Kermode, Frank, ed. English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952. Ray, H. Robert. An Andrew Marvell Companion. New York:
Garland, 1998. Smith, Nigel, ed. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. New York:
Pearson/Longman, 2003. Whitaker, Curtis. "Andrew Marvell's Garden—Variety Debates." The Huntington Library Quarterly 62, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 2000): 297-311.
GAY, JOHN (1685-1732) John Gay was born in the port town of Barnstaple, Devon, on Joy Street, into a family with three siblings, Joanna, Jonathan, and Katherine. His father, William, was probably a member of the newly distinguished merchant middle class, as the location of the house in the middle of town indicated Mr. Gay worked with goods unloaded at the port. Gay's first few years proved happy ones in an agreeable climate with a contented family. Far from scenes of dissent, the Gays remained little touched by political upheaval. The children probably knew little about the conflict between Protestants and Catholics and the challenge of King James II by William, prince of Orange, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. At age six Gay attended Barnstaple Grammar School. At age nine, he lost his mother to a mysterious illness, and barely a year later his father died. All four children moved in with an uncle, Thomas Gay, who had a large family of his own. John Gay's experience as part of a cohesive affectionate family had effectively ended.
Tradition in the 18th century led families with more than one son to direct the eldest into the military and the younger into apprenticeship; thus, a teenaged John Gay became a silk-merchant apprentice in London. Gay embraced the city, especially enjoying the lively social scene. The temptations of the city resulted in Gay's applying minimal energy to learning the silk trade, leading to the loss of his position at age 16. He requested his uncle to allow him to stay in London but was refused. Uncle Thomas instead moved Gay into the household of a maternal uncle, the Reverend Jonathan Hanmer. No record exists of Gay's activities over the next six years, and when he became of age in 1706, he immediately returned to London. once again in his element, Gay through his gentle nature and sharp sense of humor became friendly with other young men with excellent imaginations known as "wits." Gay worked for a time as a secretary to an old school friend as he turned his attention to writing.
In 1708 Gay published his first poem in blank verse. titled "Wine," a forgettable celebration of Scotland's union with England, an act that made Queen Anne during her fifth year as monarch the first ruler over Great Britain and an emerging two-party system of Tories and Whigs. While "Wine" lacked all of the light ness that would later mark Gay's work, its obvious influence by John Milton resulting in a style inappropriate for Gay's era, it did secure him the title of poetauthor, a title he took seriously. Gay's place in the writing continuum would interest later critics, as he produced work with romantic tendencies, while attempting to adopt an Augustan sensitivity.
Soon Gay's social circle expanded to include Alexander Pope, and he became a common sight on the coffeehouse scene. That scene changed the face of English writing, as the coffeehouse supplied under a single roof a place of refreshment, a public library, and a debating culture. The artistic company in which Gay circulated inspired his continued writing efforts. Again without success, he wrote a drama, The Mohocks (1712), which never saw the stage. Its focus on aristocratic thugs, however, foreshadowed his later extraordinarily popular stage production The Beggar's Opera (1728). In addition to the coffeehouse, another new development affected Gay, that of serious journalism. The journalism scene supplied a lucrative outlet for Gay, as he continued to develop his more creative material. While working toward successful poetry and drama, he wrote essays for Lintot's Miscellany and The Examiner, creating a minor stir with one essay titled "The Present State of Wit" (1711).
By the second decade of the new century, Gay moved into service with the duchess of Monmouth as secretary, thereby supporting his burgeoning career. He published an imitation of Pope's Mock-Heroic, "The Rape of the Lock" (1712), titled "The Fan" (1713). Pope cautioned Gay against publishing too hastily, writing, according to Gay's biographer David Nokes, "I would have you varnish and glaze it at your leisure, and polish . . . as much as you can." Gay took Pope's advice to heart and proved more successful with a tribute to Pope titled "Rural Sports." According to his biographer Phoebe Fenwick Gaye, Pope wrote to Jonathan Swift that Gay, whom Pope labeled affectionately "an unhappy Youth," wrote pastorals "in Divine Service," a reference to the duchess, while lavishing away "all that silver he should have reserved for his soul's health, on buttons and loops for his coat."
While Pope and other members of his circle adopted an indulgent stance toward Gay, Samuel Johnson had little tolerance for Gay's sometimes outlandish behavior. Johnson wrote in his The Lives of the Poets that although Gay proved a favorite of the wits, "they regarded him as a playfellow rather than a partner, and treated him with more fondness than respect." Gay achieved measured success with an additional essay published in the Guardian, "Art of Dress." However, as Nokes points out, it suffered the fate of many of Gay's early writings, as "the wit of this piece is spoilt by a kind of literary showing-off." Gay's obvious desire to let readers know he had read Aristotle, Ovid, Horace, Milton, and Boileau resulted in a simple "parade" of "knowing references."
In 1713 Gay also wrote the first English "town eclogue," "Araminata." The eclogue represented a mix of pastoral and burlesque with a bit of classicism added. Not a particularly memorable work on its own, "Araminta" gained the later attention of feminist critics, because of its suggestions of connection to work by Gay's contemporary Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. He published five eclogues, one of which bore a great resemblance to an eclogue by Montagu. Best known for her letters from Constantinople, Montagu spent about 18 months in London before accompanying her husband abroad. Both eclogues bore the title "The Toilette" and shared other characteristics, suggesting the two poets not only knew one another's work, but might also have collaborated.
Not until Gay published "The Shepherd's Week," which contained his series of eclogues, did he garner the attention he had craved. Then a part of the elite Scrible-rus Club, Gay joined a "pastoral war" begun by Pope against Ambrose Philips, a lesser poet demolished by Pope in print. After that well-discussed event, Gay produced "The Shepherd's Week" in support of his friend and mentor, Pope. The public enjoyed Gay's witty parody of Philips, presented as a pastoral cycle. He hoped to ride the public attention to even greater success, ending his service to the duchess in 1714 to become secretary to Lord Clarendon during a mission to Hanover. However, with the death of Queen Anne later that year, any political aspirations held by Gay were quashed, as the Tory Party, also Pope's political party, fell.
With Queen Anne's death, and the political stability brought on by the new Hanoverian King George I, as well as by the controlling Whig influence, the era of the politically inspired wit had ended. Gay turned again to drama and soon scored a hit with a play he described as a tragic-comic-pastoral farce. When his aptly named "The What d'ye Call It" was staged at Drury Lane in 1715, his satire proved so strong that his audience at first wept. Many members of the audience had recently been ousted from Tory privilege and took to heart the play's tender melancholy, which Gay meant as satire. When they at last recognized the play as a mixture of genres that resembled nothing else they had ever seen, the audience was delighted by its foolishness. The ever-critical Johnson wrote of that play, "Of this performance the value certainly is but little; but it was one of the lucky trifles that give pleasure by novelty." Nokes writes that both "The Shepherd's Week" and "The What D'Ye Call It" "possess an anarchic spontaneity" that some of Gay's work lacked. Gay's excellent ear for detail, tuned during his jaunts through London streets, gave realism to his next work, the poem "Trivia, or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London" (1716). In the following year, he collaborated with fellow Scrib-lerians Pope and John Arbuthnot to produce a flop play, "Three Hours after Marriage." When the curtain went down, Gay actually scuffled with its main actor, the infamous Colley Cibber, often insulted by Pope for his dullness, who had not realized Gay's lampoon focused on him until the play had concluded.
The year 1720 gave Gay success with the publication of his collection Poems on Several Occasions. Most of those poems, including "To a Young Lady, with Some Lampreys," remained popular centuries later. Hoping to turn his profits into even greater income, Gay decided to invest them in the doomed South Sea Company. When it famously failed, he lost everything along with many other famous investors, and he also began to lose his good health. Continuing a voluminous and energetic correspondence with Swift, he lived for a time with Pope and other friends, took the cure at Bath, and again attempted to gain a court position by addressing to Prince William in 1726 his Fables, the first volume appearing in 1729. It proved popular and convinced him to finish the second volume, which would not be published until after his death.
It was Gay's longtime friend Swift who suggested the idea that developed into The Beggar's Opera.
According to Johnson, "Dr. Swift had been observing once to Mr. Gay what an odd pretty sort of a thing a Newgate Pastoral might make. Gay was inclined to try at such a thing for some time; but afterwards thought it would be better to write a comedy on the same plan." Johnson referred to the infamous Newgate Prison, an unlikely topic for a serious pastoral, but one that might be used satirically. Gay asked Swift, Johnson, and the playwright William Congreve to read the resulting play, and none believed it would succeed.
Despite Gay's having written 13 different dramas, The Beggar's Opera would be the work for which he would be always remembered, and it would inspire in the 20th century the equally successful musical satire The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht. Written in ballad form to make fun of the pretension of "real" opera, The Beggar's Opera celebrated London's underworld and suggested the hypocrisy of high-placed politicians and social figures who used criminal activity to their own benefit. Ironically, its original performance could not have taken place without support from the very class that Gay lampooned, the funds from the duchess of Queensbury. She fronted the needed cash and John Rich agreed to stage The Beggar's Opera. A phrase developed to describe the play's stunning effect: it made "Gay rich, and Rich gay." First performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields in January 1728 and running for 62 consecutive nights, it proved an unprecedented success. Johnson wrote that it succeeded in driving all traditional Italian opera out of England. The songs from The Beggars's Opera remain the poetry by which most readers best know Gay.
Although Gay wrote a sequel titled Polly (1729), Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister and a figure roundly satirized in The Beggar's Opera, suppressed it. Gay's biographer David Nokes states, however, that "Polly is a relatively innocuous work presenting a sentimental contrast between old World corruption and New World innocence." One passage in the opening scene to which Walpole took exception, spoken by the character Ducat, who might have acted as Walpole's representative, read, "I have a fine library of books that I never read; I have a fine stable of horses that I never ride; I build, I buy plate, jewels, pictures, or anything that is valuable and curious, as your great men do, merely out of ostentation." Walpole's action in preventing the staging of Polly only succeeded in calling attention to Gay's newest play, which finally saw production in 1777. Gay's resultant frivolous lifestyle, marked by indulgences such as gambling and drinking, probably advanced his death in 1732. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, his marker bearing the epitaph that he wrote: "Life is a jest, and all things show it; / I thought so once—and now I know it."
Critics continue to argue Gay's value to the advancement of literature, perhaps because of his flippant attitude and needy character. However, his poetry is considered accomplished, with his mastery of the heroic couplet and his natural ear for lyrics resulting in sophisticated and stylistic productions. As his biographer David Nokes writes Gay has too often been "the victim of his own ambivalence," suffering from a "fatal lack of self-belief." Johnson agreed, noting that Gay was a man "easily incited to hope and deeply depressed when his hopes were disappointed." He allowed, however, that while Gay did not deserve a place among the great Augustan geniuses, including Swift and Pope, he should not be forgotten. As Johnson explained,
Much, however, must be allowed to the author of a new species of composition, though it be not of the highest kind. We owe to Gay the ballad opera, a mode of comedy which at first was supposed to delight only by its novelty, but has now, by the experience of half a century, been found so well accommodated to the disposition of a popular audience that it is likely to keep long possession of the stage. Whether this new drama was the product of judgment or of luck, the praise of it must be given to the inventor; and there are many writers read with more reverence to whom such merit or originality cannot be attributed.
John Gay's work remains easily accessible through print anthologies as well as online collections.
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