Authors: John Gay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet and playwright

June 30, 1685

Barnstaple, Devonshire, England

December 4, 1732

London, England


The English poet and playwright John Gay was born at Barnstaple, Devonshire, in June, 1685. He attended a free grammar school and served an apprenticeship to a cloth merchant in London. By 1712, at which time he was working as secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, he had written Wine, a poem in blank verse which argues that water-drinkers cannot be successful writers, and a pamphlet titled The Present State of Wit, which praises periodical authors. Gay subsequently published the poem Rural Sports, modeled after Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest and dedicated to Pope. His next two poems were the result of Pope’s friendship: The Fan, a mock epic, and The Shepherd’s Week, a group of pastorals. In the summer of 1714 he went to Europe as secretary to the Earl of Clarendon. {$I[AN]9810000556} {$I[A]Gay, John} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Gay, John} {$I[tim]1685;Gay, John}

John Gay

(Library of Congress)

Gay’s The What D’ye Call It, a light farce making fun of the tragedies of the time, contains his popular lyric “’Twas When the Seas Were Roaring.” Another play, Three Hours After Morning, written with Pope and John Arbuthnot, was unsuccessful. Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London provides minute and interesting descriptions of street scenes and happenings of the time and is a valuable source of information on eighteenth-century manners. In 1720 a two-volume collection of his poems was published. This anthology contained the attractive lyric “Sweet Williams’s Farewell to Black-Ey’d Susan.” A collection of Gay’s well-known Fables in verse followed. In 1724 his tragedy, The Captives, was acted at the Drury Lane Theatre, one night’s performance being at the express command of the prince and princess of Wales.

On January 28, 1728, The Beggar’s Opera was performed at Lincoln Inn’s Fields with marked success. A musical play, it was written at Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that a Newgate pastoral would make a good topic for a play. Gay wrote the play; the music was composed by his collaborator, John Pepusch. This popular drama had a long run, a revival, and a tour of the provinces. The success of this play, in which he satirized Sir Robert Walpole, then prime minister, led Gay to write a sequel in which he used some of the same characters, and he named the play Polly after the heroine of the first play. The production was forbidden from the stage, but this fact made its sale greater at the bookstores. He also wrote most of the libretto for Acis and Galatea, for which George Frederick Handel composed the music. Achilles, another opera, and two more plays were presented after his death. Gay contracted a fever and died suddenly on December 4, 1732, at the Queensberry estate. His body was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Gay is best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera, which has been produced with a variety of musical settings up to the present day and was translated into German in the 1920s; his Fables; and some of his well-known lyrics. On his tomb in Westminster Abbey the epitaph he composed reads “Life is a jest, and all things show it; / I thought so once, and now I know it.”

Author Works Drama: The Mohocks, pb. 1712 The Wife of Bath, pr., pb. 1713, revised pb. 1730 The What D’ye Call It, pr., pb. 1715 Three Hours After Morning, pr., pb. 1717 (with Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot) Dione, pb. 1720 (verse tragedy) The Captives, pr., pb. 1724 (verse tragedy) The Beggar’s Opera, pr., pb. 1728 (ballad opera) Polly, pb. 1729 (ballad opera) Acis and Galatea, pr. 1731 (libretto; music by George Frederick Handel) Achilles, pr., pb. 1733 (ballad opera) The Distress’d Wife, pr. 1734 The Rehearsal at Goatham, pb. 1754 Plays, pb. 1760 The Plays of John Gay, pb. 1923 (2 volumes) Poetry: Wine, 1708 Rural Sports, 1713 The Fan, 1714 The Shepherd’s Week, 1714 Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, 1716 Poems on Several Occasions, 1720, 1731 To a Lady on Her Passion for Old China, 1725 Fables, 1727, 1738 Gay’s Chair: Poems Never Before Printed, 1820 The Poetical Works of John Gay, 1926 (G. C. Faber, editor; includes plays) Nonfiction: The Present State of Wit, in a Letter to a Friend in the Country, 1711 A Letter to a Lady, 1714 The Letters of John Gay, 1966 (C. F. Burgess, editor) Miscellaneous: Poetical, Dramatic, and Miscellaneous Works of John Gay, 1795, 1970 (6 volumes) John Gay: Poetry and Prose, 1974 (2 volumes; Vinton A. Dearing, with Charles E. Beckwith, editors) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: “The Beggar’s Opera.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. An important collection of critical essays on The Beggar’s Opera. The essay by William Empson focuses on this opera as a fine example of the mock pastoral form. The introduction discusses Gay’s sense of the absurd, combined with his sense of “potential punishment.” Dobrée, Bonamy. William Congreve: A Conversation Between Swift and Gay. 1929. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1969. A conversation between Jonathan Swift and Gay recorded at the house of the duke of Queensberry near London in 1730. They discuss Congreve’s work with vigor, forthrightness, and wit. Of interest to scholars of both Gay and Swift. Dugaw, Dianne. Deep Play: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2001. A critical and historical analysis of Gay’s works. Includes bibliographical references and index. Lewis, Peter, and Nigel Wood, eds. John Gay and the Scriblerians. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. These ten essays, the result of the tercentenary of Gay’s birth, are important in presenting later trends in the analysis and criticism of Gay’s work. They focus on the dichotomies found in Gay’s life and writings, the perplexing contradictions that now seem to have been purposefully and carefully constructed. Includes notes and index. Melville, Lewis. Life and Letters of John Gay. London: Daniel O’Connor, 1921. Reprints of Gay’s letters, providing insight into the man and his life. Among Gay’s correspondents were such notables as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, and the duchess of Queensberry. Includes previously unpublished letters that reside in the British Museum. Noble, Yvonne, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Beggar’s Opera.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. This brief collection of nine essays provides an excellent introduction to Gay’s most important play and its relevance in the twentieth century in terms of its literary, musical, and theatrical contributions. In addition, the introduction places the play in its political and artistic contexts, increasing the reader’s understanding of its historical impact and contemporary importance. Bibliography and side-by-side chronologies of Gay’s life and times. Nokes, David. John Gay, a Profession of Friendship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A comprehensive biography with some previously unpublished letters. Nokes presents Gay as a complex character, torn between the hopes of court preferment and the assertion of literary independence. Includes bibliographical references and index. Walsh, Marcus. John Gay: Selected Poems. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1979. The introduction gives some critical commentary and background information on Gay’s poems in this selection, noting that Gay has been in the shadow of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Argues that his neglect is partly due to his being an “ironist rather than a satirist.” A brief but insightful criticism of Gay’s works.

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