerpt, Armens considers Gay's view of relationships between men and women in the context of Restoration and early eighteenth-century stereotypes of feminine vanity and the expectation of marital infidelity. Armens focuses on The Beggar's Opera and Achilles, but connects Gay's dramatic work to his earlier pastoral poems. Armens also discusses Gay's relationships with particular women.]

Love, usually considered the most basic of the passions, offers a good measure for examination and judgment of a society. Attitudes toward sex and...

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William A. McIntosh (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Handel, Walpole, and Gay: The Aims of The Beggar's Opera," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 75, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 415-33.

[In the following essay, McIntosh disputes commonly held assumptions about Gay's satiric targets in The Beggar's Opera. McIntosh suggests that Gay's cordial relationship with Handel and his treatment of music in his own work contradicts the notion that Gay was attacking Italian opera, and that evidence of specific, personal attacks on Walpole is very weak. Instead, he proposes that the object of Gay's satire is society itself.]

I have deferr'd writing to you from time to time till I could give you...

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Peter Elfed Lewis (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Beggar's Opera as Opera and Anti-Opera," in John Gay: "The Beggar's Opera," Edward Arnold, 1976, pp. 8-23.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis connects Gay's opera to concurrent developments in the Italian opera then performed in London, demonstrating specific sources from several operas, including those of Handel. Lewis concludes that Gay's approach to The Beggar's Opera reflects concern with the popularity of foreign opera, but does not indicate a condemnation of the genre itself.]

Today The Beggar's Opera is usually regarded as one of the very few great English plays of the eighteenth century and as one of the major literary works of...

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Howard Erskine-Hill (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Significance of Gay's Drama," in English 'Drama: Forms and Development-Essays in Honor of Muriel Clara Bradbrook, edited by Marie Axton and Raymond Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 142-63.

[In the following essay, Erskine-Hill considers the whole of Gay's dramatic corpus to illuminate Gay's experimentalism and the development of his most famous work, The Beggar's Opera. Erskine-Hill focuses on Gay's tendency to mix and subvert familiar generic forms to create entirely new types of theatre.]

John Gay's comedy The Distress'd Wife is the last and least-known of his full-length plays. Among those but once reprinted since the...

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Dianne S. Ames (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gay's Trivia and the Art of Allusion," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 2, 1978, pp. 199-222.

[In the following essay, Ames makes a case for Gay's often-unrecognized skill with classical allusion, comparing his Trivia with John Dryden's translation of Virgil's Georgics. Ames argues that Gay's burlesque, with its unassuming tone, better approximates the classical originals.]

Few studies of John Gay's poetry accord him the full praise he merits as a master of the poetry of classical allusion. Recently, in "John Gay: Lightweight or Heavyweight?" (Scriblerian, VIII [1975]), Arthur Sherbo has even indicated that in the last five...

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Charles E. Beckwith (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Languages of Gay's Trivia," Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. X, No. 3, October, 1986, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, Beckwith considers the classical antecedents of Gay's Trivia, including Virgil's Georgics, to explicate Gay's "mock" effects. Beckwith finds that despite its pointed satire, the poem's mock tone makes possible an overall sense of positivity about the dynamic nature of city life.]

You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.

Johan Huizinga

In Gay's Trivia...

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Carolyn D. Williams (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Migrant Muses: A Study of Gay's Later Drama," in John Gay and the Scriblerians, edited by Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood, Vision Press; St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 163-83.

[In the following essay, Williams examines Gay's depictions of women in light of the works of other Scriblerians, especially Pope and Swift. Williams suggests that the unevenness of Gay's later works in part stems from his attempts to translate into dramatic representations topics better addressed in prose or poetry.]

One of Pope's epitaphs on Gay tells only half the truth:

Favourite of the muses,
He was led by them to every elegant...

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Yvonne Noble (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sex and Gender in Gay's 'Achilles,'" in John Gay and the Scriblerians, edited by Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood, Vision Press; St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 184-215.

[In the following essay, Noble argues that Gay's later drama registers the paradoxical position of women in a patriarchal society, with an emphasis on contemporary constructions of rape. Noble concludes that while Gay was not necessarily 'feminist," his work nonetheless reflects the voice of the oppressed.]

At a time of unparalleled academic interest in the relationship (which is to say, discrepancy) between sex and gender, John Gay emerges as an extremely interesting writer, distinctively conscious...

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Calhoun Winton (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Beggar's Opera in Theatre History" and "The Opera as Work of Art," in John Gay and the London Theatre, University Press of Kentucky, 1993, pp. 87-108; 109-27.

[In the following excerpts, Winton examines the history of the writing and reception of The Beggar's Opera, focusing on Gay's close relationships with Pope and Swift. Winton suggests that Gay's innovative use of both classical works and English popular ballads created a uniquely English genre from the then-popular Italian opera.]

Hearing of Stella's illness, Swift had departed for Dublin in September 1727. Before he left he had read scenes from The Beggar's Opera, which...

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Dianne Dugaw (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Dangerous Sissy: Gendered 'Lives,' John Gay and the Literary Canon," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 339-60.

[In the following essay, Dugaw asserts that late-eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century notions of class and literary propriety led to a reluctance on the part of Gay's contemporaries to consider him a significant contributor to the literary culture of his era.]

John Gay's reputation tumbled as literary criticism metamorphosed in the eighteenth century from a descriptive project to a determinant of taste and values. His own era judged him a prominant figure, an author who sparked controversy and emulation. By the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Price, Cecil. "Gay, Goldsmith, Sheridan, and Other Eighteenth-Century Dramatists." In English Drama (excluding Shakespeare). Select Bibliographical Guides, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 199-212. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Bibliographic essay provides a short overview of earlier works on Gay; includes citations for general reference.


Dearing, Vinton A. "The Life of Gay." In his John Gay: Poetry and Prose, pp. 1-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Dearing follows Gay's literary and court career, connecting events in his personal life to the works he was writing...

(The entire section is 770 words.)