Frank Kermode

  • John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. A Critical Biography by David Nokes
    Oxford, 563 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 19 812971 8

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.

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