John Gay: The Birth of the Squire

by Michael Peverett

"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently reproducing Arnold on Chaucer, and it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:

     Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,
     Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;
     He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,
     And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.
     With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,
     Barley shall in paternal acres grow:
     The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,
     To give metheglin for his morning hours;
     For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,
     And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.

This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such harvest be denied. Lyrical home-brewers would be hard-pressed to choose for their motto between Gay's last line and Shakespeare's

     And were not summer's distillation left
     A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass...

Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer.

It is not, however, the cycle of these liquid harvests, consumed in their season, that do for Gay's hero, but the strong ale,

     Firm-cork'd, and mellow'd till the twentieth year;
     Brew'd or when Phoebus warms the fleecy sign,
     Or when his languid rays in Scorpio shine.

That is, in March or October, the standard times for brewing "keeping beers". Small and table beers were brewed more or less all year round; but these strong ales were for special occasions and guests, as at the squire's own birth,

     And old October reddens ev'ry nose.

The October was the most valued, as the malt was fresh from the barley harvest; to compensate, the successful brewing of March beer involved selecting top ingredients and it was brewed even stronger since it had to survive the risks of fermentation during the heats of summer. Naturally a certain snobbery attached to ales that were laid down for many years. Though the legend of mellowing implied that the ageing improved the drink, the real point was that only a very strong brew, costly to produce, would keep that long; thus they reflected favourably on the house. The anonymous author of The London and Country Brewer (1736) notes:

[The method described] is attended with extraordinary Labour and Time, by the
Brewers running off the wort almost continually, and often returning the same again into the mash Vat, but then it certainly gives him an opportunity of extracting and washing out the goodness of the Malt, more than any of the common Methods, by which he is capacitated to make his October or March Beer as strong as he pleases. The Fame of Penly October Beer is at this time well known not only throughout Hertfordshire, but several other remote Places, and truly not without desert, for in all my Travels I never met with any that excell'd it, for a clear amber Colour, a fine relish, and a light warm digestion. But what excell'd all was the generosity of its Donor, who for Hospitality in his Viands and this October Beer, has left but few of his Fellows.

A prudent toper would drink these "sipping beers" from a "dwarf ale", a small funnel-shaped glass (their modern descendants are the barley wines). In his final scene the squire, the last man standing, goes for a different approach:

     Methinks I see him in his hall appear,
     Where the long table floats in clammy beer,
     'Midst mugs and glasses shatter'd o'er the floor,
     Dead-drunk his servile crew supinely snore;
     Triumphant, o'er the prostrate brutes he stands,
     The mighty bumper trembles in his hands;
     Boldly he drinks, and like his glorious Sires,
     In copious gulps of potent ale expires.

A bumper is a mug or glass filled right to the brim, usually for the purposes of making a ceremonial toast. In this case the toast is a private one; just as the honoured guests appear to be absent and the friends of whom Gay promises to write turn out to be nothing but a "servile crew".

Moral censoriousness, however, is not what Gay is about; the sting of satire is taken off by this being framed as only a hypothetical finale (everything after the scene of the squire's birth is narrated partly in a fast-forwarding present tense and partly in a prospective future tense, so the precise degree of fictionality claimed by the various episodes is impossible to pin down). Just as he has not stuck to imitating Virgil, so he has not quite managed to sustain an "ages of Man" structure, but the pervasive idea of speeded-up temporal cycles has been layered onto a groundwork of pleasures, that goes like this:

Latin (scorned)
Priscilla, the milkmaid

All these pleasures, and a good few subsidiary ones, are portrayed with the utmost sensual brilliance, and this is not absent even in the darkened tones of that final scene where we share an ugly delight in the liberated tongue of

     Foul scandal to the lying lip affords,

and even in the rock-bottom splurge of "copious gulps of potent ale". Lips and mouths are ever-present forces in this poem.

After the hero is incapacitated from the chase following that fateful tumble on St Hubert's Day (November 3rd) when

     Low in the dust his groveling honour lies,
     Headlong he falls, and on the rugged stone
     Distorts his neck, and cracks the collar bone

he becomes instead a country justice and a severe preserver of game from the depredations of poachers; a conversion in mid-hunt that leadenly echoes Hubert, patron saint of hunters, who turned to the Lord as a result of encountering a miraculous hart with a crucifix set between its antlers. Here, and when he makes his spirited defence against learning ("Why should he wiser prove than all his race?"), the hero is seen - under duress - haplessly trying to impose orderliness on the tides of pleasure, which in the end carry him away.

But is it he who has this thought, or is it his "too fond mother"? - You can read it both ways, just as you can't be sure if

     These storys that descend from son to son,
     The forward boy shall one day make his own

means that he appropriates his father's tall stories or simply ends up with the same sort of stories to tell. His life is a prolongation of the family's, and indeed the household's, since Priscilla takes a full share of responsibility for their energetic use of "The dairy, barn, the hay-loft and the grove". Because the squire is the realization of a community's idea he eludes satire (as often in Gay) by being both beneath it and beyond it.

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