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John Gay, Trivia et autres vues urbaines

Traduction et édition critique de Jacques Carré. Paris : Classiques Garnier, Collection Littératures du monde, 2016. 354 pp. ISBN 978-2-8124-4575-0
John Baker
p. 299-302
Référence(s) :

GAY, JOHN. – Trivia et autres vues urbaines, traduction et édition critique de Jacques Carré. Paris : Classiques Garnier, Collection Littératures du monde, 2016. 354 pp. ISBN 978-2-8124-4575-0

Texte intégral

1John Gay is nowadays remembered for the phenomenal and abiding success of The Beggar’s Opera (1728), the ballad opera set in London. The volume under review, a translation and edition of Gay’s other works related to London, eleven poems and the one-act play The Mohocks (1712), is a welcome initiative, all the more so as none of them have been translated into French before.

2It is, in particular, surprising to learn that this translation by Jacques Carré is the first into French of Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), a poem in three books that illustrates Gay’s poetic art and range, and the Scriblerian spirit. Trivia is a fascinating poetical account of the city in the early eighteenth century. Like The Beggar’s Opera, it is tantalisingly unstable and hybrid, generically-speaking, an urban pastoral, a mock-georgic, steeped as much in classical literary references (Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal) as it is mindful of contemporary literary trends. Trivia catalogues the perils and pleasures and activities of the ever-changing and fast-expanding metropolis at a critical period of its history.

3In Miscellaneous Poems and Translations. By Several Hands (1712) – which includes one of the poems presented and translated here, “On a Miscellany of Poems,” an address to the publisher of the volume, Bernard Lintot – the first, two-book, version of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock appeared. It is presented as “An Heroi-Comical Poem,” itself a mixed-genre, mock-heroic poem, which famously begins with the lines: “What dire Offence from Am’rous Causes springs, / What mighty Quarrels rise from Trivial Things, / I sing –.” The principal poem that figures in Trivia et autres vues urbaines invokes the muse Trivia, goddess of the place where three paths meet, or of crossroads, places sometimes associated with prostitution, or more generally with the notion of encounters, and risk-taking. Roland Barthes in the inaugural address on his appointment to the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, Leçon (1977), said (and wrote): “Un écrivain – j’entends par là, non le tenant d’une fonction ou le servant d’un art, mais le sujet d’une pratique – doit avoir l’entêtement du guetteur qui est à la croisée de tous les autres discours, en position triviale par rapport à la pureté des doctrines (trivialis, c’est l’attribut étymologique de la prostituée qui attend à l’intersection de trois voies).” Gay, in his own idiosyncratic and entertaining Index to the poem (some three hundred entries) describes her as “Goddess of Streets and High-Ways.” There are many signs pointed out by “the Walker” (always on the lookout) in the course of this poem, “Signs of the weather,” shop signs, street cries, warnings of various sorts, which the Walker urges his virtual fellow walker-reader to heed, if he or she wishes to remain intact, clean and safe.

4The English and French texts are on facing pages with the prose translations of the eleven poems following the lineation of the original poems. The notes provided are sufficient in number and scope, elucidate most questions that may crop up along the way, and give succinctly the identity of people and references mentioned in the poems, be they mythological or real. Jacques Carré draws from and builds on the annotations of the V. A. Dearing and C. E. Beckwith two-volume John Gay, Poetry and Prose (1974) and the more recent Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman edition, Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay’s Trivia (1716), while adding useful notes of his own, and also includes and translates Gay’s own notes.

5The volume contains a substantial (46 page) and informative introduction which provides the reader with ample background information – biographical, historical, critical and literary – to situate Gay himself and the writings presented here in their context, while reviewing the poems and play in the order they appear in the volume. It includes a discussion of the uncomfortable, ambivalent situation of the writer in early eighteenth-century Britain, having to seek out protection and pander to patrons to survive as a writer while resenting being obliged to do so. The note on the texts explains the well-grounded choice of the copy-texts. All twelve works were composed and/or published between 1712 and 1725, the one exception being “Mr. Pope’s Welcome from Greece. A Copy of Verses written by Mr. Gay, Upon Mr. Pope’s having finished his Translation of Homer’s Iliad,” composed in 1720 or thereabouts which for unknown reasons was only published in 1776. The bibliography provides the references of Gay’s original texts, some of the translations of Gay’s other works into French, along with essential critical books and articles on Gay, and Trivia in particular, including David Nokes’s 1995 biography. There is also an index of proper names.

6Following Carré’s ordering, the pièce de résistance opens the ball, Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, followed by the unperformed burlesque play The Mohocks and the poem “Newgate’s Garland” (1725) both of which are precursors to The Beggar’s Opera which was to become the most performed and popular play in the eighteenth century, and established Gay’s reputation. All three explore the theme of the high and low worlds of London, criminality, double-dealing, social and judicial hypocrisy, the seedy, the needy, the violent, and the reversibility of roles where the agents of order become cast as the perpetrators of disorder (and vice versa) in an underworld (though in many ways the “underworld” is the world) of uncertain, shifting identities. Everyone ends up (or tends to end up) tarred with the same brush. The four “Town Eclogues” again illustrate Gay’s gift for genre-mixing. The two following poems, the first addressed to the bookseller and printer Bernard Lintot, “On a Miscellany of Poems,” and the second to Gay’s mentor, Alexander Pope, “Mr. Pope’s Welcome from Greece” evoke the worlds of literature, patronage and publishing. The volume ends with three verse epistles addressed to William Pulteney and Paul Methuen, two of Gay’s patrons, and a shorter epistle to Thomas Snow, a broker who survived the South Sea Bubble by his foresight and insider knowledge (a financial disaster of which Gay was one of the victims), an epistle that again refers to contemporary affairs.

7Jacques Carré, the translator and editor of these poetic and theatrical works (the town eclogues and Trivia also possess dramatic qualities and a variety of actors, voices, and speakers), is a specialist in British eighteenth and nineteenth-century cultural and social history, and this volume fills a gap in early eighteenth-century translation. It renews, by looking back, our vision and views of London in its teeming diversity, and of the challenges and perils of walking in a recognisably modern city. The translations themselves faithfully capture the spirit and, at times, playful tone of Gay’s writing. The gentle reader should emerge a little bit street wiser from a careful perusal of this entertaining and instructive volume.

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John Baker, « John Gay, Trivia et autres vues urbaines »XVII-XVIII, 73 | 2016, 299-302.

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John Baker, « John Gay, Trivia et autres vues urbaines »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 73 | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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John Baker

Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne PRISMES – EA 4398 (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3)

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