John Gay (1685–1732)
Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
GAY, JOHN (1685–1732), poet and dramatist, is generally stated to have been born in 1688. But the parish records of Barnstaple, produced at the ‘Gay Bicentenary’ held at that town in 1885, show that he was baptised at Barnstaple Old Church on 16 Sept. 1685. He came of an ancient but impoverished Devonshire family, being the youngest child of William Gay of Barnstaple, who lived in a house in Joy Street known as the Red Cross. William Gay died in 1695, his wife, whose maiden name was Hanmer, in 1694. John Gay, in all probability, fell to the care of an uncle, Thomas Gay, also resident at Barnstaple. He was educated at the free grammar school of that town, his masters, according to his nephew, the Rev. Joseph Baller (Gay's Chair, 1820, pp. 14–15), being Mr. Rayner and his successor, Mr. Robert Luck, the ‘R. Luck, A.M.,’ whose miscellaneous poems were published by Cave in April 1736, and dedicated to Gay's patron, the Duke of Queensberry.
O Queensberry! could happy Gay This offering to thee bring, 'Tis his, my Lord (he'd smiling say), Who taught your Gay to sing—
Luck writes, and it is asserted that Gay's dramatic turn was also derived from the plays which the pupils at Barnstaple were in the habit of performing under this rhyming pedagogue. It is also stated by Baller (ib. p. 16) that one of his schoolfellows and lifelong friends was William Fortescue [q. v.], afterwards master of the rolls. Little else survives respecting Gay's schooldays; but from the fact that there exists in the Forster Library at South Kensington a large-paper copy of Maittaire's ‘Horace,’ copiously annotated in his beautiful handwriting, it must be assumed that subsequent to 1715, the date of the volume, he still preserved a love of the classics. His friends found no better career for him than that of apprentice to a mercer in London. With this vocation he was soon dissatisfied. Mr. Baller's account is that, ‘not being able to bear the confinement of a shop,’ he became depressed in spirits and health, and returned to his native town, where he was received at the house of another uncle, the Rev. John Hanmer, a nonconformist minister. After a short stay at Barnstaple, his health, says Mr. Baller, became reinstated, and he returned to town, ‘where he lived for some time as a private gentleman,’ a statement scarcely reconcilable with the opening in life his friends had found for him. His literary inclinations were no doubt already developed, and it is probable that the swarming coffee-houses and taverns speedily supplied his ‘fitting environment.’ Rumour assigns to him, as his earliest employment, that of secretary to Aaron Hill [q. v.] His first poem, mentioned by Hill, was ‘Wine,’ which is said to have been published in 1708, and was certainly pirated by the notorious Henry Hills of Blackfriars (see Epistle to Bernard Lintot) in that year. Its motto is
Nulla placere diu, nec vivere carmina possunt, Quæ scribuntur aquæ potoribus—
a contested theory, which seems to have exercised Gay nearly all his lifetime; for he is still debating it in his latest letters. He pretends in this production to draw ‘Miltonic air,’ but the atmosphere is more suggestive of the ‘Splendid Shilling’ of John Philips [q. v.] The concluding lines, which describe the breaking up of a ‘midnight modern conversation’ at the Devil Tavern, already disclose the minute touch of ‘Trivia.’ ‘Wine’ was not included in Gay's collected poems of 1720, perhaps because it was in blank verse. His next effort, which exhibits a considerable acquaintance with London letters, was the now rare ‘twopenny pamphlet’ entitled ‘The Present State of Wit,’ addressed ‘to a Friend in the Country.’ It is dated May 1711, and gives a curious account of periodical literature, especially of the recently completed ‘Tatler’ and the newly commenced ‘Spectator.’ ‘The author,’ says Swift (Journal to Stella, 14 May), ‘seems to be a whig, yet he speaks very highly of a paper called “The Examiner,” and says the supposed author of it is Dr. Swift. But above all things he praises the Tatlers and Spectators, and I believe Steele and Addison were privy to the printing of it. Thus is one treated by these impudent dogs.’ Swift, however, was wrong as to Gay's opinions. Such as they were—and he disclaims politics—he was a tory. From a letter from Pope to Henry Cromwell, bearing date a few weeks later, it is plain he had already become slightly acquainted with Pope, whose ‘Essay on Criticism’ had been published just four days after the above-mentioned pamphlet. ‘My humble service to Mr. Gay,’ says Pope. They appeared together in Lintot's ‘Miscellany’ of May 1712 (the so-called ‘Rape of the Lock’ volume), to which Gay contributed a translation of one of Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses.’ But he must have been still practically unknown, as his name is not mentioned in the contemporary advertisements, although they duly announce even such ignes minores as Cromwell, Broome, and Fenton. A few weeks before had been advertised ‘The Mohocks,’ ‘a tragi-comical farce, as it was acted near the Watch-house in Covent Garden,’ notwithstanding which ambiguous statement it was never performed. ‘This,’ says the ‘Biographia Dramatica,’ iii. 55, ‘has been attributed in general, and truly, to Mr. Gay.’ It was dedicated to Mr. D***** (Dennis). In the same year (1712), and probably towards the close of it—since Pope's congratulations are dated December—he was appointed ‘secretary or domestic steward’ to the Duchess of Monmouth, whose husband had been beheaded in 1685. Early in 1713 (January) he published another poem, ‘Rural Sports,’ a georgic, which he dedicated to Pope. It is a performance of the ‘toujours bien, jamais mieux’ order, but nevertheless contains a good deal of unconventional knowledge of country life, especially of hunting and fishing. In September he contributed a clever paper on the art of dress to Steele's ‘Guardian,’ and it is possible that other pages of that periodical are also from his pen, while he is represented in the ‘Poetical Miscellanies’ of the same writer, which appeared in December, by two elegies (‘Panthea’ and ‘Araminta’) and a ‘Contemplation on Night.’ At the beginning of 1714 Gay brought out the ‘Fan,’ one of his least successful efforts, and, though touched by Pope, now unreadable. This was succeeded by the ‘Shepherd's Week,’ a series of eclogues into which Pope had decoyed him in order to reinforce his own war with Ambrose Philips [q. v.], and sham pastoral. Gay was to depict rustic life with the gilt off, ‘after the true ancient guise of Theocritus.’ ‘Thou wilt not find my Shepherdesses,’ says the author's proem, ‘idly piping upon oaten Reeds, but milking the Kine, tying up the Sheaves, or, if the Hogs are astray, driving them to their Styes … nor doth he [the shepherd] vigilantly defend his Flocks from Wolves [this was a palpable hit at Philips!], because there are none.’ But the execution of the piece went far beyond its avowed object of ridicule, and Gay's eclogues abound with interesting folklore and closely studied rural pictures. The ‘Shepherd's Week’ was dedicated to Bolingbroke, a circumstance which Swift hints (Pope, Corr. ii. 34) constituted that original sin against the court which subsequently so much interfered with Gay's prospects of preferment. But the allusions in this prologue (in rhyme) seem to show that the sometime mercer's apprentice had by this time made the acquaintance of Arbuthnot, and of some fairer critics whose favour was of greater importance to poetical advancement. ‘No more,’ he says, ‘I'll sing Buxoma and Hobnelia,
But Lansdown fresh as Flow'r of May, And Berkely Lady blithe and gay, And Anglesey whose Speech exceeds The Voice of Pipe or Oaten Reeds; And blooming Hide, with Eyes so Rare, And Montague beyond compare.’
‘Blooming Hyde, with eyes so rare,’ it may be remarked, was Lady Jane Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Rochester, and elder sister of the ‘Kitty, beautiful and young,’ afterwards Duchess of Queensberry. Soon after the publication of the ‘Shepherd's Week’ Gay appears to have resigned his position in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth, and to have obtained the superior appointment of secretary to Lord Clarendon, who in June 1714 was despatched as envoy extraordinary to the court of Hanover. It was the influence of Swift or Swift's friends which procured Gay this post, and there exists a curious rhymed petition from the necessitous poet to Lord-treasurer Oxford for funds to enable him to enter upon his functions. For a brief space we must imagine him strutting ‘in silver and blue’ through the clipped avenues of Herrenhausen, yawning over the routine life of the little German court, and, as he told Swift, perfecting himself in the diplomatic arts of ‘bowing profoundly, speaking deliberately, and wearing both sides of his long periwig before.’ Then the death of the queen (1 Aug.) put an end to Clarendon's mission, and his secretary was once more without employment. He came back to England in September, and a letter from Pope, dated the 23rd of that month, winds up by recommending him to make use of his past position by writing ‘something on the king, or prince, or princess’ (ib. ii. 417). Arbuthnot seems to have given him similar counsel. Gay's easily depressed spirits did not at first enable him to act on this advice, but he shortly afterwards recovered himself sufficiently to compose and publish in November an ‘Epistle to a Lady, occasion'd by the Arrival of Her Royal Highness’ (i.e. the Princess of Wales, who came to England on 13 Oct.), in which he makes direct reference to his hopeless waiting for patronage. The only outcome of this seems to have been that their royal highnesses came to Drury Lane to see Gay's next effort, the tragi-comi-pastoral farce of the ‘What-d'ye-Call-it,’ a play which belongs in part to the same class as Buckingham's ‘Rehearsal,’ inasmuch as it ridicules the popular tragedies of the day, and especially ‘Venice Preserved.’ The images of this piece were comic, and its action grave, a circumstance which must have been a little confusing to slow people, who, not having the advantage of the author's explanatory preface, could not readily see the joke. To Pope's deaf friend Henry Cromwell, who was unable to hear the words, and only distinguished the gravity of the gestures, it was, we are told, unintelligible. One of the results of this ambiguity was the publication by Lewis Theobald and Griffin the player of a ‘Key to the What-d'ye-Call-it,’ in which the travestied passages are quoted and the allusions traced. But there is originality and some wit in the little piece, which was published in March 1715, and it contains one of Gay's most musical songs, that beginning ‘'Twas when the seas were roaring.’ In the summer of 1715 (ib. ii. 458) Lord Burlington sent Gay to Devonshire, an expedition which he has pleasantly commemorated in the epistle entitled ‘A Journey to Exeter.’ In January of the following year he published his ‘Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London,’ a poem, in the ‘advertisement’ of which he acknowledges the aid of Swift; and it is indeed not improbable that ‘Trivia’ was actually suggested by the ‘Morning’ and ‘City Shower’ which Swift had previously contributed to Steele's ‘Tatler.’ As a poem it has no permanent merit, but it is a mine of not-yet-overworked information respecting the details of outdoor life under Anne. Lintot paid Gay 43l. for the copyright, and from a passage in one of Pope's letters to Caryll (ib. ii. 460 n.) he must have made considerably more by the sale of large-paper copies. ‘We have had the interest,’ says Pope, ‘to procure him [Gay] subscriptions of a guinea a book to a pretty tolerable number. I believe it may be worth 150l. to him in the whole.’ This was scarcely bad pay for a poem which was sold to the public at 1s. 6d. But its popularity must have been confined to the first issues, for it was not until 1730 that it reached a third edition. Gay's next production was the comedy entitled ‘Three Hours after Marriage,’ of which it is perhaps fairer to say that he bore the blame than that he is justly chargeable with its errors of taste. Although he signed the ‘advertisement,’ and was popularly credited with the authorship, he had Pope and Arbuthnot for active coadjutors. The piece was acted at Drury Lane, and published in January 1717. It ran feebly for seven nights. Dennis figured in it as Sir Tremendous, ‘the greatest critic of our age,’ while Woodward the geologist was burlesqued in Johnson's part of Fossile, to gain access to whose wife two suitors disguise themselves respectively as a mummy and a crocodile, expedients not at all to the taste of the stern censors of the pit. Another of the personages, Phœbe Clinket (played by Steele's friend, Mrs. Bicknell), was said to be intended for Anne Finch [q. v.], countess of Winchilsea, who was alleged to have spoken contemptuously of Gay (Biog. Dram. iii. 334). Like the ‘What-d'ye-Call-it,’ ‘Three Hours after Marriage’ was followed by ‘A Complete Key,’ which, however, was a criticism, and not a ‘puff oblique.’ It also prompted the farce of the ‘Confederates’ by Joseph Gay, the nom de guerre of John Durant Breval [q. v.]; and a pamphlet entitled ‘A Letter to Mr. John Gay, concerning his late Farce, entituled a Comedy,’ 1717. In July 1717 William Pulteney, afterwards Earl of Bath, carried Gay with him to Aix, and (like Lord Burlington) was repaid by a rhymed epistle. The next year (1718) saw him in Oxfordshire at Lord Harcourt's seat of Cockthorpe, from which place he occasionally visited Pope, then working at the fifth volume of the ‘Iliad’ in another of Harcourt's country seats, an old gothic house and tower at Stanton Harcourt. Here occurred that romantic episode of the two lovers struck dead by lightning, of which Pope's ‘Correspondence’ contains so many versions, and which, from the fact that one of the earliest of these was printed in 1737 (Pope, Prose Works, i.), as written by Gay to his brother-in-law, Fortescue, has (by many people besides Sophia Primrose) been supposed to have been first chronicled by Gay. It is most probable, however, that the matrix (so to speak) of the story was a joint production sent by both writers to their friends, and colour is given to this conjecture by a passage in a letter from Lord Bathurst to Pope in August, in which he thanks his correspondent and Gay for the melancholy novel they have sent him of the unhappy lovers (Pope, Corr. iii. 325, and iv. 399 n.) Nothing further of interest in Gay's life is recorded until 1720, when Tonson and Lintot published his poems in two quarto volumes, with a frontispiece by William Kent, the architect. Its subscription list rivals that to Prior's folio of 1718, and bears equal witness to the munificence of the Georgian nobility to the more fortunate of their minstrels. Lord Burlington and Lord Chandos are down for fifty copies each, Lord Bathurst and Lord Warwick for ten, and so forth. The second volume included a number of epistles, eclogues, and miscellaneous pieces, the majority of which were apparently published for the first time, as well as a pastoral tragedy entitled ‘Dione.’ One of the ballads, the still popular ‘Sweet William's Farewell to Black-ey'd Susan,’ is justly ranked among the best efforts of the writer's muse. By these two volumes he is alleged to have cleared 1,000l., no mean amount when it is remembered that one of them consisted wholly of pieces already in circulation. His friends clustered about him with kindly counsel in this unlooked-for good fortune. Swift and Pope recommended him to purchase an annuity with the money; Erasmus Lewis (Lord Bathurst's ‘proseman,’ as Prior was his ‘verseman’) wished him to put it in the funds and live upon the interest; Arbuthnot to entrust it to providence and live upon the principal. But the ‘most refractory, honest, good-natured man,’ as Swift called him, went his own refractory way. The younger Craggs had made him a present of some South Sea stock, and he seems to have sunk his poetical gains in the same disastrous speculation. He became speedily the master of a fabulous fortune of 20,000l. Again his advisers came to his aid, begging him to sell wholly or in part, at least as much, said Fenton, as will make you ‘sure of a clean shirt and a shoulder of mutton every day.’ But Gay was bitten by the South Sea madness. He declined to take either course, and forthwith lost both principal and profits (Biog. Brit. and Johnson, Lives, ed. Cunningham, ii. 288). Among the other names chronicled in the subscription lists of the ‘Poems’ of 1720 were those of the Duke of Queensberry and his duchess, Catherine Hyde [see under Douglas, Charles, third Duke of Queensberry], henceforward Gay's kindest friends. The portrait of the duchess by Jervas as a milkmaid of quality is in the National Portrait Gallery. After her marriage (March 1720) she seems to have taken the poet entirely under her protection. ‘Any lady with a coach and six horses’—as Swift complained later, with a half-sorry recollection of his friend's ‘rooted laziness’ and ‘utter impatience of fatigue’—‘would carry him to Japan,’ and he was certainly not the man to resent her grace's imperious patronage. ‘He [Gay] is always with the Duchess of Queensberry,’ writes Mrs. Bradshaw to Mrs. Howard from Bath in 1721; and five years later the poet himself tells Swift that he has been with his great friends at Oxford and Petersham ‘and wheresoever they would carry me.’ In the intervals he is with Lord Burlington at Chiswick or Piccadilly or Tunbridge Wells. Or he is helping Congreve to nurse his gout at ‘the Bath,’ or acting as Pope's secretary at Twickenham (‘which you know is no idle charge’), or borrowing sheets from Jervas to put up Swift at the lodgings in Whitehall which were granted him by the Earl of Lincoln. But though his life sounds pleasant in the summary, it must often have involved many of the humiliations of dependency. According to Arbuthnot (Pope, Corr. ii. 32 n.), it would seem that the Burlingtons sometimes neglected the creature comforts of their protégé, and they and his other great friends either could not or would not procure his advancement. ‘They wonder,’ says Gay piteously to Swift in 1722, ‘at each other for not providing for me, and I wonder at them all.’ Still, from a reference in another letter to Pope (ib. ii. 426 and n.), it appears that he drew a salary of 150l. per annum as a lottery commissioner, a post which he held from 1722 to 1731; and, except that he lived in the Saturnian age of letters for those who had friends in power, there was no pressing reason why he should be singled out for special honours. It is evident, too, that his circumstances—as far as they can be ascertained from chance references—were not improved by his own dilatory and temporising habits, nor was he of a fibre to endure the shocks of fortune. When his unsubstantial South Sea riches had vanished, he sank into a state of despondency which, ‘being attended with the cholic,’ says the ‘Biographia Britannica,’ ‘brought his life in danger.’ This illness, from a letter written to Swift in December 1722, must have preceded his appointment as a lottery commissioner. But he still continued to look discontentedly for further advancement, which was not forthcoming. ‘I hear nothing of our friend Gay,’ says Swift three years later, ‘but I find the court keeps him at hard meat’ (ib. ii. 55), and from other indications it would seem that Gay trusted much to the advocacy of Mrs. Howard (afterwards Countess of Suffolk), who probably had the will but not the power to help him. After the ‘Poems’ of 1720 his next production was the tragedy of ‘The Captives,’ which was acted at Drury Lane in January 1724 with considerable success for seven nights, the third, or author's night, being by the express command of the Prince and Princess of Wales, to whom he had read his play in manuscript at Leicester House. Towards the close of the following year we get a hint of the work upon which his reputation as a writer mainly rests. ‘Gay,’ Pope tells Swift in December, ‘is writing Tales for Prince William’ (afterwards the Duke of Cumberland). The tales in question were the well-known ‘Fables.’ After considerable delay, caused to some extent by the slow progress of the plates, which were designed by Wootton, the animal painter, and Kent, the first series was published by Tonson & Watts in 1727, with an introductory fable to his highness. The work was well received; but, from a remark by Swift in No. 3 of ‘The Intelligencer,’ it must be inferred that some of the writer's sarcasms against courtiers were thought to be over bold. At all events, when the reward he had been led to anticipate came at last with the accession of George II, it was confined to a nomination as gentleman-usher to the little Princess Louisa. ‘The queen's family,’ he tells Swift in October 1727, ‘is at last settled, and in the list I was appointed gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa … which, upon account I am so far advanced in life, I have declined accepting, and have endeavoured, in the best manner I could, to make my excuses by a letter to her majesty. So now all my expectations are vanished; and I have no prospect, but in depending wholly upon myself, and my own conduct. As I am used to disappointments, I can bear them; but as I can have no more hopes, I can no more be disappointed, so that I am in a blessed condition’ (ib. ii. 103). In the same letter he refers to his next effort, the famous ‘Beggar's Opera,’ which he declares to be ‘already finished.’ The first idea was Swift's, and connects itself with the old warfare against Ambrose Philips. ‘I believe,’ says Swift in a letter to Pope of 30 Aug. 1716, ‘that the pastoral ridicule is not exhausted, and that a porter, footman, or chairman's pastoral might do well. Or what think you of a Newgate pastoral?’ Gay had essayed, upon another hint in this letter, a quaker eclogue, which is to be found in vol. ii. of the ‘Poems’ of 1720; but for the Newgate pastoral he had substituted a lyrical drama, which was now completed. Spence (Anecdotes, ed. Singer, p. 120) says that Swift did not like the variation, and neither he nor Pope thought it would succeed, while Congreve and the Duke of Queensberry seem to have agreed in predicting that it would either be a great success or a great failure (Pope, Corr. ii. 111). It was produced on 29 Jan. 1728 at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and made its author's name a household word. In the theatre the same hesitation which had manifested itself among Gay's private critics for a while prevailed. Cibber and his brother patentees rejected it at Drury Lane, and Quin, who was to have taken the part of the hero Macheath, surrendered it to an actor named Walker. Even when actually upon the boards its success hung in the balance, until Lavinia Fenton [q. v.], the Polly of the piece, brought down the house by the tender and affecting way in which she sang—
For on the rope that hangs my dear Depends poor Polly's life.
In a note to the ‘Dunciad,’ Pope (or Pope's annotator) summarises its subsequent history: ‘It was acted in London sixty-three days [Genest says sixty-two] … and renew'd the next season with equal applauses. It spread into all the great towns of England, was play'd in many places to the 30th and 40th time, at Bath and Bristol 50, &c. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days together. It was lastly acted in Minorca. The fame of it was not confin'd to the Author only; the Ladies carry'd about with 'em the favourite songs of it in Fans; and houses were furnish'd with it in Screens. The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town; her Pictures were engraved and sold in great numbers; her Life written; books of Letters and Verses to her publish'd; and pamphlets made even of her Sayings and Jests’ (Pope, Works, 1735, ii. 161–2). Several pictures of the 'twixt-Polly-and-Lucy scene in this famous piece were painted by Hogarth. That belonging to the Duke of Leeds was exhibited in 1887–8 at the Grosvenor Gallery, with another version belonging to Mr. Louis Huth. A third belongs to Mr. John Murray. In 1790 William Blake made a well-known engraving after one of these. Walker (Macheath) is shown in the centre, while Lucy (Mrs. Egleton) pleads for him to the left, and Polly (Miss Fenton) to the right. Rich, the manager of Lincoln's Inn Fields (there was a current witticism that the piece had made ‘Rich gay, and Gay rich’), the Duke of Bolton, who ran away with and afterwards married Miss Fenton, and the author himself are among the spectators. Report says that Pope pointed the satire in some of the songs. But against this must be set his express disclaimer to Spence (Anecdotes, ed. Singer, pp. 110, 120). ‘We [he means himself and Swift] now and then gave a correction, or a word or two of advice, but it [the play] was wholly of his own writing.’ Encouraged by the success of the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ which, he says, by the time its thirty-sixth night had been reached, had brought him between 700l. and 800l. (Pope, Corr. ii. 120, 121), while his manager had made 4,000l., he set promptly about a sequel, in which he transferred some of the chief personages to the plantations. To this new piece he gave the name of the all-popular heroine of its predecessor. But when ‘Polly’ was ready for rehearsal the Duke of Grafton, then lord chamberlain, acting under the express instructions of the king, who in his turn was influenced by Walpole, sent to forbid the representation. Whatever the real reason for this step may have been, its result was to give the unacted opera an interest to which its literary and dramatic merits could hardly have entitled it. Its prohibition became a party question, and its sale in book form was an extraordinary success, in which every opponent of the court was concerned. The Duchess of Marlborough (Congreve's duchess) gave 100l. for a single copy, and for soliciting subscriptions for her favourite within the very precincts of St. James's the Duchess of Queensberry was dismissed the court. Thereupon her husband resigned his appointments and followed his wife, who took her congé in a very saucy and characteristic letter to King George. It is clear that in this Gay was merely the stalking-horse of political antagonism, but for the moment he was a popular martyr. ‘The inoffensive John Gay,’ wrote Arbuthnot to Swift, 19 March 1729, ‘is now become one of the obstructions to the peace of Europe, the terror of the ministers, the chief author of the “Craftsman,” and all the seditious pamphlets which have been published against the government. He has got several turned out their places; the greatest ornament of the court [i.e. Lady Queensberry] banished from it for his sake; another great lady [Mrs. Howard, afterwards Countess of Suffolk] in danger of being chassée likewise; about seven or eight duchesses pushing forward, like the ancient circumcelliones in the church, who shall suffer martyrdom on his account first. He is the darling of the city. … I can assure you, this is the very identical John Gay whom you formerly knew and lodged with in Whitehall two years ago.’ After this date those Whitehall lodgings, Gay tells us (ib. ii. 165), were ‘judged not convenient’ for one so little in court favour. But, on the other hand, the publication of ‘Polly’ brought him between 1,100l. and 1,200l., or considerably more than he could reasonably have expected to make if it had succeeded upon the stage (ib. ii. 142 n.) The ups and downs of fortune, however, were scarcely calculated to fortify Gay's lax and compliant nature. Early in December 1728 he had been confined with an attack of fever. The prohibition of ‘Polly’ on the 12th seems to have been followed by a serious relapse in which he was dangerously ill. In Arbuthnot's letter above quoted he writes that Gay owes his life under God ‘to the unwearied endeavours and care of your humble servant; for a physician who had not been passionately his friend could not have saved him.’ Gay himself, writing to Swift on the previous day, had told the same tale. With the Queensberrys he seems to have continued for the rest of his life either in their town house or in their country seat of Amesbury in Wiltshire. They assumed, indeed, formal charge of him, the duke taking care of his money and the duchess watching over the poet himself. Among Swift's correspondence there are a number of joint letters to the dean in Ireland from Gay and his patroness, the leading topic of which is the allurement of Swift to England. Literature seems to have languished with Gay at this time, and he still felt the effects of his last illness. ‘I continue to drink nothing but water,’ he tells Swift in March 1730, ‘so that you cannot require any poetry from me,’ an utterance which shows he was still constant to the doctrine laid down in the motto to his first poem of ‘Wine.’ He had, however (the same letter reminds us), vamped up an old play, ‘The Wife of Bath,’ which had already been acted without success in May 1713, and was now (1730) reproduced at Lincoln's Inn Fields with no better fortune, notwithstanding the great reputation its author had gained from the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ In December 1731 he says he has made some progress in a second series of ‘Fables,’ and a few months later announces that he has ‘already finished about fifteen or sixteen.’ The morals of most of them, he adds, ‘are of the political kind, which makes them run into a greater length than those I have already published.’ Further, he has ‘a sort of scheme to raise his finances by doing something for the stage.’ What this something was is matter of conjecture. It can scarcely have been the serenata or pastoral drama of ‘Acis and Galatea,’ which was produced at the Haymarket in May 1732, with Miss Arne (afterwards Mrs. Cibber) for heroine, because both the words and the music (the latter Handel's) had been written some ten years before. But it may have been the comedy of ‘The Distrest Wife,’ printed long after Gay's death in 1743; or it may have been, and most probably was, the opera of ‘Achilles,’ which was acted at Covent Garden in February 1733. In his last letter to Swift, dated 16 Nov. 1732, he says that he has come to London before the family, to follow his own inventions, which included the arrangements for producing the last-named opera. About a fortnight afterwards he was attacked by an inflammatory fever, and died in three days (4 Dec. 1732)—‘the most precipitate case I ever knew,’ says Arbuthnot. After lying in state at Exeter 'Change, he was ‘interred at Westminster Abbey as if he had been a peer of the realm,’ and the Queensberrys erected a handsome monument to his memory, which, however, is disfigured by a flippant couplet borrowed from one of his letters to Pope:—
Life is a jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, and now I know it.
It is but just, however, to say that he wished the words to be put on his tombstone, explaining them to signify ‘his present sentiment in life’ (ib. ii. 436). Pope also wrote an epitaph for his monument, which, though it contains some happily characteristic lines, e.g. ‘In Wit a Man, Simplicity a Child,’ has never quite recovered the terrible mangling it received at the hands of Johnson (Epitaphs of Pope, 1756). Gay's fortune, husbanded by the Queensberrys, amounted to about 6,000l. It was equally divided between his sisters, Katherine Baller and Joanna Fortescue, who in addition had some years afterwards the profits of a theatrical benefit (Gay's Chair, p. 25). In addition to the pieces named above was printed in 1754 a farce called ‘The Rehearsal at Goatham.’ There are portraits of Gay by Dahl (Countess Delawarr's), Zincke, Hogarth, and others. In the National Portrait Gallery is an unfinished sketch in oils by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which has been etched for the ‘Parchment Library’ by Mr. H. A. Willis. Another and a better known portrait, belonging to Lord Scarsdale, and painted by Kneller's follower, William Aikman, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887–8. It shows him in a blue cap and coat, and is said to have been praised by contemporaries for its fidelity. It was engraved by F. Milvius [i.e. F. Kyte]. Last in order comes the portrait by Richardson, dated 12 Aug. 1732, exhibited by Viscountess Clifden at South Kensington in 1867. In character Gay was affectionate and amiable, but indolent, luxurious, and very easily depressed. His health was never good, and his inactive habits and tastes as a gourmand did not improve it. But his personal charm as a companion must have been exceptional, for he seems to have been a universal favourite, and Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot (with none of whom he ever quarrelled) were genuinely attached to him
Blest be the great! for those they take away, And those they left me; for they left me Gay,
sings Pope in the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot,’ ll. 255–6; and Swift, in his ‘Verses on his own Death,’ gives him as mourner the next place to Pope:—
Poor Pope will grieve a month, and Gay A week, and Arbuthnot a day.
The lamentations of Gay's associates over his ‘unpensioned’ condition (‘Gay dies unpension'd with a hundred friends,’ Dunciad, iii. 330) require to be taken by the modern reader with a grain of salt. Gay had never rendered any services to entitle him to those court favours which he wasted his life in expecting, and on more than one occasion must have made himself a persona ingrata to those in power. Beginning as a mere mercer's apprentice, from such slender poetical credentials as ‘Wine’ and ‘Rural Sports,’ he became the friend of all the best-known writers of his age, from Bolingbroke to Broome, and the companion of dukes and earls. Between their real and their fictitious value, his works succeeded on the whole remarkably well, and, ‘Polly’ excepted, he seems to have had no difficulty in getting his plays produced. If he was unrewarded by an ungrateful court (his apartments in Whitehall and his lottery commissionership counting apparently for nothing), it must be remembered that for the most part he lived in clover in great houses, and that he left at his death a very fair fortune acquired by his pen, which, but for his own imprudence, might have been at least half as much again. That he was disappointed in an advancement he rather desired than deserved can only be made a grievance by those who (like Swift) are constantly seeking for pretexts to quarrel with the acts of their political opponents. Of Gay's works the ‘Beggar's Opera’ and the ‘Fables’ (the second series of which, already referred to, was published by Knapton in 1738 from the manuscripts in the hands of the Duke of Queensberry) are best known. Stockdale's edition of the ‘Fables,’ 1793, upon which Blake worked, and Bewick's edition of 1779 are still prized by collectors. Next to these come ‘Trivia’ and the ‘Shepherd's Week,’ which must always retain a certain value for their touches of folklore and their social details. As a song-writer Gay is very successful, his faculty in this way being greatly aided by his knowledge of music (cf. Warton, Pope, 1797, i. 149). Of his ‘Epistles’ the brightest is that imitating Canto 46 of the ‘Orlando Furioso,’ in which he welcomes Pope's return from Troy (i.e. when he had completed his translation of the ‘Iliad’), and it deserves mention as an example of ottava rima earlier than Tennant, Frere, or Byron. It was first printed in ‘Additions to the Works of Pope’ [by George Steevens?], 1776, i. 94–103. There is also a certain Hogarthian vigour in the eclogue called ‘The Birth of the Squire.’ But those who to-day read his life will probably wonder at his poetical reputation even in his own time, although it is impossible to deny to him the honour of adding several well-known quotations (e.g. ‘While there's life there's hope,’ and ‘Dearest friends must part’) to the current common-places of what his contemporaries dignified by the title of ‘polite conversation.’
[Coxe's Life, 2nd ed. 1797; Biog. Brit. art. ‘Gay;’ Pope's Correspondence by Elwin and Courthope, passim; Spence's Anecdotes; Johnson's Lives, ed. Cunningham, 1854, ii. 283–98; Thackeray's English Humourists, 1858, pp. 181–93; Life by Underhill, prefixed to Gay's Poetical Works (1893). Some passages in the present memoir are borrowed from brief memoirs of Gay by the present writer prefixed to his Fables in the Parchment Library, 1882, and to the selection from his verses in Ward's Poets, 1880, Addison to Blake. A genuine chair of the poet, a woodcut of which forms the frontispiece to Gay's Chair (1820), belonged to George Godwin, F.S.A. [q. v.], and was sold in April 1888, after Godwin's death. A worthless Life (with a portrait) was published by Curll in 1733. Mr. W. H. K. Wright, borough librarian, Plymouth, is at present (1889) engaged upon a bibliography of Gay.]
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
GAY, JOHN (1685–1732), English poet, was baptized on the 16th of September 1685 at Barnstaple, where his family had long been settled. He was educated at the grammar school of the town under Robert Luck, who had published some Latin and English poems. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a silk mercer in London, but being weary, according to Dr Johnson, “of either the restraint or the servility of his occupation,” he soon returned to Barnstaple, where he spent some time with his uncle, the Rev. John Hanmer, the Nonconformist minister of the town. He then returned to London, and though no details are available for his biography until the publication of Wine in 1708, the account he gives in Rural Sports (1713), of years wasted in attending on courtiers who were profuse in promises never kept, may account for his occupations. Among his early literary friends were Aaron Hill and Eustace Budgell. In The Present State of Wit (1711) Gay attempted to give an account of "all our periodical papers, whether monthly, weekly or diurnal." He especially praised the Taller and the Spectator, and Swift, who knew nothing of the authorship of the pamphlet, suspected it to be inspired by Steele and Addison. To Liutot’s Miscellany (1712) Gay contributed "An Epistle to Bernard Lintot," containing some lines in praise of Pope, and a version of the story of Arachne from the sixth book of the Metamorphoses of Ovid. In the same year he was received into the household of the duchess of Monmouth as secretary, a connexion which was, however, broken before June 1714. The dedication of his Rural Sports (1713) to Pope was the beginning of a lasting friendship. Gay could have no pretensions to rivalry with Pope, who seems never to have tired of helping his friend. In 1713 he produced a comedy, The Wife of Bath, which was acted only three nights, and The Fan, one of his least successful poems; and in 1714 The Shepherd’s Week, a series of six pastorals drawn from English rustic life. Pope had urged him to undertake this last task in order to ridicule the Arcadian pastorals of Ambrose Philips, who had been praised by the Guardian, to the neglect of Pope’s claims as the first pastoral writer of the age and the true English Theocritus. Gay’s pastorals completely achieved this object, but his ludicrous pictures of the English swains and their loves were found to be abundantly entertaining on their own account. Gay had just been appointed secretary to the British ambassador to the court of Hanover through the influence of Jonathan Swift, when the death of Queen Anne three months later put an end to all his hopes of official employment. In 1715, probably with some help from Pope, he produced What d'ye call it? a dramatic skit on contemporary tragedy, with special reference to Otway’s Venice Preserved. It left the public so ignorant of its real meaning that Lewis Theobald and Benjamin Griffin (1680–1740) published a Complete Key to what d'ye call it by way of explanation. 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 contains graphic and humorous descriptions of the London of that period. In January 1717 he produced the comedy of Three Hours after Marriage, which was grossly indecent without being amusing, and was a complete failure. There is no doubt that in this piece he had assistance from Pope and Arbuthnot, but they were glad enough to have it assumed that Gay was the sole author. Gay had numerous patrons, and in 1720 he published Poems on Several Occasions by subscription, realizing 1000 or more. In that year James Craggs, the secretary of state, presented him with some South Sea stock. Gay, disregarding the prudent advice of Pope and other of his friends, invested his all in South Sea stock, and, holding on to the end, he lost everything. The shock is said to have made him dangerously ill. As a matter of fact Gay had always been a spoilt child, who expected everything to be done for him. His friends did not fail him at this juncture. He had patrons in William Pulteney, afterwards earl of Bath, in the third earl of Burlington, who constantly entertained him at Chiswick or at Burlington House, and in the third earl of Queensberry. He was a frequent visitor with Pope, and received unvarying kindness from Congreve and Arbuthnot. In 1724 he produced a tragedy called The Captives. In 1727 he wrote for Prince William, afterwards duke of Cumberland, his famous Fifty-one Fables in Verse, for which he naturally hoped to gain some preferment, although he has much to say in them of the servility of courtiers and the vanity of court honours. He was offered the situation of gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa, who was still a child. He refused this offer, which all his friends seem to have regarded, for no very obvious reason, as an indignity. As the Fables were written for the amusement of one royal child, there would appear to have been a measure of reason in giving him a sinecure in the service of another. His friends thought him unjustly neglected by the court, but he had already received (1722) a sinecure as lottery commissioner with a salary of £150 a year, and from 1722 to 1729 he had lodgings in the palace at Whitehall. He had never rendered any special services to the court. He certainly did nothing to conciliate the favour of the government by his next production, the Beggars' Opera, a lyrical drama produced on the 29th of January 1728 by Rich, in which Sir Robert Walpole was caricatured. This famous piece, which was said to have made "Rich gay and Gay rich," was an innovation in many respects, and for a time it drove Italian opera off the English stage. Under cover of the thieves and highwaymen who figured in it was disguised a satire on society, for Gay made it plain that in describing the moral code of his characters he had in mind the corruptions of the governing class. Part of the success of the Beggars' Opera may have been due to the acting of Lavinia Fenton, afterwards duchess of Bolton, in the part of Polly Peachum. The play ran for sixty-two nights, though the representations, four of which were "benefits" of the author, were not, as has sometimes been stated, consecutive. Swift is said to have suggested the subject, and Pope and Arbuthnot were constantly consulted while the work was in progress, but Gay must be regarded as the sole author. He wrote a sequel, Polly, the representation of which was forbidden by the lord chamberlain, no doubt through the influence of Walpole. This act of "oppression" caused no loss to Gay. It proved an excellent advertisement for Polly, which was published by subscription in 1729, and brought its author more than £1000. The duchess of Queensberry was dismissed from court for enlisting subscribers in the palace. The duke of Queensberry gave him a home, and the duchess continued her affectionate patronage until Gay's death, which took place on the 4th of December 1732. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. The epitaph on his tomb is by Pope, and is followed by Gay's own mocking couplet:
"Life is a jest, and all things show it, I thought so once, and now I know it."
Adis and Galatea, an English pastoral opera, the music of which was written by Handel, was produced at the Haymarket in 1732. The profits of his posthumous opera of Achilles (1733), and a new volume of Fables (1738) went to his two sisters, who inherited from him a fortune of £6000. He left two other pieces, The Distressed Wife (1743), a comedy, and The Rehearsal at Goatham (1754), a farce. The Fables, slight as they may appear, cost him more labour than any of his other works. The narratives are in nearly every case original, and are told in clear and lively verse. The moral which rounds off each little story is never strained. They are masterpieces in their kind, and the very numerous editions of them prove their popularity. They have been translated into Latin, French and Italian, Urdu and Bengali.
See his Poetical Works (1893) in the Muses' Library, with an introduction by Mr John Underhill; also Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets, John Gay's Singspiele (1898), edited by G. Sarrazin (Englische Textbibliothek II.); and an article by Austin Dobson in vol. 21 of the Dictionary of National Biography; Gay's Chair (1820), edited by Henry Lee, a fellow-townsman, contained a biographical sketch by his nephew, the Rev. Joseph Bailer.