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To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, is, in appearance, to be very deficient in candoar ; 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 once uttered are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a pretty 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.
Wherever Congreve was born, he was educated first at Kilkenny, and afterwards at Dublin, his father having some military employment that stationed him in Ireland: but after having passed through the usual preparatory studies, as may be reasonably supposed, with great celerity and success, his father thought it proper to assign him a profession, by which something might be gotten ; and about the time of the Revolution sent him, at the age of sixteen,' to study law in the Middle Temple, where he lived for several years, but with very little attention to Statutes or Reports.
His disposition to become an author appeared very early, as he very early felt the force of imagination, and possessed that copiousness of sentiment, by which intellectual pleasure can be given. His first performance was a novel, called Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled.' It is praised by the biographers, who quote some part of the preface, that is indeed for such a time of life, uncommonly judicious. I would rather praise it than read it.
His first dramatic labour was the Old Bachelor:' of which he says, in his defence against Collier," that comedy was written, as several know, some years before it was acted. When I wrote it, I had little thoughts of the stage ; but did it, to amuse myself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness. Afterwards, through my indiscretion, it was seen, and in some little time more it was acted ; and I, through the remainder of my indiscretion, soffered myself to be drawn in to the prosecution of a difficult and thankless study, and to be involved in a perpetual war with knaves and fools."
• He became a member of the Middle Temple 17th March, 1690-1, when he was la hilo twenty-first your.
There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done everything by chance. The Old Bachelor' was written for amusement, in the langour of convalescence. Yet it is apparently composed with great elaborateness of dialogue, and incessant ambition of wit. The age of the writer considered, it is indeed a very wonderful performance ; for, whenever written, it was acted (January 1692-3) when he was not more than twenty-one (four) years old ; and was then recommended by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southerne, and Mr. Mayowaring. Dryden said that he never had seen such a first play ; but they found it deficient in some things requisite to the success of its exhibition, and by their greater experience fitted it for the stage. Southerne used to relate of one comedy, probably of this, that when Congreve read it to the players, he pronounced it so wretchedly, that they had almost rejected it ; but they were afterwards so well persuaded of its excellence, that, for half a year before it was acted, the manager allowed its aathor the privilege of the house.
Few plays have ever been so beneficial to the writer ; for it procured him the patronage of Halifax, who immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing coaches, and soon after gave bim & place in the Pipe-Office, and another in the Customs of six hundred pounds a year. Congreve's conversation must surely have been at least equally pleasing with his writings.
Such a comedy, written at such an age, requires some consideration. As the lighter species of dramatic poetry professes the imita tion of common life, of real manners, and daily incidents, it apparently presupposes a familiar knowledge of many characters, and exact observation of the passing world ; the difficulty therefore is, to conceive how this knowledge can be obtained by a boy.
But if the Old Bachelor' be more nearly examined, it will be found to be one of those comedies which may be made by a mind vigorous and acute, and furnished with comic characters by the perusal of other poets, without much actual commerce with mankind. The dialogue is one constant reciprocation of conceits, or clash of wit, in which nothing flows necessarily from the occasion, or is dictated by nature. The characters both of men and women are either fictitious and artificial, as those of Heartwell and the
ladies ; or easy and commun, as Wittol a tame idiot, Bluff a swaggering coward, and Fondlewife a jealous Paritan; and the catastrophe arises from a mistake not very probably produced, by marrying a woman in a mask.
Yet this gay comedy, when all these deductions are made, will still remain the work of very powerful and fertile faculties: the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant that it “ o'er-informs its tenement."
Next year he gave another specimen of his abilities in The Double Dealer,' which was not received with equal kindness. He writes to his patron the Lord Halifax a dedication, in which he endeavours to reconcile the reader to that which found few friends among the audience. These apologies are always useless : "de gustibus non est disputandum;" men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. But though taste is obstinate, it is very variable, and time often prevails when arguments have failed.'
Queen Mary conferred upon both those plays the honour of her presence; and when she died, soon after, Congreve testified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac pastoral ;' a composition in which all is unnatural, and yet nothing is new.
In another year (1695) his prolific pen produced 'Love for Love;' a comedy of near alliance to life, and exhibiting more real manners, than either of the former. The character of Foresight was then common. Dryden calculated nativities; both Cromwell and King William had their lucky days; and Shaftesbury himself, though he had no religion, was said to regard predictions. The Sailor is not accounted very natural, but he is very pleasant.
& Rather the same year. The Double Dealer' was first acted in Nov. 1698.
* Congreve's 'Double Dealer' is much censured by the greater part of the town, and is defended only by the best judges, who, you know, are commonly the fewest. Yet It gains ground dally, and has already been acted eight times. The women think he has exposed their witchery too much, and the gentlemen are offended with him for the discovery of their follies and the way of their intrigue under the notions of friendship to their ladies' husbands. My verses, which you will find before it, were written before the play was acted: but I neither altered them, nor do I alter my opinion of the play.-DRYDEN to Walsh. (Bell's ‘Dryden,'1. 76.)
8 • The Mourning Muse of Alexis, a Pastoral lamenting the Death of our late gracious Queen Mary, of over blessed Memory. Printed for Jicob Tonson, 1695:' fol. (See Note 14, vol. 1. p. 618. The King gave him 1001. for the poem. (Anthony · Wood's 'Life' by Bliss, ed. 1948, p. 808.)
With this play was opened the New Theatre,' under the direction of Betterton the tragedian ; where he exhibited two years afterwards (1697) The Mourning Bride,' a tragedy, so written as to show him sufficiently qualified for either kind of dramatic poetry.
In this play, of which, when he afterwards revised it, he reduced the versification to greater regularity, there is more bustle than sentiment; the plot is busy and intricate, and the events take hold on the attention ; but, except a very few passages, we are rather amused with noise, and perplexed with stratagem, than entertained with any true delineation of natural characters. This, however, was received with more benevolence than any other of his works, and still continues to be acted and applauded.
Bat wbatever objections may be made either to his comic or tragic excellence, they are lost at once in the blaze of admiration, when it is remembered that he had produced these four plays before he had passed his twenty-fifth year," before other men, even such as are some time to shine in eminence, have passed their probation of literature, or presume to hope for any other notice than such as is bestowed on diligence and inquiry. Among all the efforts of early genius wbich literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be prodaced that more sorpasses the common limits of nature than the plays of Congreve.
About this time began the long-continued controversy between Collier and the poets. In the reign of Charles the First the Puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians—an opinion held by them in common with the Church of Rome ; and Prynne published Histrio-mastix,' a huge volume, in which stage plays were censured. The outrages and crimes of the Puritans brought afterwards their whole system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and players were left at quiet ; for to have molested them would have had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity.
This danger, however, was worn away by time ; And Collier, a
• In Lincoln's Inn Fields, opened 80th April, 1698.
fierce and implacable Non-joror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a Puritan ; he therefore (1698) published “A short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage,' I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation. He was formed for a controvertist : with sufficient learning ; with diction vehement and pointed, though often volgar and incorrect; with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic ; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his cause.
Thus qualified, and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to D'Urfey. His onset was violent: those passages which while they stood single had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror ; the wise and the pious caught the alarm, and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the public charge
Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly. Dryden's conscience, or his prudence, angry as he was, withheld him from the conflict : Congreve and Vanbrugh attempted answers. Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censare, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief artifice of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words : he is very angry, and, hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt : but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg ; he has his antagonist's coarseness, but not his strength. Collier replied ; for contest was his delight-he was not to be frighted from his
prey. The cause of Congreve was not tenable : whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenor and tendency of his plays must always be condemned. It is acknowledged, with universal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better; and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.
The stage found other advocates, and the dispute was protracted
purpose or his