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Gay's monument, executed by Adams, and erected by his patrons the Duke and Duchess of Queensbury, stands in the southern extremity of the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. The design, simple in the extreme, presents his bust supported by a cherub on an elevated pedestal of fine marble, which is decorated with emblematical devices of music, comedy, and poetry. Altogether, it is rather a heavy performance. His own brief epitaph, which has been so often condemned for its levity, and can never be relished for its point, is engraved upon the ledge:
Life is a jest, and all things show it;
Underneath are the affectionate lines in which Pope essayed to commemorate his merits as an author, and his character as a man.
Of manners gentle, and affections mild,
He died December the 4th, 1732, aged 45.
John Gay was born at Exeter during the year 1688, and educated at the Free School of Barnstable, under a master nained Luck, who subsequently published a volume of Latin and English poetry. His family, though antiently estated, was so reduced at the period of his youth, that no higher prospects of settling him in the world occurred to their ambition than an apprenticeship to a London silk-mercer, in the Strand. Of the time he spent in this servile employment, or the manner in which he occupied his leisure, no account has been given. His own entreaties are said to have prevailed upon his master to cancel the contract subsisting between them. In 1712, he obtained by some influence unknown, the post of Secretary in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth; and during the following year started in the career of an author, by publishing 'Rural Sports,' an eclogue, in two cantos, which he inscribed to Pope. The friendship of the latter was the only advantage which this effort produced, or de. served to produce. It is an outline neither judiciously planned, nor neatly sketched; the verses are separately smooth, and the thoughts plain, but the diction is not always correctly expressed, and there is no richness of imagination revealed in the style.
His next performance was “Trivia; or, The art of walking the Streets of London, perhaps the best of his miscellaneous poems: the subject is peculiarly fitted to the nature of his talents, and he has executed it with much pleasantry. The
Shepherd's Week,' a poem in six pastorals, dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke, followed in 1714. It has been suggested, that he was incited to this composition by Pope, who, disrelishing the praises awarded to Ambrose Phillips for his essays in the same style of poetry, sought to establish the inadequacy of making pastorals so many strict copies of nature. For this undertaking he fixed upon Gay, an author by this time associated with the prominent wits of the day, and rapidly advancing into public estimation. The effect of this literary scheme was curious : Gay fulfilled the project to an extreme, bordering upon grossness and degradation; the literati were satisfied that to be tasteful a pastoral must not be natural, but the public seized upon the poems with delight, and read them with avidity, as painting with sincerity the real manners and occupations of rural life.
We are now to consider him as a dramatist: after printing the * Mohocks,' a tragi-comical farce, without his name, he brought forward the • Wife of Bath,' a comedy borrowed from Chaucer's Tales. It was acted at the theatre in Drury Lane during the year 1713, but obtained neither honour or profit. Yet he seems to have regarded it with tenderness ; for, seventeen years afterwards, when the town was flushed with the success of the “ Beggar's Opera,' he reproduced it, with alterations, and had the mortification of seeing it again rejected.
This misfortune, however, was compensated by better things, for the amiability of his manners had now so strongly attached to his interest several of those great men whom literary merit had first drawn to an acquaintance with his person, that in the last year of Queen Anne's reign he was appointed secretary to the Earl of Clarendon in an embassy to the Court of France. Great hopes were excited in his breast by this preferment; and, as his temperament was sanguine, he looked forward to a speedy possession of all those emolumentary offices to which talent such as his had occasionally been advanced in the course of our history. But the anticipation was soon blasted : Queen Anne died, the House of Hanover succeeded to the throne ; and, as Gay had chosen his friends from among the dependants of the Stuarts, there appeared at first no prospect of success for his ambition under the new order of things.
Poets, however, have immemorially been accustomed to apply the license of their noble art to meaner things : Gay resumed courage and adopted the prudent resolution of making those flowers which had proved acceptable to one family, equally pleasing to another. With this view he produced, and dedicated to the Princess of Wales, the “ What d'ye call it ?" a tragi-comi-pastoral farce, acted at Drury Lane in 1715. This vagary was meant to ridicule the dominant passion for tragedies, but the imagery being ludicrous and the action grave, the audience did not at first enter into the project, and some laughed while others cried. From the beginning it was highly extolled by the wits, and as soon as the gist was taken, became sufficiently popular.' Two years after he sought to pursue the credit of this career by entertaining the town with a comedy, in three acts, entitled . Three Hours after Marriage.' The title-page gave only his own name as the au
thor, but it was generally understood to have been written conjointly by him, Pope, and Arbuthnot. The association of intellect thus employed was certainly powerful, yet the effect was by no means successful. The play stood for seven nights with great difficulty, and was then driven off the stage with the most positive declarations of censure. One object it proposed, was the ridicule of Dr. Woodward, who had then begun to direct his attention to fossile antiquities,--a pursuit as little open to contempt as the character of the man was liable to satire. It cannot be regretted that the comedy which wantonly tampered with domestic life should be exploded with the disgust such an outrage must always deserve.
Gay was truly, as Pope observed, a simple mortal : up to this period he had lived on in the ardour of hope, expecting every day to rise to fame and independence, but finding himself at the close of each succeeding year as poor and unprovided as he had been at the beginning of it. The mind that is easily roused to the enthusiasm of hope is at intervals sure to fall into the opposite extremes of depression. Such was now the case with Gay : his spirits sunk in disappointment, and although no claim of merit availed to procure a substantial remedy for his distress, yet the regard which his manners had excited from his acquaintances, induced many attentions which soothed and diverted his melancholy. During the year 1716 the Earl of Burlington sent him into Devonshire ; during the next year Mr. Pulteny took him on an excursion to Aix la Chapelle ; and in 1718 Lord Harcourt invited him down to his country seat, where the two lovers were killed by lightning, as related by Pope in his letters.
These proofs of kindness were in time extended to acts of substantial benefit, for with the advice of his friends, he published his poems by subscription in 1720, and realised 10001. by the undertaking. How he disposed of this sum does not exactly appear: of those whom he called in to confer with him on the subject, Lewis, who was steward to the Earl of Oxford, advised him to intrust it to the funds, and live upon the interest ; Arbuthnot exhorted him to entrust it to Providence, and live upon the principal, and Pope desired him to purchase an annuity. It seems probable that he followed no one of these courses, but invested the major part upon South Sea Stock, in which Mr. Secre
tary Craggs had made him a present during the same year. At least we find him, before a twelvemonth elapsed, calculating that his interest in this gamble would sell for 20,0001. and resisting the importunities of his friends, who eagerly counselled him to seize the favourable moment and secure enormous gain. But he was not to be affected by prudential motives : as the price of the stock had risen, he imagined it would still continue to rise, and so prognosticated that he would shortly roll in riches. Nay, so intensely was he bent upon this golden prospect, that he refused to sell out as much as would buy him an annuity of a hundred a year, although reminded by Fenton that he would thus 'make sure of a clean shirt and a shoulder of mutton for life.' How this bubble burst it is needless to describe ; but it is distressing to have to mention that Gay fell into such a state of despondency in consequence of it, that his life was despaired of.
Time, however, and the tenderness of his friends, amongst whom Pope was particularly active, brought his mind back to its former state, and being again necessitated to write for a subsistence, he resumed his studies, and produced the Captives, a tragedy, which he read before the Princess of Wales, with all the awkwardness of an author. It was acted at Drury-lane Theatre, and played seven nights, of which the third, commanded by the Princess, was for the author's benefit. His profit from the performance has not been specified. Standing thus well placed for Court favour, he availed himself of some hints to write his Fables for the improvement of the Duke of Cumberland, and as promises of reward for the trouble were held out, again plumed himself with all the exaggerations of an ardent mind. They were published in 1726, and in the very next year the Prince and Princess ascended the throne. Once more did he now imagine the climax of his fortune had supervened, and once more were his hopes deceived. The only appointment he obtained in the multiplied arrangements of the new household was to the place of Gentleman Usher to the Princess Amelia. This, in the first heat of disappointment, he conceived an insult, and sent the Queen word that he was too old for the duties it required of him. Nothing better, however, was offered, though solicitations seem not to have been spared by his friends : according