1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Congreve

Bryan Waller Procter, in Effigies Poeticae, or, the Portraits of the British Poets (1824) 73-74.



From an original Picture in the possession of the Publisher.

This face, with its fine-cut features, is full of gentility. It is almost too finished and too delicate for humour; and accordingly we find that CONGREVE, though, perhaps, the most brilliant wit in the whole circle of the drama, (we omit Shakspeare,) had not much notion of humour or character. He was a writer of great power in a particular way: i.e. he was a great master of fanciful wit, of pointed antithesis, and of dazzling repartee. He had, if we may be allowed the expression, more quickness than force of intellect. He struck smartly and cut keenly, but he had no grasp over his characters. They are prodigiously inferior, as may be supposed, to Shakspeare's; nor are they equal to those of Wycherley, or even of Farqnhar. But the flashing of his wit is splendid and incessant. It is like the summer lightning, only not harmless. The power of Congreve was over words — or, we should say, images, (for he was not a punster,) rather than over persons: we recollect his sayings while we forget his characters. Foresight and the Old Bachelor are almost the only two people who are engraven, at full length, on our memory. — It is a curious fact, that Congreve should have said to Voltaire (who requested to he introduced to him) that "he wished to be visited as a gentleman, and not as an author." He, who could lash so smartly the empty humming gentility of his cotemporaries, should surely have known better. The reply of the French wit — that he should not have troubled him at all had he not been an author — was richly merited by the weakness of our countryman's avowal. But, let us forget his faults, and think only of his fame. There are many persons who have done sillier things than he, but none who have uttered more witty sayings. It is a had symptom of the intellect of this age, we think, whatever may be said of its morality, that the large farces of our cotemporaries should be liked, and the humble dialogue of the last age upheld, in preference — for it really is so — to the dazzling and airy wit of Congreve, and the matchless comedy of Shakspeare himself.