1 March 2021 Susannah

Alexander Pope & On Mr Gay

Fables of John Gay

One of my favourite epitaphs is in the form of a poem, and you can find it in Westminster Abbey. It’s on the tomb of John Gay, the playwright whose most famous work is The Beggar’s Opera, poet and wit, who died in 1732. His friend and fellow poet Alexander Pope wrote the following to go on the tomb:

On Mr Gay by Alexander Pope

Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
In wit, a man; simplicity, a child:
With native humour tempering virtuous rage,
Form’d to delight at once and lash the age:
Above temptation in a low estate,
And uncorrupted, even among the great:
A safe companion, and an easy friend,
Unblamed through life, lamented in thy end.
These are thy honours! not that here thy bust
Is mix’d with heroes, or with kings thy dust;
But that the worthy and the good shall say,
Striking their pensive bosoms-Here lies Gay.

The poem is followed by an inscription written by Gay himself:

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

Gay’s funeral was a lavish affair and Alexander Pope was one of the pall bearers. The monument, you can see a great photo here, is an impressive one and was paid for by his friends the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry.

It’s quite something to have a poetic epitaph written by one of the greatest poets of the 18th century (Pope is best remembered today for his marvellously satirical The Rape of the Lock), and Pope has nothing but good to say of his departed friend. John Gay sounds a paragon of all the virtues.

I think this is a beautiful poem, with its rather unusual word order and wonderful musicality in its varied rhythm and rhyme. And even though it is describing grey weather, it is such a wonderfully positive poem ending as it does with the words “unvanquished sun”.

November in the northern hemisphere can be a challenging month. It is not cheered by the festivities of December, and because it is early winter, the months of cold and darkness seem to stretch on forever. But Freeman finds a beauty in the season and notes the way colour creeps into the “leaden interfolds” of the clouds and captures the movement of the “huge great clouds” before rain. He makes us see the varied tones of grey – leaden, silver, deep grey – and makes us feel that they can be perhaps even more beautiful than the brighter rose and amber of a sunnier day.

Listen to a reading of it by TP Burrow, or try a sung version.

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Featured image credit- John Gay Fables, https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/author/JOHN-GAY
Body image credit- Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6362912

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