William Congreve, one of the brightest ornaments of dramatic literature, was born near Leeds, in Yorkshire, in the year 1672. Ireland has the honour of his education; since, after studying at the university of Dublin, he entered himself of the Middle Temple. Here, however, he soon discovered his inaptitude for legal pursuits, and, directing his attention towards the stage, became a successful candidate for theatrical fame. Montague, attracted by so early a display of merit, promoted him to an income of £600 a year. The mildness and prudence of Congreve enabled him to maintain his elevation, amidst the fluctuations of party, till the accession of George I. when he was made secretary to the island of Jamaica.
It was about this time, in the tranquil enjoyment of £1200 a year, having acquired extensive reputation, and being amicably connected with almost every person of distinction or genius, that he conceived himself at liberty to repel the forwardness of Voltaire, who expressly visited him as a literary character; a light in which the vanity of Congreve could not endure to he solely considered, while he principally affected the man of fashion and property. Voltaire's retort, "that if he had been only a gentleman, he should not have come to visit him," was, therefore, not more severe than merited.
Congreve died in Surry Street, Strand. After laying in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, Palace Yard, his remains were deposited in Westminster Abbey, with considerable pomp; and an elegant Monument was there erected to his memory, by Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough. This memorial of affection bears the following singular inscription, written by her Grace. — "William Congreve died January 19, 1728, aged 56, and was buried near this place; to whose most valuable memory this Monument is set up, by Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, as a mark how dearly she remembers the happiness and honour she enjoyed in the sincere friendship of so worthy and honest a man, whose virtue, candour, and wit gained him the love and esteem of the present age, and whose writings will be the admiration of the future."
Comment has not been wanting on the Duchess of Marborough's attachment to Congreve; whose perfections, if report may be credited, she almost idolized! Nor does he seem to have lived insensible of her partiality, as the bequest to her of the bulk of his fortune, amounting to £10,000 clearly testifies. Whether, in any of his private poems, he was inspired by the smiles of this elevated lady; whether his Cynthia, after the deepest despair of obtaining her, when:—
Warm compassion took at length his part,
And melted to his wish her bleeding heart.
presents indeed a delineation of her Grace, it would now be fruitless to enquire. The following lines, where the lover is conjuring his mistress to reveal the cause of the grief that secretly oppressed her soul, are exquisitely tender:—
When all my joys complete in you I find,
Shall I not share the sorrows of your mind?
O tell me, tell me all — whence does arise
This flood of tears? whence are these frequent sighs?
Why does that lovely head, like a fair flower
Oppress'd with drops of a hard-falling shower,
Bend with its weight of grief, and seem to grow
Downward to earth, and kiss the root of woe?
Lean on my breast, and let me fold thee fast;
Lock'd in these arms, think all thy sorrows past!
Or what remain, think lighter made by me;
So I should think — were I so held by thee.
Murmur thy plaints, and gently wound my ears;
Sigh on my lip, and let me drink thy tears;
Join to my cheek thy cold and dewy face,
And let pale grief to glowing love give place.
His tenderness is not unequalled by his delicacy:—
Let me not name thee, thou too charming maid!
No! as the wing'd musicians of the grove,
The' associates of my melody and love,
In moving sound alone relate their pain,
And not with voice articulate complain;
So shall my Muse her tuneful sorrows sing,
And lose in air her name from whom they spring!
In a familiar epistle to Viscount Cobham, dated 1729 he describes the employments and amusements of his latter years, with considerable taste and spirit.
Come, see thy Friend, retir'd without regret;
Forgetting care, or striving to forget;
In easy contemplation soothing time,
With morals much, and now and then with rhyme;
Not so robust in body, as in mind;
And always undejected, though declin'd;
Not wond'ring at the world's new wicked ways,
Compar'd with those of our forefathers, days:
For virtue now is neither more nor less,
And vice is only varied in the dress.
If the folly of considering genius inferior to gentility be forgiven, Congreve was both an amiable and interesting character. Neither are his amatory poems so deficient of merit as some critics have determined. He was no stranger to love. His descriptions, if not glowing, are characteristic; his sentiments, if not novel, are natural and affecting. In the language of a passion that is universal, uniformity is in some degree unavoidable.