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...
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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 detail, ending with a description of how she obtained a love potion for use in this present crisis. Fortunately, this time nature, not the supernatural, comes to her rescue. Suddenly Lubberkin turns up in an amorous mood, and Hobnelia, who dreads the thought of dying a virgin, is more than willing to cooperate with him.
The subject of “Friday; or, The Dirge” is not love but death. Bumkinet returns from an absence ready to “quaff a cheary bowl” with his friends, only to learn that their Blouzelinda has died. Sadly, he recalls happier days. As in traditional pastorals, nature itself is urged to grieve for the lost maiden, and Grubbinol insists that all living creatures seem aware of her death. He then proceeds to a poignant account of the scene at Blouzelinda’s deathbed during which she expressed her wishes concerning both the disposition of her small treasures and her simple funeral. The shepherds do not think that they will ever cease to grieve for Blouzelinda. Then they see “bonny Susan” and transport her to the ale house where, with “ale and kisses,” they manage to “forget their cares.”
The central character of “Saturday; or, The Flights” is Bowzybeus, who, though a drunkard, is acknowledged to be the Muse’s darling. Roused from his stupor by the local lasses, he pulls himself together and, obviously inspired, puts on an impressive performance. Bowzybeus sings about nature and the supernatural; he transports his listeners to a fair like the one he has just attended, with its peddlers and mountebanks; he recites the old, familiar ballads; and at one point he even intones a psalm. Then the music stops. After receiving the kisses that will be his only reward, Bowzybeus again falls asleep. Thus both the day and The Shepherd’s Week come to an end.
Even if, as he insists, Gay intended to avoid the usual artifice in his pastoral, The Shepherd’s Week is clearly the work of a highly self-conscious artist. For example, at the end of “The Proeme,” the poet identifies the language used by his characters as his own invention. He explains that though it is certainly not what one would hear at court, neither is it any identifiable rural dialect. Some of the characters’ expressions are very modern, but a good many of them are archaic. In case some future “lover of Simplicity” should arise to translate The Shepherd’s Week into a “modern dialect,” Gay has helpfully included “glosses and explications of uncouth pastoral terms.” This machinery is part of the joke, for any writer knowledgeable enough to provide it would have been able to make his language as consistent as he wished.
It is also important to note that this supposedly artless work is highly allusive. It has been pointed out, for example, that all but one of the poems are based on specific Vergilian eclogues. “Tuesday,” the exception, has a contemporary model, for it was designed to fulfill the criteria for a “Pastoral Ballad” set forth by Gay’s fellow poet Alexander Pope in The Guardian. There are also many allusions to classical mythology in The Shepherd’s Week. For instance, the drunken Bowzybeus is clearly drawn from Silenus, one-time tutor and thereafter follower of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. There is more to the resemblance, however, than the enthusiasm for strong drink: When he is inspired, Bowzybeus appears almost godlike. Gay does not draw his allusions only from classical sources. His characters have an ancient oral culture of their own. They quote old proverbs, as Lobbin Clout does in “Monday” when he insists that “Love is blind”; like Hobnelia, they live by spells and superstitions; and they respond enthusiastically when Bowzybeus sings the ballads they know so well. The fact that Gay does not aid his reader by footnoting his allusions while he spends so much effort on the language is still another indication of his tongue-in-cheek attitude toward his subject matter, his readers, and the work itself.
The verse form used for The Shepherd’s Week is particularly effective for comic and satirical purposes. Consisting of a pair of rhymed end-stopped lines, the eighteenth century heroic couplet not only has the classical virtue of symmetry but also lends itself beautifully to epigram, antithesis, and comic reversals. “Tuesday,” for instance, contains numerous examples of artistically satisfying parallelism, such as “In ev’ry wood his carrols sweet were known,/ At ev’ry wake his nimble feats were shown.” After giving examples of Marian’s inability to continue her usual tasks, Gay sums up the situation with an epigrammatic comment: “For yearning love the witless maid employs,/ and Love, say swains, all busie heed destroys.” In “Monday,” Lobbin Clout calls to his sweetheart in well-crafted antitheses: “Come Blouzelinda, ease thy swain’s desire,/ My summer’s shadow and my winter’s fire.” The funniest passages in the poems, however, are those in which the poet or his characters indulge in sentiment and then, within the space of a couplet or two, reverse the mood with a reminder of reality. Thus in the last four lines of “Tuesday,” Marian stops weeping when a cow is brought to be bred. Not only does she “dry her tears,” but she also takes care of business and makes sure that she is paid.
Gay’s imagery, too, reflects the frequent changes of mood and tone that are meant to keep the reader off balance. For example, in “Friday,” Bumkinet’s “doleful dirge” provides a generalized and idealized version of grieving nature, with its “dewy sorrow,” its “ev’ning tears,” and its “rolling streams” with their “watry grief.” On the other hand, the hogs “wallowing mid a feast of acorns” and the detailed description of the butter-churning process are highly realistic, as are the elements of the dying girl’s will. Generally, the poet moves from idealized images to realistic ones rather than the converse. Thus in the final two verse paragraphs of “Friday,” he first presents some conventional scenes in conventional language. His bulls standing with “curled brow” and his maidens at their milking might have come from any bucolic landscape. However, Gay’s images soon become much less picturesque. His hogs in “sinking mire” and his moles at work thus prepare for the realistic conclusion of the poem. The description of “bonny Susan” in flight, pursued and captured by the shepherds, is not only more vivid than the earlier conventional imagery, but it also emphasizes the difference between literature and life. Thus, with consummate skill, Gay utilizes various poetic techniques to underscore his ideas.