The Fables of John Gay

The pre-1850s printed books of Sion College Library have been part of Lambeth Palace Library’s collection since 1996, following the closure of the college (you can read more about the History of Sion Library by following the series of blog posts here). The collection is currently being surveyed by our Sion Conservator, being lovingly cleaned and cared for alongside cataloguing by our rare books team to enrich and bring the old card-catalogue records up-to-date. This is giving us the chance to appreciate the full breadth of this diverse collection. From religious works to novels, educational tomes to poems, the Sion material is nothing if not eclectic. Two volumes of Fables by John Gay (1685-1732) are prime examples (K65.1 G25 C).

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Title pages from the two volumes of John Gay’s works.

Published in 1727 the first volume (printed by J. Tonson and J. Watts) contains an assortment of fables which were dedicated to Prince William Augustus (later Duke of Cumberland), third son of King George II. Written in verse with rhyming couplets and purportedly drawing inspiration from classical works, the moralizing tales were originally composed to educate and amuse the six year old prince. Each was preceded by detailed copper engravings created by William Kent, John Wootton, and Hubert-François Gravelot (aka Hubert-François Bourguignon), to capture the spirit of the allegories. The titles of the works are somewhat curious and, much like the collection to which the copies belong, present an intriguing assortment of topics. Fable II, for example, is entitled “The Spaniel and the Cameleon” [sic] which warns against flattery and falsehood in order to win favour. The consequences in this instance were severe, as a companionable spaniel is cautioned by a passing stranger. Jove, seeking to teach a sycophantic courtly gentleman a lesson, one day turns him into a chameleon – a changeable figure indeed.

Image Spaniel
When near him a Cameleon seen,
Was scarce distinguish’d from the green…”

A particular favourite in the library is “The Elephant and the Bookseller” (Fable X). An elephant is to be found browsing in a bookshop, taking books from the shelves and reading the many and varied works that are available – from Greek literature to Natural History. However, the wise and knowing elephant dismisses the written works of man as inaccurate.

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“A book his curious eye detains,
Where with exactest care and pains,
Were ev’ry beast and bird portray’d,
That e’er the search of man survey’d.
Their natures and their powers writ
With all the pride of human wit;
The page he with attention spread,
And thus remark’d on what he read
Man with strong reason is endow’d;
A beast scarce instinct is allow’d:
But let this author’s worth be try’d,
‘Tis plain that neither was his guide.”

Meanwhile the elephant is overheard in his musings by the Bookseller, who with excitement piqued by the polymath pachyderm, bows to the elephant and implores him to “take up his pen” and share his wisdom. This however is met with disdain:

“When wrinkling with a sneer his trunk,
Friend, quoth the Elephant, you’re drunk”

And so the Elephant seemingly trundled off.

The fables proved popular and would go through numerous reprints over the years, entertaining both young and old. The works are still being produced and adapted today for contemporary audiences, with editions now available in e-formats. What Gay’s impressions of this would have been can only be imagined. Fifty years after the first publication, the accompanying images were redesigned by the engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewicke, who was known for his History of British Birds (1797) and the many illustrations for Aesop’s Fables that he produced during his lifetime. In 1823 James Plumtre produced a revision (K65.1 G25 F), prefaced with somewhat mixed praise:

“The Fables of Gay have ever been esteemed for their easy flow of versification for their wit and humour and for containing a considerable portion of moral and worldly instruction. They are not, however, without a very considerable portion of alloy” (Plumtre, 1823, iii).

Gay is best remembered for his poetical, dramatic and observational works, which include the Shepherd’s Week (1714), the Beggar’s Opera (1728) and the Wife of Bath: a comedy (1730) – each of which are held in the Sion collection alongside a plethora of Gay’s other works. But with the royal dedication of his fables Gay had hoped to secure himself a prestigious (and indeed lucrative) position at court. However, when royal notice fell upon him he was offered the role of Gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa (Prince William’s younger sister). This he refused – the role it would seem, was not quite what he had in mind. Although, perhaps he had thought twice for fear of taking a reptilian turn?

Gay died in December 1732 and is now buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, just across the river from Lambeth Palace Library. A second volume of his fables was published posthumously by J. and P. Knapton and T. Cox in 1738, produced from manuscripts left behind by Gay. The tone of the work is slightly darker than those in the first edition, but equally varied in scope – from the Degenerate Bees to the Ant in Office. Inside can be found an image of Gay’s monument and a short dedication to him as “a man of sincere heart”:

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