The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

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.

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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 recommends a simple, inexpensive wool that will allow the wearer to “brave unwet the rain, unchill’d the frost.” The potential walker is advised to carry a cane—not like those of the city beaux, which are amber-tipped and used for show, but a practical one—one that, if sturdy, will chase others away and will attract the attention of carriage drivers.

In a long stanza Gay describes the perils of walking in foreign cities and bemoans the increased street traffic in Britain, augmented by “coaches and chariots” as well as sedan chairs so that no longer “Rosie-complexion’d health thy steps attends,/ And exercise thy lasting youth defends.” Then he provides a dissertation on the weather, with special attention given to cold, fair, and rainy days and a list of superstitions to be disregarded. This consideration of rainy weather leads logically into a recommendation that ladies should wear pattens (shoes elevated by metal cleats) and carry umbrellas.

The preliminaries of Book I run to 282 lines; Book II, “Of Walking the Streets by Day,” is 468 lines; and Book III, “Of Walking the Streets by Night,” is 416 lines. Since few walkers ventured onto the streets of London at night, clearly the proportions of the poem are quite appropriate.

Gay recommends the morning for walking: “For ease and for dispatch the morning’s best:/ No tides of passengers the street molest.” There are dangers, however: Barbers, perfumers, and bakers can soil black clothes; chimney...

(The entire section contains 1964 words.)

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