John Gay’s Trivia, an epic poem divided into three books, comments on London during the early 18th century. In the poem, the author’s persona is captured in the Walker who bears witness to the different activities that filled the streets of London at the time. The entire length of the poem is filled with a wealth of interesting descriptions intertwined with pieces of wise advices given to other pedestrians along the way. The poem is also filled with accounts of the activities of the people living in London.
Particularly in Book II, the author tells the story of an orphaned bootblack who, despite his young age, earns a living by cleaning the dirt off the trendy boots of people living in a city that thrives on no less than wastefulness and filthy political activities. The revelations on the activities of the people and the descriptions of London provide the background for Gay’s cunning social commentary. The text of Trivia primarily functions as a commentary on the striking social contrast that defined London during the time. On one hand, London thrives on excess, from fashion to financial wealth.
On the other hand, it is also home to some indicators of poverty, most significant of which is the bootblack’s struggles in the city. The young boy is said to have been the child of Cloacina, the goddess of the city sewers, and a “mortal scavenger”. The young boy grew, “[thirsting] with each heat and [coughing] with ev’ry Rain” (p. 26), signifying that the life of the young bootblack has never been easy in a city where some people live with a bountiful life. Another function of the text is to serve as an eye-opener for those who are still unaware of the daily circumstances in London.
For the uninitiated, Gay’s Trivia offers some of the best advices that can be given, from places to avoid to people to be wary about such as pickpockets and whores. In short, the text educates the uninformed about London although it can be said that the text does so by casting a shadow, so to speak, on London. As far as the mobility of the text is concerned, there are plenty of rooms for textual interpretation.
Part of the reason to this is the fact that Trivia contains numerous metaphors. For instance, Gay describes Cloacina as the “Goddess of the Tide whose sable streams beneath the City glide” (p. 24)—another way of describing someone who lives in London’s underground sewers. Another example is the line “the Parthian thus his Jav’lin backward throws, and as he flies infests pursuing Foes” (p. 33)—a metaphor for people who drove carts whose running steeds through their hoofs fling mud to those who stand behind the path of the vehicle. The poem does not lack for interpretation as descriptions of London are placed behind vivid metaphors. In terms of psychological content, Trivia contains several lines that indicate warnings to the reader.
In general, the poem can be seen as an instructive manual for those who are about to visit London. The poem informs its readers through a series of descriptions that tells the reader what to expect about the City. More importantly, the poem presents London as a place where the impetus for travelers is to prepare themselves for the worst things that can happen to them. For instance, travelers should prepare their noses for the steams that ascend from “the Tow’r’s moated Walls” (p. 30). The uninformed is also instructed to “never stray where no rang’d Posts defend the rugged Way” (p.
29) because it is where “laden Carts with Thundring Waggons meet, wheels clash with wheels, and bar the narrow Street” (p. 29). The seemingly violent nature of the descriptions of the activities in London prompts the reader to take a cautious attitude towards the City. In general, the psychological effect of Trivia towards its readers is to think of London not only as a place where the sun always shine, so to speak, but also as a place where the hustle and bustle of the daily life is already a challenge in itself.
Trivia presents London society in general as one that is standing between two extreme poles: poverty and wealth. In particular, the poem presents London society through the eyes of the Walker who, like the some curious pedestrian or passerby, takes full notice of the lives of the different people who comprise the very life of the City. That “life” is separated into two diverging sections: the life of the working class and the life of the powerful rich. For instance, the poem presents the latter side, specifically in the line “If the strong Cane support thy walking Hand, Chairmen no longer shall the Wall command” (p.8) and, as a result, “Ev’n sturdy Car-men shall thy Nod obey” and that the “rattling coaches [will] stop to make thee Way” (p. 8).
On the other hand, the poem also speaks of unbridled poverty signified, for instance, in the case of those who “at the Dearth of Coals the Poor repine” (p. 12), or the times when the “sweating Slaves support the shady Load, when Eastern Monarchs show their State abroad” (p. 15). These things highlight the often unseen side of London, which is the side that is perhaps unpleasant for the eyes.
Trivia, therefore, is a social commentary that brings into the fold the shady side of London amidst its reputation at the time as a city of rising industry and of the rich and merchant class. The hero in Trivia is presumably the Walker—the narrator—who vividly describes London in its glory and gore. To be sure, the narrator does not only describe the City; the narrator also interacts with the place, for how can the Walker been able to describe London had he not been actually there to witness all those things?
Unless the accounts presented in the poem are taken from a secondhand source, there is strong reason to believe that the accounts of the poem’s hero are fairly accurate save for several pieces of opinion interspersed with the descriptions of the life in the City. There is no anti-hero in the poem although the poem provides a contrast of the life between the rich and the poor, notwithstanding the powerful and the powerless. The title of the text—Trivia—is revealing. It invites attention inasmuch as it draws curiosity from the first-time reader.
The title itself signifies that the poem presents information that is presumably unknown to its readers. Like most trivia books, Trivia indeed provides insight into the lesser known aspects of London as it allows the reader to comb through the vastness of the City through the different stanzas of the poem. The full title of the text—Trivia, or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London—signifies that what the Walker did can be considered an art, which is to say that to fully appreciate the City one ought to not only simply pass by or traverse the streets but also to take notice of the people and the surroundings.
This leads to what the narrator is specifically commenting on, albeit implicitly—that London is the land of both the wealthy and the deprived, and of the powerful and the powerless. Through Trivia, John Gay is able to provide a complete and compelling image of London that brings the uninitiated closer to the realities in the City than anything else can. Work Cited Gay, John. Trivia, or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London. 3rd ed. London, 1730.
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