The Shepherd’s Week is a series of six poems, each representing one of the days of the week; Sunday has been omitted, ostensibly for religious reasons. The title establishes these poems as pastorals, and they do derive from the pastoral tradition. Five of the six are based on the Eclogues of the Roman poet Vergil, dated between 43 and 37 b.c.e. (English translation, 1575), which in turn were influenced by the idylls of Greek poet Theocritus, written about 270 b.c.e. However, though Gay acknowledges his debt to his predecessors, The Shepherd’s Week is not a conventional pastoral. Gay substitutes the unlettered, realistic characters of his own English countryside for the usual elegant, artificial shepherds and shepherdesses who use the rural scene only as a backdrop. For this reason and because of its comic tone, The Shepherd’s Week is customarily described not as a pastoral but as a mock pastoral.
In his prose introduction to The Shepherd’s Week entitled “The Proeme to the Courteous Reader,” Gay announces his intention: to write a “simple Eclogue” in the Theocritan mode, thus demonstrating to the poets of his age what a pastoral should be. Gay comments at length on the influence of “maister Spencer” (Edmund Spenser) and the Shepheardes Calendar (1579) on his own work in terms of structure and even the names of his characters. “The Proeme” ends with an explanation of his choice of language. The “Prologue,” which follows, is addressed to Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, the great Tory leader and a member of the poet’s circle. Gay describes the shepherds’ grief upon hearing a rumor that their monarch, Queen Anne, has died and their relief when they find that she is alive and well, having been saved by her physician, Dr. John Arbuthnot, another of Gay’s friends. Arriving at court to see Arbuthnot, though he does happen to have with him the poems for Bolingbroke, Gay notes how different this world is from the one he left. Then he performs as expected. He praises the most prominent courtiers present, lauds the Tory leadership, and modestly presents his completed “Eclogues” to Bolingbroke, assuring him that if there were any possibility that his verse would interfere with statecraft, he would gladly “burn book, preface, notes and all.”
Each of the six poems in The Shepherd’s Week has its own cast of characters and its own drama. “Monday; or, The Squabble” begins with two lovesick shepherds discussing their miseries. Lobbin Clout is enamored of Blouzelinda, while Cuddy cannot sleep for thinking of his Buxoma. They decide to have a contest to see which of them can best praise his mistress in song, with the sage Cloddipole serving as a judge. Before long, Cloddipole’s patience wears thin. He stops the competition without declaring a winner and sends the two shepherds off to water the neglected livestock. In “Tuesday; or, The Ditty,” Marian bemoans the fact that she has lost her beloved Colin to Cic’ly. Her error, she thinks, may be in having given Colin a knife, for superstition teaches that knives “always sever love.” These speculations are cut short, however, when Goody Dobbins arrives to have her cow serviced, for Marian must bring out the necessary bull.
“Wednesday; or, The Dumps” is about Sparabella’s abandonment by Bumkinet, who is so blind that he prefers Clumsilis to her. Remembering how her love for Bumkinet enabled her to resist the advances of the local squire, Sparabella waxes bitter about love and finally resolves to kill herself. However, she cannot find a satisfactory method of committing suicide, and, since night has fallen, she decides to postpone any drastic action until the next day. In “Thursday; or, The Spell,” another maiden is faced with the loss of her lover, but Hobnelia is a practical person who always has a remedy at hand. Throughout her relationship with Lubberkin, Hobnelia has routinely used spells to keep him in line. She explains these spells in...
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