1902 Encyclopedia > John Gay

John Gay
English poet
(1688-1732)




JOHN GAY (1688-1732), one of the most eminent of the secondary English poets, was a native of Devonshire, born in 1688 at Frithelstock, near Torrington, where his family had been long settled. His father dying when the future poet was only about six years of age, and leaving four children, the prospects of the family were unpromising ; and John, after receiving his education at the grammar school of Barnstaple, was put apprentice to a silk mercer in London. He disliked the employment, obtained Ins discharge, and embarked in a literary life, varied only by incessant efforts to obtain the patronage of the great. How he lived up to his twenty-second year is not stated. In 1710 he published his poem of Wine, an enumeration of the charms of the " enlivening grape," written in the grave, mock-heroic, and minutely descriptive style, which he afterwards displayed with greater power in his Trivia. In 1712 he was received into the household of the duchess of Monmouth in the capacity of secretary. Next year he published his Sural Sports, inscribed to Pope; and this seems to have led to a friendship between the poets uninterrupted and sincere. The superiority of Pope was freely conceded. There could be no rivalry on the part of Gay, and Pope appears to have exerted himself on every occasion to serve his friend. Gay's ambition was limited to a life of ease, fine-dressing, and a luxurious table, in all of which he had marvellous success, but little contentment. In the years 1713 and 1714, besides the Sural Sports, he produced a comedy, The Wife of Bath, which was acted only three nights; The Fan, a poem; and The Shepherd's Week, a series of six pastorals drawn from English rustic life. Pope is believed to have incited his friend to this task in order to cast ridicule on the Arcadian pastorals of Ambrose Philips, who had been lavishly praised in the Guardian (ignoring the claims of Pope) as the first pastoral writer of the age, and the true English Theocritus. The malicious wit was completely successful, but Gay's ludicrous pictures of the English swains and their loves were found to be interesting and amusing without reference to their sarcastic origin. The poem was popular, and the author's reputation considerably advanced. In this fortunate year Gay was appointed secretary to the earl of Clarendon, ambassador to the court of Hanover; but the death of Queen Anne, August 1, 1714, soon put an end to his hopes of permanent official employment. He then tried the drama, and produced his farce of Wliat d'ye Gall it 2 which was acted with little success in February 1714-15. In 1716 appeared his Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poem in three books, for which he acknowledged having received several hints from Swift. It is an excellent town poem, containing graphic and humorous descriptions of the London of that period. In January 1716-17 the comedy of Three Hours after Marriage was brought on the stage, and emphatically condemned. In this piece Gay was assisted by Pope and Arbuthnot. Pope is distinctly visible in his allusions to Dennis the critic; and it is remarkable that three such men should have produced a play so dull, unnatural, and gross. Gay was taken to Aix by Mr Pulteney in 1717. In 1720 he collected his poems and published them by subscription, by which he is said to have realized £1000. Secretary Craggs also presented him with some South Sea stock ; and Gay called in his friends to advise as to the investment of his riches. Erasmus Lewis, according to Johnson, advised him to intrust his money to the funds, and live upon the interest; Arbuthnot bade him intrust it to Providence, and live upon the principal; while Pope directed him, and was seconded by Swift, to purchase an annuity. This was Pope's own prudent system; but Gay, like many others who ask advice, followed none, but took his own way. He embarked all in South Sea stock ; and, refusing to sell out before the bubble burst, he lost the actual principal as well as the anticipated profit. The calamity overwhelmed him; his life was despaired of; but his friends exerted themelves to cheer and succour the desponding bard. Lord Burlington entertained him for months in his princely house at Chiswick; and Pope, Arbuthnot, and the other members of the circle were unceasing in their attentions. By the beginning of 1724 he had a new play ready, a tragedy called the Captives, which was patronized by the Princess (afterward Queen) Caroline and the Prince of Wales. In 1726 he published his famous Fifty-one Fables in Verse. His next work was the Beggar's Opera, performed in 1727, written in ridicule of the Italian Opera, which for a time it drove off the English stage. Swift suggested the subject, and Pope is believed to have added some poignancy to the satirical songs ; but Gay's own bonhomie and voluptuous style colour the whole. The play ran to the end of the season, sixty-two nights, four of which were for the benefit of the author, and produced to him the handsome sum of £693, 13s. 6d. The same year he sold his copyright of the Opera, with that of the Fables, for 90 guineas. The success of The Beggar's Opera induced Gay to attempt a continuation of the operatic style. He wrote another piece, Polly, with no satirical design, as he states ; but the lord chamberlain prohibited its representation. The poet then resorted in 1729 to publication by subscription ; his friends were again active—the duchess of Queensberry even bearding royalty in resentment of the refusal of the licence; and Gay must have cleared above £1000 by what was deemed his oppression. The duke of Queensberry received Gay into his house, and the duchess treated him with equal respect for his talents and character. This clever, beautiful, and eccentric woman—the idol of the poets—appears nowhere to more advantage than in her affectionate patronage of Gay, and her long-cherished regret for his loss. The poet died, after a short illness, December 4, 1732, and the duke and duchess of Queensberry honoured his remains with a splendid funeral and monument in Westminster Abbey. A week before his death another opera, Achilles, had been brought out with applause, and this, with a new volume of Fables, was published in 1733, the profits going to his sisters, two widow ladies, who inherited by the poet's death no less than £6000. As late as 1743 appeared the posthumous comedy of The Distrest Wife, and the farce of The Rehearsal at Gotham in 1753. Pope and Swift—always ready to blame the court aid courtiers, though far from averse to their society—have censured Mrs Howard, afterwards countess of Suffolk, for not more zealously promoting the interests of Gay by her supposed influence with the king. One offer was made to the poet,—the situation of gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa, a child,—-but he declined it on account of his being, as he writes to Swift, so far advanced in life. He was only thirty-nine; but all Gay's friends seem to have treated the offer as an indignity. When the queen's establishment was made up in 1727, they expected some more important office for their favourite associate, though it is not easy to discover what appointment about the court could have been better adapted to one so easy, so natural, and helpless. Mrs Howard, it is now known, had very little influence with her royal master. The real power was in the hands of the queen, and the philosophical Caroline was content that his Majesty (who hated poetry and painting, and looked upon poets as mechanics) should possess what mistresses he pleased, provided that the state power and patronage continued with herself and Walpole. But it may be safely said that no man could have acquired such a body of great and accomplished friends as those which rallied round Gay and mourned his loss, without the possession of many valuable and endearing qualities. His poetry is neither high nor pure ; but he had humour, a fine vein of fancy, and powers of observation and local painting which bespeak the close poetical student and the happy literary artist. (E. CA.)






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