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John Gay Trivia Book 1 Analysis Essay

Trivia (1716) is a poem by John Gay. The full title of the poem is Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, and it takes its name from the "Goddess of crossroads", Trivia.

The poem is loosely based on the Satires of Juvenal, and is a poem in heroic couplets, and though based on Juvenal, attains a Horatiansatirical manner.

The length of the entire poem is approximately 1000 lines, and it is in three books.


The poem describes the perils of walking in London in the 1710s. It is a topographical poem, taking the form of a walk through a day and night. It pretends to utmost seriousness in advising the reader on:

  • how to dress properly
  • what sorts of boots to wear
  • how to survive falling masonry
  • chamber pots being emptied out of windows
  • overflowing gutters
  • pickpockets
  • wig thieves
  • mud splashes

He also describes the characters of the city, including its ballad singers, chairmen, footmen, and toughs.

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Through Winter Streets to steer your Course     aright,How to walk clean by Day, and safe by Night,How jostling Crouds, with Prudence, to     decline,When to assert the Wall, and when resign,I sing . . .

John Gay, Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (London, 1716), I. 1–5.

Up to and well after Trivia's first publication, textual and visual representations of moving through London either sanitise the city's public spaces for polite consumption, or emphasise the confusion and disorientation that a newcomer to London would experience. Addison and Steele's periodicals The Tatler (1709–10) and The Spectator (1711–14), for example, present readers with a polite and ordered metropolis, while Ned Ward's monthly periodical The London Spy (1698–1700) emphasises the very chaos, dirt, and disorder that Addison and Steele later write out. Trivia, by contrast, forges a dialogue between these two modes of representing the city, acknowledging that London can be dirty, dangerous, and confusing, while at the same time instructing its readers on how to avoid the more unpleasant or even perilous situations with which they might be confronted in the city's streets. In its allusions to a range of instructional writings in both its format and content, Trivia argues that London can be read and understood. Moreover, as Gay's opening lines suggest, the poem sets out not only to provide advice on personal safety, but also to put forth an etiquette for London's streets based on shared ideals of politeness and an understanding of 'due Civilities' (II. 45).

From the late eighteenth century, writers and artists seeking to engage with contemporary London returned to a concern with the 'art' of walking in London, often but not always making specific reference to Trivia. This engagement with or re-imagining of Gay's poem took a wide variety of forms, but it is broadly speaking fair to say that Trivia went from being invoked as a source of advice in newspapers and guides to life in the city in the late eighteenth century, to being seen as a source of humour which articulated the true experience of the modern metropolis in the early nineteenth century. By the early Victorian period in turn, I will go on to argue, Gay's poem was increasingly regarded as a historical document, called upon to differentiate the improvements of the present from a past that was characterised by what one contributor to Charles Knight's London (1841–2) described as 'the overhanging houses, the alley-like streets, the din, the danger, and the filth surrounding the whole like another atmosphere'.1

The changing nature of people's experience of moving through London cannot be [End Page 94] overestimated. London's population grew from around 900,000 in 1801 to over 1,500,000 in 1830,2 and this population growth was accompanied by a greater sense of social segregation. Representations of walking in the metropolis around this time seek to respond to the ways in which London, and one's experience of moving through its streets, altered drastically. The author of 'Thoughts upon Thoroughfares', for example, published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1825, begins his piece by invoking Le Mercier's observation of Paris that "On est étranger à son voisin!", before exploring how this rapid growth has created a breakdown in topographic, and with it social, cohesion.3 In this context, then, the 'art of walking in London' became shorthand for the vigilance required of the pedestrian in a rapidly expanding and increasingly congested metropolis.

In the later appropriations and re-imaginings of Trivia to which I will refer, Gay's sense that it is possible to walk 'clean by Day, and safe by Night' no longer holds, and his ideas of politeness and civility, designed to ensure ease of movement for pedestrians, are likewise seen as impossibly anachronistic. What these works continually emphasise instead are encounter, confrontation, and encroachment on personal space. George...

Figure 1.

George Cruickshank, Grievances of London (1812). Guildhall Library, City of London.

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