Yorkshire claims but little in this fortunate wit, and her claim to that little has been litigated. His family was of Staffordshire, his education was in Ireland; he led a town life, and acquired a town celebrity. Yorkshire could only boast the place of his nativity — the hedge-sparrow's nest wherein the cuckoo was hatched — and this modest pretension has been controverted by the isle of wits, for so might the country of Swift, Farquhar, Sheridan and Moore be rightly denominated, rather than the isle of saints, seeing that for the Irish saints the Acta Sanctorum itself will not vouch, while the Irish wits need no vouchers. We have ourselves heard it vehemently asserted, that all the writers of the middle comedy were Irishmen, of course including Congreve in the number. It is true, that he called himself an Englishman, and expressly mentioned Bardsea, in Yorkshire, as his birthplace; but then a man may be mistaken as to the place he was born in, or he may be ashamed of it. Dr. Johnson's judgment in this matter is a singular instance of that leaning against the subjects of his biography, of which he is justly accused by Mr. Roscoe. — "It was said by himself," observes the Doctor, "that he owed his nativity to England, and by every body else, that he was born in Ireland. Southerne mentioned him with sharp censure, as a man that meanly disowned his native country. To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, is in appearance to be very deficient in candour; yet nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and when once uttered are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a petty lie to Louis XIV., continued it afterwards by false dates, thinking himself obliged in honour, says his admirer, to maintain what, when he said it, was so well received."
It is a pity that the Doctor, who, like Boileau, aimed at the character of "a steady and rigorous moralist," did not reflect that sophistry is first cousin, only once removed, to lying, and that an uncharitable piece of special pleading, intended to injure the reputation of the illustrious dead, is not a very white lie. Congreve, whatever his faults might be, was not a fool; nor was his convenience or vanity at all concerned in proving himself a Yorkshireman rather than an Irishman. To be born in Ireland was never disreputable, and to be born in Yorkshire is an honour too common to be worth contending for. Were there decisive evidence that Congreve was wrong as to the fact, it had been candid to suppose him mistaken, which the son of an officer in a marching regiment might easily be, about the year and place of his nativity. Rut there is decisive evidence that he was right, — to wit, the parish register of Bardsea, and the matriculation book of Trinity College, Dublin. An extract from the former runs thus: — "William, the sonne of Mr. William Congreve, of Bardsey Grange, baptized February 10th, (1669)." In the notice of his matriculation at Trinity College, Dublin, he is expressly described as born at Bardsea, in Yorkshire. Now surely it is no advantage in Dublin College to be an Englishman. This important circumstance, therefore, we may consider as set at rest, and Congreve is fairly intitled to a place among the Yorkshire Worthies.
William Congreve, then, was descended from an ancient and respectable family, long settled in Staffordshire, whose armorial bearings figure in the margin of Dr. Plot's map, prefixed to his Natural History of that County. He was the only surviving son of William Congreve, Esq., second son of Richard Congreve, Esq., of Congreve and Stratton. His mother was a near relation of Sir John Lewis of Bardsea, and at Bardsey Grange he first drew breath. His birth-day is not precisely known, but it must have been towards the close of 1669, or commencement of 1670; for on the 16th of February, 1669-70, he was baptized. In his infancy he was carried into Ireland with his father, who was then in the army, but afterwards became manager of part of the large estate of the noble family of Burlington, which fixed his residence in the sister island. This sufficiently accounts for Southerne, who may have seen Congreve in Ireland a mere child, asserting so positively that he "meanly disowned his country." Young Congreve's early education was at the great school of Kilkenny, and his first poetical essay, an elegy on his master's magpie. In due time he was removed to Trinity College, Dublin, then flourishing under the tutorage of Dr. St. George Ash, where he acquired a larger portion of Greek and Latin than was then necessary for a fine gentleman. Whether in compliance with established custom, or with a view to profession, be was afterwards entered of the Middle Temple, and lived in chambers for some years, but probably paid no more attention to law than the critical Templar of the Spectator's club.
While little more than seventeen, he composed a novel, entitled, "Incognita, or Love and Duty Reconciled." It was dedicated, under the assumed name of Cleophil, to Mrs. Catherine Leveson. We are unable to determine who this lady might be, nor have we ever seen the novel itself. Could we procure it, we would not, like Johnson, rather praise it than read it. The following extract from the preface may shew, however, how Congreve could write at seventeen, and how early he turned his thoughts to dramatic construction.
"Since all traditions must indisputably give place 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 resolve in another beauty to imitate dramatic writing, namely, in the design, contexture, and result of 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 it is but reasonable for the reader to 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 at some time or other it may mend; but the other is such a baulk to a man, — it is carrying him up stairs to shew him the dining room, and after, forcing 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 Hippolyto 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 couples so oddly engaged in an intricate amour, I leave to 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. If there he any thing more in particular resembling the copy which I imitate, as the curious reader will soon perceive, I leave it to shew itself, being very well satisfied how much more proper it had been for him to find out this of himself, than for me to possess him with an opinion of something extraordinary in an essay, begun and finished in the idler hours of a fortnight's time; for I can only esteem that a laborious idleness, that is parent to so inconsiderable a birth."
The thought of confining a novel to the unities was something original. But French criticism was then the rage: Dryden, too wise to fetter himself in practice, had given a popularity to its principles by his discussions; and Congreve, a precocious mind, might hope to gain a laurel by applying the French rules to a species of composition never before made amenable to them; as if one should make tea or brew small beer in chemical nomenclature.
But the idea has nothing but novelty to recommend it. It may be laid down with as much certainty in literature as in politics, that all restriction is evil, per se, and can only be recommended or justified by a clear necessity, or a manifest benefit. The continuity and precipitation which a limited time or an immovable scene bestow, are of some value in the drama, and at any rate prevent the awkwardness of an interrupted action; but in a prose narrative the good cannot be obtained, while the restraint and inconvenience remain. We are told, that the story of "Incognita" is unnatural. How can it be otherwise, when two pair of lovers are to carry through their wooing and wedding, in spite of all the obstacles necessary to constitute a plot and an intrigue, in two days? But, besides unnaturally forcing the development of events, this confined construction forbids that natural development and growth of character which is the main charm of a good novel, in which the influence of every event upon the hearts and minds of the agents and patients should be distinctly, yet not obtrusively marked; and even the effect of time on passions and humours should not be unnoted.
We know not the precise aera at which Incognita was published; but it was not long before Congreve turned his efforts to that quarter in which alone he was destined to excel. He has himself told us, in his reply to Jeremy Collier, that to divert the tedium of convalescence from a severe illness, he began to compose a comedy. The result of his lucubrations was "The Old Bachelor."
At that time it was usual for authors to assemble in taverns and coffee-houses, and many a manuscript was discussed over the bottle. Every one must remember how Pope in his childhood was carried to the coffee-house where Dryden usually presided, and beheld the veteran in his arm chair, which in winter held a prescriptive place by the fire side. This "popination" (as a quaint old writer terms it) rendered the seniors of literature much more accessible to young aspirants than the domestic habits of the present race, with all their hospitality, permit them to be. Congreve, a templar, and almost a boy, had already heard and partaken the conversation of Dryden, Wycherly, Southerne, and other poets and critics, and frequenters of the theatre, so that he had the benefit of experience, by anticipation, in a line of writing which has been supposed to require more experience than any other. When the "Old Bachelor" was shewn to Dryden, he pronounced that "Such a first play he had never seen." Something, however, was yet wanting to ensure its success, for he added, "It was a pity, seeing the author was ignorant of stage and town, that he should miscarry for want of a little assistance. The stuff was rich indeed, only the fashionable cut was wanting." According to Southerne, it was near miscarrying from another cause: — "When he brought it to the players, he read it so wretchedly ill that they were on the point of rejecting it, till one of them good-naturedly took it out of his hands, and read it." The players must, however, have expected great things from him for Thomas Davenant, then manager of Drury Lane, gave him what is called the privilege of the house half a year before his play came on the stage, a favour at that time unparalleled. Having undergone a revision from Dryden, Southerne, and Manwairing, the "Old Bachelor" was produced in 1693, before a crowded and splendid audience, and met with triumphant success. The prologue intended to have been spoken was written by Lord Falkland. The play, when printed, was prefaced with three copies of commendatory verses, by Southerne, Marsh, and Higgins. The pride or modesty of a modern writer would revolt at the ancient custom of publishing these flattering testimonials in the vestibule of his own book, where, after all, they could not answer the place of an advertisement. Flattery, wherever she may now abide, no longer rules despotic in first pages.
The exhibition of the "Old Bachelor" was hailed as a new aera in theatric history. The praise which it fairly earned by its intrinsic merit was aggravated by respect to the author's youth. The critics were glad to display their generosity by applauding, and their candour by forgiving: the play-going public gave their usual hearty welcome to a new comer: reader and auditor alike were amazed at the stripling whose maiden essay achieved what so many laborious brains had been toiling for the last half century to produce — perpetual excitement and incessant splendour. But this "gay comedy" brought down rewards more comfortable than the cold approbation of the few, more lasting than the manual plaudits of the many, and far more lucrative than the casual profits of an author's night. Charles Montague, afterwards Earl of Halifax, who owed his own advancement partly to a worthless jeu' d' esprit, written in concert with Prior, in which he meanly and stupidly insulted the grey hairs of Dryden, had lately been invested with the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, and as the gravity of that office was not strictly compatible with the profession of a wit, he took upon him the character of Mecaenas, — a very expensive honour, when it was expected of a patron to pay handsomely for every dedication that was offered him. Dorset, who preceded Montague as Mecaenas, must have been considerably out of pocket at the year's end on this score alone, though some part of the onus fell on Nell Gwynne, the Duchess of Portsmouth, and Mary of Este. But Montague having the fingering of the public money, and succeeding to the management of a government in which interest was to supply the place of terror, and influence to heal the breaches of prerogative, hit on a more economical method of securing the adulation of prosemen and versemen than paying them for dedications. Louis XIV. had pensioned poets, and was supposed to have laid out the money at good interest; but Louis was an absolute sovereign, and had no Parliament to overhaul his accounts. To have put a Poet into any post of responsibility was too hazardous. It is assuredly better to pay men for doing nothing, than for spoiling work. But most conveniently it happened, that there were a large stock of places, which had outlasted the occasions for which they were invented. There were Boards, which were furnished with a double set of members, — one for use, which, like the vocal pipes in the body of an organ, were kept out of sight, i.e. the clerks, deputies, &c., and another, like the pipes in the front of an organ, displayed to public view with all advantages of gilding. Thus, without expense to himself, additional expense to the country, or risk of exposure by appointing an incompetent person to an office of trust, Montague was enabled to make Congreve a Commissioner for licensing hackney coaches, to give him a place in the pipe office, and shortly after another in the customs, worth six hundred a year, and all for writing a single comedy. Never, in England at least, was author rewarded so rapidly — seldom so highly. The money value of wit had risen mightily at court, since poor Butler was allowed to linger out a life of poverty. Even Dryden had little more than the Laureate's paltry hundred. Perhaps the Whigs wished to make the "amende honourable" to the Muses for their ejection of Dryden, by extraordinary liberality to Congreve.
The days of William were not the days of economical reform. It does not appear that this accumulation of places on a lucky theatrical adventurer excited any discontent, except, it may be, among some of the stricter sort, who deemed the Poet's meed the wages of vanity. We will not speculate on the reception that the sinecurist's next play would have met from the gallery in these days, or how the political economists would have approved so extravagant a bounty upon unproductive labour. Meanwhile, there is nothing moves the indignation of certain persons more than the evil eye which the poor, and not only the poor, are taught to cast on the gratuities of the Treasury. Few of these have lately descended upon authors, but those few have not escaped severe animadversion in the Extraordinary Black Book, and similar publications, wherein, as usual, the reflections are ever more bitter against the receivers than against the givers. Hireling and slave are the civilest phrases which any writer may expect who accepts a boon from the rulers of his country.
These feelings, however, are but natural to a period of financial embarrassment and general distress. A poor woman might very excusably complain of her husband, if he spent his wages upon poems, or play-books, or picture-books, while she and her children were wanting bread. But suppose this state of things passed away, the question would still remain; — In what measure, and by what method, should literature and the fine arts be fostered by the state? We might extend the enquiry further, and ask, — "Are the higher objects of the human intellect legitimate objects of civil government?" And, — "Should the achievements of intellect, simply as such, and without reference to any increase of wealth, or safety, or convenience to be derived from them, be rewarded or honoured by the community in its corporate capacity, or be left to the care of the people in their individual capacities?"
We purposely waive all discussion of these questions on grounds of public economy. We shall not enter into argument with the Utilitarians, as to what abstract science, or fine literature, or fine art, are worth, or what use they are of, or whether we might not do very well without them. We will, for the present, take it for granted, that the faculties of pure reason, imagination, and taste, ought to be perfected as much as possible; that philosophy and poetry, truth and beauty, are noble ends of human nature. We will assume — nay, assert — that every man, rich or poor, is, or may be, the better for whatever exalts the imagination, or humanizes the heart: in a short sentence of plain prose, that public money would be well and wisely expended in the promotion of literature, and of fine literature, if the disbursement were really for the benefit of literature or its professors. But "there's the rub."
It is held by some, whose sentence is not lightly to be set aside, that were it not for the support and sustenance of the state (which is and must be represented by the government for the time being); were it not for endowments, salaries, honours, privileges, determined by positive laws, and involved in the very constitution of property, all studies would cease but those which are subservient to the needs and appetites of the body, or gratify the whim, humour, passion, or fashion of the moment; all poetry become a dead letter, philosophy a forgotten dream, religion a ghost untimely severed from the body, "And unawares Morality expire." In short, that men would love, esteem, or venerate nothing beyond that which they had in common with beasts, if there were not an imputed dignity, an artificial system, to uphold the Man in Man.
This is a fearful denunciation, a woeful prospect, — but how far is it borne out by facts? That mankind in general are too apt to forget the interests of the soul, is a sad and awful truth; but it is a tendency which no worldly power, no worldly wealth, no human bounty can counteract. It is as impossible to bribe, as to persecute men into caring for their souls. It can never be any man's worldly interest to be unworldly. But, it may be answered, if endowments and establishments cannot avert the decay of piety, they may oppose the advances of ignorance. They may make knowledge honourable, and secure leisure for study. They may, which is more than all, disengage a portion of the public heart from the passions and pursuits of the day, and procure respect for accomplishments and acquisitions whose value is to the mind. They may induce some, who would else be content to stop at the needful, to aim at the perfect. And in this, there is certainly some truth. It is a work of long time, to interest the multitude, the great vulgar or the small, in any thing that is not of the earth, earthy; and yet how few would undergo the toil of intellectual exertion, of deep research, of patient investigation, of painful thought, if they knew not of any to appreciate their labours, to sympathize with their perplexities of doubt, their joys of discovery? Or suppose that a few have studied solely for their own delight, without a wish to communicate, the world has been none the better for their lucubrations. In those rude and stormy periods, when war is the only occupation., and the chace or the banquet the only relaxations of the noble and the free, — while the laborious classes, brutalized by oppression, are too ignorant to desire knowledge, and the whole atmosphere of society too inclement for peaceful contemplation, or tender fancy, — whatever of learning or of art may subsist, would infallibly perish, if left to make its own way in the world. To ensure mutual aid, protection, and sympathy, the learned must separate themselves from the many, and be united wider common regulations; they must form for themselves a corporate constitution, an "imperium in imperio"; they will need a strong arm to preserve their "pensive citadels" from violence; and, as their labours have yet acquired no saleable value, they must be dependent either upon alms, too often obtained by imposing on credulity, or on bequests and donations from the rich and great.
Here we may behold the origin and necessity of colleges, academies, and the like foundations, by means of which a learned class arose in the very heart of mediaeval darkness, — instructors and counsellors were raised up, by whom a taste for knowledge was communicated to the higher gentry, — the value of learning was impressed upon the minds of the charitable, who were thus incited to provide the means of gratuitous instruction for the poor. The more information was diffused, the higher and purer was the respect paid it. The scholar and the philosopher obtained reverence as such from high and low, and were no longer obliged to be priests, conjurers, or astrologers.
We admit, therefore, that up to a certain point, an established order of learned men is absolutely necessary for the conservation of literature and the prevention of barbarism; and that this order can only be preserved by the power of the state, or by the superstitious reverence of the people, — that is, while the people remain so ignorant as to be incapable of conceiving the true value of knowledge, or till knowledge is so far perfected as to demonstrate its own value by its practical results.
But, after a certain point, there needs no adventitious advantages to conciliate regard to the perfections and achievements of intellect. The danger is, that they will be too much prized, too much desired, too much sought for. Already there are many who expect from human knowledge the work of Divine Grace. Science has made man master of matter; it has enabled him to calculate the revolutions of nature, to multiply his own powers beyond all that was dreamed of spell or talisman: and now it is confidently prophecied that another science is to remove all the moral and political evils of the planet; that by analysing the passions, we shall learn to govern them; and that, when the science of education is grown of age, virtue will be taught as easily as arithmetic, and comprehended as readily as geometry — with the aid of wooden diagrams. Let us not be deceived. "Leviathan is not so tamed." The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.
These Utopian theories are of little consequence, any further than as they divert the mind from the true way to moral happiness. The almost universal desire for intellectual distinction is a fever that rather needs sedatives than stimulants; but it is an evil which, if left to itself, will remedy itself: when ordinary acquirements cease to be a distinction in any class, not more will attain to that eminence which may entitle them to look above their inherited station, than the demands of society will provide for. The rest will continue to study at leisure hours for their own improvement and delight, but without the ambitious yearnings which make homely duties irksome, the lazy conceit which calls honest industry vile drudgery, the, inordinate hopes which, whether starved or surfeited, perish miserably, and leave behind them vanity, and vexation of spirit. There is no further need, then, for any interference of the state to keep learning in countenance, or to confer respect on genius. There is one way, however, in which the public money may sometimes be wisely expended for the promotion of knowledge or of art. This is, by furnishing employment to scholars and artists in works of public utility. We take the word utility in its widest sense, and hold all truth and all beauty to be useful. Expeditions fitted out for the extension of science are an honour to the liberal government which plans, and to the brave men who conduct them. Researches in natural history, mineralogy, botany, &c. especially if carried on in distant countries, are attended both with peril and expense. A wise government will not grudge any reasonable sum to secure and indemnify such of its subjects as devote their talents to pursuits so beneficial. The same may be said of chemistry, medicine, anatomy, &c. Nor will a judicious economist think that money mispent, which enables a man, tried and proved to be equal to the task, to execute any great work, the size or subject of which forbids a remunerating sale; or which necessarily takes up a long time in execution, or is too expensive for an author's purse to undertake: — such, for example, as a collection of ancient historical documents; a complete edition of the scarce and early poets; or a great etymological dictionary, which should include a progressive history of the language.
In like manner may the painter, the sculptor, and the architect be fostered and honoured by public employment, and labour to adorn their country. Genius of this kind requires more assistance from wealth than any other. But let the works for which the public are to pay be strictly of a public nature. Let them be accessible to all who can appreciate or enjoy them. Let the picture and the statue serve to exalt and purify the general imagination, not to pamper the odious pride of exclusive possession. By retrenching the waste of the nation's substance in tasteless pageantry, which has lost what meaning it ever had, England may become as much the country of art as of poetry, and a reproach be wiped away from the Reformation.
But whatever assistance the state may afford to literature or the arts, should always be given as a consideration for work done. No man should be pensioned or placed for the mere possession of genius or learning.
We are not ignorant that many persons, advocate the position, that it were well for the community that the learned, strictly so called, should be maintained as an order in the state, on revenues set apart and consecrated to that purpose; and that poets more ennobled their skill, when they sung for monarchs, statesmen, noble dames, and barons bold, than now, when their fortunes, if not their fame, are dependent on the sale of their productions, or the speculative liberality of a Bibliopole. Even now there are many, who think that so-called sinecures might be rendered most beneficial, in giving leisure to intellect; so that the genius and the scholar, free from worldly toil and anxiety, may labour for glory and posterity, and repay their country's bounty with deathless honour. The advantages of "learned leisure" to the church establishment have been asserted with Paley's plausibility and Southey's upright zeal; and might not "learned leisure," wit in easy circumstances, imagination with a moderate independence, be serviceable to the state also? Shall there be no cushions, where unconsecrated heads may slumber "pro bono publico"?
This, it must be confessed, sounds well; but if the actual history of modern authorship were honestly written, we should discover that the expectation of patronage has ruined more geniuses, both in purse and character, than the liberality of patrons has ever benefitted. We shall not here inquire into the probability of the patronage being wisely bestowed, but it may just be observed, that those writers who have looked for support to the great, have been by no means conspicuous for the morality, or even for the decency, of their productions. But patronage should never be accorded to the presumptive evidences of genius, or even to the promise of excellence. The bounty, whether of kings, or of commonwealths, or of nobles, honours itself and its object, when it is bestowed on the veteran scholar, or grey-headed poet, — when it provides peace, comfort, and competence to venerable age. But it should be given unsought. No encouragement should, be afforded to vain youth, who, by a servile display of flashy fantasies, and a presumptuous rivalry of well-bred vices, endeavour to insinuate themselves, canker like, into the opening blossoms of nobility; nor should the more prudent advances of the middle-aged be suffered to outstep the bounds of modesty.
Although we cannot reckon the profusion of sinecures which rewarded the production of the "Old Bachelor" as one of the happiest signs of the times of Halifax, it was utterly unjust in Swift, Pope, and the other Tory wits, to represent that minister as regardless of the claims of genius, and only liberal to party virulence. Yet the Dean, in one of his minor poems, literally holds up Congreve as having been long neglected, and half-starved,
Thus Congreve spent, in writing plays,
And one poor office, half his days;
While Montague, who claimed the station
To be Maecenas of the nation,
For poets open table kept,
But ne'er considered where they slept;
Himself, as rich as fifty Jews,
Was easy, tho' they wanted shoes;
And crazy Congreve scarce could spare
A shilling to discharge his chair,
Till prudence taught him to appeal
From Paean's fire to party zeal:
Not owing to his happy vein
The fortunes of his latter scene;
Took proper principles to thrive,
And so might any dunce alive.
In this last line the Dean is deplorably in the wrong. Dunces never thrive but in the way of honesty. Had not Congreve been a splendid wit, he would not have been worth purchase. We cannot conjecture why he calls Congreve crazy. There is no madness is his writings, — neither the fine madness of poetry, nor the rant and fury of a disordered brain: and in his private conduct, whatever virtue he might want, he possessed an ample store of prudence. With so little of truth or reason could the man write, who, of all his contemporaries, might have been the greatest philosopher.
Congreve's next play was the "Double Dealer," produced in 1694. It seldom happens that a second work is received with an increase of applause. There is, independent of envy, a very strong tendency to suspect writers of falling below themselves. Homer himself has been accused of betraying senility in the Odyssee; and the more subdued interest necessarily arising from the plan and subject of Paradise Regained, has been ascribed, with little justice, to the increasing years of Milton. The Double Dealer, though the performance was honoured with the presence of Queen Mary, met with some opposition on the stage, and a good deal of severe criticism in the closet. Congreve had little difficulty in parrying the individual objections: of such criticism as was then current he was a dexterous master, and as he wrote with great care and forethought according to his own ideal of perfection, he probably anticipated every censure in his mind before it was uttered. But those who read his works in these days will be rather surprised to find him assuming the part of a censor and a moralist, and telling the ladies that he aims at their reformation and improvement. "There is one thing," says he, "at which I am more concerned, than all the false criticisms that are made upon me; and that is, some of the ladies are offended. I am heartily sorry for it, for I declare I would rather disoblige all the critics in the world than one of the fair sex. They are concerned that I have represented some women vicious and affected. How can I help it? It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and follies of human kind; and there are but two sexes, male and female, men and women, that have a title to humanity; and if I leave one half of them out, the work will be imperfect. I should be very glad of an opportunity to make my compliments to those ladies who are offended. But they can no more expect it in a comedy, than to be tickled by a surgeon when he's letting them blood. Those who are virtuous or discreet should not be offended; for such characters as these distinguish them, and make their virtues more shining and observed; and they who are of the other kind may nevertheless pass for such, by seeming not to be displeased or touched with the satire in this comedy. Thus they have also wrongfully accused me of doing them a prejudice, when I have in reality done them a service."
This is the common plea of satirists, but it is at best an afterthought. We are far from deeming the satirists among the most malicious of mankind: they are, at worst, splenetic, but for the most part rather vain than ill-natured. But it is much easier to shine in depicting a moral than an immoral character; and of all characters, the truly virtuous female is the most difficult to draw satisfactorily in a dramatic poem. It is easy enough to describe, for it is not unfrequently seen; it is very easy for a poet to praise, for he has little to do but to collect all the fine and savoury comparisons which Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, botany, mineralogy, zoology, and metaphysics supply, and attach them to a sylph-like figure, with black or auburn locks, as the case may require. But when the woman is to speak and act, when she is to shed the perfume of her goodness spontaneously, and shine by her own light, and yet not overstep the reserved duties of her sex — there is a task beneath which human genius is in danger of breaking down. We really cannot recal to memory a single dramatic female whom we should recommend for a wife, or for an example. Shakspeare's women are many of them exceedingly lovely, but from the small discretion he seems to have used in the choice of his stories, what they do is not always in unison with what they are. Their words and feelings are their nature; their actions are their destiny. The common run of tragedy queens are very unamiable; so much so, indeed, that it is pleasant to reflect that they have no resemblance to nature or reality. Comic females are much more entertaining but with the exception of one or two specimens of prudent perfection, generally introduced, like Lady Grace, for the sake of contrast, and a few pieces of sentimental simplicity, such as Cicely Homespun, they are almost universally distinguished by a readiness of falsehood, a spirit of intrigue, and stratagem, which must make them very dangerous inmates or companions. Yet it would be next to impossible to write a comedy from which this sort of underplay was exiled. The choice seems to be, whether the interest shall turn mainly upon the bad characters, and the better sort of persons throughout be dupes and victims, consigned to happiness at last by some wonderful accident or discovery (the plan generally pursued by Fielding in his novels), or whether, as in Congreve, all shall play a game of delusion, at which all the dramatis personae are playing, in which the best player is the winner. There is a strong tendency in the human mind to exult in the success of stratagem. There must, indeed, be some excuse invented for cheating; but love, revenge, self-defence, or the mere pleasure of witty contrivances, will answer the purpose very well with an audience, who are always glad to give their moral judgment a holyday.
But though the heroine of a comedy can hardly be a good example to her sex, there is no necessity that she should be an offensive insult to it. Her faults should be such as a good woman might feel it possible for herself to have committed, — such as a moderate degree of self-delusion might pass off for virtues. The ladies were quite right in resenting the exhibition of Lady Touchwood. An innocent heart would require much and sad experience to convince it of the possibility of such a being. There are degrees of wickedness too bad to laugh at, however they may be mingled with folly, affectation, or absurdity.
Towards the close of 1694 Queen Mary died. Few Queens have made fewer personal enemies, and perhaps few have been more sincerely regretted. But were we to judge of the quality of the national affliction by the sable flights of lugubrious verse that were devoted to the good Queen's memory, we should say that the English nation were the worst actors of royal woe in the world. Congreve committed a pastoral among the rest, — perhaps not the worst copy of verses produced on the occasion. It must be a very indifferent "Keen" that is not better than any of them. Such drivel might make the Muses join in the hyperbolical prayer of Flatman, that "Kings should never die."
Congreve's next play was "Love for Love," produced in 1695. A new play, acted on a new stage, has every advantage which novelty can confer. Congreve advanced the higher claim of a service to an old favourite of the public. Betterton, who has left behind him a permanence of fame which some have denied that the actor can achieve, having reason to complain of his treatment by managers, was about to open anew theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. "Love for Love" was the first play acted on this stage. Its success was considerable, and it continued to be acted at intervals longer than any other of its author's comedies. But its charm as an acting play is gone; and perhaps it owed its occasional representation more to its containing those never-failing characters, a positive overbearing father, and a jack tar, than either to its wit or its licentiousness. It is said that Congreve, while engaged in composing this piece, paid a six weeks' visit to Portsmouth, in order to study sea manners from the life. Yet it has been objected, that the marine phraseology is not very accurate; and certainly, the character is so wide from the warm-hearted, gallant sailor of the modern stage, as to appear almost like a libel on the favourite profession. "Love for Love" is dedicated to Charles, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, Lord Chamberlain of the King's Household, &c. One of Congreve's biographers commends this as containing "no fulsome adulation." Pray what call you this? — "Whoever is King, is also the father of his country; and as nobody can dispute your Lordship's monarchy in poetry, so all that are concerned ought to acknowledge your universal patronage." If this was meant to be believed, it was adulatory enough. But before we charge the authors of past days with universal sycophancy, we should duly consider, not merely what their words mean, but what sense they were intended to convey. The language of compliment was the only dialect in which a peer and a commoner could converse. The dedication was itself a real and sincere compliment; for it implied either gratitude for bounty, or a confidence in generosity. But the terms in which it was couched were merely conventional: to vary and adopt the topics of panegyric was a harmless exercise of ingenuity. Compliments, in ages past, were paid to sex or rank; in ours, they are directed to the person. Compliment, however, is not necessarily flattery. It is, at worst, but a foolish fashion, a misuse of words.
The experience of ages had not then convinced the poets that a battle fought last week is by no means a happy subject for a pindaric. The capture of Namur by Louis XIV. had been magnified by all the bards of Paris. The same fortress was unfortunate enough to give occasion to another volley of odes when recaptured by King William. Congreve's contribution was a series of irregular stanzas; a species of versification to which Cowley and his imitators had given a temporary eclat, confirmed and heightened by the success of Alexander's Feast. Congreve afterwards condemned these lawless measures; and, according to Johnson, had the merit of teaching the world, "that Pindar's odes were regular," a discovery which, we venture to affirm, an English ear, unassisted by eyes and fingers, would never have made. There seems to be no sufficient reason why a long ode should not occasionally vary its movement, if there be a corresponding variation in the feeling; but each system should certainly have a law, an ordonnance within itself, and there ought to be an equilibrium between the whole. But none but a great poet should be allowed to write irregular stanzas. Their tempting facility, which promises to give freedom to thought, does in reality save the trouble of thinking.
Congreve had produced three comedies in as many years, the only important results of that leisure and freedom from care which the Minister had bestowed upon him. Nearly two years elapsed between the representation of "Love for Love," and that of the "Mourning Bride," his single tragedy, which was more rapturously received than any product of his comic muse. The critics have not confirmed the sentence of the theatre. Yet the Mourning Bride is assuredly the effort of no common ability. It contains a passage which Johnson pronounced superior to any single speech in Shakspeare, and which appears to us more poetical than any thing in Rowe or Otway. But poetry seldom saves a new play, though it sometimes happens, that a beauty, which has become a common place, adds greatly to the reputation of an actor in an established piece.
Perhaps the great success of the "Mourning Bride" might be owing, in no small measure, to astonishment. Mankind are always pleased to wonder for a while, though they are soon tired of wondering. A tragedy by an author of so gay and comic a turn as Congreve, was something to wonder at. Moreover, tragedies are in general more favourably received than comedies in their first run. It is a rare thing for a serious drama to be hissed off the stage. Truly has Terence spoken it:—
"Tantum majus oneris habet comedia, quantum minus veniae."
Comedy has so much the more of difficulty, as it has less of allowance.
Not long after the appearance of the "Mourning Bride," Jeremy Collier produced his celebrated strictures on the profaneness and immorality of the English stage, and Congreve, among other and yet more grievous offenders, was severely handled for the licence of his pen. He would have done wisely had he, like Dryden, at once admitted the justice of the charge. But he was young, conscious of talent, elated with success, and probably unconscious of ill intent. He attempted an answer, which only brought upon him a fresh castigation. In truth, his defence was as feeble as his cause was indefensible.
While we gladly acknowledge the excellent scope and general justice of Collier's reproofs, we may be allowed to doubt whether the effect of his admonitions was as great and sudden as some have supposed. He has been complimented as the purifier of comedy, and the great reformer of that stage which he purposed not to reform, but to overthrow. He certainly excited a great sensation, and gained both the King and the people to his side. William, educated in the strictness of Presbyterian discipline, and enured to the sobriety of Dutch manners, was so well pleased with the old non-juror's boldness, that he interfered to mitigate the severity of those laws which Collier's Jacobite principles had induced him to offend. Even the police were aroused by the crying scandal. Betterton and Mrs. Brucegirdle were fined for pronouncing profane and indecent words on the stage; and Colley Cibber tells us that comedy grew modest. The authors and actors might be upon their guard while public opinion, that Argus with a hundred drowsy eyes, was half awakened to their enormities; and many well-meaning people, roused by the indignant commentaries of Collier, blushed to find what they had not blushed at before. But, with few exceptions, the dramatists shewed as little amendment in their subsequent productions, as contrition in their angry replies. It was not in Collier's power to create a new idea of wit, or to erect a new standard of reputation; and while vice might be called wit without loss of reputation, it would never want auditors who stood well with the world. The worst of the old plays continued to be acted for many years after the date of Collier's diatribe; the new ones were a little more decent, but not a jot more moral.
Whatever refinement may have taken place in the public taste for diversion (and doubtless the improvement is considerable), is to be ascribed to other causes than the severity of satirists, or even the fulminations of the pulpit. The chief of these are, the general good education of females, the purifying influences of female society, the higher value set upon the domestic affections, the greater freedom of choice in marriage, and the more frequent intercourse between the religious and the fashionable world.
It has been surmised, without much reason, that the reproof of Collier alienated Congreve from the stage. Yet he produced another comedy, written with infinite labour, but without any regard to the censor's admonitions. The reception of this play fell far below his expectations; and if we may credit the account given in the "Lives of the Poets," published under the name of Theophilus Cibber, his disappointment betrayed him into a folly more ludicrous than any that he ridiculed on the scene. According to this incredible anecdote, he rushed upon the stage in a passion, 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 again to the censure of impotent critics." The audience must surely have concluded that he had undertaken to play the fool of the comedy himself, and that for once the fool was "a fool indeed." But Congreve had too much sense and too much pride to have acted thus, however keenly he might resent the stupidity of the many-headed monster. The tale may safely be set down as one of "the weak inventions" which a poor slave of the ink-horn is ever ready to believe and promulgate of a rich, caressed, and pensioned author. Nothing disposes the humours so strongly to the acetic fermentation of envy, as the hopeless, heartless drudgery of the brain; and Envy is more credulous than Love, Fear, Superstition, even Vanity itself.
Congreve, however, was mortified at the dulness of his critics, and provoked that all the "labor limae" had been thrown away. But no man should ever expect to profit in purse or reputation by superfluous painstaking. That very polish, that diligent selection and considerate collocation of words, that tight-lacing of sentences into symmetry, that exquisite propriety of each part and particle of the whole, which make "The Way of the World" so perfect a model of acuminated satire, detract more from scenic illusion than they add to histrionic effect. The dialogue of this play is no more akin to actual conversation, than the quick step of an opera dancer to the haste of pursuit or terror. No actor could give it the unpremeditated air of common speech. But there is another and more serious obstacle to the success of the "Way of the World" as an acting play. It has no moral interest. There is no one person in the dramatis personae for whom it is possible to care. Vice may be, and too often has been, made interesting; but coldhearted, unprincipled villainy never can. The conduct of every character is so thoroughly and so equally contemptible, that however you suspend the moral code of judgment, you cannot sympathise in the success, or exult in the defeat of any.
With all these abatements, it is impossible to read this comedy without wonder and admiration; but it is an admiration altogether intellectual, by which no man is made better.
This was Congreve's last appearance on the stage. Perhaps he had already outlived that sleepless activity of animal spirits which made his work delightful to himself, and thought he had fully earned the commendation of Dryden.—
Well, then, the promis'd hour is come at last;
The present age of wit obscures the past:
Strong were our sires, and as they fought they writ,
Conquering with force of arms, and dint of wit;
Theirs was the giant race, before the flood;
And thus, when Charles return'd, our empire stood.
Like Janus, he the stubborn soil manur'd,
With rules of husbandry the rankness cur'd,
Tam'd us to manners when the stage was rode,
And boisterous English wit with art indued.
Our age was cultivated thus at length,
But what we gain'd in skill, we lost in strength.
Our builders were with want of genius curst;
The second temple was not like the first;
Till you, the best Vitruvius, came at length;
Our beauties equal, but excel our strength.
Firm Doric pillars found your solid base,
The fair Corinthian crowns the higher space;
Thus all below is strength, and all above is grace.
In easy dialogue is Fletcher's praise;
He mov'd the mind, but had no power to raise.
Great Jonson did by strength of judgment please,
Yet doubling Fletcher's force, he wants his ease.
In diff'ring 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'er-match'd in wit.
In him all beauties of this age we see,
Etheredge his courtship, Southern's purity,
The satire, wit, and strength of manly Wicherly.
All this in blooming youth you have achieved,
Nor are your foil'd contemporaries griev'd:
So much the sweetness of your manners move,
We cannot envy you, because we love.
Fabius might joy in Scipio, when he saw
A beardless consul made against the law,
And join his suffrage to the votes of Rome,
Though he with Hannibal was overcome.
Thus old Romano bow'd to Raphael's fame,
And scholar to the youth he taught became.
Oh that your brows my laurel had sustain'd;
Well had I been depos'd if you had reign'd!
The father had descended for the son,
For only you are lineal to the throne.
Thus when the state one Edward did depose,
A greater Edward in his room arose.
But now, not I, but poetry is curs'd,
For Tom the second reigns like Tom the first.
But let 'em not mistake my patron's part,
Nor call his charity their own desert.
Yet this I prophesy; thou shalt be seen,
(Tho' with some short parenthesis between),
High on the throne of Wit, and seated there,
Not mine (that's little) but thy laurel wear.
Thy first attempt an early promise made,
That early promise this has more than paid,
So bold, yet so judiciously you dare,
That your least praise is to be regular.
Time, place, and action may with pains be wrought,
But genius must be born, and never can be taught;
This is your portion; this your native store;
Heav'n, that but once was prodigal before,
To Shakspeare gave as much, she could not give him more.
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'ns expense,
I live a rent charge on his providence;
But you, whom every muse and grace adorn,
Whom I foresee to better fortunes born,
Be kind to my remains, and oh! defend
Against your judgment your departed friend.
Let not th' insulting foe my fame pursue,
But shade those laurels which descend to you;
And take for tribute what these lines express;
You merit more, nor could my love do less.
Congreve was almost as happy in the commendations of his brother authors, as in the favours of ministers, and the smiles of great ladies. Dennis, whose disease was not a plethora of complaisance, declared "that Congreve left the stage early, and comedy left it with him." Though he no longer exposed himself to the brunt of a theatrical audience, he still kept his name awake by the production of occasional poems, which were highly praised in their day, but their day has long been past. They were written in the height of the fashion, and fashion was then a more potent arbitress of reputation than now. The world of literature was then the town the town took its cue from the court, and the court echoed the decisions of some "scribbling peer," some Lord of the Miscellanies." George the Second's Queen, Caroline, seems to have been the last personage who, by the mere prerogative of rank, could bring a book into vogue.
The latter years of Congreve furnish little or nothing worth recording. Though he never took a very active part in politics, he ranked with the Whigs, and remained constant to his first patron, Halifax. Hence there was some fear lest, on the change of Queen Anne's Ministry, in 1710, he might be deprived of his places. Several persons of consequence made interest with Harley, the new Secretary, and Maecenas elect, that he might not be disturbed. But the Minister would not have it thought that the Poet owed his immunity to any interest but that of the Muses, and answered the mediators in the words of Virgil:—
Non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Teucri
Nec tam aversus equos Tyria Sol jungit ab urbe.
The Tories, whose best virtue is their generosity, suffered Congreve to retain his emoluments without imposing any conditions; and he, by holding them, did not conceive himself to have incurred an obligation to be ungrateful. He signalized his adherence to the ousted party in the very year of their defeat, by dedicating a collection of his works to the Ex-Minister Halifax. His fidelity was rewarded, on the return of his friends to power, with an additional place, which made his income altogether £1200 a year. The ideas of poetry and poverty have been so long and so inveterately connected, even in the minds of Poets themselves, that it is no great wonder if Congreve, in his affluence, chose to forget that he had ever exercised a craft so rarely profitable, or felt a proud reluctance to be reckoned with writers by trade. There are few anecdotes which have been more frequently repeated than that of Congreve's interview with Voltaire. The Frenchman, whose ambition was the literary supremacy of the age, was much surprised that Congreve should listen coldly to the praises of his own works, speak of them as trifles beneath him, and desire to be visited only as a gentleman living retired, and at his ease. "Had you been so unfortunate," replied Voltaire, "as to be only a gentleman, I should not have visited you at all." The retort was just in itself: but it is somewhat harsh to censure Congreve for vanity and contemptible affectation. A man is not necessarily ashamed, or affecting to be ashamed, of his occupation, past or present, because he does not choose to make it the ground of his acceptance in society. Our author on this occasion has found an able vindicator in Mason. In fact, Congreve had gained from literature whatever literature could give him; opulence, applause, the empire of wit, and the conversation of the great. Pope, by laying the translated Iliad at his feet, had acknowledged him to be the chief poet of his time. Thus it was the fortune of Congreve to receive honour from the veteran bard of the generation before him, and from the young aspirant upon whom the hopes of the next were settled. Though he retired long before his death from the field where alone he had reaped true glory, he did not outlive his reputation. He had the more singular felicity to be commended by most, and maligned by none.
Yet his latter years were not without affliction. Cataracts in his eyes terminated in total blindness, and he was a martyr to the gout, from which he vainly sought relief by a visit to Bath. An overturn in his chariot made his case hopeless. He returned to London, and expired at his house (situate where now stands Holland House) on the 29th of January, 1728-9. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument was erected to his memory, by Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough. This lady, the daughter of the great Duke, and wife of Lord Godoiphin, was so warmly attached to Congreve, that, if the common report be true, his loss must have disordered her brain. It is said that she had his image moulded in wax, of the size of life — talked to it as if living, helped it at table to the same dishes which the deceased was known to prefer, and had an imaginary sore on its leg attended with all the care of surgery. There is no possibility of setting limits to madness, but this tale bears marks of gross exaggeration. Most likely it originated in the report of some discarded waiting maid, who thought she had some time or other overheard her lady talking to Mr. Congreve's bust.
The conduct of Congreve in leaving £10,000, the amassings of a close economy, to this Duchess, has been severely reprehended. If his relations were poor, he had certainly much better have bestowed his fortune on the poor than on the wealthy. Still, it was not by inheritance from parents, nor by aid of kinsfolk, that he became rich. To the great he owed his property, and to the great he returned it. He offended no rule of justice by so doing.
From a rapid survey of his life and character, he seems to have been one of those indifferent children of the earth "whom the world cannot hate;" who are neither too good nor too bad for the present state of existence, and who may fairly expect their portion here. The darkest — at least the most enduring — stain on his memory, is the immorality of his writings; but this was the vice of the time, and his comedies are considerably more decorous than those of his predecessors. They are too cold to be mischievous; they keep the brain in too incessant inaction to allow the passions to kindle. For those who search into the powers of intellect, the combinations of thought which may be produced by volition, the plays of Congreve may form a profitable study, But their time is fled — on the stage they will be received no more; and of the devotees of light reading, such as could read them without disgust would probably peruse them with little pleasure.