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.

Poems on Several Occasions, vol. 1 (John Gay, 1720)

A collection of several long-form poems, mostly pastoral, several comic. “The Shepherd’s Week”, a poem in six parts (Monday through Saturday), is the centerpiece of the book. It deals with the loves and jealousies of country farmers in a humorous manner. Each day is handsomely illustrated by a full-page woodcut (1775 edition). The longest poem, however, is in three parts and is titled “Trivia”. It covers all the diverse people and events one might see when walking about London on foot, in summer and winter, day and night. This is the only non-pastoral piece and it’s also in an entirely serious tone, aside from a few satirical jabs at the wealthy. But my favorite was the last work, a “tragi-comi-pastoral farce” titled “The What D’Ye Call It”. It begins with a prose scene of the decidedly non-professional writer, director, and actors preparing to stage the play, which I first thought was only to lampshade the absurdities of the production (which at one point introduces an “embryo ghost”), but there’s a great twist at the end that ties it all together.

I have volume 2 as well and will read it eventually (and so I have), but not right now. I like to visit the 18th century from time to time, but I don’t care to stay long.

Inscription: An ex libris plate is pasted on the inside front cover. It’s the coat of arms of Sir G. Graham Montgomery, Baronet of Stanhope. There’s a shield on which stands a robed woman holding an anchor in one hand and a severed head in the other. Below it are the words “Garde Bien”.

Fables (John Gay, 1727)

A collection of poems geared towards children of upper-class families destined for public life. Indeed, Gay wrote them specifically for George II’s youngest son, Prince William. Almost all feature anthropomorphized animals illustrating some moral point, often the perils of vanity and pretense, or the dangers of being taken in by self-serving sycophants posing as friends. At the same time, there’s a certain sarcastic undertone that rather suggests the distinction between politics and realpolitik is a polite fiction.

At least in the fourth edition (1738), every single poem has a large woodcut depicting its principal scene, and they’re all exquisitely detailed.

Inscription: A gift to William Webster on occasion of his 14th birthday, June 7th, 1741.