John Gay's Trivia


Streets and Snobbery

Gay introduces his Trivia with a quotation from Virgil, which is translated as "Where are you footing it, Moeris? to town? This trackway leads there." Gay then goes on to comment on his own walking, "which probably may save [him] from their Envy." The "they" here refers to critics who might envy his writing but not his means of conveyance.   Arguably, they could also refer to anyone who is travels by carriage instead of walking.

Throughout his poem, Gay attempts to defend those who walk, by choice or otherwise, and condemns those who are physically removed from the streets. His descriptions of these two forms of transportation reinforces the class differences by literally placing the carriage riding aristocrats above the poor walkers. The people who walk the streets become outsiders, condemned to walk because of poverty. Gay does not address why he himself is walking; instead, he promotes walking as a virtuous choice. Is one then to assume that it is poverty that leaves him situated below the others, forcing him to tread on the ground?

Gay turns nostalgic for a time when people walked and "Coaches and Chariots yet unfashion'd lay" (48). He goes on to describe the change in women caused by this evolution in travel:

Then the proud Lady trip'd along the Town,
And tuck'd up Petticoats secur'd her Gown.
Her rosie Cheek with distant Visits glow'd,
And Exercise unartful Charms bestow'd;
But since in braided Gold her Foot is bound,
And a long trailing Manteau sweeps the Ground,
Her Shoe disdains the Street; the lazy Fair
With narrow Step affects a limping Air. (48)

Gay sets up this opposition between the two modes of transportation, praising those who walk on the streets and condemning those who "disdain the street."  However, for Gay not all streets are created equal. He mocks the vanity of those who choose to walk on fashionable promenades, such as the Mall.

The Ladies gayly dress’d, the Mall adorn
With various Dyes, and paint the sunny Morn;
The wanton Fawns with frisking Pleasure range,
And chirping Sparrows greet the welcome Change:
* Not that their Minds with greater Skill are fraught,
Endu’d by Instinct, or by Reason taught,
The Seasons operate on every Breast;
’Tis hence that Fawns are brisk, and Ladies drest. (49)

He is mocking their vanity, not their choice to walk the Mall, but his views on the Mall show that he favours some forms of walking over others. After taking notice of Gay's comments about the Mall, I decided to look at it more closely.  When I did, I discovered yet another way to read spaces for class distinction.

The Mall

The Mall is a gravel walkway built for strolling and socialising. It is located on the north border of St. James' Park and is a half mile in length. Originally, the mall was created to play a French game called Palle Maille where one had to hit a ball through a suspended ring with a mallet. The Mall itself and the street Pall Mall get their names from this game. The street is located north of the Mall, which did not allow carriages or horses¹.

If we return to Foucault’s definition of heterotopia, we see that Gay’s description of the streets, even a polite street like the Mall, can fit this definition quite nicely. Though the Mall is frequented by people from all levels of society, it is not as exalted as the Ring in Hyde Park, which allowed aristocracy to display their carriages. As Walford mentions, "equipages at that time became more and more the fashion, and to be seen afoot in the Mall was by many considered the height of vulgarity."¹  When compared to the Ring, the Mall becomes a heterotopia because it accepts those who cannot go to the Ring.  

The French game of Palle Maille which gave the street its name.


A picture of the Mall on the Horwood map.



Works Cited

¹ Walford, Edward. 'The Mall and Spring Gardens.' Old and New London: Volume 4 (1878). pp. 74-85."The Mall" Date accessed: 12 February 2009.