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Gay has been one of my perplexities. Can I put him anywhere among our poets--and if anywhere, where, and how ?
When I search for proofs of his title to a place, I can discover but two or three songs to give the merest colour to a claim. Without his name to them, I think it doubtful how I should have classed even them. At highest they would have had to be content with a corner among the Waifs and Strays.
Yet, omit Gay from the noble assembly of Poets! I should blush before the Shade of Pope. Certainly Swift would quit the party, and prefer Limbo with, to Elysium without, him !
The man manifestly was a poet. Poets in any age would have loved him, and have insisted on keeping him in their fellowship. So, there he must abide; to be made the best of. The comfort, since he has to be there, is that any twentieth-century reader will find, as found Pope, Bolingbroke, Swift, Peterborough, Addison, Atterbury, and Prior, besides Queen Caroline, in the eighteenth, that whatever his rank poetically, he is himself very good company indeed.
Go with him fishing, with the fly, not Izaak Walton's bait :
Around the steel no tortur'd worm shall twine,
I warrant he will provide pleasant sport with him, though in
cast the feather'd hook With pliant rod athwart the pebbled brook." Are you ,
curious in feminine adornments, of early eighteenthcentury fashion ? Accompany him without more heed than he personally takes of his warning not to
dare The toilette's sacred mysteries declare. He will show you no little of
the nursery of charms, Completely furnish'd with bright Beauty's arms; The patch, the powder-box, pulville, perfumes,
Pins, paint, a flattering glass, and black-lead combs.2 With him, in instructive Trivia, explore the Town he knew so well. You must not mind, however, being, though in St. James's Street itself, jostled at night off flinty, lanternless pavements with open sewers, by brawny chairmen, who
the wall command or by the bully, coward at heart, who
with assuming pace, Cocks his broad hat, edg'd round with tarnish'd lace.3 Even from the safe pages of a book, long before your promenade is over, you will sigh thankfully for having been born centuries later, in the days of stalwart police, and gas lamps.
Never was there a more complaisant fancy. It produced, at will, didactic discourses, epistles, eclogues, and the Beggar's Opera. From it fables, too, flowed by the score, in easy cheerful verse, with irreproachable morals for the diversion and, we will hope, edification, of numberless
generations of childhood, down, at all, events, to mine. He was the philosopher and showman of the nursery, with his Elephant and the Bookseller, the Monkey who had seen the World, the Courtier and Proteus, the Jugglers, the Hare and Many Friends, and a whole menagerie besides ! At the same time, his sly innuendoes in the famous Opera alarmed a Ministry, and took the public by storm. Snatches of verse in it have been incorporated into the language ; for instance, the parental lament over a wrongheaded daughter : I wonder any man alive will ever rear a daughter ! For she must have both hoods and gowns, and hoops to swel her
pride, With scarfs and stays, and gloves and lace, and she'll have men
beside ; And when she 's drest with care and cost, all-tempting, fine and gay, As men should serve a cucumber, she flings herself away ; 4 and the petulant embarrassment of a too attractive gallant :
How happy could I be with either,
To neither a word will I say." Whatever the topic, it reeled itself off into rhyme. It might be a useful Receipt for Stewing
a knuckle of veal
You may buy it, or steal; or a panegyric on the charms of a Wokingham innkeeper's daughter :
The heart when half wounded is changing,
It here and there leaps like a frog;
'Tis so fix'd upon sweet Molly Mog.? Occasionally this born trifler was pleased to coquet with the Muse of Poetry a little more in accordance with direct
conventions. He wrote words to Handel's airs in the Serenata of Acis and Galatea. Everybody is familiar with them, if not with the authorship. There is Acis's song:
Love in her eyes sits playing,
And sheds delicious death ;
And warbling in her breath;
And swells with soft desire ;
To set the heart on fire ; and it is well matched by Polypheme's :
O ruddier than the cherry !
O Nymph more bright
Than moonshine night,
Yet hard to tame
As raging flame,
What grace in each without the least attempt at sense !
In the latter respect we might have found relief in emerging upon the ballad on Nelly :
Oh! the turn'd neck, and smooth white skin,
Of lovely dearest Nelly !
Had she ne'er been at Calai.
For when as Nelly came to France-
Invited by her cousins-
Kill'd Frenchmen by whole dozens."
probably it is by Arbuthnot, on Miss Nelly Bennett. At all events, Gay touches his high-water mark, for sheer poetic power, inclusive of a sufficiency of coherence, in the ballad of Sweet William's Farewell to Black-eyed Susan, certainly his own :
All in the Downs the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the wind,
Oh! where shall I my true love find ?
Rock'd with the billow to and fro,
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 :