John Gay is chiefly remembered today for his brilliant burlesque play of 1728, The Beggar's Opera (a work which surely deserves to be revived in the midst of our present financial and political discontents), and perhaps also for his friendships with those more substantial figures, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.
But Gay had made his entrance on the stage of literary London some 20 years before the premiere of The Beggar's Opera. In 1708 he had published "Wine. A Poem", an essay in the "mock-Miltonic" mode which had recently been popularised by John Philips's "The Splendid Shilling" (1701). Gay followed Philips's lead by applying Miltonic language and phrasing first to the praise ofwine, and then — the more interesting and engaging part of the poem — to a description of an early 18th-century drinking party.
Dr Johnson had little time for this. Philips's poem he could just about stomach: "The Splendid Shilling" has the uncommon merit of an original design...and novelty is always grateful where it gives no pain." But he then turns the full battery of his moral severity on those — including Gay — who merely trod in Philips's footsteps: "But the merit of such performances begins and ends with the first author. He that should again adapt Milton's phrase to the gross incidents of common life, and even adapt it with more art, which would not be difficult, must yet expect but a small part of the praise which Philips has obtained; he can only hope to be considered as the repeater of a jest."
I tremble to disagree with Dr Johnson. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he has quite responded to the delicate poise of what Gay was doing when he wrote "Wine". Johnson bluntly assumes that Gay's poem is a burlesque (that is to say, a poem in which low subject matter is used to ridicule a high literary style). But that does not quite correspond to what Gay achieves in this poem. Neither is "Wine" really that close cousin of the burlesque, a mock-epic (that is to say, a poem in which a high literary style is used tomock low subject matter).
The poem's opening lines express Gay's playful respect for Milton (whose Paradise Lost had of course been first published only some 40 years or so before, in 1667):
Of Happiness Terrestrial, and the Source
Whence human pleasures flow, sing Heavenly Muse,
Of sparkling juices, of th'enliv'ning Grape,
Whose quickning tast adds vigour to the Soul,
Whose sov'raign pow'r revives decaying nature,
And thaws the frozen Blood of hoary Age
A kindly warmth diffusing...
The echo of the beginning of Paradise Lost is unmistakable. But Gay is not offering us a parody of Milton so much as a teasing reapplication of the Miltonic mode to a subject which is at once beneath it and appropriate to it, while at the same time also being an inversion of the subject for which the Miltonic mode was coined. Beneath it, because wine accompanies and often provokes the ludicrous in human behaviour. Appropriate to it, because wine is used to solemnify and seal many of the most important actions and ceremonies of human life. An inversion of it, because, in the place of the Miltonic
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe . . .