THE POEMS OF JOHN GAY.* IT is with sincere pleasure that we welcome this addition to "The Bibelot Series," for it will recall to the public mind a fact too often forgotten,—the fact that Gay was a very charming poet. What will most interest the modern reader in Gay is his treatment of the country. Gay wrote Pastorals, which were intended as burlesques upon the affected pastoral poetry of Philips and his followers. Gay's method of ridicule was to draw the country in all its homely details, and thus to burlesque the nymphs and swains of whom Philips wrote :—
"Thee, thee, Adonis, all the nymphs bemoan,
And weep thy death as if it were their own."
But in doing so Gay has been true to the genius loci, and between the lines we may read such an account of rural England as it was in the days of Anne as we shall not find elsewhere. Gay published his Pastorals preceded by a quaint little preface in the style of an Elizabethan poet. "The Proeme to the corteous reader" declares :— "It is my purpose, gentle reader, to set before thee as it were a picture. or rather lively landscape, of thy own country, just as thou might see it didst thou take a walk into the fields at the proper season, even as Master Milton hath elegantly set forth the same— 'As one who long in populous city pent,' &c..
[Here follows the well-known passage from Milton.] Thou wilt not find my shepherdesses idly piping on oaten reeds, but milking the kine, tying up the sheaves, or if the hogs are astray, driving them to their styes. My shepherd gathereth none other nose- gays but what are the growth of our own fields, he sleepeth not under myrtle shades but under a hedge, nor cloth he vigilantly defend his flocks from wolves, because there are none, as Master
Spenser well observes Gentle reader, turn over the leaf and entertain thyself with the prospect of thine own country limned by the painful hand of thy loving countryman John Gay."
"The Shepherd's Week" has six Pastorals, for the Sabbath is not profaned. The second Pastoral is an imitation
of the Alexis of Virgil, and contains some of the prettiest of those allusions to folk-lore and country sports which
are scattered up and down "The Shepherd's Week." Marian, the parson's maid, bewails her unrequited love for Colin Clout, who is attracted by Cicely, "the western lass that tends the kie." Is all her care to be in vain ? Has she not done everything for him P- " If in the soil you guide the crooked share, Your early breakfast is my constant care; And when with even hand you throw the grain, I fright the thievish rooks from off the plain. In misling days when I my thresher heard, With nappy beer I to the barn repaired ; Lost in the music of the whirling flail, To gaze on thee I left the smoakiug pail. In harvest when the sun was mounted high. My leathern bottle did the draught supply. When e'er you mowed I followed with the rake, And have full oft been sunburnt for thy sake."
This is the real country, and if the poet was not so obviously laughing, very pretty description. "Lost in the music of the whirling flail" is a beautiful line, though it has so fantastical a setting. She goes on:—
" Last Friday eve, when as the sun was set,
I near the stile three sallow gypsies met ; Upon my hand they cast a poring look, Bid me beware, and thrice their heads they shook."
Though the touches are few and the colours scanty, we feel this as a picture. But to present a. picture was just what the poets of the eighteenth century usually could not achieve. If we turn to Pope's "Windsor Forest," for instance, or to his Pastorals, we shall search long for anything we can realise as a picture. The fourth eclogue tells how Hobnelia tried to -win back Lubberkin by spells. The refrain of her incantation is :—
*_Trfeia,.and other Poems. By John Gay. 'The Bibelot Series." London : Gay sae Blvd. (Si. Id. net.]
"With my sharp heel I three times mark the ground, And turn me thrice around, around, around."
And repeating this she goes through all the different ways of finding out a faithless lover. When first she heard the cuckoo she started running till she fell on a bank exhausted, then plucked off her shoe and found a hair like Lubberkin's therein. Another plan was this :—
"At eve last midsummer no sleep I sought,
But to the field a bag of hemp seed brought ; I scattered round the seed on every side, And three times in a trembling accent cried :
This hemp seed with my virgin hand I sow, Who shall my true love be, the crop shall snow.
I straight looked back, and if my eyes spake truth,
With his keen scythe behind me came the youth."
On Valentine's Day, too, fate made Lubberkin her Valentine, and a fourth test on May Day told the same story. She took from a gooseberry bush a snail and put it on the ashes spread out on the hearth. The snail crawled through the ashes. and made an "L." The next plan tried was that of throwing two hazelnuts into the fire each called by a sweetheart's name the one called by his name blazed bright, while the other bounced out. She found equally favourable omens from peascods. The ladybird's test shall be told in her own language:—
" This Lady-fly I take from off the grass,
Whose spotted back might scarlet red surpass. Fly Lady-bird North, South, or East or West, Fly where the man is found that I love best. He leaves my hand, see, to the West is flown, To bring my love back from the faithless town."
Still her lore in the rights of love and amorous divination were not exhausted. She tries her fate with the peel of an apple, and by taking two apple-pips, calling one Lubberkin and one Boobyclod, and fixing them one on each cheek to see which will stick. Next, she tells us she tried stealing one of his garters and tying it in a true love-knot with her own garter of " inkle blue." Lastly, as all else fails, she bought a love powder at the apothecary's when she last went to market. She has hardly ended her last repetition of the refrain when 'Lightfoot' the dog "barks and cocks his ears," and Lubber- kin's form appears at the stile. The charm has worked, and Hobnelia's love will not remain unrequited.
The Dirge or the " Eclogne of Friday" is the lament of Bumkinet for Blouzelinda. The swains have no care to sing now, either "O'er the hills and far away" or of Patient Grissel. Bumkinet sings how-
" Sometimes this crook drew hazel boughs adown, And stuffed her apron wide with nuts so brown, Or when her feeding hogs had missed their way, Or wallowing mid a feast of acorns lay,
Th' untoward creatures to the stye I drove, And whistled all the way—or told my love."
The dairy will be a melancholy place now,—
" For there her goodly countenance I've seem Set off with kerchief starched and pinners clean. Sometimes like wax she rolls the butter round, Or with the wooden lilly prints the pound. Whilome I've seen her skim the clouted cream, And press from spongy curds the milky stream. But now, alas ! these ears shall hear no more The whining swine surround the dairy door, No more her care shall fa' the hollow tray To fat the guzzling hogs with floods of whey."
Blonzelinds,'s will confides the goose and the ducks to her sister's care; her worldly goods she thus disposes of :—
" Twenty good shillings in a rag I've laid Be ten the Parson's for my sermon paid;
The rest is yours,—my spinning-wheel and rake Let Susan keep for her dear sister's sake ; My new straw hat that's trimly lined with green Let Peggy wear, for she's a damsel clean; My leathern bottle, long in harvests tried Be Grubbinol's, this silver ring beside ; Three silver pennies and a ninepence bent A token kind to Bumkinet is sent."
Her funeral showed the love in which she was held. " Sprigg'd rosemary the lads and lasses bore," and after the service— "Upon her grave the rosemary they threw, The daisie, butter-flower, and endive blue."
Over her empty seat in church they hung garlands, and fenced her grave with willows that the parson's cow and horse that graze the churchyard might not destroy it. The last eclogue, imitating Virgil again, tells how the reapers and the "clean damsels who bound the gathered sheaves," found in drunken sleep under a hedge Bowzbeus, who can sing all the songs and ballads that the swains love. First he sings of "Nature's laws," and of the habits of the birds and beasts ; he goes on to tell of the country fairs, and of the treasures in the pedlar's stall, and then, changing his note, sings "The Children in the Wood" :—
"To louder strains he raised his voice to tell What woful wars in Chevy-chace befell When Piercy drove the deer with hound and horn, Wars to be ueptbif children yet unborn."
" He sung of Taffey Welch and Sawney Scot, Lillybullero and the Irish Trot.
Why should I tell of Bateman or of Shore, Or Wantly's Dragon slain by valiant More, The bow'r of Rosamond, or Robin Hood, And how The grass now grows where Troy town stood ? His carols ceas'd : the list'ning maids and swains Seem still to bear some soft, imperfect strains. Sudden he rose, and as he reels along Swears kisses sweet should well reward his song. The Damsels laughing fly : the giddy clown Again upon a wheatsheaf drops adown ; The pow'r that guards the drunk his sleep attends Till ruddy like his face the sun descends."
Such a brief sketch of the Pastorals hardly does justice to their merits. They 'will well repay perusal by those who can manage not to be wearied by the attempts at burlesque, and who will take the trouble to read between the lines a real pic- ture of country life and customs. When did the songs alluded to in the last quotation cease to be sung ? Not in living memory, we expect, has the countryside echoed to " Lillybullero."
"The Fan" is a poem which contains some very delicate work. What could be a better expression of the dainty art than the following lines ? They are fan-painting in words :—
" Here draw CEnone in the lovely grove Where Paris first betrayed her unto love, Let withered garlands hang on every bough Which the false youth wove for CEnone's brow. The garlands lose their sweets, the flower is shed, And, like their odours, all his vows are fled, On her fair arm her pensive head she lays, And Xanthus' waves with mournful look surveys."
The poem runs on for near five hundred lines in this style, keeping always the same graceful, irreproachable diction.
Those who know Gay's "Epistles" will hardly be unwilling to acknowledge them as some of the most delightful pieces of familiar writing in English ; they are neither pompous nor prosaic, but hit the just middle that is proper to such writing. There was more occasional and familiar writing in the eighteenth century than in any other, but yet its vers de socWte was seldom really successful ; and for this reason. There was plenty of wit and smart epigram, but very little humour. Humour, la melancholic gale, the essence of familiar writing, was not often to be found. One of his epistles, addressed to Lord Burlington, tells in verse of a ride from London to Exeter. The liveliest, however, is that addressed to Pulteney, which describes a visit to Paris. Gay tells us that he was asked questions about England much as was Horace Walpole a generation later when an Intendant asked him at dinner whether there were "roads of communication in England-
" Has Christianity yet reached your nation ? Are churches built, are masquerades in fashion ? Do daily soups your dinners introduce ? Are music, snuff, and coaches yet in use ?"
Gay answers in a vein of satire that our vulgar crowd the churches, our women intrigue, and our beaux cheat their creditors :—
" Strait the vain fop in ign'rant rapture cries : Paris the barbarous world will civilise.'"
The difference between an Englishman's and a Frenchman's appreciation of music was as marked then as now. Gay goes to the Opera, where the hero struts and the whole audience sings." Ill luck had placed him near one of the noisiest of this Babel, who bellowed out every note in rough quavers :—
"Pray, Sir, says I, suspend a-while your song, The Opera's drowned ; your lungs are wondrous strong. I wish to hear your Roland's ranting strain While he with rooted forests strews the plain. Sudden he shrugs surprise, and answers quick : Monsieur avparentniete n'aime pas la musique.'
Then, turning round, he joined th' ungrateful noise, And the loud chorus thundered with his voice."
French music and French painting are without rivals, thinks the Frenchman. You talk of Corelli, and straight "Some scraping fiddler of their Ball he quotes." You praise Raphael's genius.
"Yes, Sir, says he, in colour and design Rigaud and Raphael are extremely fine."
Gay's lyrical powers, though far from being as great as those of Prior, were by no means small. His ballad of "Black-eyed Susan" has strong merits, while some of his other short pieces show considerable power of making a song which has real swing and movement in it. The libretto written for Handel's Adis and Galatea is a good instance of this. The quatrain beginning-
" Not showers to larks so pleasing, Not sunshine to the bee "— has a sweet cadence. The Beggar's Opera, the most famous product of the early lyrical stage in England, is, again, full of lilt and " go."
Enough, however, has been said to show that Gay deserves, if
not complete resurrection, at least an occasional visit to his tomb. Had he been born a hundred years earlier, he might
have disputed Herrick's Anacreontic laurels. A hundred years later, he might have given the world something half-way between Moore and Praed, which would have been exceedingly. captivating. As it was, he was condemned to tune his lyre to a pitch which did not suit him, and robbed his verse of half its charm. Still, with all deductions, his verse will well repay more attention than it usually gets. It is a garden to an old Queen Anne house, which is quite worth turning off the main road to see and stroll in.