John Gay, 1685-1732

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Biographical note

Poet and dramatist, born near Barnstaple of a good but decayed family. His parents dying while he was a child he was apprenticed to a silk-mercer in London, but not liking the trade, was released by his master. In 1708 he published a poem, Wine, and in 1713 Rural Sports, which he dedicated to Pope, whose friendship he obtained. A little before this he had received an appointment as secretary in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth. His next attempts were in the drama, in which he was not at first successful; but about 1714 he made his first decided hit in The Shepherd’s Week, a set of six pastorals designed to satirise Ambrose Philips, which, however, secured public approval on their own merits. These were followed by Trivia [1716], in which he was aided by Swift, an account in mock heroic verse of the dangers of the London streets, and by The Fan.

Gay had always been ambitious of public employment, and his aspirations were gratified by his receiving the appointment of secretary to an embassy to Hanover, which, however, he appears to have resigned in a few months. He then returned to the drama in What d’ye call It, and Three Hours after Marriage, neither of which, however, took the public fancy. In 1720 he published a collection of his poems, which brought him £1000, but soon after lost all his means in the collapse of the South Sea Company. After producing another drama, The Captive, he published his Fables [1727], which added to his reputation, and soon after, in 1728, achieved the great success of his life in The Beggar’s Opera, a Newgate pastoral, suggested by Swift, in which the graces and fantasticalities of the Italian Opera were satirised. A sequel, Polly, was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain as reflecting upon the Court, but was published and had an enormous sale.

The last few years of his life were passed in the household of the Duke of Queensberry, who had always been his friend and patron. He died after three days’ illness, aged 47. Gay was an amiable, easy-going man, who appears to have had the power of attracting the strong attachments of his friends, among whom were Pope and Swift. He seems to have been one of the very few for whom the latter had a sincere affection. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Of all he has written he is best remembered by one or two songs, of which the finest is Black-eyed Susan.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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