Dublin Core




As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, a fable is “a short story devised to convey some useful lesson" and especially "one in which animals or inanimate things are the speakers or actors.” The dictionary then dates the word's first appearance in 1340 in Kentish, an English dialect. William R. Wray states in his book The English Fable that “animal fables originally began in the middle of the eighteenth century” and were a new storytelling format brought to the country after the English Civil Wars catalyzed a separation from Georgian culture (The English Fable, Lewis). As a result, animal fables then spread to all aspects of English culture. The fable became such a popular genre that it initiated a change in Brittan’s academic literary circles. It became the standard for textbooks and spread widely to scholars all throughout England. At the time, there was already a significant evolution of literature happening in England and the country became the leading developer of the prosaic voice through the emerging form of the novel. In fact, the Augustan age, which took place from around 1700 to 1750, was praised as the “Golden Age of Latin literature” by the Encyclopedia Britannica. The time period Gay lived in was likely as prolific as it was because of the influx of writing genres, such as the Fable, coupled with the widespread availability of the printing press. This combination afforded writers the ability to contribute to the literary culture in a new way. As an important contribution to such a time, Gay’s Fables will forever be held as a noteworthy piece of contemporary eighteenth-century Augustan children's literature.

Fables by John Gay was first published in 1727; Marymount University’s Gomatos collection has the 1728 second edition of volume one. Marymount’s ninety-four-page hardcover copy of Fables contains one introductory poem followed by fifty short fables, each with an illustration at the header. The Fables are written in octosyllabic meter with rhyming couplets throughout, enforcing the poems' appeal to adolescent sensibilities. The illustrations in this text were hand carved into copper printing plates designed by William Kent, a distinguished architect, and John Wootton, a famous equestrian and landscape painter and then later engraved into the book by Fourdrinier, Baron, or Van der Gucht. Kent’s etchings can also be seen in Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, while Wootton’s art is more commonly known to illustrate Shakespeare’s plays. Kent and Wootton were widely popular British artist of the time and members of an elite social circle belonging to The Royal Academy of Arts. The Royal Academy was at the center of English enlightenment for eighteenth-century artists, poets and intellectuals alike. It was a network that connected the acclaimed contemporary writers of the day such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay, who was strongly influenced by the community of satirical writers who went by the alias Scriblerus. Gay was so influenced by his social circles that within the first few pages of Fables lies a dedication to William Augustus, The Duke of Cumberland.

Gay’s work was also largely inspired by classical works such as the famous fables of Aesop. Gay’s fables are considered to be Aesopian, which according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is “a style or language that has hidden or ambiguous meaning, esp. as a device to disguise dissident political writing in allegorical form… so [as to] avoid official censorship.” Gay’s fables seems to do exactly this through his humorously representative titles that anthropomorphise the animals and inanimate objects of Gay’s imagination. Because these fables were meant for children, each tale contains a moral to learn from at the end. This is where Gay uses the form of an Aesopian fable to inserts his own criticism of modern English values with morals like ‘flattery can only get you so far’, and a warning to ‘take even the works of esteemed scholars with a grain of salt’. For example In Fable V, "The Wild Boar and the Ram," the ram in the end essentially proclaims ‘what goes around comes around’ to the taunting boar in the verse “Know, those who violence pursues, / Give to themselves the vengeance due” (Fables 19). The entire book is filled with such cautionary tales suiting paired with rich illustrations of the English countryside and a rhyme scheme that one can’t help but follow.

Gay was a dramatist most known for The Beggar's Opera and his poem, Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. These works, along with Fables, fall under the genre of satire, a key element of the Augustan age that characterized literature of the period. According to the Poetry Foundation, Fables was “written to win the favor of specific members of the court." As Gay’s dedication to the six-year-old Duke exposes in an introduction that claims Fables was “invented for his amusement." It is obvious that Gay relied on various nobles, including The Earl of Bath and others for support. Considering that patronage was  Gay’s means to continue his literary pursuits, it is not surprising that he would rub elbows with the noble. However, despite his need to accommodate the aristocracy, Gay’s work continually subverts the monarchy’s authority by mocking their traditional customs and practices. In Fables, Gay uses imaginary animals to express controversial opinions and persuade readers to disagree with popular opinion. His work provides social commentary on the politics of the time, particularly the role of the crown. Gay was considered to be a controversial writer namely because his play Polly, the sequel to The Beggar's Opera, was banned by the king, which naturally only ignited public interest. To fuel the production of more rebellious writings, Scriblerus, the above-mentioned band of satirists, encouraged each other to undermine social constructs by focusing their work on disrupting conforms.

Further Reading

Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. The English Fable : Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Gay, John, and Faber, G. C.. The Poetical Works of John Gay, Including “Polly”, “The Beggar”s Opera’ and Selections from the Other Dramatic Work. Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1926.

Nokes, David. John Gay, A Profession of Friendship. Oxford University Press, 1995.


Gay, John, 1685-1732.
Illustrator: William Kent (1685- 1748) and John Wootton (1682- 1764)
Book Binder:


London : printed for J. Tonson and J. Watts




Alnajem, Nouf
McGale, Maeve
Ramos, Elizabeth


194 p. : ill. ; 21 cm


Old English


Document, book


OCLC : (OCoLC)642407561


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Gay, John, 1685-1732. Illustrator: William Kent (1685- 1748) and John Wootton (1682- 1764) Book Binder: , “Fables,” John T. and Agnes J. Gomatos Special Collections Room, accessed March 3, 2021, http://gomatos.wrlc.org/items/show/43.