The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 794 words.)