This Gentleman is descended from the very ancient Family of the Congreves, of Congreve in the County of Stafford; and he is the only surviving Son of William Congreve, of Congreve and Stretton in the said County, Esq; He was born at a Place call'd Bardsa, not far from Leeds in Yorkshire; being a part of the Estate of Sir John Lewis, his Great Uncle by his Mother's Side.
His Father being a younger Brother, his Affairs and Command in the Army carried him into Ireland, when Mr. Congreve was very Young, by which means he had his Education, as to Humane Learning, in the great School or College of Kilkenny, and the University of Dublin; from whence returning into England soon after the Revolution, he was enter'd into the Society of the Middle Temple, where he began the Study of the Law; but did not make so great a Progress as ever to be call'd to the Bar. And, as a certain Author has observ'd, "Mr. Congreve was of too delicate a Taste, had Wit of too fine a turn to be long pleas'd with a crabbed unpalatable Study; in which the laborious dull plodding fellow generally excells the more sprightly and vivacious Wit; This concurring with his natural Inclinations to Poetry, diverted him from the Bar to the declining Stage, which then stood in need of such a Support; and from whence the Town justly receiv'd him as Rome's other Hope."
Mr. Congreve, notwithstanding he has justly acquitt'd the greatest Reputation in Dramatick Writings, is so far from being puff'd up with Vanity (a Failing in most Authors of Excellency) that he abounds with Humility and good Nature. He does not shew so much the Poet as the Gentleman; he is ambitious of few Praises, tho' he deserves numerous Encomiums; he is genteel and regular in Oeconomy, unaffected in Behaviour, pleasing and informing in his Conversation, and respectful to all. And as for his Talents in Dramatick Poetry, I shall omit a Description of the Beauty of his Dialogue, Fineness of his Humour, and other particulars; and confine what I have to say in the smallest Compass of Poetical Expression.
As rising Sparkles in each Draught of Wine,
So Force of Wit appears in ev'ry Line.
Mr. Congreve has oblig'd the World with the following Plays.
I. The Old Bachelor, a Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, in the Year 1693. Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles Lord Clifford. This Comedy was acted with a general Applause, and was introduc'd into the World with several Copies of Verses, which it justly merited, tho' the Author was then not above nineteen Years of Age; and it not only made him known to the Town, and a noble Mecaenas, but was honour'd with the Presence of the beautiful and virtuous Queen Mary: And Mr. Congreve, in return of Gratitude, wrote one of the finest Pastorals we have in the English Language, on the lamented Death of that incomparable Princess. There's a genteel and sprightly Wit in the Dialogue of this Play; and the humorous Characters are agreeable to Nature, which can be said of few other Dramatick Performances; yet the Criticks attack him for the Incidents of Marriages in Masks, as being scarce ever done in reality.
II. The Double Dealer; a Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1694. Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles Montague, Esq; one of the Lords of the Treasury. This Play did not meet with the Encouragement as the former; neither had it equal Success with any of Mr. Congreve's latter Dramatick Pieces; but I never saw any particular Criticism on its Defects; which gives me leave to think its ill Reception proceeded more form a capricious Humour of the Town, than any considerable Errors in the Composure of the Play.
III. Love for Love; a Comedy, acted at the Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by his Majesty's Servants, 1695. Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles Earl of Dorset and Middlesex. This Play was acted with very great Applause, at the opening of the New House. There is abundance of Wit in it, and a great deal of fine and diverting Humour; the Characters are justly distinguish'd, and the Manners well mark'd. Some of the nicer Criticks find fault with the unravelling of the Plot, and the Conduct of Angelica in it: But in spite of Envy, this Play must be allow'd to be one of the best of our modern Comedies.
IV. The Mourning Bride; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by his Majesty's Servants, 1697. Dedicated to her Royal Highness the Princess Anne of Denmark. This Play had the greatest Success of all Mr. Congreve's Performances; and indeed met with Encouragement inferior to no Dramatic piece, that has at any time appear'd on the English Stage. The Excellency of this Tragedy can in nothing be more particularly describ'd, than in Sir Richard Blackmore's Preface to his Poem, entitled, King Arthur; which runs thus:
"Since the writing of this, I have seen a Tragedy, call'd The Mourning Bride, which I think myself oblig'd to take notice of in this Place. This Poem has receiv'd, and in my Opinion, very justly, universal Applause; being look'd on as the most perfect Tragedy that has been wrote in this Age. The Fable, as far as I can judge at first sight, is a very artful and masterly Contrivance; the Characters are well chosen, and well delineated; that of Zara is admirable. The Passions are well touch'd, and skillfully wrought up. The Diction proper, clear, beautiful, noble, and diversified agreeably to the variety of the Subject. Vice, as it ought to be, is punish'd; and oppress'd Innocence at last rewarded. Nature appears very happily imitated, excepting one or two doubtful Instances, thro' the whole piece; in which there are no immodest Images or Expressions; no wild unnatural Rants, but some few Exceptions being allow'd, all Things are chast, just, and decent. This Tragedy, as I said before, has mightily obtain'd, and that without the unnatural and foolish mixture of Farce and Buffoonery; without so much as a Song or a Dance, to make it more agreeable. By this it appears, that as a sufficient Genius can recommend itself, and furnish out abundant Matter of Pleasure and Admiration, without the paultry Helps above nam'd: So likewise, that the Taste of the Nation is not so far deprav'd, but that a regular and chaste Play will not only be forgiven, but highly applauded."
This is the Character given by the learned Doctor of Mr. Congreve's Mourning Bride; and I can, by no means, be of Opinion with some pretending Criticks, that Sir Richard's Aim, in this Commendation, was more to depress the Praises of Mr. Congreve's Predecessors, Mr. Dryden, Mr. Otway, and Mr. Lee, than the raising of Mr. Congreve; I look upon it to be meerly a Debt due to Merit, and pursu'd without any further protracted Views.
V. The Way of the World; a Comedy acted at the Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by his Majesty's Servants, Dedicated to the Right Honourable Ralph Earl of Mountague. This Play, equal to, if not the best of Mr. Congreve's Comedies, unless it be his Love for Love, had not the Success of most of his other Performances; which shews there is still an uncertainty in hitting the Humour of the Town: But tho' at first it seem'd to be rejected, it has been lately reviv'd at the Theatre in Drury-lane, and acted several Nights with very great Applause.
VI. SEMELE; an Opera. This Performance was never represented on the Theatre.
VII. The Judgment of PARIS; a Masque.
These Dramatick Performances of Mr. Congreve, were publish'd with his other Poetical Writings, in three Volumes Octavo, 1710. and the Criticks do him the Justice to confess, that the Faults which may be found in them, are of a Nature that makes them very disputable; and in which both his Predecessors and Cotemporaries have offended. Whatever small Errors there may be in Mr. Congreve's Dramatick Pieces, he may be justly excus'd, when 'tis consider'd, that he both began and left off to write when he was very Young; he quitted writing at the Age of seven and twenty: And what might not the World have expected from him, if he had continu'd his Dramatical Studies, when he was capable of writing an Old Bachelor at Nineteen? and the great Mr. Dryden did not compleat his first Performance till he was above the Age of Thirty.
He is the only Dramatick Poet now living, excellent for both Comedy and Tragedy; the Plays he has written in both ways, being very much applauded: and what Mr. Dennis has lately observ'd of Mr. Congreve, is esteem'd, by most Persons, very just; That he left the Stage early, and Comedy has quitted it with him.
Tho' I am doubtful I shall trespass upon Mr. Congreve's Modesty, I cannot omit inserting some Verses sent to him by Mr. Dryden, upon his writing the Double Dealer.
TO MY DEAR FRIEND MR. CONGREVE.
In easy Dialogue is Fletcher's Praise:
He mov'd the Mind, but had not power to raise.
Great Johnson did by strength of Judgment please,
Yet doubling Fletcher's Force, he wants his Ease:
In differing Talents both adorn'd their Age;
One for the Study, t' other for the Stage.
But both to Congreve justly shall submit,
One match'd in Judgment, both o'ermatch'd in Wit.
In Him all Beauties of this Age we see;
Etherege's Courtship, Southern's Purity;
The Satire, Wit and Strength of Manly Wycherley.
Maintain your Post: That's all the Fame you need;
For 'tis impossible you should proceed.
Already I am worn with Cares and Age;
And just abandoning th' ungrateful Stage:
Unprofitably kept, at Heav'n's expence,
I live a Rent-charge on his Providence:
But You, whom ev'ry Muse and Grace adorn,
Whom I foresee to better Fortune born;
Be kind to my Remains; and oh defend,
Against your Judgment, your departed Friend!
Let me th' insulting Foe my Fame pursue;
But shade those Lawrels which descend to You:
And take for Tribute what these Lines express:
You merit more; nor could my Love do less.