John Gay's Trivia; Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London

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Pedestrian Pastoral in Gay's Trivia

Joel E. Salt

Jonathan Swift said that style means the "proper words in their proper places" and one wonders if there are not proper words for proper places when it comes to describing places and spaces in literature. Donald Siebert, in "Swift's Fiat Odor: The Excremental Re-Vision," mentions the foul odor that is so present in Swift's London poems. Swift's poems succeeds because that London space contains this odor: "smelling is coupled with seeing as the two indispensable aids in knowing urban geography" (Siebert). Carole Fabricant says, "excrement, then, was very much a fact of life for Swift: his landscape was literally as well as linguistically full of it" and the presence of an olfactory space in the place of London was essential in understanding that space.

The space of London, is also the smell of London (as Meshon mentioned in his presentation about Smells in Gay).

For John Gay in Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London there will again be proper words for the proper places. The smells are present in Gay as well, but where Gay comes to exact meaning in his London is the pastoral vocabulary used to describe the urban space. The poem follows Virgil's (the premier pastoral poet, besides his Greek counterpart, Theocritus) Eclogues and Arthur Wietzman ("Eighteenth-Century Luncan - Urban Paradise or Fallen City?") calls Gay's Trivia an "experiment with the city pastoral … The charming, artificial, and mythic style of the Virgilian and Theocritan pastoral as tempered by Renaissance poets is used as a counterpoint to the reality of Augustan London."

The vast changes in London space - via class re-configurations, polarised social space, polemical politics, mass urbanisation, etc. - required a re-imagining of the (new) London topography. Whyman says London was changing from a "compact traditional city to a rambling heterogeneous metropolis" (Introduction 4) and due to the class segregation "gender and class relations were dramatically visible on the streets" (Introduction 5) and the seperation - the "other" - for Gay is not defined by economic forces (overtly, at any rate), but by motional ones.

The result, then, is a pastoral enclosure (though the conventional pastoral morality is subverted in the mocking mode) contained between in a triangle with the Strand as the base, between Charing Cross and St Clement Danes. The east side is Drury lane, the west St Martin's Lane, with the apex at seven dials (Introduction 5). Wietzman notes "London was a fount of pleasure and appreciated accordingly. Only in the city could one find in walking distance the playhouse, the brothel, the royal court, the mall, the tavern, and the fashionable drawing rooms" (italics mine). Following the streets, a 5-sided polygon fits more precisely, though the "triangle" is easily seen (by taking the three short sides and changing it to one side, from St. Clement Danes to Seven Dials):


Urban Pastoral
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This creates a pastoral enclosure (see Andrew Ettin Literature and the Pastoral) that functions in a way not dissimilar to Northrop Frye's "garrison" (See The Bush Garden), where the garrison holds a collective "mentality" that is self-affirming in its plurality. The motionally superior are unwelcome in the pedestrian paradise: in Book II Gay writes

Though Expedition bids, yet never stray
Where no rang'd Posts defend the rugged Way,
Here laden Carts with thundering Waggons meet,
Wheels clash with Wheels, and bar the narrow street

These men are "barb'rous" who drive coaches, and will eventually be "doom'd in a Hackney Horse the Town to range." Wheeled transport, powered by horses and not humans, intrudes upon the pastoral. They are dangerous to pedestrians and reckless; they are the "other," and Gay would rather them expelled to the town (a more "normal" pastoral). Walking takes on the normative mode of travel, and the coaches are dangerous to pedestrians (and not the other way around, where pedestrians inconvenience wagons).

Other profane characters in the pedestrian world include those "Beaus" who have

Canes with Amber tipt produce,
Be theirs for empty Show, but thine for Use.
In gilded Chariots while they loll at ease,
And lazily insure a Life's Disease.


The hearty country constitution (another staple of rustic literature) is here applied to the pedestrian, who gains from excercise associated with walking. The "Beau" is false, and is "other," and as such, has no place in the standard enclosure with the "prudent walker." The prudent walker - well equiped with shoes and coats and canes - is also superior to those who are powered by man (and not animals) in "late-invented Chairs;" those chaired people are are powered, however, by different men. Self-sufficiency (i.e. just like the enclosure) seems to be the key to belonging to the garrison of the London pedestrian enclosure. The enclosure includes all things urban pedestrian: shop keepers as well as prostitutes.

The idle rich are portrayed negatively and are "others." It is tempting to say this is based on class, as only those rich enough to afford alternative modes of travel are able to use coaches or chairs. For Gay, however, what seperates them is not their social class but the potential effects of their social class: Gay apologizes in the introduction to his poem that "The Criticks may see by this Poem, that I walk on foot, which probably may save me from their Envy." Gay understands that those who have upper class mobility have, as it were, upper class mobility. (See Pepys' Diary - Kurt mentioned Pepys tracks his upward social mobility by noting the better types of travel he could afford to get around London). The dichotomy is not rich/poor - but a potential by product of the rich/poor - the motional/motive difference (motive forces have a tradition of class position - see Wolfgang schivelbusch's The Railway Journey) is between the idel rich and the active poor; and Gay, who himself was fairly liminal in his economic standing chose to walk, though most likely he would have been able to afford other types of transport.

What the pastoral excludes are those who lay outside the boundaries: those who cannot simply walk the streets or are too far away from to easily get to down-town London. Gay creates an urban pastoral in the city centre: the marginalised liminal spaces of suburbia are not a part of it; the outer city is too far to walk to and thus outside the boundaries of the pedestrian space of Trivia.

See also Sven Armens, John Gay Social Critic. pp. 85-87 for a good explanation of the walker as free to return to the country (i.e. the pastoral enclsoure) while the driver is doomed to re-circulate the maze of London with no hope of escape.

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