The Art of the Eighteenth-Century Flâneur

Brean S. Hammond
University of Nottingham

John Gay’s poem, Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London was originally published in January 1716.   It was the first of that money-conscious author’s works to earn him serious cash.   The printer Bernard Lintot paid him £43 for the copyright, though Alexander Pope estimated the total value of the poem at around £150.   Given the poem’s nature, its commercial success is more than a little surprising.   Trivia, a poem in three books of 282, 590, and 416 lines, respectively, has been republished, accompanied by critical essays, in a volume entitled Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay’s Trivia (1716), edited by Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman (Oxford, 2007).   The poem’s first book sets out the preparations a walker needs to make to negotiate London adequately, and the second and third books take the reader on a day-walk and a night-walk of the city–though anyone who tries to base a walking tour on the specified locations that survive in modern London will soon be as lost as is Gay’s rustic confronted with the Seven Dials, a complicated network of streets radiating from a large sundial erected by Thomas Neal in 1690 in the shape of a six-pointed star (2.73-82).

Amongst his close friends, Trivia was something of a joke because they knew the corpulent Gay to be an unlikely pedestrian.   Gay’s friend, the physician Dr. John Arbuthnot, jesting snidely at the commercial success of Trivia, puts his finger (as all good jokers do) on a serious point: “Gay has gott so much money by his art of walking the streets, that he is ready to sett up with equipage [a carriage and horses].”   Arbuthnot’s point is not merely that the poem has an ambulatory narrator who is an unlikely persona for its author.   It is that this narrator seizes the moral high ground for walking as opposed to other forms of transport.   The poem sets up a clear, almost Orwellian moral schema–LEGS GOOD, WHEELS BAD–according to which the walker has not only a health advantage, but also a clear ethical superiority over those who drive.   Not cushioned from reality by leather and glass, he will take opportunities to disburse charity (let us not enquire whether this is a sequitur):

Proud Coaches pass, regardless of the Moan,
Of Infant Orphans, and the Widow’s Groan;
While Charity still moves the Walker’s Mind, His lib’ral Purse relieves the Lame and Blind.   (2.451-54)

The story behind the acquisition of such assets as coaches does not bear much inspection, The Walker asserts:

See, yon’ bright Chariot on its Braces swing,
With Flanders Mares, and on an arched Spring,
That Wretch, to gain an Equipage and Place,
Betray’d his Sister to a lewd Embrace. (2.573-76)

To Gay’s friends the rhetorical question, “What Walker shall his mean Ambition fix, / On the false Lustre of a Coach and Six?” (2.568-69), had a non-rhetorical answer: John Gay.   Gay’s poem (a product of the luxury economy if ever there was one) has actually enabled him to join the ranks of the rich road hogs that he affects to despise–expressing a paradoxical reading experience to which successive generations of readers testify.

As Brant says laconically, “Trivia is anxious” (109).   Take, for example, the brilliant but queasy passage explaining the etiology of the shoe-blacking trade as deriving from a bastard produced by a liaison between the cod-goddess Cloacina disguised as a “Cinder-Wench,” and a “mortal Scavenger” (2.99-220).   The tonal fluctuations of Gay’s treatment are quite extraordinary, ranging from cynicism to compassion to a queasy jocularity.   Pretending to trace shoe-blacking to its origins enables Gay to play bravura variations on dirt and carbon in justifying arduous occupations such as this one.   It is a “beneficial Art” (2.152) superior to “the canting Art” (2.143) of beggary, providing an antidote to orphanism.   The commodities of a luxury occupation are mystified through the agency of the mock-heroic:

Each Power contributes to relieve the Poor:
With the strong Bristles of the mighty Boar
Diana forms his Brush; the God of Day
A Tripod gives, amid the crouded Way
To raise the dirty Foot, and ease his Toil;
Kind Neptune fills his Vase with fetid Oil
Prest from th’ enormous Whale.   (2.157-63)

Overall, this attempt to re-fashion Ovidian transformation to meet the demands of urban “georgic” is doing something almost contradictory.   Georgic celebrates the importance of work, particularly agricultural, in the building of nations.   Gay’s passage has an entirely different social agenda, justifying a luxury service by occluding the hardships of the toil and making it the divine answer to a beggar’s prayers.

Given the generic and other difficulties of the poem, a book of essays dedicated to trying to understand it is very welcome.   The volume contains a well annotated edition of the poem, un-modernized and using the first (1716) edition as copy-text, but also includes the above-cited Cloacina passage (2.99-220) that was added to later editions of the poem, as well as later-augmented versions of Gay’s wonderful Index: “Father, the Happiness of a Child who knows his own” (208); “Coaches–Kept by Coxcombs and Pimps” (207).   It would be helpful if the editors would make up their minds whether the Cloacina material was added in 1720, as said by Brant on page 111, or in 1730, as the note to the passage says on page 227.   The text is accurately and cleanly reproduced; however, I spotted one small error: line 1.226 should end with “fed,” not “feed.”   Annotating is a notoriously subjective business, depending on judgements about who will use the edition and what they will need to know.   Gay’s poem is helpfully annotated here, with much valuable and interesting information supplied, but there are a few points worth raising in a review such as this.   At 1.3, we meet the line “How jostling Crouds, with Prudence, to decline.”   In contemporary English, one does not “decline” a crowd.   Eighteenth-century usage such as this should be glossed, and it is not always.   There are no comments on versification at all.   On occasion, one is not fully convinced that the editors have got to the bottom of a textual crux.   What do the following lines mean, exactly?

Church-Monuments foretell the changing Air;
Then Niobe dissolves into a Tear,
And sweats with secret grief; (1.167-69)

The note tells us who Niobe was, as it must, and sources the story to Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI.165-312.   What are “Church-Monuments,” though?   If they are, as the OED says, tombs/sepulchres or statues/carvings, how would they be indicators of changing barometric pressure?   Why does a reference to the Niobe myth immediately follow them?   Does Gay have some specific statue of Niobe in mind?   If so, it is not likely to have been a church monument.   I have no solution to offer, but wish the editors had considered the question.

I have a few cavils with some of the specific information.   The first edition of Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the Citye of London was not published in 1711 as stated in the note to 1.121, but in the late 1680s.   It was disappointing to read, in the note to 2.562, that John Dennis was “the author of plays, poems, and criticism, now almost all forgotten except for their ill-nature.”   Specialists know that Dennis is one of the most, if not actually the most, important critics of the century, and it would be useful to start spreading that word around to non-specialists.   It is strange that the editors do not gloss Three Hours After Marriage (1717) here, the play in which Gay did most to offend Dennis.   I am doubtful that the words “scudding Lurcher,” in 3.64, really allude to a little-known play by John Fletcher and James Shirley called The Nightwalker (1633) in which there is a thief called Tom Lurcher.   On the other hand, it does seem likely that the word “scow’ring” (3.314) refers to Thomas Shadwell’s 1691 comedy The Scowrers. Glossing “Augusta” in 3.145, it is surprising that the editors do not refer to the deployment of that classicizing appellation for London in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis (1667).   There is actually very little information about debts that Gay might have owed to his recently dead and living contemporaries, though the annotation of classical sources is thorough.   (The knowledge of Latin apparent in this book might have extended to correcting rus in urbis on page 110.)   More annotation of Gay’s poem in its own time might have been apposite; being informed, in the note to “Foot-ball” (2.348), that the Football Association was founded in 1863 is, by contrast, quite inapposite.

I re-read the poem before turning to the essays, a course of action I recommend to other users of the book.   For me, the essays formed themselves into groupings: Aileen Ribeiro’s piece on dress in the poem (did she get as cross as I did on her behalf in seeing her name misspelt several times in the introduction?) and Susanna Morton Braund’s on classical antecedents, analyzing intelligently and succinctly its allusions to classical poetry, are especially valuable in helping us to understand Trivia‘s generic mix.   To Braund, it is a “didactic mock-epic” (156), combining epic and georgic with elements of the epic offshoots satire and pastoral.   Gay’s major contribution to English letters was, after all, to produce ironically distanced generic ragouts, which is Trivia. Philip Carter’s piece is more formalistic: his “Faces and Crowds: Biography in the City” is concerned with the negative appraisals of the walker-narrator that many critics have expressed, but he also struggles with making anything palpable out of this undercharacterised, shadowy figure.   Margaret Hunt writes con spirito on Trivia‘s intense fear and loathing for women.   This is one of two essays (Tim Hitchcock’s is the other) that has a negative overall take on the poem.   It is very enjoyable, but perhaps not ideally balanced in what it has to say about the poem’s representation of gender.

Several contributors start from the (correct) premise that this is an elusive and puzzling poem, going on to investigate the nature of the puzzle and testing methodologies that might solve it.   The key question underlying the debate is that of the text’s status as social-historical evidence.   Everyone agrees that its “literariness” prevents it from operating as documentary evidence in any straightforward way.   Can its nature be better appreciated by multidisciplinary methods of analysis?   Brant’s thought-provoking essay asks an interestingly open-ended set of questions, especially about the poem’s treatment of dirt.   On mud, she is excellent, suggesting both material and psychoanalytic possibilities for interpreting its salience and pervasiveness.   From the perspective of methodology and theoretical underpinning, perhaps the most interesting stand-offs occur between the remaining four essays: Hitchcock on Gay’s representation of poverty, Mark Jenner on plague, Whyman on “Sharing Public Spaces,” and Alison Stenton’s essay, “Spatial Stories: Movement in the City and Cultural Geography.”

Where Whyman uses contemporary private papers and correspondence as a “control experiment” to determine how accurate the poem is about living conditions in London, she finds that it is, broadly speaking, a reliable documentary record if perhaps exaggerated in its catalogue of city perils.   Hitchcock, using trial records and asking questions about social policy, charges Gay with contributing to stereotypes of urban poverty that were, in fact, wholly misleading, resulting in mistaken decisions about how to deal with the indigent and petty-criminal poor.   The assumption here is that the criminal records adumbrated tell the true story, which the literary artifact has ideological reasons for falsifying.   Context sorts out text!   One feels instinctively that this credits Gay’s poem with more cultural power than it would have had.   My own view is that its representation, for instance, of the whore-figure in Book 3, deprecated by Margaret Hunt, takes its place amongst various novelizations of that theme all of which contributed towards an understanding that whores were not in the main responsible for their own predicaments, leading to the institution of Magdalene Hospitals and other, doubtless limited but not altogether wrong-headed, social responses.   Jenner’s piece by implication interrogates Hitchcock differently.   He pits Gay’s reputation for social realism manifested in, for example, his depiction of the stinking open sewer that was Fleet Ditch, against Daniel Defoe’s non-fictional account of the Fleet sometimes presented as a source.   He argues that Defoe’s account was also rhetorical–literary, if you will–exaggerating what it had to say because it wanted to contribute decisively and polemically to debates going on about plague and how to deal with it.   For Jenner, the relationship between text and context is more dynamic, less positivist, than it is for Hitchcock.   It might also seem a little more beside the point, because plague discussions do not occur until a few years after the publication of Trivia and Gay has little to say about plague: a silence that Jenner wishes to make speak.   Stenton’s essay looks at Trivia through the lens of cultural geography.   She reminds us of cultural geography’s foundational assumptions–space is produced space–and goes on to see what kind of production Trivia is.   However, it rather resists her analytical techniques and she is driven back upon exfoliating the knowledge that the text itself possesses.   The poem in the end produces for her “no clear picture of the city” (70), but on her own assumptions of transformation, neither should it.   The task is to say what kind of transformation Gay has brought about.

Trivia possibly resists that kind of analysis because, unlike Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-43), it is not a thorough-going imaginative transformation of place, but a patchy and occasional one.   Perhaps that is why it is possible both to praise its documentary realism and find it seriously distorted–opposed reactions presented by the contributors to the volume.   This leads me to my sense of what the volume lacks.   I wish there had been an essay reading Trivia against other works written by Gay’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries.   How does it compare to MacFlecknoe (1682) and The Dunciad as a poem about London?   How far is the portrait of Cloacina rising from the stinking ooze of Fleet Ditch, “With wither’d Turnip Tops her Temples crown’d” (2.196), in dialogue with Father Thames rising, “his tresses drop’d with dews,” (2.329) in Pope’s Windsor-Forest (1713) and the muddy pseudo-Olympics of The Dunciad Book 2?   A comparative approach made through cultural geography could have yielded exciting results, as well as, on a more pedestrian level, contributing to the annotations.

This is in many respects a courageous publishing venture.   Trivia must be on very few academic syllabi, despite one’s feeling from reading this volume that it should be on many more.   At times in the notes and especially in the introduction, the editors seem understandably uncertain about who is out there reading.   The tone is not entirely assured.   I wish we were not told quite so often that Gay “lost all his money” in the South Sea Bubble; as David Nokes’s Oxford DNB article makes clear, much of the crisis was averted thanks to Pope’s intervention.   Factual matters aside, there is a somewhat defensive, not to say jittery, account of multidisciplinarity (preferred to interdisciplinarity): “assembling a group of writers does not ensure their thought processes will interact; it may be the reader who takes on the role of cross-fertilizing different approaches” (20).   Oxford University Press and the editors have taken some risks in that assemblage.   They deserve to be paid off by getting readers talking about the poem and this absorbing collection of essays.


1. W.H. Irving, John Gay: Favorite of the Wits (Durham, 1940), 20.