The full title of this poem is Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, and the word “trivia” here is easily misunderstood. In the modern sense of “insignificant details,” it would seem to indicate a poem about a congeries of minor matters. However, to readers of the eighteenth century who were steeped in the classics, it would be understood in the Latin sense of the intersection of three roads or as the plural of trivium, the three subjects of traditional education (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). It might even be seen as an allusion to the three-headed goddess Hecate, or Diana, who ruled over day, night, and the underworld and was sometimes referred to as Diana of the crossways. Accordingly, the poem is organized in three cantos, or books. Trivia offers a liberal education in urban sociology.
Book I, “Of the Implements for Walking the Streets and Signs of the Weather,” is prefaced by an advertisement, or notice to the reader, to the effect that the author owes “several hints of it to Dr. Swift,” the celebrated dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and author of Gulliver’s Travels. That Swift and the other members of the Scriblerus Club (including Alexander Pope) thought highly of Trivia is supported by their letters. Swift’s “Description of the Morning” (1709) and “Description of a City Shower” (1710) are clearly models for Gay’s much longer compositions; Gay’s Rural Sports (1713) and The Shepherd’s Week (1714) were preliminary and highly regarded experiments in the same genre. Trivia, The Beggar’s Opera (1728), and Fables (1727) established his fame, and he was accorded a burial in Westminster Abbey beside Chaucer’s tomb.
The opening lines of Trivia parody those of Vergil’s Aeneid (transcribed c. 29-19 b.c.e.) and thus set the mock-heroic tone; instead of declaring his subject to be “arms and the man,” Gay states that it is “How to walk clean by day, and safe by night.” Accordingly, his first substantive stanza is on the choice of shoes, which should not be foreign or fashionable but “firm, well-hammered” ones that will be serviceable in snow, rain, or sleet. Shoes too wide, he says, may cause a sprain; those too short will cause corns or blisters.
Next the poet evaluates various types of overcoats and cautions against Bavarian ones or those with lace; he...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)