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JOHN GAY

1685—1732

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,
No blood of living insect stain my line ;

I warrant he will provide pleasant sport with him, though in

vain you

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,
Were t'other dear charmer away!
But while you thus tease me together,

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;
But my heart can never be ranging,

'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

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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 ;
Love on her lips is straying,

And warbling in her breath;
Love on her breast sits panting,

And swells with soft desire ;
Nor grace nor charm is wanting

To set the heart on fire ; and it is well matched by Polypheme's :

O ruddier than the cherry !
O sweeter than the berry !

O Nymph more bright

Than moonshine night,
Like kidlings blithe and merry !
Ripe as the melting cluster !
No lily has such lustre ;

Yet hard to tame

As raging flame,
And fierce as storms that bluster.o

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 !
For many a swain it well had been

Had she ne'er been at Calai.

For when as Nelly came to France-

Invited by her cousins-
Across the Tuilleries each glanco

Kill'd Frenchmen by whole dozens."
But unfortunately, though Dr. Johnson assigns it to Gay,

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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,
When black-ey'd Susan came aboard.

Oh! where shall I my true love find ?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true,
If my sweet William sails among the crew.
William, who high upon the yard

Rock'd with the billow to and fro,
Soon as her well-known voice he heard,
He sigh’d, and cast his eyes

below :
The cord slides swiftly through his glowing hands,
And-quick as lightning on the deck he stands.
So the sweet lark, high pois’d in air,

Shuts close his pinions to his breast-
If chance his mate's shrill call he hear-

And drops at once into her nest.
The noblest Captain in the British fleet
Might envy William's lip those kisses sweet.
O Susan, Susan, lovely dear,

My vows shall ever true remain ;
Let me kiss off that falling tear;

We only part to meet again.
Change, as ye list, ye winds; my heart shall be
The faithful compass that still points to thee.
Believe not what the landmen say,

Who tempt with doubts thy constant mind.
They'll tell thee, sailors, when away,

In every port a mistress find :
Yes, yes, believe them when they tell thee so,
For thou art present wheresoe'er I go.

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