Up to 1963 Sven Armens was the only student of Gay who had considered the intention behind Gay's work as a whole. Unfortunately Armens saw Gay's poetry almost exclusively as autobiographical and moral, reflecting the nostalgia of a country boy condemned to life in the city but setting forth in his poetry country life as ideal; city life as less than ideal at best, vicious at worst. Armens’ emphasis on Gay's nostalgia for the country is too strong, 1f not completely mistaken. I have undertaken, therefore, an exploration of Gay’ s general attitude toward his world with special attention to Armens’ idea that Gay was a "social critic" who looked upon country life as ideal. I find that Armens proves his theory concerning Gay's affinity for country life largely by ignoring Gay's skill in using humor, irony, and satire, much of which fits a specific generic context in which Gay was working. Thus Armens’ too serious reading of Gay subverts the enjoyment of one of Gay's most attractive features and one of his major strengths. It is exactly Gay's humor, irony, and satire that prove the all-inclusiveness of Gay's value judgments.
Actually Gay's criticism of man is probably not so extensive as Armens has contended. Moreover, when Gay does criticize society, he does not limit his criticism to any particular segment of society. Though the country receives the brunt of Gay's irony in The Shepherd's Week, and the city seems the recipient of his irony and satire
in Trivia and The Beggar's Opera, Gay's method shows that his criticism applies to mankind in general. As Empson says about The Beggar's Opera: Gay's art does not merely evade the class system but breaks through it and "makes classes feel part of a larger unity or simply at home with one another. “ˆ1 This more general object is what Armens and many other critics have missed.
In this paper I reexamine four of Gay's most important works, Rural Sports. The Shepherd's Week, Trivia, and The Beggar’s Opera, with the object of setting these works in the context of their respective traditions and of reading Gay sympathetical1y wthin these traditions. I feel that Gay's intent should not be narrowed, as Armens does, to a city-country contrast or to a rich-poor contrast. Gay's intent seems more artful and more extended than this.
I shall attempt to show that our appreciation of
1willam Empson, English English Pastoral Poetry (New York: 1938), p. 198.
Gay's skill in using the georgic tradition in Rural Sports is lessened if we consider the poem to be mainly an expression of his nostalgia for the country life. Also, we overlook almost completely Gay’s skillful parodying of Philips Pastorals in The Shepherd’s Week if we take this work
to be only a realistic picture of healthy country life with an 1mpl1Eed comparison to the unhealthy morals of city life. Again, in Trivia, we may miss Gay’s success in detailing
the city scene if we assume that the poem’s purpose purpose is merely to strengthen the contrast between a. healthful country life and a morally and physically dangerous city life. Finally, we lose the all-inclusiveness of Gay's satire in The Beggar’s Opera if we consider Gay’s satire to be applicable only to the rich and powerful. Though Gay, the man, may actually be emotionally attracted to country life, Gay, the artist, is not so naive as to suggest that country life is the ideal. Gay sees the possibility of
moral corruption in all settings.
Had Patricia H. Spack’s excellent book John Gay been published two years earlier, the necessity for my work would have been nearly obviated. Though Though Mrs. Spacks and I come to different conclusions on some points, we often use the same approaches and come to similar conclusions. Her investigation of Gay’s intent is, of course, much more detailed than mine. That we often agree or come close to agreeing shows that students of Gay have come to separate but like convictions. Though my investigation was done without referring to her book, I have footnoted references to her ideas and conclusions where they seemed especially pertinent.
Level of Degree
First Committee Member (Chair)
Second Committee Member
Norton Barr Crowell
Third Committee Member
Hann, Bruce Frederick. "John Gay'S Comic View Of Society." (1968). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/engl_etds/337