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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 hero, and dismissing him at last unpunished. It has been even 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 upon 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 repulse 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 his 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 had ever known. He died on the fourth of December, 1732, and was buried in Westininster 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 lieirs; for he died without a will, though he had gathered three thousand pounds. There have appeared likewise, under his name, a coinedy, 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, however, says Pope, was of no avail.
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 dirinior, 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 naturally retires from a new tale of Venus, Diana, and Minerva.
His Fables seem to have been a favourite work; for, having published 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 prineiple. 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. I
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 nauseous 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
of the Italians and of Gay is equally tragical. There is something in the poetical Arcadia so remote from known reality and speculative possibility, that we can never support its representation through a long work. A pastoral of an hundred lines may be endured; but who will hear of sheep and goats, and myrtle bowers and purling rivulets, through five acts? Such scenes please Barbarians in the dawn of literature, and children in the dawn of life; but will be for the most part thrown away, u men grow wise, and nations grow learned.
Soon as the morning lark salutes the day,
Through dewy fields I take my frequent way,
In the revolving labours of the year.
When the fresh Spring in all her state is crown'd,
And high luxuriant grass o'erspreads the ground,
The labourer with a bending scythe is seen,
Shaving the surface of the waving green;
Of all her native pride disrobes the land, You, who the sweets of rural life have known,
And meads lays waste before his sweeping hand;
While with the mounting Sun the meadow ylows, Despise th' ungrateful hurry of the town;
The fading herbage round he loosely throws : In Windsor groves your easy hours employ,
But, if some sign porten a lasting shower, And, undisturb'd, yourself and Muse enjoy.
Th' experienc'd swain foresees the coming hour ; Thames listens to thy strains, and silent flows,
His sun-burnt hands the scattering fork forsake, And no rude wind through rustling osiers blows;
And ruddy dainsels ply the saving rake; While all his wondering nymphs around thee
lu rising hills the fragrant harvest grows, To hear the Syrens warble in thy song. [throng, And spreads along the field in equal rows. Put I, who ne'er was blest by Fortune's hand,
Now when the height of Heaven bright Phæbus Nor brighten'd ploughshares in paternal land,
And level rays cleave wide the thirsty plains, [gains, Long in the noisy town have been inmur'd,
When heifers seek the shade and cooling lake, Respir'd its smoke, and all its cares endur'd;
And in the middle path-way basks the snake; Where news and politics divide mankind,
O lead me, guard me, from the sultry hours, And schemes of state involve th' uneasy mind :
Hide me, ye forests, in your closest bowers, Faction embroils the world ; and every tongue
Where the tall oak his spreading arms entwines, Is mov'd by flattery, or with scandal hung :
And with the beach a mutual slade combines; Friendship, for sylvan shades, the palace fies,
Where flows the murmuring brook, inviting dreams, Where all must yield to interest's dearer ties :
Where bordering hazle overhangs the streams, Each rival Machiavel with envy burns,
Whose rolling current, winding round and round, And honesty forsakes them all by turns;
With frequent falls makes all the woods resound; Wbile calumny upon each party's thrown,
Upon the mossy couch my limbs I cast, Which both promote, and both alike disown.
And e'en at noon the sweets of evening taste. Fatigu'd at last, a calm retreat I chose,
Here I peruse the Mantuan's Georgic strains, And sooth'd my harass'd mind with sweet repose, Where fields and shades, and the refreshing clime, In every page I see new landscapes rise,
And learn the labours of Italian swains ; Inspire the sylvan song, and prompt my rhyme.
And all Hesperia opens to my eyes; My Muse shall rove thro’ Howery meads and plains, I wander o'er the various rural toil
, And deck with rural sports her native strains ;
And know the nature of each different soil : And the same road ambitiously pursue,
This waving field is gilded o’er with corn, Frequented by the Mantuan swain and you.
That spreading trees with blushing fruit adorn ; "Tis not that rural sports alone invite,
Here I survey the purple vintage grow, But all the grateful country breathes delight;
Climb round the poles, and rise in graceful row Here blooming Health exerts her gentle reign,
Now I behold the steed curvet and bound, And strings the sinews of th’industrious swain.
And paw with restless hoof the sinoking ground: * This poem received many material corrections The dewlapd bull now chafes along the plain, from the author, after it was first published. While burning love ferments in every vein ;