The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The epigraph of Trivia is the opening line of Vergil’s ninth eclogue: “Where are you off to, Moeris, walking on the road to town?” The quotation illustrates both Gay’s indebtedness to the classical tradition and his plan for what might be termed a city eclogue, a poem in which conversation about current matters, spiced with proverbs and advice, takes place between an older, sophisticated person and a younger, inexperienced auditor. The prefatory motto is taken from Vergil also, and it preempts criticism of the poem by addressing any potential gainsayer as “ignoramus as you are.” That is, Gay regards himself as the authority on walking the streets of London and thus is inhospitable to cavilling criticism. He is the model for modern city tour guides, pointing out buildings, homes, and institutions of interest. He warns his audience against the pitfalls of disregarding his directions and suggests the delights of further exploration and examination. The accuracy of almost all the topics of Trivia can be verified by consulting two twentieth century collections of historical illustrations, The Thames About 1750 (1951) and Engravings by Hogarth (1973), which substantiate even the minor details of Gay’s remarkably memorable descriptions of persons, places, and practices.

The classical model is borne out by the frequent allusions to Greek and Roman notables, both civil and mythological: Ariadne, Orpheus, Oedipus, Phaeton, Pythagoras, Regulus, Scylla and Charybdis, Theseus, and Vulcan are among them. The comprehensiveness of the guidebook aspect of Trivia is impressive: The reader is beguiled by pithy comments on such places as Cheapside, Covent Garden, Charing Cross, St. Clement Danes Church, Drury Lane, Fleet Ditch, Ludgate Hill, and the Thames bridges. Clearly, Gay’s apprenticeship to a London silk mercer provided him with the opportunity to see more of the side streets, the fashions, and the employments of London than most poets, so his poem is marked by its social realism and by its frank admission of the unsavory aspects of early eighteenth century British urban life. While many poets painted only the atypical upper social stratum, Gay took as his subject the whole spectrum of London life: prostitution, poverty, pickpocketing,...

(The entire section is 942 words.)