1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Congreve

Austin Dobson, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:10-11.



The poetical remains of Congreve, especially when considered in connection with those remarkable dramatic works which achieved for him so swift and splendid a reputation, have but a slender claim to vitality. His brilliant and audacious Muse seems to have required the glitter of the foot-lights and the artificial atmosphere of the stage as conditions of success; in the study he is, as a rule, either trivial or frigidly conventional. A translation of the third book of Ovid's Art of Love has the merit of being still readable; but his Pindaric Odes and Pastorals, such as that to the King on the taking of Namur, and The Mourning Muse of Alexis, can now only detain those who are curious in the class of poetry which flourishes under the patronage of royalty. The opening stanza of the lines "On Mrs. Arabella Hunt singing" has a nave and delicate movement:—

Let all be hushed, each softest motion cease,
Be every loud tumultuous thought at peace,
And every ruder gasp of breath
Be calm, as in the arms of Death:
And thou, most fickle, most uneasy part,
Thou restless wanderer, my Heart.
Be still; gently, ah! gently leave,
Thou busy, idle thing, to heave:
Stir not a pulse; and let my blood,
That turbulent, unruly flood,
Be softly staid;
Let me be all, but my attention, dead,
Go, rest, unnecessary springs of life,
Leave your officious toil and strife;
For I would hear her voice, and try
If it be possible to die.

This is beautifully and musically said. The second stanza is not so good; and in the third the charm is altogether loosed by the absurd appearance of Silence, draped in "a melancholy Thought," and insecurely seated upon "an ancient Sigh," — an intrusion from which the reader barely recovers in time to recognise a strange, and we think hitherto unnoticed, anticipation of the last lines of Keats' famous "last sonnet" in the concluding couplet of the whole:—

Wishing for ever in that state to lie,
For ever to be dying so, yet never die.

In his songs and minor pieces Congreve is more successful, though he never reaches the level of his contemporary Prior. "Amoret," which we quote, sets a tune which has often since been heard in familiar verse; and the little song "False though she be to me and love" has almost a note of genuine regret.