Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

Because satire cuts two ways, sometimes three or four, it is always subject to misinterpretation. However, even the most prominent scholars of eighteenth century literature admit that they are uncertain as to the purpose and meaning of The Shepherd’s Week. There are a number of theories. It is sometimes argued that Gay’s work is in large part merely a burlesque of the pastoral pattern. On the other hand, English writer Samuel Johnson and others have believed it to be a worthy example of what a pastoral should be. The moving account of Blouzelinda’s death would certainly support this view. Some critics believe that The Shepherd’s Week was intended to parody the Vergilian eclogues on which five of Gay’s poems are based; others believe that it was written in order to ridicule the poet’s contemporary Ambrose Philips, who had fallen out with Gay’s friend Pope. It has even been argued that references to the popular songwriter Thomas D’Urfey are in fact an oblique attack on Philips.

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Some resolve these critical difficulties by saying that perhaps The Shepherd’s Week has no single target but is, in essence, just one jeu d’esprit after another, united in that they all reflect the poet’s perception of the absurd in human conduct. Thus in “The Proeme,” first Gay plays himself as he attacks the literary establishment with its “critical gallimawfry”; then he assumes the mask of unctuous piety, insisting that only “great clerks” should comment on religion and explaining that he omits Sunday from his week for religious reasons; finally, with his explanation of the language and with his footnotes, he pretends to be pedantic. By the end of “The Proeme,” Gay has satirized at least three kinds of absurdity, and a careful examination of the comments addressed to the reader leads one to suspect that there is probably a fourth because anyone who would take such obsequious flattery at face value would, without question, qualify as a fool.

The contrast between rural and urban life, which is a standard theme of pastoral poems, is basic to The Shepherd’s Week. In the traditional pastoral, however, worldly people such as those in the “Prologue” are simply transported to the country, where they spend their time brandishing their crooks, observing sheep, and composing poetry. Gay’s characters, on the other hand, are country bred and naïvely unaware of the outside world. Often they are very funny, as when, in “Monday,” the two lovers descend from high-flown sentiments to descriptions of food. Whenever he appears to mock his rural folk, however, Gay is once again setting a trap for his readers. If they laugh at real shepherds and shepherdesses because they think of them as a different breed from themselves, it is the urban sophisticates, not the rural innocents, who are the real fools.

Nowhere is the thematic complexity of The Shepherd’s Week more evident than in the treatment of sex. In his “Prologue,” Gay points to the gathering of wealth as the primary motivation of England’s ruling classes. Indeed, their only interest in the rural population is in what they produce. Gay does not have to remind readers that among such people marriages are matters of contract and that what they call love is, like poetry, a mere diversion from “affairs of States and Kings.” By contrast, Gay’s shepherds and shepherdesses are refreshingly sincere. They fall passionately in love; they are miserable when the object of their affection is absent or indifferent or, worst of all, enamored of another; and when, as at the end of “Thursday,” mutual desire and opportunity coincide, they couple ecstatically, without thought of the consequences. Eventually these young lovers will marry, settle down, and work toward the wisdom of the old. At the moment, however, they are simply responding to the urgings of nature.

In implicitly contrasting the artificial existences of city dwellers with the natural lives of country folk, Gay is doing what the best pastoral poems have always done. Even though he sometimes mocks the excesses of the pastoral convention and even light-heartedly laughs at his simple characters, Gay’s mock pastoral was not written either as an attack on the form itself or as a satire of rural life. Indeed, the materialistic courtiers could learn much from the shepherds and shepherdesses in Gay’s poem. There is much about them to admire. They are compassionate, capable of honest joy and grief, and highly practical. After their flights of fancy, they always get back to work, for whatever one’s emotional condition, the cattle must be watered and the cream must be churned. They may seem ignorant, even foolish, but they know secrets that cosmopolitan readers could never comprehend: how to adjust to the rhythms of nature and how to keep their balance in success and failure, happiness and frustration, life and death. Unlike at least some of Gay’s readers, they have no inflated sense of their own importance but are, instead, keenly aware of their participation in the great cycle of death and rebirth. After Blouzelinda, Susan may bring her own kind of joy, but eventually, when the songs are over and “the sun descends,” one has no choice but to succumb to sleep.

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