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BORN A. D. 1688.-DIED A. D. 1732.
John Gay was born in 1688, in the vicinity of Barnstaple, in Devonshire. Having received a good grammatical education under the care of Mr Luck, the master of the free-school at Barnstaple, he was, owing to the reduced circumstances of his family, destined for trade, and bound an apprentice to a silk-mercer in London.
With this occupation, however, he was greatly dissatisfied; for, having imbibed a taste for poetry and classical literature, he was early disgusted with the servility and frivolous nature of his employment, and, shortly afterwards, induced his master—who saw his aversion to the business unconquerable-to resign his indentures for a small consideration.
On his release he immediately applied himself to the cultivation of poetry, and, in 1711, published bis first attempt in verse, entitled • Rural Sports,' which he inscribed to Mr Pope, then nearly of his own age; and an intimacy took place between the poets in consequence of this literary compliment, that ripened into a friendship equally durable and sincere. In 1712, our author obtained a situation which left him at full liberty to indulge his taste for elegant literature. He was appointed secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, and the public was soon gratified by the product of his leisure. His • Trivia, or, The Art of Walking the Streets in London,' appeared the same year, and procured him much reputation. It is a fine specimen of that species of burlesque in which elevated language is employed in the detail of trifling, mean, or ludicrous circumstances. He occasionally, however, touches upon subjects of a very different nature. The following description of a fire is minutely correct, and at the same time very impressive :
At first a glowing red enwraps the skies,
A more sublime, though not a more accurate picture of this dreadful disaster, has been given us by Darwin, in his · Botanic Garden.' He is addressing the Aquatic Nymphs:
From dome to dome when flames infuriate climb,
-On the fierce flames the shower impetuous falls,
And night and silence repossess the pole Gay was now willing to ascertain what were his talents for dramatic composition : from which, should success attend him on the stage, he might justly expect far greater remuneration than from any other department of poetry. He produced, therefore, about this period, a farce and a comedy, under the titles of The Mohocks,' and “The Wife of Bath ;' they were both, however, unsuccessful,--a disappointment that was alleviated the succeeding year by the popularity which accompanied his "Shepherd's Week,' so called, as it consisted of six pastorals designated by the days of the week. This singular but original work was written to support Pope in his quarrel with Phillips, and was intended as a burlesque parody upon the pastorals of his rival. “ Notwithstanding,” says Dr Drake, “ the vulgarity of manners and coarseness of style which these pieces exhibit, they are, when we dismiss from our minds the caricature intention with which they were composed, so just a picture of genuine nature, and present us with so many natural delineations of rural life, that they became greater favourites with the people than any other productions of the rustic class. In general, indeed, they were read without any reference to, or knowledge of, the dispute which occasioned their appearance, and are justly considered as representations of nature, of merit equal with the paintings of Heemskirke or Teniers.” They were dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke; and, in return, Gay was nominated secretary to the earl of Clarendon, ambassador to the court of Hanover. He had scarcely, however, begun to act in his new office, when the death of the queen closed all his prospects from the tory party; yet he neglected not the opportunity, which his short residence in Hanover afforded him, of recommending himself to the royal family, and his attentions would probably have been successful, could the dedication to Bolingbroke have been forgotten,-a political crime which never ceased to operate against all his views of official promotion. He did, however, what lay in his power; he congratulated the princess of Wales in a poetical epistle on her arrival ; and when, in 1715, he brought forward a dramatic piece, named “The What d'ye call it,' a kind of mock tragedy, it was patronised and attended both by the prince and princess of Wales ; and, though a mere trifle, acquired for its author a considerable portion of profit and temporary celebrity.
Encouraged by the success of this effort, he again tried his fortune on the stage, in 1717, by the representation of a comedy, entitled, • Three Hours after Marriage, with a result, however, very different from what took place on the former occasion ; for, though assisted in its composition by Pope and Arbuthnot, it was universally and deservedly condemned, not only for its farcical incidents, but for its unjust satire on Dr Woodward, a very worthy man, whose virtues should have shielded him from such an attack.
Whatever were the emoluments which had hitherto accrued to Gay from his works, they were spent probably as rapidly as they had been obtained ; and it became an object to himself and his friends that something permanent should be the result of his labours. It was proposed, therefore, in 1720, that he should publish his poems by subscription,
in 2 vols. 4to, a project by which he cleared a thousand pounds. Possessed of what appeared to him so large a sum, he called upon his friends for their direction in the disposal of it to the best advantage ; but like the generality of those who ask advice, he heard their opinions, and pursued his own plan. Mr Lewis, Lord Oxford's steward, advised him to invest it in the funds, and live upon the interest,—Dr Arbuthnot to intrust it to Providence, and live upon the principal,—while Pope and Swift were for purchasing an annuity for life. Instead of securing the enjoyment of it in any of these modes, he chose to purchase South sea stock; and with the money thus laid out, and a present from Secretary Craggs in the same aerial funds, he at one time firmly believed himself to be the possessor of twenty thousand pounds; and, it is said, lived according to his expectations' Had he been prudent enough to have sold out in time, as he was urgently requested to do, he might have realized his dreams of wealth ; but, confident in the stability of his speculation, he suffered the irretrievable period to pass, and was shortly afterwards stripped both of profit and principal. So unexpected a reverse was too much for our poet's philosophy ; and, had it not been for the soothing care and attention of his friends, he would have sunk beneath the stroke.
The recovery of his health was accompanied by the resumption of his favourite pursuits ; and, having finished a tragedy, he was honoured with an invitation to read it before the princess of Wales. " When the hour came,” says Johnson, “he saw the princess and her ladies all in expectation ; and advancing with reverence, too great for any other attention, stumbled at a stool, and falling forwards threw down a weighty japan screen. The princess started, the ladies screamed, and poor Gay, after all the disturbance, was still to read his play.” It is probable, that this incident might give rise to Hawkesworth's paper in the Adventurer, No. 52, on the Distresses of an Author invited to read his play. The tragedy, which was named “The Captives,' was at length acted at Drury-lane theatre, in 1723, and the author's third night was graced by the presence of their royal highnesses.
In the year 1726 appeared the Fables' for the instruction of the duke of Cumberland,—the most finished production of our poet, and to which he will owe the greater part of his reputation with posterity. “ The Fables of Gay,” says Dr Drake, “are written with great spirit and vivacity ; and the versification is, for the most part, smooth and flowing. The scenery and the descriptions are frequently happy and appropriate ; and the incidents are occasionally striking and well-imagined. The defects, however, are equally conspicuous. Of the nature of fable he seems to have entertained a very lax idea ; and many of his pieces are rather tales and allegories than fables. The moral is too often obscure or inapposite ; and he has introduced much too large a portion of satire and political matter. Excellence in the composition of fable, indeed, has been found of rare attainment: Phædrus and La Fontaine have no rivals; and though Gay may be justly considered as the best writer of these pleasing productions in the English language, he is, without doubt, greatly inferior to the Latin bard in terseness and elegance,-to the French poet in simplicity and naïveté."
The political hopes which Gay entertained from the composition of these fables were never gratified. On the accession of George II. when
he expected the rich reward of all his labours, he found no appointment allotted him but the post of gentleman-usher to the young princess Louisa; a place which he rejected with contempt, and with a high sense of the indignity that had been offered him.
А very short time after this event, and while still smarting from the disappointment he had undergone, he produced his celebrated • Beggar's Opera.' It was acted, in 1727, at Lincoln's-inn-fields, having been refused at Drury-lane ; and the applause and popularity which it acquired were beyond precedent. It was performed sixty-three nights in succession ; nor was it less a favourite on the provincial theatres. Gay, and Rich, the manager, had both great reason to be satisfied with the result; and it was humorously remarked by the public, that this opera had made Gay rich, and Rich gay. The object of Gay, in the production of this popular trifle, was to ridicule the Italian opera, and to satirize the court; and it need scarcely be added, that, for a time, he succeeded to the extent of his wishes. The tendency of the piece, however, has been justly reprobated ; and though it did not produce the mischief which some apprehended from its frequent exhibition, it must be allowed to be not only without any moral principle, but in its characters and conduct seductive and dangerous. Spence gives the following account of the origin of this piece : “ 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. This was what gave rise to · The Beggars' Opera. He began on it, and when first he mentioned it to Swift, the doctor did not much like the project. As he carried it on, he showed what he wrote to both of us; and we now and then gave a correction, or a word or two of advice : but it was wholly of his own writing. When it was done, neither of us thought it would succeed. We showed it to Congreve, who, after reading it over, said, 'It would either take greatly, or be damned confoundedly. We were all at the first night of it, in great uncertainty of the event, till we were very much encouraged by our hearing the duke of Argyle, who sat in the next box to us, say, 'It will do—it must do—I see it in the eyes of them. This was a good while before the first act was over; and so gave us ease soon, for the duke (beside his own good taste) has as particular a knack as any one now living, in discovering the taste of the public. He was quite right in this, as usual; the good-nature of the audience appeared stronger and stronger every act, and ended in a clamour of applause."
Encouraged by the patronage of the public, our author composed a second part, under the title of Polly; but, owing to the political complexion of its predecessor, the lord-chamberlain issued a prohibition against its performance,-a circumstance which in the end proved highly favourable to the interests of Gay; for his friends, stimulated by the opposition, exerted themselves so effectually in obtaining a subscription for its publication, that he acquired near twelve hundred pounds by the expedient,-a sum greatly superior to the profits of the · Beggar's Opera. Nor was this the only good consequence which resulted from the interference of the court-party. The duke and duchess of Queensbury, who had a sincere regard for Gay, received him into their house,-treated him with every respect and attention,—and undertook the regulation of bis finances, a task to which the poet had ever proved himself inade. quate.
He was now no longer at the mercy of fortune; but, as life is neces. sarily chequered with evil, no sooner was he released from pecuniary anxiety than his health began to decline. He had for some years been subject to returns of a complaint in his stomach and bowels, which now became more frequent and violent ; and he was at length seized with an inflammation of these organs, which proved more than commonly rapid in its progress, and he expired on the 4th of December, 1732, in the forty-fourth year of his age.
“ Few men,” says Dr Drake, whose notice of our poet we have nearly adopted in the above sketch, were more beloved by those who intimately knew him than Gay; his moral character was excellent; his temper peculiarly sweet and engaging ; but he possessed a simplicity of manner and character which, though it endeared him to his friends, rendered him very unfit for the general business of life. He was, in fact, as Pope has emphatically observed,
• In wit, a man; simplicity, a child.' “Independent of the compositions which we have enumerated, Gay was the auther of the · Fan,' a mythological fiction ; of •Dione,' a pastoral drama; of Achilles,' an opera, not acted until after his death ; and of several minor poems, among which the pathetic beauties of the two ballads, commencing. All in the Downs,' and 'Twas when the Seas were Roaring,' have, without doubt, been felt by all our readers. To these may be added some posthumous productions ; a second volume of his Fables, not equal to the first; the · Distrest Wife,' a comedy; and a humorous effusion, entitled “The Rehearsal at Gotham.'
“He was the author also of a paper in the Guardian, No. 149, on dress ; a subject which, though not very promising, being frivolous in itself, and nearly worn out by others, he has contrived to render the vehicle both of originality and wit. For these acquisitions, he is indebted to the ingenuity of his parallel between poetry and dress; which he has supported with much fancy and spirit, accompanied by a pretty large portion of justifiable satire.
** The dress of our ancestors, at the commencement of the eighteenth century, with all its follies and mutabilities, may be very accurately drawn from the various sketches interspersed among the papers of Steele and Addison ; and, though we may be rather inclined to complain of the too frequent recurrence of the subject, there is, most undoubtedly, a pleasure to be derived from contemplating the drapery and decoration of beauty and fashion, as they existed a century ago, especially when these portraits are grouped and coloured by masters of such acknowledged skill and fidelity."