Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay's Trivia

Edited by Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman

Hardback, Sep 2007, 272 pages, Price: £50.00 / $100.00, ISBN 13: 9780199280490 / ISBN 10: 0199280495, Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez


John Gay's Trivia, or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) is the most vital from a large clutch of early eighteenth century 'art of' poems which worked in that instructional space forever opened up by Virgil's Georgics. It is a work which stands well beside the other Scriblerian poems which are more often read and remarked upon, the poems of Swift and Pope, and in fact it complements their achievements in many ways: Gay's multi-layered ironies have been too much blanked out as less substantial compared to their satires. Trivia (the three ways, the crossroads, the place where the poet scratches out a song) is a London poem of resolutely public matter, a series of street portraits, a mock classical overlay, an ironic song in praise of emerging structures of order. Book II (of 3) opens:

THUS far the Muse has trac’d in useful Lays,
The proper Implements for Wintry Ways;
Has taught the Walker, with judicious Eyes,
To read the various Warnings of the Skies.
Now venture, Muse, from Home, to range the Town,
And for the publick Safety risque thy own.

Its couplets are sprung with a bounce that is always sure of its contents, footnoting along. Its humour, while always funny rather than shockingly savage, is however never airily disengaged but is mixed with a lot of mud, sewage, the showing of economic networks, and the constant threat of violence.

It is a poem which has been cut into pieces, not only in anthologies but in volumes such as the current Carcanet Selected Gay, despite its hardly being that long, while also standing as Gay's best poem and a key London poem. Dearing and Beckwith's John Gay: Poetry and Prose (Oxford, 1974) is the standard Gay volume for the scholar. Trivia is presented with excellent commentary, but that volume is long out of print. In an interesting situation, a recent Italian parallel text translation Trivia: o l'arte di camminare per le strade di Londra (Monte Università Parma Editore) has been the only recent choice, apart from risking a machine-transcribed text found on the internet. Now Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman, historians of the eighteenth century, have edited the text anew, also presenting nine diverse essays - from contributors in different fields - which address aspects of the poem and its contexts.

The poem has been edited from the first edition, but with the passages Gay later added, and it is presented without modernization of spelling. The useful footnotes add a few extra things to those of Dearing and Beckwith. The book's illustrations include a map of London from 1716, sample images from Lintot's second edition of the poem, a photograph of a pair of women's pattens (key item in the poem), and a painting of a damsel twirling her mop (again an important image). Before we get to the poem, however, the bulk of the book consists of the essays. Gay's conceit that the Muse has been "trac'd in useful Lays" is here given a further spin by the assembled historians of fashion, poverty, letters and classical culture: the Muse has provided a source, a document which is treated here with varying degrees of perceived transparency and seeming awareness of Gay's ironies – as, say, the polemics of Defoe more commonly are in surveys of this period and as literary works more obviously fantastical are not.

This way around, Gay's poem is not the subject but the lens; literary criticism is one discipline among many here, and what might be an illuminating exercise, investigating the underlying sources of Gay's text (closer than the classical ones), is largely left to other books - with a few notable exceptions, particularly Margaret R. Hunt's comments on Gay's debt to the polemics of the Reformation of Manners movement in his treatment of women and in particular prostitutes. The movement consisted of various associations concerned with strengthening the laws against immorality (sex, Sabbath breaking, swearing, drinking), and taking vigilante action to enforce the existing laws. Hunt's essay, 'The Walker Beset: Gender in the Early Eighteenth-Century', argues that Gay collapses women into signposts (what the working women are doing will indicate to the walker what time of day it is and where he is in the city) and associates them with dirt, water and the sewage which could erupt through the "skin" of the pavements at any time. This charge applies more convincingly to Gay's treatment of the tricky woman who guides you to her "Cobweb room" in order to rob you (the spider's lair is a cliché of Reformation of Manners literature) than it does to the grand, culminating description of fire with its moral attendance, where there are more surely different ironies at play.

Aileen Ribeiro's 'Street Style: Dress in John Gay's Trivia' sifts the poem for attitudes towards different items of clothing belonging to different classes. Notably, Ribeiro shrugs off David Nokes' notion that Gay's works "frequently betray a transvestite fascinating with women's clothing", particularly a fetish for underwear, pointing out that Nokes is in confusion as to what a petticoat (in The Fan) actually is. This is Gay opening the poem with a discussion of which coat is appropriate:

Nor should it prove thy less important Care,
To chuse a proper Coat for Winter's Wear.
Now in thy Trunk thy Doily Habit fold,
The silken Drugget ill can fence the Cold;
The Frieze's spongy Nap is soak'd with Rain,
And Show'rs soon drench the Camlet’s cockled Grain.
True Witney Broad-cloth with its Shag unshorn,
Unpierc'd is in the lasting Tempest worn:
Be this the Horse-man’s Fence; for who would wear
Amid the town the spoils of Russia's Bear?
Within the Roquelaure's Clasp thy Hands are pent,
Hands, that stretch'd forth invading Harms prevent.
Let the loop'd Bavaroy the Fop embrace,
Or his deep Cloak be spatter'd o'er with Lace.
That Garment best the Winter's Rage defends,
Whose ample Form without one Plait depends;
By various Names in various Counties known,
Yet held in all the true Surtout alone:
Be thine of Kersey firm, though small the Cost,
Then brave unwet the Rain, unchill’d the Frost.

What were the possibilities for class transgression opened out by a riding hood? What kind of wig should we imagine on our heads as we walk the streets in Gay's poem? Among much else, Ribeiro answers these, and also tells us what red heeled shoes signified.

The most substantial essay of the collection, Tim Hitchcock's '"All besides the Rail, rang'd Beggars lie": Trivia and the Public Poverty of Early Eighteenth-Century London' scrutinizes Gay's portraiture of poverty. After the fun of the poem this is a properly sobering exercise. It was a time in which the public-policy perception of poverty was fixed on a familiar pattern of rural poverty, too much informing approaches to new patterns of urban poverty. For Hitchcock, Gay contributes to the creation of literary stereotypes – the street-seller, the well-to-do beggar – which impeded the creation of functional structures of relief – workhouses, hospitals, by-laws – by woefully distorting the information given in this literature which had a particular weight as ethnography in this period, before the "pie chart and the survey". For example, the records of the criminal justice system show that over half the beggars involved in cases in the City between 1738 and 1742 were women; yet the literary beggar was always a crafty man. Hitchcock considers the "dust and lies" of the literary representation to be best caused to shimmer and disappear with the picking up of life-history examples.

The institutions were re-shaped by use, Hitchcock argues, over the long century, and many locations become less carceral than they were at first, but these efforts were malformed from the start by a solidification which Trivia and The Beggar's Opera had key roles in creating: "what Gay achieves is a distillation of a new image of the poor. Gone are the rogues and vagabonds who filled the nightmares of sixteenth-century commentators. Gone also are the settled poor huddled in back streets, dependent on the parish for their meagre livelihoods. Instead, one finds a vibrant and unified world of economics and poverty that elides the most prominent forms of male begging (cap-in-hand street-corner mendicity) with the desperate economics of men, women, and children who struggled to make a living as ballad sellers and prostitutes, shoeblacks and errand boys." (p. 86)

The other essays concern themselves with the various puzzle-like aspects of Trivia – for example, the way in which it does not follow a coherent route across London but rather pops up now here, now there, while being grounded by weather conditions – it is winter throughout – and by unifying occurrences such as frost and fire. There is much criticism of the narrator, declared by all to be of the fabled middling sort – but not of course too close to Gay (his letters reveal that he and the walker-guide held opposite opinions on some things, for example the desirability of coaches, as Susan Whyman points out) – and the arguments can keep going as Gay's uncertainty of tone is ridden through with a variance of "you", "I", "he" perspectives used. The narrator's attitude to dirt (a high incidence of the word "mire") and to danger is analysed by Clare Brant, and by Mark Jenner in his '"Nauceious and Abominable"? Pollution, Plague, and Poetics in John Gay's Trivia', and Brant also contrasts the walker to the flâneur figures of the next century - discussions which I found, due to lack of space, to be invitations to further research and thought rather than fully developed arguments or comparisons in themselves. Jenner's opening summary of the changing status of poems as documents in the study of history through the twentieth century also sets the frame for this book as a whole. In the 1920s, Jenner notes, Swift and Gay were commended by William Henry Irving for their "realism"; in the 1960s the new social history dismissed literary texts as sources. To where do literary scholars now turn for a sense of historical "reality" in a particular period? The essays in this book, of course, are brought together partly to provide that dose of sourced reality for the streets that Gay turns into couplets. The banner is one of inter-disciplinary insight.

However, these remaining essays do contain a little too much straight paraphrase of the poem, a result of bringing in writers with no practise at literary criticism, though this doesn't destroy so much as merely slow down pieces which otherwise do provide a view of early eighteenth century contexts – the literary and popular works only known by specialists, the private archives of letters, the clichés which are not so easily detected now. Finally, Susanna Morton Braund's tracking of classical references (Horace, Ovid, Virgil, Homer, often all at once), in her 'Gay's Trivia: Walking the Streets of Rome', avoids rehashing past scholarship – and it is one element of the poem much commented on – and instead pinpoints a handful of overlaid references in new and more suggestive detail. For example, Gay's epigraph from Virgil's Eclogue 9, "Quo te Moeri pedes? An, quo via ducit, in Urbem?" ('Where are you going, Moeris? Are you following the path, headed to the city?') is underlined for its context in Virgil of migration from the countryside towards the city, a pastoral crossroads which is not beneath the urban Trivia, or parodied by it, but seamlessly points to it.

Apart from the editors, who adopt neutral tones, Braund is also the essayist here who clearly thinks Gay's achievement in the poem is great rather than just interesting (he has "mastered" things, he has an "ambitious" scheme, it is a poem in which one has a "favourite" part, and of course I agree). Her enthusiasm, in the last of the essays before the poem, draws us on with relish.

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