A Pantomime and Masquerade: Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716)
“I have passed all my days in London”, boasted Charles Lamb to William Wordsworth in 1801, and “formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature. . . . I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life.” Immersing himself in “all the bustle and wickedness”, “ the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles”, “the crowds, the very dirt and mud”, the poet and essayist proclaimed London to be “a pantomime and a masquerade — all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me without a power of satiating me”.
Written almost a century before Lamb fashioned himself as a man in the crowd of modernity, John Gay’s (1685–1732) Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London also pits city against country. It begins with a question cribbed from Virgil’s Eclogues, the textual wellspring that would feed many of British Romanticism’s idyll currents: “non tu in triviis, indocte, solebas, stridenti, miserum, stipula, disperdere, carmen?” Delivered by Menalcas as a slight to his fellow shepherd Damœtas’ attempts at song, these lines are translated in the Loeb as: “Wasn’t it you, you dunce, that at the crossroads used to murder a sorry tune on a scrannel straw?” By opening Trivia with the image of a shepherd bungling melodies on a poorman’s panpipes at a “crossroads” — trivium, in the Latin, literally a place where three roads meet — Gay performs a rhetorical maneuver akin to Lamb refusing the peaks above Grasmere for London’s squalid Arcadia. If Virgil’s third eclogue, with its gloating interlocutors, intimates that something is rotten in bucolic paradise, Gay seemingly sets out to prove that there is something analogously pastoral about seedy London. Yet this passionate urban shepherd will neither make a fold of Spitalfields, nor plant his crook in fallen Covent Garden, but instead, with an eye toward satire, relish the ironies offered by his mock georgic form.
Burlesquing the Augustan era’s fixation on classical tradition, as his fellow Scriblerian Alexander Pope did in The Rape of the Lock (1712), Gay renders practical advice for perambulating England’s capital into oftentimes absurd, hexametric verse. (Pope found a draft of Trivia “ludicrous [and] trifling”; Samuel Johnson thought it “spritely, various, and pleasant”, yet believed the poet wholly lacked “the dignity of genius”.) Trivia’s subject is a city whose grime and sinful denizens were wont to produce hyperbolic accounts of pollution, such as John Evelyn’s claim that he had visited “a spacious church where I could not discern the minister for the smoke, nor hear him for the people’s barking.” To capture the leeching sprawl of a fast growing metropolis, Gay riffed on the vade mecum (walk with me) genre: a kind of reference book that, according to David Alff, makes walking into artisanship, a technical craft.
Beginning in daytime with instructions for choosing a proper winter coat — kersey cloth trumps Russian bearskin — the poem dilates on the dangers of nightwalking. “Who can the various City Frauds recite, / With all the petty Rapines of the Night? / Who now the Guinea-Dropper’s Bait regards, / Trick’d by the Sharper’s Dice, or Juggler’s Cards?” Little is safe, except staying at home. Even nocturnal carriage rides provide an illusory sense of security. In one scene, a coach plummets through a poorly paved road into a vast subterranean cesspool. For Margaret R. Hunt, Gay's description of potholes as “dark caves” opening into sewers — “arched Vaults their gaping Jaws extend" — is not unlike the mythic vagina dentata described by Freud. Indeed, much of Trivia dwells on maleficent feminine forces, represented both by actual women and vulvar city infrastructure. London’s streets, Hunt writes, become “a kind of skin over the top of a heaving, pestilential sewer, one that keeps erupting into daily life via actual open sewers, like the Fleet Ditch, fish-women, predatory prostitutes, women stallholders, and ill-concealed potholes and gaps in the road.”
Even stranger, though consistent with the amalgamation of urban infrastructure and women’s reproductive systems, Gay classes decay not as deathbound entropy, but as a generative force of city planning. His scenes of uneven cobbles, clogged gutters, and dangerous inhabitants are “evidence of London’s health: the city’s incompletion occasions labor”, thinks Alff, creating the need for the work of maintenance, enforcement, and repair (the tasks divided between builders, constables, parishes, and such) and the labors of verse — the need for navigational guidance, which Gay’s poem purports to supply. Above you can browse a 1922 edition of Trivia, illustrated with engravings by William Hogarth, whose images of London were influenced by this text, and introduced by W. H. Williams, who thought that, unlike the “savage” Swift and the “spiteful” Pope, John Gay “came to scoff, but remained to pray”.
November 17, 2022