תמונות בעמוד
PDF

England remote from London. Steele, in some papers of The Guardian, had praised Ambrose Philips, as the pastoral writer that yielded only to Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. Pope, who had also published pastorals, not pleased to be overlooked, drew up a comparison of his own compositions with those of Philips, in which he covertly gave himself the preference, while he seemed to disown it. Not content with this, he is supposed to have incited Gay to write 'The Shepherd's Week, to show, that if it be necessary to copy nature with minuteness, rural life must be exhibited such as grossness and ignorance have made it. So far the plan was reason, able; but the pastorals are introduced by a Proeme, written with such imitation as they could obtain of obsolete language, and by consequence in a style that was never spoken nor written in any age or in any place.

But the effect of reality and truth became conspicuous, even when the intention was to show them groveling and degraded. These pastorals became popular, and were read with delight, as just representations of rural manners and occupations, by those who had no interest in the rivalry of the poets, nor knowledge of the critical dispute.

In 1713 he brought a comedy called The Wife of Bath upon the stage, but it received no applause; he priuted it, however, and seventeen years after, having altered it, and, as he thought, adapted it more to the public taste, he offered it again to the town; but, though he was flushed with the success of the Beggar's Opera, had the mortification to see it again rejected.

In the last year of queen Anne's life, Gay was made secretary to the carl of Clarendon, ambassador to the court of Hanover. This was a station that naturally gave him hopes of kindness from every party; but the queen's death put an end to her favours, and he had dedicated his Shepherd's Week to Bolingbroke, which Swift considered as the crime that obstructed all kindness from the house of Hanover. · He did not, however, omit to improve the right which his office had given him to the notice of the royal family. On the arrival of the princess of Wales, he wrote a poem, and obtained so much favour, that both the prince and princess went to see bis What dye call it, a kind of mock-tragedy, in which the images were comic, and the action grave; so that, as Pope relates, Mr. Cromwell, who could not hear what was said, was at a loss how to reconcile the laughter of the audience with the solemnity of the scene.

Of this performance the value certainly is but little; but it was one of the lucky trifles that give pleasure by novelty, and was so much favoured by the audience, that envy appeared against it in the form of criticism; and Griffin, a player, in conjunction with Mr. Theobald, a man afterwards more reinarkable, produced à pamphlet called The Key to the What d' ye call it; which, says Gay, “ calls me a blockhead, and Mr. Pope a knave."

But Fortune has always been inconstant. Not long afterwards (1717) he en. deavoured to entertain the town with Three Hours after Marriage; a comedy written, as there is sufficient reason for believing, by the joint assistance of Pope and Arbuthnot. One purpose of it was to bring into contempt Dr. Woodward the fossilist, a man not really or justly contemptible. It had the fate which such outrages deserve: the scene in which Woodward was directly and apparently ridiculed, by the intro

duction of a mummy and a crocodile, disgusted the audience, and the performance was driven off the stage with general condemnation.

Gay is represented as a man easily incited to hope, and deeply depressed when his hopes were disappointed. This is not the character of a hero; but it may naturally imply something more generally welcome, a soft and civil companion. Whoever is apt to hope good from others is diligent to please them; but he that believes his powers strong enough to force their own way, commonly tries only to please himself.

He had been simple enough to imagine that those who laughed at the What d'ye call it, would raise the fortune of its author; and, finding nothing done, sunk into dejection. His friends endeavoured to divert him. The earl of Burlington sent him (1716) into Devonshire; the year afier, Mr. Pulteney look him to Aix; and in the following year lord 'Harcourt invited him to his seat, where, during his visit, the two rural lovers were killed with lightning, as is particularly told in Pope's Letters.

Being now generally known, he published (1720) his poems by subscription with such success, that he raised a thousand pounds; and called his friends to a consultation, what use might be best made of it. Lewis, the steward of lord Oxford, advised him to intrust it to the funds, and live upon the interest; Arbuthnot bade him to intrust it to Providence, and live upon the principal; Pope directed him, and was seconded by Swist, to purchase an annuity.

Gay in that disastrous year? had a present from young Craggs of some South-sea stock, and once supposed himself to be master of twenty thousand pounds. His friends persuaded him to sell his share; but he dreamed of dignity and splendour, and could not bear to obstruct his own fortune. He was then importuned to sell as much as would purchase an hundred a year for life, “ which,” says Fenton, will make you sure of a clean shirt and a shoulder of mutton every day.” This counsel was rejected: the profit and principal were lost, and Gay sunk under the calamity so low that his life became in danger.

By the care of his friends, among whom Pope appears to have shown particular tenderness, his health was restored; and, returning to bis studies, he wrote a tragedy, called The Captives, which he was invited to read before the princess of Wales. When the hour came, 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 weighity japan screen. The princess started, the ladies screamed, and poor Gay, after all the disturbance, was still to read his play.

The fate of The Captives, which was acted at Drury-Lane in 1723-4, I know not'; but he now thought himself in favour, and undertook (1726) to write a volume of Fables for the iinprovement of the young duke of Cumberland. For this he is said to have been promised a reward, which he had doubtless magnified with all the wild expectations of indigence and vanity.

Next year the prince and princess became king and queen, and Gay was to be great and happy; but, upon the settlement of the household, he found himself ap.

- Spence. ! It was acted seven nights. The author's third night was by command of their royal highnesses. R

pointed gentleman usher to the princess Louisa. By this offer he thought himself insulted, and sent a message to the queen, that he was too old for the place. There seem to have been many machinations employed afterwards in his favour; and diligent court was paid to Mrs. Howard, afterwards countess of Suffolk, who was much beloved by the king and queen, to engage her interest for his promotion; but solicitations, verses, and flatteries, were thrown away; the lady heard them, and did nothing.

All the pain which he suffered from the neglect, or, as he perhaps termed it, the ingratitude of the court, may be supposed to have been driven away by the unexampled success of the Beggar's Opera. This play, written in ridicule of the musical Italian drama, was first offered to Cibber and his brethren at Drury-Lane, and rejected; it being then carried to Rich, had the effect, as was ludicrously said, of making Gay rich, and Rich guy. .

Of this lucky piece, as the reader cannot but wish to know the original and progress, I have inserted the relation which Spence has given in Pope's words.

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 Beggar's Opera. He began on it; and when first he mentioned it to Swift, the doctor did not much like the project. As lie carried it on, he showed what he wrote to both of us, and we now and then gare 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 overhearing the duke of Argyle, who sat in the next box to us, say, 'It will doit 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 that duke (besides his own good taste) has a particular 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.”

Its reception is thus recorded in the notes to the Dunciad:

- This piece was received with greater applause than was ever known. Besides being acted in London sixty-three days without interruption, and renewed the next season with equal applause, it spread into all the great towns of England; was played in many places to the thirtieth and fortieth time; at Bath and Bristol fifty, &c. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days successively. The ladies carried about with them the fa. vourite songs of it in fans, and houses were furnished with it in screens. The fame of it was not confined to the author only. 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 published, and painphlets made even of her sayings and jests. Furthermore, it drove out of England (for that season) the Italian opera, which had carried all before it for ten years.”

Of this performance, when it was printed, the reception was different, according to the different opinions of its readers. Swift commended it for the excellence of its morality, as a piece that “ placed all kinds of vice in the strongest and most odious light;" but others, and among them Dr. Herring, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, censured it as giving encouragement not only to vice, but to crimes, by making a highwayman the bero, and dismissing him at last unpunished. It has been eren said, that after the exhibition of the Beggar's Opera, the gangs of robbers were evidently multiplied.

Both these decisions are surely exaggerated. The play, like many others, was plainly written only to divert, without any moral purpose, and is therefore not likely to do good; nor can it be conceived, without more speculation than life requires or admits, to be productive of much evil. Highwaymen and house-breakers seldom frequent the play-house, or mingle in any elegant diversion; nor is it possible for any one to imagine that he may rob with safety, because he sees Macheath reprieved apon the stage.

This objection, however, or some other, rather political than moral, obtained such prevalence, that when Gay produced a second part under the name of Polly it was prohibited by the lord chamberlain; and he was forced to recompense his tepulse by a subscription, which is said to have been so liberally bestowed, that what he called oppression ended in profit. The publication was so much favoured, that though the first part gained him four hundred pounds, near thrice as much was the profit of the second *.

He received yet another recompense for this supposed hardship in the affectionate attention of the duke and dutchess of Queensberry, into whose house he was taken, and with whom he passed the remaining part of his life. The duke, considering his want of economy, undertook the management of bis money, and gave it to him as he wanted it. But it is supposed, that the discountenance of the court sunk deep into his heart, and gave him more discontent than the applauses or tenderness of his friends could overpower. He soon fell into his old distemper, an habitual colic, and languished, though with many intervals of ease and cheerfulness, till a violent fit at last seized him, and hurried him to the grave, as Arbuthnot reported, with more precipitance than he bad ever known. He died on the fourth of December, 1732, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The letter, which brought an account of his death to Swift, was laid by for some days unopened, because, when he received it, he was imprest with the preconception of some misfortune.

After his death, was published a second volume of Fables, more political than the former. His opera of Achilles was acted, and the profits were given to two widow sisters, who inherited what he left, as his lawful heirs; for he died without a will, though he had gathered three thousand pounds. There have appeared likewise, under his name, a comedy, called The Distrest Wife, and The Rehearsal at Gotham, a piece of humour.

The character given him by Pope is this, that "he was a natural man, without design, who spoke what he thought, and just as he thought it;" and that “ he was of a timid temper, and fearful of giving offence to the great?;” which caution, how. ever, says Pope, was of no avail.

* Spence.

Ibid.

• Ibid.

; Ibid.

As a poet, he cannot be rated very high. He was, as I once heard a female critic remark, “ of a lower order.” He had not, in any great degree, the mens - divinior, the dignity of genius. 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 of originality cannot be attributed.

His first performance, The Rural Sports, is such as was easily planned and executed; it is never contemptible, nor ever excellent. The Fan is one of those mythological fictions which antiquity delivers ready to the hand, but which, like other things that lie open to every one's use, are of little value. The attention na. turally retires from a new tale of Venus, Diana, and Minerva..

His Fables seem to have been a favourite work; for, having publisher one volume, he left another behind him. Of this kind of fables, the authors do not appear to have formed any distinct or settled notion. Phædrus evidently confounds them with tales; and Gay both with tales and allegorical prosopopeias. A fable, or apologue, such as is now under consideration, seems to be, in its genuine state, a narrative, in which beings irrational, and sometimes inanimate, arbores loquuntur, non tantum feræ, are, for the purpose of moral instruction, feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions. To this description the compositions of Gay do not always conform. For a fable he gives now and then a tale, or an abstracted allegory; and from some, by whatever name they may be called, it will be difficult to extract any moral principle. They are, however, told with liveliness; the versification is smooth; and the diction, though now and then a little constrained by the measure or the rhyme, is generally happy.

To Trivia may be allowed all that it claims; it is sprightly, various, and pleasant. The subject is of that kind which Gay was by nature qualified to adorn; yet some of his decorations may be justly wished away. An honest blacksmith might have done for Patty what is performed by Vulcan. The appearance of Cloacina is nauseols and superfluous; a shoe-boy could have been produced by the casual cohabitation of mere mortals. Horace's rule is broken in both cases; there is no dignus vindice nodus, no difficulty that required any supernatural interposition. A patten may be made by the hammer of a mortal; and a bastard may be dropped by a human strumpet. On great occasions, and on small, the mind is repelled by useless and apparent falsehood.

Of his little poems the public judgment seems to be right; they are neither much esteemed, nor totally despised. The story of the Apparition is borrowed from one of the tales of Poggio. Those that please least are the pieces to which Gulliver gave occasion; for who can much delight in the echo of unnatural fiction?

Dione is a counterpart to Amynta, and Pastor Fido, and other trifles of the same kind, easily imitated, and unworthy of imitation. What the Italians call comedies from a happy conclusion, Gay calls a tragedy from a mournful event; but the style

« הקודםהמשך »