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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 Swift, 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 a 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 shewn particular tenderness, his health was restored; and, returning to his 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 weighty 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 improvement 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 appointed 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, 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 gay.
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 he carried it on, he shewed what he wrote to both of us, and we now and then gave 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 shewed 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 do it 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 favourite 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 pamphlets 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 opinion 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, 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 housebreakers 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 Mackheath 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 Duchess 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 cholic, 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 4th of Decemher, 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 impressed 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 Distressed 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 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 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 prosopopoeias. 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:
“ 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