John Gay is chiefly remembered today for his brilliant burlesque play of 1728, The Beggar’s Opera (a work which surely deserves to be revived in the midst of our present financial and political discontents), and perhaps also for his friendships with those more substantial figures, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.
But Gay had made his entrance on the stage of literary London some 20 years before the premiere of The Beggar’s Opera. In 1708 he had published “Wine. A Poem”, an essay in the “mock-Miltonic” mode which had recently been popularised by John Philips’s “The Splendid Shilling” (1701). Gay followed Philips’s lead by applying Miltonic language and phrasing first to the praise ofwine, and then — the more interesting and engaging part of the poem — to a description of an early 18th-century drinking party.
Dr Johnson had little time for this. Philips’s poem he could just about stomach: “The Splendid Shilling” has the uncommon merit of an original design…and novelty is always grateful where it gives no pain.” But he then turns the full battery of his moral severity on those — including Gay — who merely trod in Philips’s footsteps: “But the merit of such performances begins and ends with the first author. He that should again adapt Milton’s phrase to the gross incidents of common life, and even adapt it with more art, which would not be difficult, must yet expect but a small part of the praise which Philips has obtained; he can only hope to be considered as the repeater of a jest.”
I tremble to disagree with Dr Johnson. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he has quite responded to the delicate poise of what Gay was doing when he wrote “Wine”. Johnson bluntly assumes that Gay’s poem is a burlesque (that is to say, a poem in which low subject matter is used to ridicule a high literary style). But that does not quite correspond to what Gay achieves in this poem. Neither is “Wine” really that close cousin of the burlesque, a mock-epic (that is to say, a poem in which a high literary style is used tomock low subject matter).
The poem’s opening lines express Gay’s playful respect for Milton (whose Paradise Lost had of course been first published only some 40 years or so before, in 1667):
Of Happiness Terrestrial, and the Source
Whence human pleasures flow, sing Heavenly Muse,
Of sparkling juices, of th’enliv’ning Grape,
Whose quickning tast adds vigour to the Soul,
Whose sov’raign pow’r revives decaying nature,
And thaws the frozen Blood of hoary Age
A kindly warmth diffusing…
The echo of the beginning of Paradise Lost is unmistakable. But Gay is not offering us a parody of Milton so much as a teasing reapplication of the Miltonic mode to a subject which is at once beneath it and appropriate to it, while at the same time also being an inversion of the subject for which the Miltonic mode was coined. Beneath it, because wine accompanies and often provokes the ludicrous in human behaviour. Appropriate to it, because wine is used to solemnify and seal many of the most important actions and ceremonies of human life. An inversion of it, because, in the place of the Miltonic
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe . . .
Gay celebrates the “quickning tast” of a positively unforbidden fruit which kindly “thaws the frozen Blood of hoary age”, and so for a while keeps death at bay rather than welcoming it into the world. Another obviously Miltonic moment comes in the middle of the poem, when Gay calls on wine to inspire him:
O thou, that first my quickned Soul engag’d,
Still with thy aid assist me, What is dark
Illumin, What is low raise and support,
That to the height of this great Argument,
Thy Universal Sway o’re all the World,
In everlasting Numbers, like the Theme
I may record, and sing thy Matchless Worth.
By “Theme” Gay means Paradise Lost itself, which is the theme for his poem in the sense that one might refer to a text set for translation as a theme. And his desire that his own poem should be “like” his theme suggests how his intention is not to mock Milton, but rather to offer, on a small scale, a tribute to Paradise Lost. Whereas Milton called on the Holy Ghost to assist him —
. . . what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
— Gay more modestly invokes wine. Yet, in its own way, the subject of his poem — the contribution of wine to human life — is also truly a “great Argument”. “Wine” is a complimentary poem of Miltonic supplement, not satire.
The second part of the poem, in which Gay describes a drinking party, makes this particularly clear. The whole episode is an essay in a mode Gay was to make his own, that of urban pastoral. The poet and his friends head off to a drinking den where they are met by the porter, “A Stripling, who with Scrapes and Humil Cringe, /Greets us in winning Speech and Accent Bland”. They are led upstairs past the intimidating proprietor, “a Majestic Dame, whose looks denounce Command and Sov’reignty, with haughty Air,/And Studied Mien”. Once they are seated, the pot-boy takes their order:
Name, Sirs, the WINE that most invites your Tast,
Champaign or Burgundy, or Florence pure,
Or Hock Antique, or Lisbon New or Old,
Bourdeaux, or neat French White, or Alicant . . .
When they have been served they begin a series of toasts, initially to the leading political figures of the day (this part of the poem reads rather like a series of job applications on Gay’s part), before moving on to their mistresses. Finally, in the small hours, they move out into the quietened town:
now all Abroad
Is hush’d and silent, nor the Rumbling noise
Of Coach or Cart, or smoaky Link-Boys call
Is heard; but Universal silence Reigns: . . .
And Homeward each his Course with steady step
Unerring steer’d, of Cares and Coin bereft.
This is a wonderfully tender imitation of the final lines of Paradise Lost, in which Adam and Eve, ejected from the garden, “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way.” In contrast, the poet and his boon companions move “with steady step/Unerring” (Gay’s italics touch the point of significant difference). Unlike Adam and Eve, pensive over the new, more arduous, world they must enter, Gay’s drinkers are “of Cares . . . bereft”. For the time being, they blithely enjoy the “Happiness Terrestrial…to mortal Man/With copious Hand by bounteous Gods bestow’d”. “Wine” playfully echoes the diction of Paradise Lost, but it also sincerely celebrates the power of wine to offer us a taste, no matter how brief, of paradise regained.