1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Congreve

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:593-94.



The comedies of CONGREVE abound more than any others, perhaps, in the English language, in witty dialogue and lively incident, but their licentiousness has banished them from the stage. The life of this eminent dramatic writer was a happy and prosperous one. He was born in 1672, in Ireland, according to one account, or at Bardsey, near Leeds, as others have represented. He was of a good family, and his father held a military employment in Ireland, where the poet was educated. He studied the law in the middle temple, but began early to write for the stage. His "Old Bachelor" was produced in his twenty-first year, and acted with great applause. Lord Halifax conferred appointments on him in the customs and other departments of public service, worth £600 per annum. Other plays soon appeared; the "Decide Dealer" in 1694, "Love for Love" in 1695, the "Mourning Bride," a tragedy, in 1697, and the "Way of the World" in 1700. In 1710 he published a collection of miscellaneous poems; and his good fortune still following him, he obtained, on the accession of George I., the office of secretary for the island of Jamaica, which raised his emoluments to about £1200 per annum. Basking in the sunshine of opulence and courtly society, Congreve wished to forget that he was an author, and when Voltaire waited upon him, he said he would rather be considered a gentleman than a poet. "If you had been merely a gentleman," said the witty Frenchman, "I should not have come to visit you." A complaint in the eyes, which terminated in total blindness, afflicted Congreve in his latter days: he died at his house in London on the 29th of January 1729. Dryden complimented Congreve as one whom every muse and grave adorned; and Pope dedicated to him his translation of the Iliad. What higher literary honours could have been paid a poet whose laurels were all gained, or at least planted, by the age of twenty-seven? One incident in the history of Congreve is too remarkable to be omitted. He contracted a close intimacy with the Duchess of Marlborough (daughter of the great duke), sat at her table daily, and assisted in her household management. On his death, he left the bulk of his fortune, amounting to about £10,000, to this eccentric lady, who honoured him with a splendid funeral. "The corpse lay in state under the ancient roof of the Jerusalem chamber, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. The pall was borne by the Duke of Bridgewater, Lord Cobham, the Earl of Wilmington, who had been speaker, and was afterwards first lord of the treasury, and other men of high consideration. Her grace laid out her friend's bequest in a superb diamond necklace, which she wore in honour of him; and if report is to be believed, showed her regard in ways much more extraordinary. It Is said that she had a statue of him in ivory, which moved by clockwork, and was placed daily at her table; that she had a wax doll made in imitation of him, and that the feet of this doll were regularly blistered and anointed by the doctors, as poor Congreve's feet had been when he suffered from the gout" [author's note: Edinburgh Review, vol. 72, p. 527]. This idol of fashion and literature has been removed by the just award of posterity from the high place he once occupied. His plays are generally without poetry or imagination, and his comic genius is inextricably associated with sensuality and profaneness. We admire his brilliant dialogue and repartee, and his exuberance of dramatic incident and character; but the total absence of the higher virtues which ennoble life — the beauty and gracefulness of female virtue, the feelings of generosity, truth, honour, affection, modesty, and tenderness — leaves his pages barren and unproductive of any permanent interest or popularity. His glittering artificial life possesses but few charms to the lovers of nature or of poetry, and is not recommended by any moral purpose or sentiment. The "Mourning Bride," Congreve's only tragedy, possesses higher merit than most of the serious plays of that day. It has the stiffness of the French school, with no small affectation of floe writing, without passion, yet it possesses poetical scenes and language. The opening lines have often been quoted:—

Music has charms to seethe a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bead a knotted oak.
I've read that things inanimate have moved,
And, as with living souls, have been informed
By magic numbers and persuasive sound.