Poet of design : the craftsmanship of John Gay

No Thumbnail Available
Sorenson, Rexford Scott, 1935-
Rippy, Frances Mayhew
Issue Date
Thesis (D. Ed.)
Other Identifiers

John Gay's poetry offers a variety of subject, theme, and genre that challenges both student and scholar. Using G. C. Faber's edition --The Poetical Works of John Gay--as a chief textual source, I have analyzed Gay's nondramatic poetry to show his use of structure-specifically, his use of denomination, or paragraph length--and the manner by which that use of structure heightens and sustains his thematic concerns.The variety of theme obscures the artist in Gay. But although in the five stages of his craftsmanship he subordinately stressed the themes of variety and violence, of the transformation of willful woman and the absurdity of proud woman, he consistently expressed both his principle that art, more particularly his poetry, should instruct and correct man, and his theme that life demands an alert, perceptive, rational, self-controlled, and charitable man who is tolerant of people but intolerant of their crimes of passion. However, about 1720, Gay's dominant theme was altered by his awareness that art cannot effect right reason in those who are ruled by passion. Hence, direct art must give way to direct satire, and direct satire, to art which ostensibly appears to amuse the reader. Thus in his thematic content, Gay strove for a moral design; for him, art essentially was a means-whether direct or indirect--of establishing in man the final natural and right order of the universe.With his use of poetic structure to heighten theme, Gay more surely determined his status as a major poet of design. In his manipulation of predominantly even denomination, he achieved rhythm or contour. Although incorporated shorter contours of from three to five paragraphs are used primarily for rhythm, the longer contours of from four to twelve or more paragraphs are concomitant with segments or subsegments which are structural units having discrete correlation with thematic content. The larger denomination is used to stress that thematic content. Gay then further developed, balanced, or counterpointed that stress with a particular moderate denomination-the verse paragraph of fourteen lines, which I have called the congeneric sonnet. For the congeneric sonnet Gay drew upon the unity and function of the prose paragraph and the pattern and intensity of the traditional sonnet to create a particular form in verse. That form had its own internal integrity and, more important for Gay, it functioned structurally and thematically as part of the entire poem.Gay's greatest achievement of his nondramatic career was his instituting of counterpoint with the two cantos of the 1720 version of Rural Sports. With a highly complex but discrete interspersion of large denomination and congeneric sonnet, Gay created some four structural rhythms and counterpointed the theme of aggressive and artful conduct in experiencing the variety of nature with the theme of the recognition and acceptance of divine order and personal responsibility.After achieving through the major revision of Rural Sports the grand statement of the longer poem, Gay withdrew. With a loss of confidence in man's ability to behave as a Good Augustan, Gay expected less of the reader. That is, as he turned in the Fables to ostensibly diverting his reader in order to implant moral principle, or at least to suspend irrational behavior, he turned to a lesser design and a faster tempo. Even in his partial retraction in his faith in humanistic rationalism, however, Gay remained the consummate poet of design who consciously directed his craft through fused theme and structure to fulfill its purpose of conveying with varied order and rational intensity his perspective of the ordered variety of nature and the calm intensity of a rational universe.