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For other people named John Gay, see John Gay (disambiguation).
John Gay
John Gay - Project Gutenberg eText 13790.jpg
Born 30 June 1685
Died 4 December 1732(1732-12-04) (aged 47)
Nationality English
Known for Poetry, Drama, Ballad opera
Notable work(s) The Beggar's Opera
Patron(s) William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath; The third Earl of Burlington; Charles Douglas, 3rd Duke of Queensberry; Prince William, Duke of Cumberland

John Gay (/ɡ/; 30 June 1685 – 4 December 1732) was an English poet and dramatist and member of the Scriblerus Club. He is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera (1728), a ballad opera. The characters, including Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum, became household names.[1]

Early life[edit]

Gay was born in Barnstaple, England, and was educated at the town's grammar school. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a silk mercer in London, but being weary, according to Samuel Johnson, "of either the restraint or the servility of his occupation", he soon returned to Barnstaple, where he was educated by his uncle, the Rev. John Hanmer, the Nonconformist minister of the town. He then returned to London.[1]

Early career[edit]

The dedication of his Rural Sports (1713) to Alexander Pope was the beginning of a lasting friendship. In 1714, Gay wrote The Shepherd's Week, a series of six pastorals drawn from English rustic life. Pope had urged him to undertake this task in order to ridicule the Arcadian pastorals of Ambrose Philips, who had been praised by a short-lived contemporary publication The Guardian, to the neglect of Pope's claims as the first pastoral writer of the age and the true English Theocritus. Gay's pastorals achieved this goal and his ludicrous pictures of the English country lads and their loves were found to be entertaining on their own account.[1]

Gay had just been appointed secretary to the British ambassador to the court of Hanover through the influence of Jonathan Swift when the death of Anne, Queen of Great Britain, three months later put an end to all his hopes of official employment.[1]

In 1715, probably with some help from Pope, he produced What d'ye call it?, a dramatic skit on contemporary tragedy, with special reference to Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd. It left the public so ignorant of its real meaning that Lewis Theobald and Benjamin Griffin published a Complete Key to what d'ye call it to explain it. In 1716 appeared his Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poem in three books, for which he acknowledged having received several hints from Swift. It contains graphic and humorous descriptions of the London of that period. What is most interesting about the poem, however, is not the fact that it depicts the city with photographic accuracy, but that it acts as a guide to the upper, and upper-middle class walkers of society. In taking a mock-heroic form, Gay's poem was able to poke fun at the notion of complete reformation of street civility, while also proposing an idea of reform in terms of the attitude towards walking. In January 1717 he produced the comedy, Three Hours after Marriage, which was thought to be grossly indecent (without being amusing) and a failure. He had assistance from Pope and John Arbuthnot, but they allowed it to be assumed that Gay was the sole author.[1]


Gay had numerous patrons, and in 1720 he published Poems on Several Occasions by subscription, taking in £1000 or more. In that year James Craggs, the secretary of state, presented him with some South Sea stock. Gay, disregarding the advice of Pope and others of his friends, invested all his money in South Sea stock, and, holding on to the end of the South Sea Bubble, he lost everything. The shock is said to have made him dangerously ill. His friends did not fail him at this juncture. He had patrons in William Pulteney, afterwards Earl of Bath, in the third Earl of Burlington, who constantly entertained him at Chiswick or at Burlington House, and in the third Duke of Queensberry. He was a frequent visitor with Pope, and received unvarying kindness from William Congreve and John Arbuthnot. In 1727 he wrote for six year old Prince William, later the Duke of Cumberland, Fifty-one Fables in Verse, for which he naturally hoped to gain some preferment, although he has much to say in them of the servility of courtiers and the vanity of court honours. He was offered the situation of gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa, who was also still a child. He refused this offer, which all his friends seem to have regarded as an indignity. He had never rendered any special services to the court.[1]

The Beggar's Opera[edit]

He certainly did nothing to conciliate the favour of the government by his next work, The Beggar's Opera, a Ballad opera produced on the 29 January 1728 by John Rich, in which Sir Robert Walpole was caricatured. This famous piece, which was said to have made "Rich gay and Gay rich", was an innovation in many respects. The satire of the play has a double allegory. The characters of Peachum and Macheath represent the famous highwayman and gangster Jonathan Wild and the cockney housebreaker Jack Sheppard. At the same time, Macheath was understood to represent Robert Walpole, whose government had been tolerant of Wild's thievery and the South Sea directors' escape from punishment. Under cover of the thieves and highwaymen who figured in it was disguised a satire on society, for Gay made it plain that in describing the moral code of his characters he had in mind the corruptions of the governing class. Part of the success of The Beggar's Opera may have been due to the acting of Lavinia Fenton, afterwards Duchess of Bolton, in the part of Polly Peachum. The play ran for sixty-two nights. Swift is said to have suggested the subject, and Pope and Arbuthnot were constantly consulted while the work was in progress, but Gay must be regarded as the sole author. After seeing an early version of the work, Swift was optimistic of its commercial prospects but famously warned Gay to be cautious with his earnings: "I beg you will be thrifty and learn to value a shilling."[1]

Later career[edit]

He wrote a sequel, Polly, relating the adventures of Polly Peachum in the West Indies; its production was forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain, no doubt through the influence of Walpole. This act of "oppression" caused no loss to Gay. It proved an excellent advertisement for Polly, which was published by subscription in 1729, and brought its author several thousand pounds. The Duchess of Queensberry was dismissed from court for enlisting subscribers in the palace. The Duke of Queensberry gave Gay a home, and the duchess continued her affectionate patronage until Gay's death, which took place on 4 December 1732. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. The epitaph on his tomb is by Pope, and is followed by Gay's own mocking couplet:[1]

Life is a jest, and all things show it,
I thought so once, and now I know it.


Among Gay's works are:

  • Wine – 1708
  • The Present State of Wit – 1711
  • The Rural Sports – 1713
  • The Shepherd's Week – 1714
  • The What D'ye Call It – 1715
  • Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London – 1716
  • Acis and Galatea – 1718
  • Poems on Several Occasions – 1720
  • Fables (also known as Fifty-one Fables in Verse or Fables of John Gay) – 1727 (Part the Second – 1738)
  • The Beggar's Opera – 1728
  • Polly – 1729
  • Achilles – 1733
  • The Distress'd Wife – 1743
  • Three Hours After Marriage – 1717

See also[edit]




Further reading[edit]

  • Melville, Lewis (1921). Life and Letters of John Gay (1685–1732): Author of "The Beggar's Opera". Daniel O'Connor. 
  • Gaye, Phoebe Fenwick (1938). John Gay: His place in the Eighteenth Century (Illustrated ed.). Collins. 
  • Irving, William Henry (1940). John Gay: favorite of the wits. Duke University Press. 
  • Gay, John (1966). Burgess, C.F, ed. The Letters of John Gay. Oxford. 
  • Warner, Oliver (1971). John Gay. Writers and Their Work: No 171 (Rev. ed.). For the British Council by Longman. 
  • Gay, John (1974). Dearing, Vinton A, ed. Poetry and Prose [2 volumes]. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-811897-X. 

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gay — Please support Wikipedia.
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102 news items

Yahoo!7 News
Fri, 22 Aug 2014 01:15:00 -0700

The Commonwealth prosecutor's office has revealed disgraced Tasmanian businessman John Gay made more than $3m through insider trading, and has vowed to pursue the funds. The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) is pursuing the ...
Radar Online
Thu, 07 Aug 2014 03:58:58 -0700

Before John Travolta married his wife of 23 years, Kelly Preston, the Grease actor shared a six-year secret gay romance with pilot Doug Gotterba, The National ENQUIRER reveals. Check out the tell-tale photos Travola didn't want fans to see!  John ...
what's up
Fri, 22 Aug 2014 04:20:07 -0700

Bhutan Opera, Dancers from the Kingdom of Bhutan Royal Academy of Performing Arts perform 'Acis and Galatea,'a pastoral opera by George Handel with English text by John Gay. Don Haskins Center, 121 Glory Rd., 6 p.m., free, 915-747-5526 or ...
The Salinas Californian
Tue, 19 Aug 2014 18:18:45 -0700

(Photo: Provided/John Gay ). CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE. Winners of the truck and tractor pulls at Sunday's Central Coast Motorsports Spectacular have been announced. The events featured different classes showcasing their ...

The Guardian

The Guardian
Tue, 19 Aug 2014 07:18:18 -0700

John Gay was doing it in The Beggar's Opera (1728) when he lampooned popular tunes of the day for a dribbling mass of unwashed peasants (to make no inference about our own lovely audiences...) We're not looking to reinvent the wheel here. We just try ...
Wyoming Tribune
Wed, 13 Aug 2014 05:00:00 -0700

Cheyenne Police Detective John Gay contacted Reese twice in late January, at which time she reportedly admitted to entering several lockers at CRMC Health and Fitness and taking $40 cash as well as checks and credit cards. She further admitted the bulk ...

Human Events

Human Events
Tue, 12 Aug 2014 03:02:17 -0700

Jonathan Swift's diatribes and fables, John Gay's “Beggar's Opera” and Samuel Johnson's commentary pilloried the Hanoverians as corrupt and in league with the bankers and financiers of the City of London. The anti-Hanoverian “Cato's Letters” and ...

OUPblog (blog)

OUPblog (blog)
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 05:33:45 -0700

... (2001) and Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (2012), as well as the Broadview edition of Cleland's Memoirs of a Coxcomb (2005) and the Oxford World's Classics edition of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and Polly (2013).

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