WILLIAM CONGREVE, an English dramatic writer and poet, the son of William Congreve of Bardsey Grange, about eight miles from Leeds, was born in Feb. 1669-70. He was bred at the school of Kilkenny in Ireland, to which country he was carried over when a child by his father, who had a command in the army there. In 1685 he was admitted in the university of Dublin, and after having studied there some years, came to England, probably to his father's house, who then resided in Staffordshire. On the 17th of March 1690-1, he became a member of the society of the Middle Temple; but the law proving too dry for him, he troubled himself little with it, and continued to pursue his former studies. His first production as an author, was a novel, which, under the assumed name of Cleophil, he dedicated to Mrs. Catherine Leveson. The title of it was, "Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled," which has been said to have considerable merit as the production of a youth of seventeen, but it is certain he was now full twenty-one, and had sense enough to publish it without his name, and whatever reputation he gained by it, must have been confined within the circle of a few acquaintance.
Soon after, he applied himself to dramatic composition, and wrote a comedy called "The Old Bachelor;" of which Dryden, to whom he was recommended by Southerne, said, "That he never saw such a first play in his life; and that it would be a pity to have it miscarry for a few things, which proceeded not from the author's want of genius or art, but from his not being acquainted with the stage and the town." Dryden revised and corrected it; and it was acted in 1693. The prologue, intended to be spoken, was written by lord Falkland; the play was admirably performed, and received with such general applause, that Congreve was thenceforward considered as the prop of the declining stage, and as the rising genius in dramatic poesy. It was this play, and the very singular success that attended it upon the stage, and after it came from the press, which recommended its author to the patronage of lord Halifax: who, being desirous to place so eminent a wit in a state of ease and tranquillity, made him immediately one of the commissioners for licensing hackney-coaches, which was followed soon after by a place in the Pipe-office; and the office of a commissioner of wine licenses, worth £600 per annum. After such encouragement as the town, and even the critics, had given him, he quickly made his appearance again on the stage, by bringing on "The Double Dealer;" but this play, though highly approved and commended by the best judges, was not so universally applauded as his last, owing, it is supposed, to the regularity of the performance; for regular comedy was then a new thing.
Queen Mary dying at the close of this year, Congreve wrote a pastoral on that occasion, entitled "The Mourning Muse of Alexis;" which, for simplicity, elegance, and correctness, was long admired, and for which the king gave him a gratuity of £100. In 1695 he produced his comedy called "Love for Love," which gained him much applause; and the same year addressed to king William an ode "Upon the taking of Namur;" which was very successful. After having established his reputation as a comic writer, he attempted a tragedy; and, in 1697, his "Mourning Bride" was acted at the new theatre in Lincoln's-inn-fields, which completely answered the very high expectations of the public and of his friends. His attention, however, was now called off from the theatre to another species of composition, which was wholly new, and in which he was not so successful. His four plays were attacked with great sharpness by that zealous reformer of the stage, Jeremy Collier; who, having made his general attack on the immorality of the stage, included Congreve among the writers who had largely contributed to that effect. The consequence of the dispute which arose between Collier and the dramatic writers we have related in Collier's article. It may be sufficient in this place to add, that although this controversy is believed to have created in Congreve some distaste to the stage, yet he afterwards brought on another comedy, entitled "The Way of the World;" of which it gave so just a picture, that the world seemed resolved not to bear it. This completed the disgust of our author to the theatre; upon which the celebrated critic Dennis, though not very famous for either, said with equal wit and taste, "That Mr. Congreve quitted the stage early, and that comedy left it with him." This play, however, recovered its rank, and is still a favourite with the town. He amused himself afterwards with composing original poems and translations, which he collected in a volume, and published in 1710, when Swift describes him as "never free from the gout," and "almost blind," yet amusing himself with writing a "Tatler."
He had a taste for music as well as poetry; as appears from his "Hymn to Harmony in honour of St. Cecilia's day, 1701," set by Mr. John Eccles, his great friend, to whom he was also obliged for composing several of his songs. His early acquaintance with the great had procured him an easy and independent station in life, and this freed him from all obligations of courting the public favour any longer. He was still under the tie of gratitude to his illustrious patrons; and as he never missed an opportunity of paying his compliments to them, so on the other hand he always shewed great regard to persons of a less exalted station, who had been serviceable to him on his entrance into public life. He wrote an epilogue for his old friend Southerne's tragedy of Oroonoko; and we learn from Dryden himself, how much he was obliged to his assistance in the translation of Virgil. He contributed also the eleventh satire to the translation of "Juvenal," published by that great poet, and wrote some excellent verses on the translation of Persius, written by Dryden alone.
The greater part of the last twenty years of his life was spent in ease and retirement; but towards the end of it, he was much afflicted with gout, which brought on a gradual decay. It was for this, that in the summer of 1728, he went 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, his health declined more and more; and he died at his house in Surry-street in the Strand, Jan. 19, 1729. On the 26th, his corpse lay in state in the Jerusalem chamber; whence the same evening it was carried with great solemnity into Henry VIIth's chapel at Westminster, and afterwards interred in the abbey. The pall was supported by the duke of Bridgewater, earl of Godolphin, lord Cobham, lord Wilmington, the hon. George Berkeley, esq. and brigadier-general Churchill; and colonel Congreve followed as chief mourner. Some time after, a neat and elegant monument was erected to his memory, by Henrietta duchess of Marlborough, to whom he bequeathed a legacy of about £10,000 the accumulation of attentive parsimony, which, though to her superfluous and useless, might have given great assistance to the ancient family from which he descended, at that time, by the imprudence of his relation, reduced to difficulties and distress.
It has been observed of Congreve, that no man ever passed through life with more ease and less envy than he. No change of ministries affected him in the least, nor was be ever removed from any post that was given him, 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 per annum; and though he lived suitably to such a fortune, yet by his economy he raised from thence a competent estate. He was always upon good terms with the wits of his time, and never involved in any of their quarrels, nor did he receive from any of them the least mark of distaste or dissatisfaction. On the contrary, they were solicitous for his approbation, and received it as the highest sanction of merit. Addison testified his personal regard for him, and his high esteem of his writings, in many instances. Steele considered him as his patron upon one occasion, in dedicating his Miscellanies to him, and was desirous of submitting to him as an umpire on another, in the address prefixed to Addison's "Drummer." Even Pope, though jealous, it is said, of his poetical character, has honoured him with the highest testimony of deference and esteem in the postscript to his translation of Homer's Iliad, and he preserved a high respect for him. About two years after his death, in a conversation with Tonson the bookseller, who happened to mention Congreve, Pope said with a sigh, "Ay, Mr. Tonson, Congreve was ultimus Romanorum!"
"Congreve," says Dr. Johnson, "has merit of the highest kind; he is an original writer, who borrowed neither the models of his plot, nor the manner of his dialogue. Of his plays I cannot speak distinctly, for since I inspected them many years have passed; but what remains upon my memory is, that his characters are commonly fictitious and artificial, with very little of nature, and not much of life. He formed a peculiar idea of comic excellence, which he supposed to consist in gay remarks and unexpected answers; but that which he endeavoured, he seldom failed of performing. His scenes exhibit not much of humour, imagery, or passion: his personages are a kind of intellectual gladiators; every sentence is to ward or strike; the contest of smartness is never intermitted; his wit is a meteor playing to and fro with alternate corruscations. His comedies have therefore, in some degree, the operation of tragedies; they surprise rather than divert, and raise admiration oftener than merriment. But they are the works of a mind replete with images, and quick in combination. Of his miscellaneous poetry I cannot say any thing very favourable. The powers of Congreve seem to desert him when he leaves the stage, as Antaeus was no longer strong than he could touch the ground. It cannot be observed without wonder, that a mind so vigorous and fertile in dramatic compositions, should on any other occasion discover nothing but impotence and poverty. He has in these little pieces neither elevation of fancy, selection of language, nor skill in versification; yet if I were required to select from the whole mass of English poetry the most poetical paragraph, I know not what I could prefer to an exclamation in 'The Mourning Bride:'
ALM. It was a fancy'd noise; for all is hush'd.
LEON. It bore the accent of a human voice.
ALM. It was thy fear, or else some transient wind
Whistling thro' hollows of this vaulted isle: We'll listen—
ALM. No, all is hush'd, and still as death. — 'Tis dreadful!
How reverend is the face of this tall pile;
Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads,
To bear aloft its arch'd and pond'rous roof,
By its own weight made steadfast and immoveable,
Looking tranquillity! it strikes an awe
And terror on my aching sight; the tombs
And monumental caves of death look cold,
And shoot a chillness to my trembling heart.
Give me thy hand, and let me hear thy voice;
Nay, quickly speak to me, and let me hear
Thy voice — my own affrights me with its echoes.
"He who reads those lines enjoys for a moment the powers of a poet; he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with great increase of sensibility; he recognizes a familiar image, but meets it again amplified and expanded, embellished with beauty, and enlarged with majesty.
"The 'Birth of the Muse' is a miserable fiction. One good line it has, which was borrowed from Dryden: of his irregular poems, that to Mrs. Arabella Hunt seems to be the best: his 'Ode for Cecilia's Day,' however, has some lines which Pope had in his mind when he wrote his own. His Imitations of Horace are feebly paraphrastical, and the additions which he makes are of little value. He sometimes retains what were more properly omitted, as when he talks of vervain and gums to propitiate Venus. Of his translations, the 'Satire of Juvenal' was written very early, and may therefore be forgiven, though it have not the massiness and vigour of the original. In all his versions strength and sprightliness are wanting: his Hymn to Venus, from Homer, is perhaps the best. His lines are weakened with expletives, and his rhymes are frequently imperfect.
"His petty poems are seldom worth the cost of criticism: sometimes the thoughts are false, and sometimes common. In his 'Verses on Lady Gethin,' the latter part is an imitation of Dryden's 'Ode on Mrs. Killigrew;' and 'Doris,' that has been so lavishly flattered by Steele, has indeed some lively stanzas, but the expression might be mended; and the most striking part of the character had been already shewn in 'Love for Love.' His 'Art of Pleasing' is founded on a vulgar but perhaps impracticable principle, and the staleness of the sense is not concealed by any novelty of illustration or elegance of diction. This tissue of poetry, from which he seems to have hoped a lasting name, is totally neglected, and known only as it is appended to his plays. While comedy or while tragedy is regarded, his plays are likely to be read but, except what relates to the stage, I know not that he has ever written a stanza that is sung, or a couplet that is quoted. The general character of his 'Miscellanies' is, that they shew little wit and little virtue. Yet to him it must be confessed that we are indebted for the correction of a national error, and the cure of our Pindaric madness. He first taught the English writers that Pindar's odes were regular; and though certainly he had not the fire requisite for the higher species of lyric poetry, he has shewn us that enthusiasm has its rules, and that in mere confusion there is neither grace nor greatness."
We will conclude our account of Congreve, with the character given of him by Voltaire; who has not failed o do justice to high merit, at the same time that he has freely animadverted on him, for a foolish piece of affectation. "He raised the glory of comedy," says Voltaire, "to a greater height than any English writer before or since his time. He wrote only a few plays, but they are excellent in their kind. The laws of the drama are strictly observed in them. They abound with characters, all which are shadowed with the utmost delicacy; and we meet with not so much as one low or coarse jest. The language is every where that of men of fashion, but their actions are those of knaves; a proof, that he was perfectly well acquainted with human nature, and frequented what we call polite company. He was infirm, and come to the verge of life when I knew him. Mr. Congreve had one defect, which was his entertaining too mean an idea of his first profession, that of a writer; though it was to this he owed his fame and fortune. He spoke of his works as of trifles that were beneath him; and hinted to me, in our first conversation, that I should visit him upon no other foot than that of a gentleman, who led a life of plainness and simplicity. I answered, that had he been so unfortunate as to be a mere gentleman, I should never have come to see him; and I was very much disgusted at so unseasonable a piece of vanity."