Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/95

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

‘judged not convenient’ for one so little in court favour. But, on the other hand, the publication of ‘Polly’ brought him between 1,100l. and 1,200l., or considerably more than he could reasonably have expected to make if it had succeeded upon the stage (ib. ii. 142 n.)

The ups and downs of fortune, however, were scarcely calculated to fortify Gay's lax and compliant nature. Early in December 1728 he had been confined with an attack of fever. The prohibition of ‘Polly’ on the 12th seems to have been followed by a serious relapse in which he was dangerously ill. In Arbuthnot's letter above quoted he writes that Gay owes his life under God ‘to the unwearied endeavours and care of your humble servant; for a physician who had not been passionately his friend could not have saved him.’ Gay himself, writing to Swift on the previous day, had told the same tale. With the Queensberrys he seems to have continued for the rest of his life either in their town house or in their country seat of Amesbury in Wiltshire. They assumed, indeed, formal charge of him, the duke taking care of his money and the duchess watching over the poet himself. Among Swift's correspondence there are a number of joint letters to the dean in Ireland from Gay and his patroness, the leading topic of which is the allurement of Swift to England. Literature seems to have languished with Gay at this time, and he still felt the effects of his last illness. ‘I continue to drink nothing but water,’ he tells Swift in March 1730, ‘so that you cannot require any poetry from me,’ an utterance which shows he was still constant to the doctrine laid down in the motto to his first poem of ‘Wine.’ He had, however (the same letter reminds us), vamped up an old play, ‘The Wife of Bath,’ which had already been acted without success in May 1713, and was now (1730) reproduced at Lincoln's Inn Fields with no better fortune, notwithstanding the great reputation its author had gained from the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ In December 1731 he says he has made some progress in a second series of ‘Fables,’ and a few months later announces that he has ‘already finished about fifteen or sixteen.’ The morals of most of them, he adds, ‘are of the political kind, which makes them run into a greater length than those I have already published.’ Further, he has ‘a sort of scheme to raise his finances by doing something for the stage.’ What this something was is matter of conjecture. It can scarcely have been the serenata or pastoral drama of ‘Acis and Galatea,’ which was produced at the Haymarket in May 1732, with Miss Arne (afterwards Mrs. Cibber) for heroine, because both the words and the music (the latter Handel's) had been written some ten years before. But it may have been the comedy of ‘The Distrest Wife,’ printed long after Gay's death in 1743; or it may have been, and most probably was, the opera of ‘Achilles,’ which was acted at Covent Garden in February 1733. In his last letter to Swift, dated 16 Nov. 1732, he says that he has come to London before the family, to follow his own inventions, which included the arrangements for producing the last-named opera. About a fortnight afterwards he was attacked by an inflammatory fever, and died in three days (4 Dec. 1732)—‘the most precipitate case I ever knew,’ says Arbuthnot. After lying in state at Exeter 'Change, he was ‘interred at Westminster Abbey as if he had been a peer of the realm,’ and the Queensberrys erected a handsome monument to his memory, which, however, is disfigured by a flippant couplet borrowed from one of his letters to Pope:—

Life is a jest, and all things show it.
I thought so once, and now I know it.

It is but just, however, to say that he wished the words to be put on his tombstone, explaining them to signify ‘his present sentiment in life’ (ib. ii. 436). Pope also wrote an epitaph for his monument, which, though it contains some happily characteristic lines, e.g. ‘In Wit a Man, Simplicity a Child,’ has never quite recovered the terrible mangling it received at the hands of Johnson (Epitaphs of Pope, 1756). Gay's fortune, husbanded by the Queensberrys, amounted to about 6,000l. It was equally divided between his sisters, Katherine Baller and Joanna Fortescue, who in addition had some years afterwards the profits of a theatrical benefit (Gay's Chair, p. 25). In addition to the pieces named above was printed in 1754 a farce called ‘The Rehearsal at Goatham.’

There are portraits of Gay by Dahl (Countess Delawarr's), Zincke, Hogarth, and others. In the National Portrait Gallery is an unfinished sketch in oils by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which has been etched for the ‘Parchment Library’ by Mr. H. A. Willis. Another and a better known portrait, belonging to Lord Scarsdale, and painted by Kneller's follower, William Aikman, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887–8. It shows him in a blue cap and coat, and is said to have been praised by contemporaries for its fidelity. It was engraved by F. Milvius [i.e. F. Kyte]. Last in order comes the portrait by Richardson, dated 12 Aug. 1732, exhibited by Viscountess Clifden at South Kensington in 1867. In character Gay was affectionate and amiable, but indolent, luxurious, and very easily depressed. His health was never good, and