Poems on Several Occasions, vol. 2 (John Gay, 1720)

I previously read volume one. This collection took much longer to get through than its length demanded, but the content was rough going. It isn’t that it was hard to read, but rather it’s relentlessly depressing.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to short poems of various sorts: epistles, tales, eclogues, and miscellanies (mostly elegies). If I might describe them all in a single word, that word would be jaded. This collection is more thematically connected than the first volume. Together, these poems lament that a successful poet is one who either becomes a sycophant to a rich patron or devotes himself to pablum and writes pop songs and ballads for the general public. Truth or art are the way to starvation. And Gay admits how horrendously hypocritical it is of him to demean this sort of success, as he’s gone down both roads himself.

The second half of the book is a five act play titled Dione, a Pastoral Tragedy. Dione is the daughter of a wealthy courtier. She’s fled the city as her father wanted her to marry for political advancement while she was in love with a man named Lycindas. Lycindas, however, proves unfaithful and now pursues the beautiful shepherdess  Parthenia. Dione disguises herself as Alexis the shepherd and befriends  Lycindas, hoping to remind him of his former promise and steer him away from Parthenia, but she finds herself instead honor-bound as a friend to plead Lycindas’s love to Parthenia, who has so far flatly rejected all his advances.

Despite of Alexis’s efforts, Parthenia sees nothing in Lycindas but an unwelcome annoyance. She is, however, impressed by Alexis’s devotedness to friendship and hopes to be his friend as well. Lycindas becomes jealous, believing that Alexis is trying to steal Parthenia away from him.

Cleanthes, Dione’s father, has meanwhile been searching the countryside for his lost daughter. He’s ambushed by thieves and murdered. Dione, in despair, attempts to kill herself with a dagger, but Parthenia snatches it away while Laura (Dione’s maid) runs for help. Lycindas appears, and with his mind clouded by jealousy, confuses the situation and thinks Alexis is trying to force himself on Parthenia. Lycindas stabs Dione.

As Dione lies dying, she hopes to herself that Lycindas will never discover her true identity and will find happiness with Parthenia, but Laura returns and reveals the secret. Lycindas, racked with guilt, kills himself with the same dagger.

There’s only one illustration in this volume: a frontispiece of cherubs burning incense at Dione’s tomb.

Inscription: Sir G. Graham Montgomery’s ex libris plate, pasted on the inside front cover.


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