John Gay, 1685 - 1732

portrait of John Gay


Born: 30 June 1685, Barnstaple, England
Died: 4 December 1732, Edinburgh, Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain

Gay started his education at Barnstaple Grammar School and then Blundell's School. He apprenticed to a silk merchant at London for a time before returning to Barnstaple. He returned to London and took up with a number of the literary lights of the era. He dedicated Rural Ports to Alexander Pope in 1713, starting a lasting friendship. The next year Jonathan Swift helped get him a position as secretary to the ambassador to the court of Hanover, but that fell through with the death of Queen Anne. In 1715 he wrote a heavily satiric drama called What d'ye call it? which was so complex and veiled that an explanatory key was published. On several occasions he published by subscription, including Poems on Several Occasions in 1720. One of his patrons, secretary of state James Craggs, gave him South Sea stock; that year saw the crest of the South Sea Bubble and in his excitement he put all his assets into additional shares and lost everything. This reverse damaged his health but his friends provided for him until he could get back to work. In 1728 his best known work, The Beggar's Opera was produced. The drama was a great success, running for 62 nights, but as it skewered Sir Robert Walpole it also earned Gay some enemies at court. (Walpole had played a significant part in the South Sea Bubble, Gay wasn't letting it go.) The next year he wrote a sequel, Polly, its production was forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain, presumably due to Walpole's influence. This actually helped sell subscriptions to patrons. The Duchess of Queenbsury enlisted subscribers at court and was dismissed from court as a result, the Duke gave Gay a home and the Duchess continued her patronage until Gay's death.

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