John Gay was born in Barnstaple, Devon into an aristocratic but impoverished family. He was educated at the local grammar school under the headmastership of the classicist, Robert Luck, before being apprenticed to a cloth merchant in London. This did not suit him however and he returned to Barnstaple where his uncle, a nonconformist minister continued to educate him.
In 1712 he obtained the position of secretary in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth, the widow of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, who was beheaded after his failed rebellion. She had married Charles Cornwallis, Ist Lord of the Admiralty, in 1688 three years after her husband’s death. Gay was already emerging as a poet and under her brief patronage he was able to devote himself to writing. He became good friends with Alexander Pope to whom he dedicated one of his early poems, Rural Sports, in 1713. After leaving the Duchess of Monmouth’s household, he went on to produce many more poems, one of the best regarded being Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London in 1716. He also wrote for the six year-old Prince William, afterwards the Duke of Cumberland, his famous Fifty-One Fables in Verse, written in clear and lively verse.
Gay’s greatest success, however, was The Beggar’s Opera, a ballad opera first performed in 1728, which caricatured Sir Robert Walpole, a Whig and Great Britain’s first prime minister. It ran for 62 consecutive performances with the leading actress Lavinia Fenton, playing Polly Peachum as its star. She later eloped with and subsequently married Charles Powlett, the 3rd Duke of Bolton. The sequel Polly, written a year later, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for being too risque, probably at the vengeful behest of Walpole. This was later published by subscription, an unfortunate consequence of which was the dismissal from court of the Duchess of Queensbury for enlisting subscribers in the palace.
Gay’s poetry, which encompasses a wide range of themes has a light-hearted, often irreverent flavour in keeping with his own behaviour which was at times profligate - he had extravagant tastes and was careless with money, losing most of his earnings in the South Sea Bubble. He was widely admired during his lifetime and his rhyming skills were of high quality. He died of a fever in 1732 and is buried in Westminster Abbey where the epitaph on his tomb reads “Life is a jest, and all things show it, I thought so once and now I know it”. Three of his works, the ballad opera Achilles, a comedy The Distress’d Wife and a farce The Rehearsal at Goatham were published posthumously.