The Poem

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

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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 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 sweeps, coal merchants, and dustmen can bespoil lighter clothing, and tallow men, chandlers, and butchers can spot any clothes. Likewise, the fop with his powdered wig and the miller should be avoided, but the bully should not be demurred to: He may mutter curses, but he will yield. Should the walker lose his way, he should seek directions from a tradesman rather than a boy—and never from a woman, for she may be a pickpocket.

A second edition of Trivia (undated, but probably 1717) contains an addition (lines 99-220) on the rise of the shirtless shoe-shine boy, an illegitimate son of the goddess Cloacina, whose image was found in a sewer by Tatius, king of the Sabines. The celebrated Dr. Samuel Johnson judged this addition “nauseous and superfluous.” The interpolation contains the memorable couplet, “But happier far are those (if such be known)/ Whom both a father and a mother own”; nevertheless, inorganic and irrelevant, the addition lacks merit.

The remainder of Book II cautions against walking in narrow streets and those that house chandlers, fishmongers, and butchers—or walking where masons are at work or boys are playing football. It reminds the walker that Mondays and Thursdays are “days of game,” when bull-and bear-baiting can be seen, and that Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days so that seafood can be seen in the stalls. The fruits of the seasons are enumerated. Gay reminds the walker to be charitable to widows and orphans, the lame and blind, for walkers are blessed: They are immune to jaundice, coughs, asthma, gout, and stones. Accordingly, they should never envy those in coaches or in fine clothes. To his fellow walkers he says, “give me sweet content on foot.”

Book III cautions against walking near noisy crowds, where pickpockets usually congregate—often aided by ballad singers or girls with pretty faces—and offers advice on eating oysters, avoiding cheats, identifying whores and rakes, bribing watchmen and policemen, and avoiding the numerous terrors of the night, including fires. It comprises what Gay calls “Useful Precepts,” among which are:

Let constant Vigilance thy Footsteps guide,And wary Circumspection guard thy Side;Though you through cleanlier Allies wind by Day,To shun the Hurries of the publick Way,Yet ne’er to those dark Paths by Night retire;Mind only Safety, and contemn the Mire.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

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, and pilferage as well as fops, fashions, food, and fairs.

Both the comprehensiveness of his overview and its reliability (as tested by more particular contemporary commentaries) are deserving of admiration. All the sounds, sights, and smells of the city are conveyed with verisimilitude. One twentieth century literary critic, George Sherburn, wrote that Gay, “like many realists, stressed the gutter to the neglect of more pleasant prospects; but for his foot passenger, his warnings were vivid and sage. Like Hogarth he paints the grotesque realities of London life.” This is high praise, really, because painter and engraver William Hogarth is greatly admired for his penetrating vision of city life in his day, which counterbalanced the misleading representation offered by upper-class artists and writers. Part of Gay’s strength is derived from his effective juxtaposition of morning and evening, walking and being carried (in chaise or carriage), males and females, refinement and depravity, bucolic and urban, rich and poor, indolence and industry, beauty and sordidness. He is concerned, it is clear, not with a particularly partisan presentation but with presenting a comprehensive portrait of London. The effect of Trivia is comparable to viewing one of Canaletto’s panoramic scenes of the Thames and its environs.

In his early poems Gay made frequent use of alexandrines and triplets for variety; these characteristics of verse composition were condemned by Pope, and Gay subsequently abandoned them for the most part, even revising some lines of Rural Sports and The Fan to eliminate these solecisms. Gay’s poetic technique was normally a mixture of the established and the original; he is more rigid in his adherence to the heroic couplet than Pope, yet he uses a more demotic language than his mentor, and his sentence structure is less complex.

Burlesque, a form of parody that imitates the form and style of a serious work but makes the imitation entertaining by the disparity between the subject matter and the method, is basic to Trivia, in which many of the aspects of street life are compared to famous incidents in classical mythology. Accordingly, Gay compares the rustic in awe of the city to Theseus in the Cretan labyrinths, horses straining up Ludgate Hill to the Parthians throwing their javelins backward, the walker caught in a street brawl to Laius slain by Oedipus at a crossroads, and moisture on church monuments to Niobe dissolving into tears. Not all these allusions and comparisons are meaningful to a present-day reader, but their force would have been apparent to Gay’s readers.

It has been observed that Pope was prepared to sacrifice truth for a brilliant epigram or a brilliant antithesis. Such was not Gay’s practice, though his self-composed epitaph indicates that he was as capable as Pope in this most demanding form of composition: “Life is a jest, and all things show it./ I thought so once, and now I know it.” Perhaps the best epigram in Trivia is the following, occasioned by writing on the great frost of 1715: “Ah Doll! All mortals must resign their breath,/ And industry itself submit to death!” Or this, doubtless written tongue-in-cheek: “Death shall entomb in dust this mould’ring frame/ But never reach th’eternal part, my fame.” Even the final line of the poem has the merits of brevity and pithiness: “This work shall shine, and walkers bless my name.” In his use of classical allusions, juxtaposition, the many forms of imagery, adherence (but not slavery) to metrical forms, and epigrams within the burlesque form, Gay exhibits enviable compositional skills.