This gentleman was descended from the ancient house of Congreve in Staffordshire, but authors differ as to the place of his birth; some contend that he was born in Ireland, others that he drew his first breath at the village of Bardsa, near Leeds in Yorkshire, which was the estate of a near relation of his by his mother's side. Mr. Jacob, in his preface to the Lives of the Poets, has informed us, that he had the advice and assistance of Mr. Congreve in that work, who communicated to him many particulars of the lives of cotemporary writers, as well as of himself, and as Mr. Congreve can hardly be thought ignorant of the place of his own birth, and Mr. Jacob has asserted it to be in England, no room is left to doubt of it. The learned antiquary of Ireland, Sir James Ware, has reckoned our author amongst his own country worthies, from the relation of Southern; but Mr. Congreve's own account, if Jacob may be relied on, is more than equal to that of Southern, who possibly might be mistaken.
About the year 1671, or 1672, our author was born, and his father carried him, when a child, into Ireland, where he then had a command in the army, but afterwards was entrusted with the management of a considerable estate, belonging to the noble family of Burlington, which fixed his residence there. Mr. Congreve received the first tincture of letters in the great school of Kilkenny, and, according to common report, gave early proofs of a poetical genius; his first attempt in poetry was a copy of verses on the death of his master's Magpye.
He went from the school of Kilkenny to the university of Dublin, where under the direction of Dr. George Ash, he acquired a general knowledge of the classics. His father, who was desirous that his studies should be directed to a profitable employment, sent him over to England a little after the revolution, and placed him as a student in the Middle-Temple. But the severe study of the Law was so ill adapted to the sprightly genius of Congreve, that he never attempted to reconcile himself to a way of life, for which he had the greatest aversion. But however he disappointed his friends with respect to the proficiency they expected him to make in the Law; yet it is certain he was not negligent in these studies to which his genius led him.
Mr. Congreve's first performance, written when but a youth of seventeen, was a Novel, dedicated to Mrs. Katherine Leveson, which gave proof, not only of a great vivacity of wit, but also a fluency of stile, and a solid judgment. He was conscious that young men in their early productions generally aimed at a florid stile, and enthusiastic descriptions, without any regard to the plot, fable, or subserviency of the parts; for this reason he formed a new model, and gave an example how works of that kind should be written. He pursued a regular plan, observed a general moral, and carried on a connexion, as well as distinction, between his characters.
This performance is entitled Incognita, or Love and Duty Reconciled; it has been asserted that this is a real history, and though the scene is laid in Italy, the adventures happened in England; it is not our business to enter into the secret history of this entertaining piece, or to attempt giving the reader a key to what the writer took to much pains to conceal. It appears from this piece, that Mr. Congreve aimed at perfection from the very beginning, and his design in writing this novel, was to shew, how novels ought to be written. Let us hear what he says himself, and from thence we shall entertain a higher opinion of his abilities, than could possibly be raised by the warmest commendations. After very judiciously observing, that there is the same relation between romances and novels as between tragedy and comedy, he proceeds thus: "Since all traditions must indisputably give grace to the drama, and since there is no possibility of giving that life to the writing, or repetition of a story, which it has in the action; I resolved in another beauty to imitate dramatic writing, namely, in the design, contexture, and result in the plot. I have not observed it before in a novel. Some I have seen begin with an unexpected accident, which has been the only surprizing part of the story, cause enough to make the sequel look flat, tedious, and insipid; for 'tis but reasonable the reader should expect, if not to rise, at least, to keep upon a level in the entertainment, for so he may be kept on, in hopes, that some time, or other, it may mend; but the other is such a baulk to a man, 'tis carrying him up stairs to shew him the dining room, and afterwards force him to make a meal in the kitchen. This I have not only endeavoured to avoid, but also have used a method for the contrary purpose. The design of this novel is obvious, after the first meeting of Aurelian and Hippolito, with Incognita, and Leonora; the difficulty is in bringing it to pass, maugre all apparent obstacles within the compass of two days. How many probable casualties intervene, in opposition to the main design, viz. of marrying two couple so oddly engaged in an intricate amour, I leave the reader at his leisure to consider; as also whether every obstacle does not, in the progress of the story, act as subservient to that purpose, which at first it seems to oppose. In a comedy this would be called the unity of action, here it may pretend to no more than an unity of contrivance. The scene is continued in Florence from, the commencement of the amour, and the time from first to last, is but three days."
Soon after Mr. Congreve's return to England, he amused himself, during a slow recovery from a fit of sickness, with writing a comedy. Captain Southern, in conjunction with Mr. Dryden, and Arthur Manwayring, esq; revised this performance, which was the Old Batchelor; of which Mr. Dryden said, he never saw such a first play in his life, adding, that the author not being acquainted with the stage, or the town, it would be pity to have it miscarry for want of a little assistance. Mr. Thomas Davenant, who had then the direction of the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, had so high a sense of the merit of the piece, and was so charmed with the author's conversation, that he granted him the freedom of the house before his play came on, which, according to the maxims of theatrical government, was not only an unusual, but an unprecedented favour. In 1693 the Old Batchelor was acted before a numerous, and polite audience. The play was received with such general applause, that Mr. Congreve was then considered as a prop to the declining stage, and a rising genius in dramatic poetry. It was this play, and the singular success which attended it upon the stage, that introduced our author to the acquaintance of the earl of Hallifax, who was then the professed patron of men of wit; and who, being desirous to raise a man of so promising a genius, above the necessity of too hasty productions, made him one of the commissioners for licensing Hackney coaches. The earl bestowed upon him soon after a place in the Pipe-Office, and gave him likewise a post in the Custom-House, to the value of £600 per annum.
In the following year Mr. Congreve brought upon the stage the Double Dealer, which met not with so good a reception as the former.
Mr. Congreve has informed us in the dedication of this play, to Charles Montague, esq; that he was very assiduous to learn from the critics what objections could be found to it; but, says he, "I have heard nothing to provoke an answer. That which looks most like an objection, does not relate in particular to this play, but to all; or most that ever have been written, and that is soliloquy; therefore I will answer it, not only for my own sake, but to save others the trouble to whom it may be hereafter objected. I grant, that for a man to talk to himself, appears absurd, and unnatural, and indeed it is to in most cases, but the circumstances which may attend the occasion, makes great alteration. It often happens to a man to have designs, which require him to himself, and in their nature cannot admit of a confident. Such for certain is all villainy, and other less mischievous intentions may be very improper to be communicated to a second person. In such a case, therefore the audience must observe, whether the person upon the stage takes any notice of them at all, or no for if he supposes any one to be by, when he talks to himself, it is monstrous and ridiculous to the last degree nay not only in this case, but in any part of a play, if there is expressed any knowledge of an audience it is insufferable. But otherwise, when a man in a soliloquy reasons with himself, and pro's and con's, and weighs all his designs, we ought not to imagine that this man either talks to us, or to himself; he is only thinking, and thinking such matter, as it were inexcusable folly in him to speak. But, because we are concealed spectators of the plot in agitation, and the poet finds it necessary to let us know the whole mystery of his contrivance, he is willing to inform us of this person's thoughts, and to that end is forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other, or better way being yet invented for the communication of thought."
Towards the close of the same year Queen Mary died. Upon that occasion Mr. Congreve produced an elegiac Pastoral, a composition which the admirers of this poet have extolled in the most lavish terms of admiration, but which seems not to merit the incense it obtained.
When Mr. Betterton opened the new house at Lincoln's-Inn, Congreve took part with him, and gave him his celebrated comedy of Love for Love, then introduced upon the stage, with the most extraordinary success. This comedy, with some more of our author's, was smartly criticised by the ingenious Mr. Collier, as containing lessons of immorality, and a representation of loose characters, which can never, in his opinion, appear on a stage without corrupting the audience.
Messrs. Congreve, Dennis, and Dryden, engaged in a vigorous defence of the English stage, and endeavoured to shew the necessity of such characters being introduced in order to be exposed, and laughed at. To all their defences Mr. Collier replied, and managed the point with so much learning, wit, and keenness, that in the opinion of many, he had the better of his antagonists, especially Mr. Congreve, whose comedies it must be owned, though they are admirably written, and the characters strongly marked, are so loose, that they have given great offence: and surely we pay too dear for pleasure, when we have it at the expence of morality.
The same year he distinguished himself in another kind of poetry, viz. an irregular Ode on the taking Namure, which the critics have allowed to contain fine sentiments, gracefully expressed. His reputation as a comic poet being sufficiently established, he was desirous of extending his fame, by producing a tragedy. It has been alledged, that fame, who were jealous of his growing reputation, put him upon this task, in order, as they imagined, to diminish it, for he seemed to be of too gay and lively a disposition for tragedy, and in all likelihood would miscarry in the attempt. However, in 1697, after the expectation of the town had been much raised, the Mourning Bride appeared on the New Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields: few plays ever excited so great an ardour of expectation as this, and very few ever succeeded to such an extravagant degree. There is something new in the management of the plot; after moving the passions of the audience to the greatest commiseration, he brings off his principal characters, punishes the guilty, and makes the play conclude happily.
The controversy we have just now mentioned, was thought to have occasioned a dislike in Mr. Congreve towards the stage; yet he afterwards produced another comedy called The Way of the World, which was so just a picture of the world, that, as an author prettily says, "The world could not bear it." The reception this play met with, compleated our author's disgust to the theatre; upon which Mr. Dennis, who was a warm friend to Congreve, made this he observation, "that Mr. Congreve quitted the stage early, and that comedy left it with him."
It is said that when Congreve found his play met with but indifferent success, he came in a passion on the stage, and desired the audience to save themselves the trouble of shewing their dislike; for he never intended to write again for the Theatre, nor submit his works to the censure of impotent critics. In this particular he kept his word with them, and as if he had foreseen the fate of his play, he took an ample revenge, in his Epilogue, of the race of Little Snarlers, who excited by envy, and supported by false ideas of their own importance, dared to constitute themselves judges of wit, without any just pretensions to it. This play has long ago triumphed over its enemies, and is now in great esteem amongst the best judges of Theatrical Entertainments.
Though Mr. Congreve quitted the stage, yet did not he give up the cause of poetry; for on the death of the marquis of Blandford, the only son of the duke of Marlborough, which happened in 1705, we find him composing a pastoral to soften the grief of that illustrious family, which he addressed to the lord treasurer Godolphin.
About the same time, the extraordinary success of the duke of Marlborough's arms, furnished him with materials for an Ode to Queen Anne. In another Pindaric Ode he celebrates the lord Godolphin; taking occasion from that nobleman's delight in horse-racing to imitate the Greek Poet in his favourite manner of writing, by an elegant digression; to which he added a criticism on that species of poetry.
As in the early part of his life, Mr. Congreve had received favours from people of a less exalted station, so of these he was highly sensible, and never let slip any opportunity of shewing his gratitude. He wrote an Epilogue to his old friend Southern's Tragedy of Oroonoko; and Mr. Dryden has acknowledged his assistance in the translation of Virgil: He contributed by his Version of the eleventh Satire of Juvenal, to the translation of that poet, published also by Mr. Dryden, to whom Mr. Congreve wrote a copy of Verses on his Translation of Persius. He wrote likewise a Prologue for a Play of Mr. Charles Dryden's, full of kindness for that young gentleman, and of respect for his father.
But the noblest testimony he gave of his filial regard to the memory of his poetical father, Mr. John Dryden, was the Panegyric he wrote upon his works, contained in the dedication of Dryden's plays to the duke of Newcastle.
Mr. Congreve translated the third Book of Ovid's Art of Love; some favourite passages from the Iliad, and writ some Epigrams, in all which he was not unsuccessful, though at the same time he has been exceeded by his cotemporaries in the lame attempts.
The author of the elegant Letters, not long ago published under the name of Fitz Osborne, has taken some pains to set before his readers the version of those parts of Homer, translated by our author, and the same passages by Pope and Tickell, in which comparison the palm is very deservedly yielded to Pope.
Our author wrote a Satire called Doris, celebrated by Sir Richard Steele, who was a warm friend to Mr. Congreve. He also wrote the judgment of Paris, a Masque; and the Opera of Semele; of these, the former was acted with great applause, and the latter is finely set to music by Mr. Eccles. The last of his Poetical Works, is his Art of Pleasing, addressed to Sir Richard Temple, the late viscount Cobham. He has written many Prose Epistles, dispersed in the works of other writers, and his Essay On Humour in Comedy, published in a Collection of Dennis's letters, is an entertaining, and correct piece of criticism: All his other Letters are written with a great deal of wit and spirit, a fine flow of language; and are so happily intermixt with a lively and inoffensive raillery, that it is impossible not to be pleased with them at the first reading: we may be satisfied from the perusal of them, that his conversation must have been very engaging, and therefore we need not wonder that he was caressed by the greatest men of his time, or that they courted his friendship by every act of kindness in their power.
It is said of Mr. Congreve, that he was a particular favourite with the ladies, some of whom were of the first distinction. He indulged none of those reveries, and affected absences so peculiar to men of wit: He was sprightly as well as elegant in his manner, and so much the favourite of Henrietta duchess of Marlborough, that even after his death, she caused an image of him to be every day placed at her toilet-table, to which she would talk as to the living Mr. Congreve, with all the freedom of the most polite and unresersed conversation. Mrs. Bracegirdle likewise had the highest veneration for our author, and joined with her Grace in a boundless profusion of sorrow upon his death. Some think, he had made a better figure in his Last Will, had he remembered his friendship he professed for Mrs. Bracegirdle, whose admirable performance added spirit to his dramatic pieces; but he forgot her, and gratified his vanity by chusing to make a rich duchess his sole legatee, and executrix.
Mr. Congreve was the son of fortune, as well as of the muses. He was early preferred to an affluent situation, and no change of ministry ever affected him, nor was he ever removed from any post he enjoyed, except to a better.
His place in the custom-house, and his office of secretary in Jamaica, are said to have brought him in upwards of £1200 a year; and he was so far an oeconomist, as to raise from thence a competent estate. No man of his learning ever pass'd thro' life with more ease, or less envy; and as in the dawn of his reputation he was very dear to the greatest wits of his time, so during his whole life he preserved the utmost respect of, and received continual marks of esteem from, then of genius and letters, without ever being involved in any of their quarrels, or drawing upon himself the lead mark of distaste, or, even dissatisfaction. The greatest part of the last twenty years of his life were spent in ease and retirement, and he gave himself no trouble about reputation. When the celebrated Voltaire was in England, he waited upon Congreve, and pass'd some compliments upon him, as to the reputation and merit of his works; Congreve thanked him, but at the same time told that ingenious foreigner, he did not chuse to be considered as an author, but only as a private gentleman, and in that light expected to be visited. Voltaire answered, "That if he had never been any thing but a private gentleman, in all probability, he had never been troubled with that visit."
Mr. Voltaire upon this occasion observes, that he was not a little disgusted with so unseasonable a piece of vanity: — This was indeed the highest instance of it, that perhaps can be produced. A man who owed to his wit and writings the reputation, as well as the fortune, he acquired, pretending to divest himself of human nature to such a degree, as to have no consciousness of his own merit, was the most absurd piece of vanity that ever entered into the heart of man; and of all vanity, that is the greatest which masks itself under the appearance of the opposite quality.
Towards the close of his life, he was much troubled with the gout; and for this reason, in the summer of the year 1728, he made a tour to Bath, for the benefit of the waters, where he had the misfortune to be overturned in his chariot, from which time he complained of a pain in his side, which was supposed to arise from some inward bruise. Upon his return to London, he perceived his health gradually decline, which he bore with fortitude and resignation.
On January the 19th, 1728-9, he yielded his last breath, about five o'clock in the morning, at his house in Surrey-street in the Strand, in the fifty seventh year of his age. On the sunday following, January 26, his corpse lay in state in the Jerusalem-Chamber, from whence the same evening, between the hours of nine and ten, it was carried with great decency and solemnity to Henry the VIIth's Chapel; and after the funeral service was performed, it was interred in the Abbey. The pall was supported by the duke of Bridgewater, earl of Godolphin, lord Cobham, lord Wilmington, the honourable George Berkley, esq; and Brigadier-general Churchill and colonel Congreve followed his corpse as chief mourner; some time after, a neat and elegant monument was erected to his memory, by Henrietta duchess of Marlborough.
Mr. Congreve's reputation is so extensive, and his works so generally read, that any specimen of his poetry may be deemed superfluous. But finding an epistle of our author's in the Biographia Brittannica, not inserted in his works, it may not be improper to give it a place here. It is addressed to the lord viscount Cobham, and the ingenious authors inform us, that they copied it from a MS. very correct.
As in this poem there is a visible allusion to the measures, which the writer thought were too complaisant to the French, it is evident it must have been penned but a very small time before his death.
OF IMPROVING THE PRESENT TIME.
Sincerest critic of my prose, or rhyme.
Tell how thy pleasing Stowe employs thy time.
Say, Cobham, what amuses thy retreat?
Or stratagems of war, or schemes of state?
Dost thou recall to mind, with joy or grief,
Great Marlbro's actions? that immortal chief,
Whole highest trophy, rais'd in each campaign.
More than suffic'd to signalize a reign.
Does thy remembrance rising, warm thy heart
With glory past, where thou thyself had'st part;
Or do'st thou grieve indignant, now to see
The fruitless end of all thy victory?
To see th' audacious foe, so late subdu'd,
Dispute those terms for which so long they su'd,
As if Britannia now were sunk so low,
To beg that pence she wanted to bestow.
Be far, that guilt! be never known that shame!
That England should retract her rightful claim!
Or ceasing to be dreaded and ador'd,
Stain with her pen the lustre of her sword.
Or dost thou give the winds, a -far to blow,
Each vexing thought, and heart-devouring woe,
And fix thy mind alone on rural scenes,
To turn the levell'd lawns to liquid plains;
To raise the creeping rills from humble beds,
And force the latent springs to lift their heads;
On watry columns capitals to rear,
That mix their flowing curls with upper air?
Or dost thou, weary grown, late works neglect,
No temples, statues, obelisks erect;
But catch the morning breeze from fragrant meads.
Or shun the noon-tide ray in wholesome shades;
Or lowly walk along the mazy wood,
To meditate on all that's wise and good:
For nature, bountiful, in thee has join'd,
A person pleasing, with a worthy mind,
Not giv'n the form alone, but means and art,
To draw the eye, or to allure the heart.
Poor were the praise, in fortune to excel,
Yet want the way to use that fortune well.
While thus adorn'd, while thus with virtue crown'd,
At home in peace; abroad, in arms renown'd;
Graceful in form, and winning in address,
While well you think, what aptly you express;
With health, with honour, with a fair estate,
A table free, and elegantly neat.
What can be added more to mortal bliss?
What can he want that stands possest of this?
What cart the fondest wishing mother more,
Of heav'n attentive, for her son implore?
And yet, a happiness remains unknown,
Or to philosophy reveal'd alone;
A precept which, unpractis'd, renders vain
Thy flowing hopes, and pleasure turns to pain.
Shou'd hope and fear thy heart alternate tear,
Or love, or hate, or rage, or anxious care,
Whatever passions may thy mind infest,
(Where is that mind which passions ne'er molest?)
Amidst the pangs of such intestine strife,
Still think the prefect day the last of life;
Defer not 'till to-morrow to be wise,
To-morrow's sun to thee may never rise;
Or shou'd to-morrow chance to chear thy sight,
With her enliv'ning, and unlook'd-for light.
How grateful will appear her dawning rays!
Its favours unexpected doubly please.
Who thus can think, and who such thoughts pursues,
Content may keep his life, or calmly lose.
All proofs of this, thou may'st thyself receive,
When leisure from affairs will give thee leave.
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, tho' declin'd;
Not wond'ring at the world's new wicked ways,
Compar'd with those of our fore-father's days:
For virtue now is neither more or less,
And vice is only vary'd in the dress:
Believe it, men have ever been the same,
And OVID'S GOLDEN AGE is but a dream.
We shall conclude the life of this eminent wit, with the testimony of Mr. Pope in his favour, from the close of his postscript to the translation of Homer: It is in every respect so honourable, that it would be injurious to Mr. Congreve to omit it. — His words are — "Instead of endeavouring to raise a vain monument to myself, let me leave behind me a memorial of my friendship with one of the most valuable men, as well as the finest writers of my age and country. One who has tried, and knows by his own experience, how hard an undertaking it is to do justice to Homer, and one who I'm sure sincerely rejoices with me at the period of my labours. To him therefore, having brought this long work to a conclusion, I desire to dedicate it, and have the honour and satisfaction of placing together in this manner, the names of Mr. Congreve and of A. POPE."