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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

John Gay

John Gay - extracts

John Gay 1688-1732
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

The intimate friend of Pope and Swift is best know by his charming and instructive Fables. He was born at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and belonged to the old family of the Le Gays of that county. His father, reduced in means, apprenticed him to a silk mercer in the Strand, London, in whose employment he did not long remain. The first of his poems, Rural Sports, appeared in 1711. In the following year he became secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth, and he served for a short time as secretary to the English embassy in Hanover. His next work was his Shepherd's Week, in Six Pastorals, in which he ridicules the sentimentality of the "pastorals" of his own and preceding age. It contains much naturalness as well as humour, and it was the precursor of Crabbe's rural sketches. In 1726 he published the most successful of his works, the Beggar's Opera - the idea of which had been suggested to him by the Dean of St. Patrick's. It was received with unbounded applause and it originated the (so-called) English opera, which for a time supplanted the Italian.

The Fables first appeared in 1726. They were supplemented afterwards by others, and the volume was dedicated to the young Duke of Cumberland, famous in after years by his suppression of the Highland rising of 1745. Gay's death, which happened suddenly, called forth the sincere laments of his devoted friends Swift and Pope. The former, in his letters, frequently refers to his loss with deep feeling; and Pope has characterised him as :-

"Of manners gentle, of affections mild -
In wit a man, simplicity a child."

Of his Fables - the best in the language - one of the most interesting is the well-known Hare and Many Friends, in which he seems to record some of his own expressions. The Court of Death, suggested probably by Milton's fine passage in the Paradise Lost, is one of his most forcible. When the principal Diseases have severally advanced their claims to preeminence, Death calls upon Intemperance :-

"All spoke their claim, and hoped the wand.
Now expectation hushed the band,
When thus the monarch from the throne:
Merit was ever modest known -
What! no physician speak his right!
None here? but fees their toils requite.
Let then Intemperance take the wand,
Who fills with gold their jealous hand.
You, Fever, Gout, and all the rest,
(Whom wary men, as foes, detest)
Forego your claim. No more pretend -
Intemperance is esteemed a friend.
He shares their mirth, their social joys,
And as a courted guest destroys.
The charge on him must justly fall
Who finds employment for you all."

It is in the following fable that Gay especially satirises the sanguinary diet :-

"Pythagoras rose at early dawn,
By soaring meditation drawn,
To breathe the fragrance of the day,
Through flow'ry fields he took his way.
In musing contemplation warm,
His steps milled him to a farm,
Where on the ladder's topmoil round,
A peasant stood. The hammer's sound
Shook the weak barn. 'Say, friend, what care
Calls for thy honest labour there?'

"The clown, with surly voice replies,
'Vengeance aloud for justice cries.
This kite, by daily rapine fed,
My hens' annoy, my turkeys' dread,
At length his forfeit life hath paid.
See on the wall his wings displayed,
Here nailed, a terror to his kind,
My fowls shall future fafety find,
My yard the thriving poultry feed,
And my barn's refuse fat the breed.'

" 'Friend, says the Sage, the doom is wise -
For public good the murd'rer dies.
But if these tyrants of the air
Demand a sentence fo severe,
Think how the glutton-man devours;
What bloody feasts regale his hours!
O impudence of power and might!

Thus to condemn a hawk or kite,
When thou perhaps, carnivorous sinner,
Had'st pullets yesterday for dinner!

" 'Hold!' cried the clown, with passion heated,
'Shall kites and men alike be treated?
When heaven the world with creatures stored,
Man was ordain'd their sovereign lord.'
'Thus tyrants boast,' the Sage replied,
'Whose murders spring from power and pride.
Own then this man-like kite is slain
Thy greater luxury to suftain -
For pPetty rogues submit to fate,
That great ones may enjoy their state." (1)

This is not the only apologue in which the rhyming moralist exposes at once teh inconsistency and the injustice of the human animal who, himself choosing to live by slaughter, yet hypocritically stigmatises with the epithets "cruel" and "bloodthirsty" those animals whom Nature has evidently designed to be predaceous. In The Shepherd's Dog and the Wolf he represents the former upbraiding the ravisher of the sheepfolds for attacking "a weak, defenceless kind" :-

" 'Friend, says the Wolf, the matter weigh;
Nature designed us beasts of prey;
As such, when hunger finds a treat,
"Tis necessary Wolves should eat.
If, mindful of the bleating weal,
Thy bossom burn with real zeal,
Hence, and thy tyrant lord befeech -
To him repeat the moving speech
A wolf eats sheep but now and then -
Ten thousands are devoured by men!
An open foe may prove a curse,
But a pretended friend is worse.' "

In The Philosopher and the Pheasants the same truth is conveyed with equal force :-

"Drawn by the music of the groves,
Along the winding gloom he roves.
From tree to tree, the warbling throats
Prolong the sweet alternate notes.
But where he passed he terror threw;
The song broke short - the warblers flew;
The thrushes chattered with affright,
And nightingales abhorred his sight;
All animals before him ran,
To shun the hateful sight of man.
'Whence is this dread of every creature?
Fly they our figure or our nature?'
As thus he walked in musing thought,
His ear imperfect accents caught.
With cautious slep he nearer drew,
By the thick shade concealed from view.
High on the branch a Pheasant stood,
Around her all the listening brood:
Proud of the blessings of her nest,
She thus a mother's care expressed:
No dangers here shall circumvent:
Within the woods enjoy content.
Sooner the hawk or vulture trust
Than man, of animals the worst.
In him ingratitude you find -
A vice peculiar to the kind.
The sheep, whose annual fleece is dyed
To guard his health, and serve his pride,
Forced from his fold and native plain,
Is in the cruel shmbles slain.
The swarms who, with industrious skill,
His hives with wax and honey fill,
In vain whole summer days employed,
Their stores are sold, their race destroyed.
What tribute from the Goose is paid?
Does not her wing all science aid?
Does it not lovers' hearts explain,
And drudge to raise the merchant's gain?
What now rewards this general use?
He takes the quills, and eats the goose!' "

* * * * * * *

In another parable Gay, in some sort, gives the victims of the Shambles their revenge :-

"Against an elm a sheep was tied;
The butcher's knife in blood was dyed -
The patient flock, in silent fright,
From far beheld the horrid sight.
A savage boar, who near them stood,
Thus mocked to scorn the fleecy brood :-
'All cowards should be served like you.
See, see, your murderer is in view:
With purple hands and reeking knife,
He strips the skin yet warm with life;
Your quartered sires, your bleeding dams,
The dying bleat of harmless lambs,
Call for revenge. O stupid race!
The heart that wants revenge is base.“
'I grant.' an ancient ram replies,
'We bear no terror in our eyes.
Yet think us not of soul so tame,
Which no repeated wrongs inflame -
Insensible of every ill,
Because we want thy tusks to kill -
Know, those who violence pursue,
Give to themselves the vengeance due,

For in these massacres we find
The two chief plagues that waste mankind -
Our skin supplies the wrangling bar;
It wakes their slumbering sons to war.
And well Revenge may rest contented,
Since drums and parchment were invented.' “ (2)



    1. Fable xxxvi., Pythagoras and the Countryman. This fable of Gay may have been suggested by that of Aesop - preserved by Plutarch - who represents a wolf watching a number of shepherds eating sheep, and saying to himself - "If I were doing what you are now about, what an uproar youwould make!" See also the instructive fable of La Fontaine - L'Homme et la Couleuvre, one of the finest in the whole twelve Books (Livre x., 2), in which the Cow and Ox accuse the base ingratitude of Man for the cruel neglect, and, finally, for the barbarous slaughter of his fellow-labourers. The Cow, appealed to by the Adder replies :-
      [quotation in French followed]
    2. The Wild Boar and the Ram. For admirable rebukes of human arrogance, see The Elephant and the Bookseller and The Man and the Flea.



Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index