‘’Twould make me blush to tell my dream;
‘If I eat Lobster, ‘tis so warming,
‘That ev’ry man I see looks charming;
‘Wherefore had not the filthy fellow
‘Laid Rochester upon your pillow?
‘I vow and swear, I think the present
‘Had been as modest and as decent.’
‘To a Young Lady, With Some Lampreys’
It’s been two weeks now since I last posted, and so I felt that something light-hearted was needed to herald my return to the cypersphere. This poem begins with a conventional romantic situation – the writer is assuming the persona of the hopeful lover, trying to find a present to give to his lady love. This is the eighteenth century of course, so figures from classical mythology are inevitably mentioned: the ‘Atalanta’ referred to appears in Greek legend as a virgin huntress who was given a boar’s head by her ‘Hero’, Meleager.
The poetic voice of this poem (by which I mean the persona through which John Gay’s monologue is constructed), then continues to evaluate the appropriateness of various tokens of affection or love-gifts. The rhetorical question ‘Why then send Lampreys?’ thus identifies his present and the reaction of incredulity he expects it to provoke. A Lamprey is a type of eel-like fish, at the time widely assumed to be an aphrodisiac. Accordingly, the following speech attributed to the ‘maiden Aunt’ (an indispensable accessory for every beautiful young eighteenth century heroine) includes references to other traditionally aphrodisiac foodstuffs, such as Sago cream and Lobster. Best of all (from a literary perspective) is the assertion that the poet-lover is a ‘filthy fellow’ who might just as well have ‘Laid Rochester upon your pillow’. If you have never read the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, then I can assure you it is not for the faint-hearted! Indeed, its explicit nature has ensured its continuing popularity… Hence the maiden Aunt expresses her indignation by suggesting that the present of Lampreys is as ‘modest and decent’ as a present of Rochester’s collected poems; that is, not very.
Of course, one might question the ‘maiden’ Aunt’s intimate knowledge of aphrodisiacs and their effects – there is likewise something amusing in her staunch belief that the ‘danger of undoing’ lies in prawns and shrimps, as if romantic sentiment was entirely a matter of digestion. Classical allusion again comes to the fore here as ‘Dian’s maids’ alludes to any chaste virgin (Diana was the Roman goddess of wild animals and hunting, and usually associated with the moon and chastity). In other words, if virtuous young women all started eating Lampreys, the maiden aunt has visions of complete sexual anarchy. The final punchline comes from the poet, who admits that the Aunt would be right to think that he himself has no need of such aphrodisiac methods. For him, the girl herself is quite sufficient to engage his attention and admiration; the real joke is that he has to resort to an aphrodisiac present to get her interested.
You can find this poem:
(Free copy!!!! Useful for on-the-go reading…)
https://www.waterstones.com/book/selected-poems/john-gay/marcus-walsh/9781857547023(Although this volume does not appear to include today’s poem, it is a useful starting point if you want to read more of Gay’s poetry; also available on second-hand sites, for those on a tight budget!)
About John Gay:
John Gay (1685-1732) was a poet and playwright, and also a member of the Scriblerian group of writers (which included Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Dr. Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford). His most famous work was a play entitled The Beggar’s Opera, a work so popular it is still sometimes performed today. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Information for this blogpost was derived from these sources:
(Encyclopædia Brittanica! A kind of more scholarly, and more accurate, Wikipedia)