Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Although Gay was evidently aware of the pitfalls associated with writing a mock-heroic poem on the simple topic of walking the streets of London and entitling it an art—inviting his readers to compare it with Horace’s Ars Poetica (the art of poetry, c. 17 b.c.e.)—, he clearly saw his endeavor as having some utilitarian value for country folk and others who were less familiar with London thoroughfares than he was. His intent was to be of help to the uninitiated and the inexperienced, and he acknowledged toward the conclusion of his poem, “Yet shall I bless my labours, if mankind/ Their future safety from my dangers find.” His didacticism is therefore quite clear: He wants to be a guide, to be helpful—a commendable intention for a poet or a friend when in need. The reader is thus well disposed toward the poet and is ready to accept his guidance and even his predispositions and prejudices.

The issue or concern at the heart of the poem is the safety of a neophyte tourist in London, sightseeing on foot by day or night, in all the seasons. While the subject might seem devoid of poetic possibility, Gay’s selection of particular subject matter provides the basis for the poetry—rather than mere verse—to be found in almost all sections. Edgar Allan Poe argued in The Poetic Principle (1849) that there is no such thing as a long poem—that in actuality a long poem is a series of minor poems, each deserving that name only to the extent that it excites by elevating the soul. There are numerous exciting and elevating sections in Trivia that complement the ironic and bathetic sections, and over the centuries the preponderance of critical reaction has been that the former are the more numerous.

Trivia has been praised as a literary burlesque and as a serious social document, a detailed picture of eighteenth century life in a great metropolis. It was drawn by a writer with considerable life experience at both extremes of the social scale, one acquainted both with life in rural Devonshire and with the manners and affectations of the aristocracy.

It has been declared to be the finest mock-georgic in English and to be the greatest poem on London life in English literature. Perhaps these descriptions are somewhat too generous in their praise, but it must be allowed that Gay’s accomplishment is great: He shifted the subject of poetry from the country to the city, from the ancient to the contemporary, from the exalted to the lowly, and he did so with clear-sighted realism, a refreshing cynicism, and a tolerable irony. Moreover, he never forgot that the social classes are interdependent, a theme that pervades his Fables and The Beggar’s Opera as well.

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