The Works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Æneis. Translated into English verse; by Mr Dryden, 1697.  British Library.


In 1716, Jonathan Swift famously suggested to Alexander Pope that their mutual friend John Gay write “a Newgate Pastoral” set among “the thieves and whores there.”  While the Newgate half of Swift’s phrase of the play has understandably attracted more attention, the play’s effect depends upon its pairing with pastoral.  This is how Gay juxtaposes the deceptions of the very un-innocent denizens of the London Underworld with the innocence associated with the rural world of pastoral.  It is  a genre dating back to the earliest reaches of Western poetics, with the Bucolics or Idylls of Theocritus from the 3rd century BCE perhaps the earliest example.  We could also see its origins, as Raymond Williams argues in The Country and the City, in the Eden of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and, indeed, any story celebrating a Golden Age.


While it is unclear whether Pope ever conveyed this recommendation to Gay, Swift was probably moved to offer it because Gay had already proven himself so deft in exploiting the possibilities of pastoral.  In 1713, he had published Rural Sports (1713); his dedication of the poem to Pope cemented their relationship.  While the poem, strictly speaking, is a riff on Virgil’s Georgics, the poems about farming he wrote after his Pastorals, it is in the same rural neighborhood.  This was followed by The Shepherd’s Week (1714), a brilliant parody of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) that comments wryly on disputes in Gay’s time over pastoral. The poem was a volley in the so-called ‘Pastoral War’ between Pope and his allies on one side, arguing that pastoral was a knowingly-artificial construct of a Golden Age, and Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Thomas Tickell, and others, who called for a more ‘realistic’ pastoral set among English flora and fauna.  Gay’s approach in this conflict was, characteristically, to parody his opponents’ position, illustrating what follows if one showed how real country people talk and act, their uncouth language and lusty desires annotated in a mock-scholarly apparatus that poked fun at the afflatus of modern commentators.  But, in doing so, he also departed from Pope, et. al. in finding real emotive power in the country, both its scenery and its people. We will see a similar complexity and inability to wring pathos even in the lowest and most ironized characters in The Beggar’s Opera.  He followed this with Trivia, also more in the georgic mode than pastoral, but partaking in the same ironizing move of a country genre to the city. 

We see a similar complexity and inability to wring pathos even in the lowest and most ironized characters in The Beggar’s Opera.  They seem the antithesis of pastoral innocence, embodying Lockit’s grim adage that “Lions, Wolves, and Vultures don’t live together in Herds, Droves or Flocks.–Of all Animals of Prey, Man is the only sociable one” (III.ii.).  And yet even in the gritty urban precincts of Newgate, they repeatedly reveal their vulnerabilities, most of all to love and associated bodily pleasures, as when the hard-bitten dealer in stolen goods, Mrs. Trapes, sings a song along these lines set to the pastoral tune, “A Shepherd Kept Sheep” (Air XLVI). Or when Lucy says, “Love is so very whimsical in both Sexes, that it is impossible to be lasting.——But my Heart is particular, and contradicts my own Observation” (III.viii).   She may say this on the verge of poisoning her rival, Polly, who is the closest thing to an innocent shepherdess we have in this Newgate pastoral. And yet if one cannot call Lucy innocent, even if she is driven by jealousy to murder, Gay seems to not want to place her beyond sympathy.   So if Swift meant his recommendation for a “Newgate pastoral” in part as a joke, and Gay certainly exploits the humorous possibilities, he also uses the experimental energy of the attempt to expand the boundaries of pastoral.