John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. A Critical Biography 
by David Nokes.
Oxford, 563 pp., £25, February 1995, 0 19 812971 8
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Like most biographies nowadays, David Nokes’s John Gay is very long, but unlike some of the others it is not much longer than it needed to be. Gay devoted so much of his attention to people grander than himself that his life story can’t be told without allusion to those of more complicated and ambitious figures like Pope, Swift and Addison. They in turn were involved in all manner of ways with even mightier men, especially politicians – for example, Oxford and Bolingbroke on one side and the powerful, unscrupulous Walpole on the other. And then there were the great lords and ladies who took or pretended to take an interest in writers and writing. So even the relatively peripheral movements of a self-consciously minor figure like Gay require for their useful exposition a lot of information about his betters.

Like his famous friends, Gay professed to deplore the delays, snubs and false promises of patrons, but his persistence in seeking the offices and sinecures in their gift is one reason for the length of this book. As early as 1713, in Rural Sports, he was deploring the culture in which it was so difficult for a poet to thrive:

Faction embroils the world; and every tongue
Is fraught with malice and with scandal hung

and complaining that

On courtiers’ promises I founded schemes
Which still deluded me, like golden dreams.

Yet it is typical of his relations with the court that after years of striving for such jobs he secured nothing except a sinecure on the national lottery. The accession of George II in 1727 promised better things, but in the event all he was offered was £150 a year as Gentleman Usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa. He was 42 at the time, and although hardened by his many previous disappointments he found this offer too humiliating and turned it down. In his letter to the new queen he could not say right out why he was declining to serve, merely that he felt himself too far advanced in life for the work – probably about the strongest reproach he thought it prudent to make. The offer may in fact have been intended as a fairly gracious recognition of his popularity as a writer for children, but by the standards of his friends, and what seemed Gay’s legitimate expectations, it wasn’t half gracious enough.

Some of the blame for his frequent disappointments should probably be attributed to Swift, Gay’s domineering friend and adviser (‘I hate all people whom I cannot command’). Swift’s political influence, and what might follow from such influence – access to patrons’ purses – was by this time largely illusory; while Pope, who liked to call Gay his élève, was selfish and unreliable. He exploited his ‘pupil’ by taking most or all the credit for successes in which they both had a hand, by using him as a shield when under attack, and by prompting him to aggressive action against such enemies of Pope’s as the pompous critic John Dennis. But most of the difficulty arose because the arrival of the new king did not, as expected, result in the dismissal of Walpole, the Prime Minister and arch-enemy of the Scriblerians.

The Scriblerus Club, to which Gay belonged, was a group of wits formed by Pope, Swift and Arbuthnot. The poet Cowper was later to describe this club, with some justice, as ‘the most celebrated association of clever fellows this country ever saw’, but belonging to it was not exactly the way to Walpole’s heart. He had no interest in furthering the fortunes of these hostile wits and allowed no more to be done for Gay, who was to take a risky revenge the following year in The Beggars’ Opera. Walpole was satirised as Peachum, and for good measure as Macheath. He didn’t move against the play, but by banning its relatively innocent sequel Polly before it reached the stage he effectively ended Gay’s theatrical career.

David Nokes, who is uniquely learned in all that concerns Gay and enormously well-informed about the entire literary-political scene, has understandably felt a duty to describe in detail the many complex negotiations and disappointments entailed by an incessant quest for patronage, with appropriate comment on the fickleness of patrons and the servile, grumbling patience of the suppliants. If accused of being repetitive, he could reply that Gay’s life was repetitive, the same kinds of worry and crisis occurring again and again. But though it may be true, for instance, that Swift repeatedly nagged Gay about his supposed incompetence in financial matters, it was perhaps unnecessary to tell us every time this happened, and invariably to add that Swift was quite wrong to hold this opinion, as he seems to have been. We soon take the point that Gay was smarter than Swift thought. If not financially prudent by nature, he became so by discipline and habit.

Pope’s epitaph for the Westminster Abbey monument (Nokes remarks that the Abbey authorities, as if agreeing with Pope that Gay shouldn’t share the limelight, have hidden it from public view) suggests that he died poor or at any rate ‘neglected’, but in fact he left over £6000 (about £200,000 by Nokes’s estimate, and possibly more, in modern money). He got this small fortune almost entirely by his writing, and kept it by living a lot of the time at the expense of magnificos like Lord Burlington. This cultivated nobleman was of course extremely rich, and recent outing research suggests that he may also have been gay, so a gay Gay would have fitted nicely into his entourage.

Was Gay gay? Being a conscientious modern biographer, Nokes, who, like his sitter, seems, though with a certain academic solemnity, to enjoy a touch of the salacious, goes into this question with some care, yet without positive result. But he lets us know that if compelled to give an opinion his answer would be yes. At a time when sodomy was a capital offence it was as well not to advertise homosexual interests, so a biographer must make what he can of inadvertent clues, hints and hesitations.

Nokes observes that Swift and Pope took some trouble to ‘sanitise the details of Gay’s early private life’, and cannot believe that the cause of their reticence was merely Gay’s having, in his youth, been apprenticed to a haberdasher; though he also quotes a letter of Pope’s which seems to suggest that this might well have been motive enough. It is true that as a youth Gay worked at the New Exchange, a haunt of ‘street-wise shopgirls’ but also of ‘he-whores’ and ‘he-concubines’. Which of these parties, we may or may not wish to ask, did the youthful Gay frequent? Nokes suggests that in these as in so many other matters Gay might have been indecisive, at any rate until he joined Burlington’s ‘cultural coterie’, with its ‘homoerotic undertones’. Yet Pope, despite his habitual condescension, was obviously fond of Gay, and his dislike of homosexual men (his ‘homophobic rage’ Nokes calls it) seems clear from his furious attack on Lord Hervey. He might not have made such a pet of Gay had he suspected a similar tendency.

There is simply no hard evidence either way. Nokes makes what he can of transvestist hints, but they seem to amount to little more than an interest in women’s underclothes, an interest shared by other apparently quite straight males who lack even the excuse of an apprenticeship in the rag-trade. All the same, Nokes maintains that ‘an ambiguous sexuality’ can be detected in Gay’s writing. He sometimes posed as a rake, but clearly wasn’t; and he wrote ‘lubricious ballads’. But there is no record of his ever having had a sexual relationship with anybody at all. Swift once put him in the way of a suitable match, but he declined it. Possibly he complied with Burlington’s requirement that his dependants provide suspiciously extravagant displays of affection; but as far as the records go this poet, who clearly enjoyed naughtiness and literary gestures of naughtiness, was never naughty himself. A certain negativity in these matters rather suits him, a man seemingly born to be marginal. He was perhaps, in his way, even as innocent sexually as his condescending friends liked to represent him in other respects.

This biography gives ample expression to a paradox: Gay, the gifted, potentially powerful writer who habitually presented himself as rather childish, as never the equal in wit of his Scriblerian friends Swift, Arbuthnot and Pope. It seems he was grateful to be received in the club as a cheerful, honest, amusing friend, a reserve to be depended on when the stars were resting; or perhaps, as John Fuller calls him, a catalyst. The great men accepted and emphasised this self-estimate. Gay, though timid, fat, plain and often in need of their sophisticated but fallible counsel, was always good company. ‘In wit a man, simplicity a child’, says Pope’s epitaph.

Yet it was a good, original, unchildish mind that devised The Beggars’ Opera (which admittedly owed something to Swift’s suggestion for a ‘Newgate pastoral’). In this work Gay made fun of the newly fashionable Italian opera, which privately he rather enjoyed. In doing so he risked annoying Burlington, who adored the opera and especially the castrati, now for the first time to be heard and seen in London, but it may be that his Lordship simply saw the joke. Anyway, they seem not to have fallen out over it. On the other hand, the piece did seriously annoy Walpole. Perhaps its huge popular success made him afraid to close it down, or perhaps he banned Polly before it even got to the stage because he’d had enough, rather as Claudius in Hamlet sits through the Dumb Show but can’t take the play.

As it turned out the ban did not seriously damage Gay’s fortunes, largely because his Fables had an even greater success than his ballad operas. This was an agreeable fact, though it did lend colour to the idea of Gay as a clever simpleton and a suitable companion for a two-year-old princess. ‘In wit a man, simplicity a child’. There always seemed to be something unusual or irregular about his achievements, but so there was about the triumph of Gulliver’s Travels. It would appear that the peculiar pressures exerted on writers by this society caused certain generic deformations; the Dunciad is another instance. One wrote not epic but mock-epic, not pastoral but mock-pastoral, not opera but mock-opera, and so forth.

So Gay did well enough in a literary London almost unrecognisably different from ours, not least in the proximity of literature to power. In the higher echelons literary quarrels and political enmities were often indivisible. At the other end of the scale the life of the writer was close to extreme poverty: toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol. Pope virtuously claimed that poverty was a proper subject for satire so long as it resulted from misconduct or a failure to know one’s place. Given his humble Devonshire origins Gay might well have seemed a suitable target. But he did not stay on in Grub Street, as many like him must have done for ever. Having broken his articles as a haberdasher, Gay, aspiring to literature, took the obvious course and became a hack. He served under the command of Aaron Hill, a man worth a new biography (the last was published eighty years ago) since it could assist understanding of the power structures of the time as they affected writers. Hill’s career included some stormy passages as a theatre manager, and he wrote the awful libretto for Handel’s first London opera Rinaldo (later translated, overnight, into Italian, for the bewilderment of London audiences and the superior amusement of Addison). He is further known to theatrical historians as editor of the Prompter, a magazine that provides useful information about the London stage of the time, and as a determined but feeble dramatist. His ambitions were much greater than his talents, and not all of a literary character. In the age of the South Sea Bubble, when to be ‘bubbled’ was to be swindled by City men with prospectuses for ‘projects’, he was a bold ‘projector’, launching all manner of crazy schemes for making money. Such interests did not prevent his being an obstinate correspondent, as Pope and Richardson knew too well. Having a finger on the public pulse, he also wrote soft porn, ‘up-market erotica’, as Nokes calls it.

When Gay joined him Hill was editing the British Apollo, a remote ancestor of Titbits, Answers and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It appeared two or three times a week and answered its readers’ questions, or possibly itself made up the questions before answering them. Hill recruited a ‘society of gentlemen’ to help him in this enterprise, which can be seen as one of the earliest successful attempts to exploit the lower reaches of the growing literate public – ‘shopkeepers and their apprentices’, as Gay, himself in his earlier days a shopkeeper’s apprentice, would later call them. Nokes describes the information offered by the British Apollo – on such topics as the virtues of tobacco, the symptoms of venereal disease, and whether the wine Christ produced at Cana was red or white – as ‘ostensibly authoritative’.

While Gay was turning an honest guinea as Hill’s amanuensis he was also, more ambitiously, writing poems as a first step towards the higher end of the market, and Hill got his poem ‘Wine’ into print.

BACCHUS Divine, aid my adventurous Song
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Inspired, Sublime on Pegasean Wing
By thee upborn, I draw Miltonic Air.

This affable performance goes on for 278 lines. It failed to amuse Dr Johnson, but it has some characteristic jokes:

Whether Inviegling Hymen has trapanned
The unwary youth, and ty’d the Gordian Knot
Of jangling Wedlock, indissoluble;
Worried all day by loud Xantippes Din,
And when the gentle Dew of sleep inclines
With slumbrous weight his Eye-lids She inflam’d
With Uncloy’d Lust, and itch Insatiable,
His Stock exhausted, still yells on for more;
Nor fails She to Exalt him to the Stars,
And fix him there among the Branched Crew
(Taurus, and Aries, and Capricorn,)
The greatest Monster of the Zodiac

This gift for mild and literary bawdy, adorned with flattering allusions to mythology and the Classics, would serve him well in later years, and the answers he wrote for the British Apollo were also good practice for later Scriblerian jests. But the allusions have suffered a change of tone, of culture, from those of Ben Jonson and Marvell, for instance. Something subtly reinforcing, ingenious but within the scope of educated readers, has become parody. Such parody is intended, simply by recalling its grand originals, to deplore, or perhaps only tease, a society much fallen from the Classical ideal they signify. By now there is something absurd about attempts to emulate the ancients rather than measure deviance from their standards. The culture is a post-culture; its pastorals are post-pastorals, its epics post-epics, its Maecenases corrupt politicians. This was a milieu in which Gay had the right skills, the amused understanding, to succeed.

Ironically, considering the time he spent trying to do it by other means, he did make his way with his pen, rather than by courting the great. In his early days, when employed by a duchess, he had unwillingly consented to wear livery, and it seems he long continued to smart at this indignity; but even after that disgusting invitation to serve the baby princess, even when fully aware of the unappeasable hostility of Walpole with his spies and censors (he intercepted the correspondence of Swift and his friends), Gay continued to sue for patronage, as if the bad habit of servility could not be broken. The effect could be paralysing: ‘preferments so possess’d my brain,/That scarce I could produce a single strain.’ Yet he contrived to turn out dutiful panegyrics on demand.

As a means of avoiding patrons the theatre had possibilities, but his plays, whether all his own work or done in collaboration with Pope, had no huge success until The Beggars’ Opera. With that, and the Fables, and perhaps one should add his libretto for Handel’s Acis and Galatea, he after all made himself remarkable.

Nokes is keen to represent Gay as a man of integrity, handicapped by his sense of social inferiority and his unattractive appearance. He succeeds in this, but also provides a great deal of information to show that the forces ranged against his man were such that he would have had a hard time of it even if he had been the most handsome writer in London. He was inevitably the enemy of the enemies of Pope, and received some scurrilous handling on that score alone. Every road to success presented formidable obstacles; patronage, the theatre, capital investment, all were risky. Pope did well enough with his subscription scheme, but Swift, who had for a time flown higher, earned only an Irish deanery he did not want.

Yet these men were relatively fortunate. Hundreds of writers subsisted at the lowest level; theirs was a menial trade. It was no small achievement for Gay to find his own way as an artist, finally neither hack nor parasite. The difficulties he faced were caused by an epochal change in cultural temper. The age when aristocratic patronage was virtually essential was ending, though it may not have looked like that at the time. The booksellers, who were also the publishers, were, sometimes aggressively, businessmen. Writers, if not parasitical on the great, were obliged to supply a market. Some, like Gay, were caught in the change of times, turning by tradition to the patron, but by necessity to the market as well. The days when a writer could propose himself as the grateful dependant, perhaps even the influential intimate, of aristocracy, were almost over. Now he dealt with tradesmen, not all honest: so much writing for so much cash.

There was a certain loss to literature. There would be no more Popes or Swifts, writers fascinatingly close to power, however finally frustrated; but also a gain, the emergence of a writing trade that could foster (though it could also destroy) independent artists and artisans, more often than not overt opponents of the establishment. Men of letters would no longer expect to be offered Cabinet posts, as Addison was, or even jobs as secretaries to the lottery or attendants to infant princesses, but they were on their way to a probably more acceptable destiny. They might be hacks and they might be poètes maudits, but they would not be servants. Gay may have been the last literary man of any significance to wear a livery. Then he captured the town with an opera that ridiculed the most powerful of ministers by representing him as lower than a footman, a mere crook – no doubt a more modest achievement than Le Mariage de Figaro, but not bad for a man of lowly origins, a man by nature and custom so vacillating and compliant. He was worth a long biography.

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