A poet "of a lower order", according to Samuel Johnson - and one must insist that the context makes this a comment about quality rather than, as David Nokes would have it, decorum. Despite the remarkably widespread appeal of his best-known work, John Gay has always been the Lepidus of the post-Scriblerian triumvirate he forms with Pope and Swift, with even his independent authorship of The Beggar's Opera brought by some contemporaries into question. This biography - affording him what it makes clear he rarely had in life, his own space - will be the more welcome to students of the circle for completing the trilogy of modern one-volume biographies inaugurated by Maynard Mack's life of Pope and continued by David Nokes's own deservedly prize-winning Jonathan Swift: a Hypocrite Reversed.
Nokes is well qualified as a biographer to track his subject through the minefields of literary attribution, and has done his duty thoroughly in a search for new documentary evidence, with a particularly strong reconstruction of Gay's Devonshire family and educational background. He is also a lucid and assured guide to the intricacies of the politics and the literary politics of the period.
The combination of Gay's perpetually unfulfilled court career with his adventures in the literary marketplace generates a rich narrative around many of the major events of the first decades of the 18th century, with Gay very immediately involved with the arrival of the Hanoverian court in 1714 and - unfortunately for him - with the South-Sea collapse of 1720. Gay breathes in a less rarified atmosphere than his friend and sometime collaborator Pope, and his life correspondingly offers a more immediate sense of the texture of early 18th-century culture, with its streetlife, its fads such as Italian opera, and perhaps especially its fashions (Gay's affinity for details of clothing, textiles and accessories usefully highlighted by the account of his period as a draper's apprentice).
As is signalled by the guide-book format of Trivia - the Art of Walking the Streets of London by one who himself "walks on foot" - Gay's perspective is consciously that of an insider. The apocalyptic intensity of Pope's rejection of contemporary culture in the Dunciad is not of course without its own ambivalence; but with Gay we are rather in the fully implicated world of the weekend columnist. As Nokes puts it, it is with "a designer air" that Gay hints at the moral emptiness of the world he describes, "presenting his own poems as modish accessories to the world they mock".
In the 1990s it is perhaps this designer pose which speaks as eloquently across the centuries as the more traditionally "timeless" qualities of the Fables (some of which in their pacifist leanings have themselves accrued an extra historical piquancy in the fact of their address to the boy one day to be known as Butcher Cumberland).
Despite the contextual interest of Gay's own concerns and of the conditions of their publication or presentation, and despite the political furore generated by The Beggar's Opera and the banning of its sequel Polly, Gay's works themselves have a quality which tends to shake off historical gloss. Gay himself liked to disclaim political intention, insisting - somewhat disingenuously no doubt - in the preface to Polly that "it hath ever been my utmost ambition (if that word may be used upon this occasion) to lead a quiet and inoffensive life".
If a biographer is legitimately preoccupied in the early farce The What D'Ye Call It by such questions as Addison's reponse to the parody of his own Cato, context can do little to enhance one's enjoyment of such surreal features as the "Chorus of Sighs and Groans", or of the lovers disguised as an Egyptian mummy and a crocodile in Three Hours after Marriage.
Whether because of a sense of some imbalance between the critical and biographical aspects of his subject, or because of a lack of definition in Gay himself, Nokes seems here to have a less sure touch than with Swift. This richly researched biography puts itself at the outset on the defensive in relation to modern critical preoccupations, positing Gay as himself a living example of textual indeterminacy. Thereafter it tends to hover, over-insistently, around a few central theses, the chief and most persuasive of which challenges, through a detailed consideration of especially his financial management, the stereotyping of Gay among his friends as a feckless innocent, an "Augustan Peter Pan".
It was no doubt necessary to include a discussion of gender reversals and latent homosexuality, however unsatisfactory modern categorisation of these issues may be for the 18th century; but these subsidiary and more speculative theses about matters of gender and class are to my mind less effectively presented, too often seeming driven by the need to make Gay interesting rather than by the material in hand.
As a glance at the footnotes makes plain, the best evidence we have for Gay's adult life comes from the letters of the whole Pope-Swift-Gay circle, letters often literally shared among them. "When I writ to one I writ to all", as Swift declared. Letters, detached from their point of origin and direction, can be problematic forms of evidence. Johnson's caveat - "there is, indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse" - frequently springs to mind as one reads the correspondence of Pope and his circle; but the temptations are there for the critic as much as for the letter-writer. Many may want to dissent from the reading offered here of the chemistry of these relationships. We have here a Gay who is cannily rather than naively disposed towards dependency, one who has - in a strikingly unfriendly image for a biographer - "internalised the beggar's technique of exploiting the society he affected to flatter". Swift's view of him is presented as ungenerous and inflexibly stereotypic, "reduced to a few obsessively reiterated motifs, which bore precious little relevance to the reality of Gay's life".
Deviousness of motive is so regularly attributed to Pope in their relations that it comes as little surprise to find Pope portrayed, in Gay's serious illness, as if acting out a part scripted in the "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift": unable to feel close to Gay in success, but happy to bombard the invalid with letters of condolence evincing a "morbid relish", even a "necrophiliac excitement". A "profession of friendship" indeed - and one that others besides myself may ultimately be reluctant to substitute for a recognition of the efforts of those separated by distance and time to preserve self as well as affection, and the teasing as well as the warmth of an old familiar camaraderie.
Given the history of the matter, it will be an especially sad irony if responses to this life of Gay end up focusing on his biographer's view of Pope. Despite a number of false moves, this must ultimately be welcomed as a rich and authoritative work which will bring to students as well as scholars a refreshingly different and accessible angle on early 18th-century literary life, a figure to bridge the gap between Grub Street and Augustanism.
Penelope Wilson is a fellow and senior tutor, New Hall, Cambridge.
John Gray: A Profession of Friendship
Author - David Nokes
ISBN - 0 19 812971 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 563