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And odorous myrtle to the noisome weed.
John Gay was one of the most intimate friends and constant associates of Swift and Pope, and was the most artless and best beloved of all their circle of wits and poets. He was descended from the ancient family of the Le Gays of Oxford, and was born at Barnstable, Devonshire, in 1688. A number of the years of his boyhood were spent at the free school of his native town, under the instruction of a Westminster scholar, by whom his mind was imbued with a just taste for classical learning ; but his father being in reduced circumstances, the future poet was apprenticed to a silk mercer, in London. This step was taken without consulting his taste or temper. The shop soon became his aversion; he was seldom seen in it; and in a few years ius master, upon the offer of a small consideration, willingly released him from the terms of his indentures, and left him to follow his own inclinations. Poetry, for which he had already shown some talent, now became his delight; and he resolved that his muse should no longer be neglected. He was fortunately introduced to Dean Swift and Pope, both of whom were struck with the open sincerity and undisguised simplicity of his manners, and the sweetness of his temper.
In 1711, Gay first appeared as an author, in the publication of his Rural Sports, a descriptive poem, dedicated to Pope. In this early poem he thus indicates his happiness at being emancipated from the drudgery of a shop
But I, who ne'er was blessed by Fortune's hand,
In the following year Gay obtained the appointment of secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth, and was warmly congratulated by Pope on his good fortune. He soon after published his Shepherd's Week in Six Pastorals. This work was designed to ridicule the pastorals of Ambrose Philips; but it was found to contain so much genuine comic humor, and so many entertaining pictures of country life, that it became popular, not as a satire, but on account of its intrinsic merit, as affording "a prospect of his own country.' The Shepherd's Week’ was almost immediately followed by Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, and The Fan, a poem in three books. The former of these productions is in the mock-heroic style, and gives a graphic account of the dangers and impediments to be, at that time, encountered in traversing the narrow, crowded, ill-lighted, and vice-infested thoroughfares of the metropolis. His paintings of city life are in the Flemish style, low and familiar, but correctly and forcibly drawn. The following sketch of the frequenters of book-stalls in the streets, may still be verified :
Volumes on sheltered stalls expanded lie,
1 1713, he produced a comedy entitled The Wife of Bath ; but it proved unsuccessful. Lord Clarendon having been about this time ap
1 Squirt is the name of an apothecary's boy in Garth’s ' Dispensary.'
pointed envoy-extraordinary to the court of Hanover, Gay relinquished his connection with the Monmouth family, and accompanied him thither as his secretary. This situation was obtained for him through the direct inAuence of his friends ; but the death of the queen, which happened soon after, closed the embassy, and Gay, in 1714, returned to England. Ambitious of court favor, he now wrote a poem on the princess, which was so well received by the royal family that when he brought out his farce, What D'ye Call It, they publicly patronized it. This piece was eminently successful, and the author was stimulated to another dramatic attempt of a similar nature, entitled Three Hours After Marriage. Some personal satire and indecent dialogues in this play, at once sealed its fate ; and Gay, being afraid that Pope and Arburthnot would be injured from their supposed connection with it, magnanimously took all the shame to himself.' The failure of this play so deeply affected him that he remained oppressed and dejected for some years; but in 1720, he published his poems by subscription, and cleared, by the publication, a thousand pounds. He now embarked extensively in the South Sea stock speculation, and soon lost, by that fatal delusion, his entire property, which amounted to nearly twenty thousand pounds. This serious calamity only prompted to farther literary exertions. In 1724, he brought out another drama called The Captives, the success of which was very moderate; and in two years after he produced a volume of fables, designed for the special improvement of the Duke of Cumberland. The accession of the prince and princess to the throne promised well for the fortunes of Gay; but the only situation offered him was that of gentleman usher to one of the young princesses; and considering this an insult, he at once rejected it.
In 1726, Swift, while on a visit to London, suggested to Gay the idea of a Newgate pastoral, in which the characters should be thieves and highwaymen, and the Beggar's Opera was the result. The variety and spirit of the piece, and the intermixture of song and sentiment with vice and roguery, still render the ‘Beggar's Opera,' a favorite with the public; but as the author has succeeded in making highwaymen agreeable, and even attractive, the work can not be commended for its moral tendency. The opera had a run of sixty-three nights, and became the rage of both town and country. Its success had also the effect of giving rise to the English opera, a species of light comedy continued by songs and music, which for a time supplanted the Italian opera, with all its exotic and elaborate graces. Gay wrote a sequel to the ‘Beggar's Opera,' under the title of Polly ; but as it was supposed to contain sarcasms on the court, the lord chamberlain prohibited its representation. The poet, therefore, had recourse to publication; and such was the activity of his friends, and the effect of party spirit, that while he realized from the Beggar's Opera' only four hundred pounds, Polly' produced a clear profit of nearly twelve hundred. Gay passed the remainder of his life with his kind friends and patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Queensbury, and died at their residence, of an inflammatory fever, on the fourth of December, 1732. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a chaste monument still points out the spot where his ashes repose.
The works of Gay have not retained the popularity that they once possessed. He has all the licentiousness of Prior, without his elegance. His fables are still, however, the best we possess; and though they have not the nationality, or rich humor and archness of those of La Fontaine, still the subjects of them are light and pleasing, and the versification, smooth and correct. In the Court of Death he aims at a higher order of poetry than in his fables generally, and marshals his ' diseases dire' with a strong and gloomy power. Black-Eyed Susan, and the ballad beginning " 'Twas when the seas were roaring,' are full of characteristic tenderness and lyrical melody,
THE COURT OF DEATH.
Death, on a solemn night of state,
This night our minister we name,
Fever, with burning heat possessed,
'I to the weekly bills appeal,
Next Gout appears with limping pace,
nd every joint and sinew plies ;
A haggard spectre from the crew
''Tis I who taint the sweetest joy,
Stone urged his overgrowing force;
'Let none object my lingering way;
Plague represents his rapid power,
All spoke their claim, and hoped the wand.
Merit was ever modest known.
All in the downs the fleet was moored,
The streamers waving in the wind,
Oh! where shall I my true love find ?
Rocked with the billow to and fro,
He sighed, and cast his eyes below: The cord slides swiftly through his glowing hands, And (quick as lightning) on the deck he stands. So sweet the lark high poised in the air,
Shuts close his pinions to his breast
And drops at once into her nest.
My vows shall ever true remain;
We only part to meet again.
Who tempt with doubts thy constant mind;
In every port a mistress find:
Thy eyes are seen in diamonds bright,