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But whatever 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 twentyfifth 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 enquiry.' Among all the efforts of early genius which literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be produced that more surpasses 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 vio. lent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the cburch 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 fierce and implacable Nonjuror, 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 vulgar and incorrect; with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastick; 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 Durfey. 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 publick charge.
Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly. Dryden's conscience or his prudence, angry as he was, with-held him from the conflict : Congreve and Vanbrugh attempted answers. Congreve, a very young inan, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief artifice of controversy is to retort upon his ad. versary his own words ; he is very angry, and, hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself the use of every term of contumely andet 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 friglited from his purpose or his prey. Vol. 1 Zz
The cause of Congreve was not tenable ; whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour and ten.dency 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 through cen years ;, but at last Comedy grew more modest ; and Collier lived to see the reward of his labour in the reformation of the theatre.
Of the powers by which this important victory was atchieved, a quotation, from Love for Love, and the remark upon it, may afford a specimen.
Sir Samps. " Sampson's a very good name; for your Sampsons were strong dogs from the beginning.".
Angel. " Have a care-if you remember, the strongest Sampson of $name pull'd an old house over his head at last.
“ Here you have the Sacred History burlesqued; and Sampson once more « brought into the house of Dagon, to make sport for the Philistines !”
Congreve's last play was The Way of the World; which, though as he hints in his dedication it was written with great labour and much thought, was received with so little favour, that, being in a high degree offended ind disgusted, he resolved to commit his quiet and his fame no more to iho caprices of an audience.
From this time his life ceased to be publick; he lived for himself and for his friends; and among his friends was able to name every man of his time trhom wit and elegance had raised to reputation. It may be therefore reasonåbly supposed that his manners were polite, and his conversation pleasing:
He seems not to have taken much pleasure in writing, as he contributed nothing to the Spectator, and only one paper to the Tatler, though publishet by men with whom he might be supposed willing to associate ; and though t.e lived many years after tHe publication of his Miscellanecus Poems, yet Jie added nothing to them, but lived on in literary indolence ; engaged in no controversy, contending with no rival, neither soliciting flattery by pubfick commendations, nor provoking enmity by malignant criticism, but passing his time among the great and splendid, in the placid enjoyment of his fame and fortune.
Having owed his fortune to Halifax, he continued always of his patron's, party, but, as it seems, without violence or acrimony; and his fumness vas naturally esteemed, as his abilities were reverenced. Itis security thereivre was never violated; and when, upon the extrusion of the Whigs, some intercession was used lest Congreve should be displaced, the earl of Oxford made this answer :
“ Non obtusa, adeo gestamus pectora Pani.
- He that was thus honoured by the adverse party, might naturally expect to be advanced when his friends returned to power, and he was accordingly made secretary for the island of Jamaica ; a place, I suppose, without trust or care, but which with his post in the customs, is said to have afforded him twelve hundred pounds a year.
His honours were yet far greater than his profits. Every writer mentioned him with respect : and, among other testimonies to his merit, Steele made him the pation of his Miscellany, and Pope inscribed to him his translation of tho Iliad.
But he treated the Muses which ingratitude ; for, having long conversed. familiarly with the great, he wished to be considered rather as a man of fashion than of wit; and, when he received a visit from Voltaire, disgusted him by the despicable foppery of desiring to be considered nor as an author but a gentleman; to which the French man replied, “ that if he had been " only a gentleman, he should not have come to visit him.”
In his retirement he may be supposed to have applied himself to books : for he discovers more literature than the poets have cominonly attained. But his studies were in his latter days obstructed by cataracts in his eyes, which at last terminated in blindness. This melancholy state was aggravated by the gout, for which he sought relief by a journey to Bath; but being overturned in his chariot, complained from that time of a pain in his side, and died at his house in Surrey-street in the Strand, Jan. -29, 1728-9. Having lain in state in the Jerusalem-chamber, he was buried in Westmine ster-abbey, where a monument is erected to his memory by Henrietta dachess of Marlborough, to whom, for reasons either nor known or not, mentioned, he bequeathed a legacy of about ten thousand pounds; the accumulation of attentive parsimony, which, though to her superfluous, and useless, might have given great assistence to the ancient family from which he descended, at that time by the imprudence of his relation reduced to difficulties and distress.
CONGREVE has merit of the highest kind; he is an original writer, who borrowed neither the models of his plot, nor the manner of his dialogae. Of his plays I cannor speak distinctly; for since I inspected them many years have passed; but what remains upon 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 gây 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 coruscations. 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. Z z 2
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 when he could touch the ground. It cannot be cbserved without wonder, that a mind so vigorous and fertile in dramatick 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 Mourne ing Bride.
Thy voice my own affrights me with its echoes. He who reads these 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.
Yer could the author, who appears here to have enjoy'd the confidence of nature, lament the death of queen Mary in lines like these :
The rocks are cleft, and new descending rills,
In prickly brakes their tender limbs they tear,
For grief they sigh, forgetful of their loves. And, many years after, he gave no proof that time had improved his wisdom or his wit; for, on the death of the marquis of Blandford, this was his song ;
And now the winds which had so long been still.
And Echo multiplied each mournful sound. In both these funeral poems, when he has yelled out many syllables of senseless dolour, he dismisses his reader with senseless consolation: from the grave of Pastora rises a light that forms a star; and where Amaryllis wept for Amyntas, from every tear sprung up a violet. But William is his hero, and of William he will sing.
The hovering winds on downy wings shall wait around,
And catch, and waft to foreign lands, the flying sound.
'I was now, when flowery, lawns the prospect made,
The victor worthy of the fair-one's love.
For soon the shady scene withdrew.