The Poetical Works of John Gay: Including Polly, the Beggar's Opera, and Selections from the Other Dramatic Work

The Poetical Works of John Gay: Including Polly, the Beggar's Opera, and Selections from the Other Dramatic Work

The Poetical Works of John Gay: Including Polly, the Beggar's Opera, and Selections from the Other Dramatic Work

The Poetical Works of John Gay: Including Polly, the Beggar's Opera, and Selections from the Other Dramatic Work

Excerpt

This edition of Gay's poems and some of his plays is completed in an atmosphere unexpectedly indulgent to the poet. The Beggar's, Opera and Polly (though her begetter would hardly have known her!) have enjoyed their respective reincarnations. Trivia, magnificently illustrated and upholstered, may be had by book-loving millionaires. The same publisher (Mr. Daniel O'Connor) issues Mr.Lewis Melville Life and Letters of John Gay. But the Poet's resurrection is only partial. Few read his Fables; the rest of his work is all but forgotten.

Yet Gay's achievement was not inconsiderable. Born and educated in Barnstaple and apprenticed to a silk-mercer in London, he was buried with pomp in Westminster Abbey, and honestly mourned by Dukes and Duchesses. Nor was this the reward of 'gentle qualities' only. His family (it is said) was good; but there was more than gentility in his veins. The unkindly critics of our own time have labelled him a shiftless, careless, out-at-elbows writer, the amiable satellite of the great wits, living for a while by a reflected splendour, but destined finally to succumb to a deserved obscurity. This was not the opinion of his contemporaries, whether of the great wits or the great world. 'In wit a man', he endeared himself to Pope and Swift, no less than to the Queensberrys and the Hon. Mrs. Howard. Pope writes his epitaph; Swift, for days, dare not read the letter which contains the news of his 'dear friend Mr. Gay's death'. Both very great men, and not fond of fools.

Gay has, indeed, the purely lyrical gift denied, in equal measure, to these two. There is, moreover, originality, both of form and matter, in almost all his work. His wit is less shrewd and subtle than Pope's, less gross and forcible than Swift's; but, like salt in solution, it pervades the whole and preserves it from the expected decay. His craftsmanship, incapable except at rare moments of Pope's extreme felicity or Swift's monstrous vigour, is careful, neat, sustained. He observes, and records; loves the concrete, the visible and tangible instance, loathes vapidity. Like all the men of his age, he likes to feel his feet on the firm earth; and if at times the irresistible breath of song lifts him off it, he is not carried far. No counterfeit Olympus . . .

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