« PreviousContinue »
CONGREVE AND ADDISON.
GREAT number of years ago, before the passing of the Reform
Bill, there existed at Cambridge a certain debating-club, called the “Union ;” and I remember that there was a tradition amongst the undergraduates who frequented that renowned school of oratory, that the great leaders of the Opposition and Government had their eyes upon the University Debating-Club, and that if a man distinguished himself there he ran some chance of being returned to Parliament as a great nobleman's nominee. So Jones of John's, or Thomson of Trinity, would rise in their might, and draping themselves in their gowns, rally round the monarchy, or hurl defiance at priests and kings, with the majesty of Pitt or the fire of Mirabeau, fancying all the while that the great nobleman's emissary was listening to the debate from the back benches, where he was sitting with the family seat in his pocket. Indeed, the legend said that one or two young Cambridge men, orators of the “Union," were actually caught up thence, and carried down to Cornwall or old Sarum, and so into Parliament. And many a young fellow deserted the jogtrot University curriculum, to hang on in the dust behind the fervid wheels of the parliamentary chariot.
Where, I have often wondered, were the sons of Peers and Members of Parliament in Anne's and George's time? Were they all in the army, or hunting in the country, or boxing the watch? How was it that the young gentlemen from the University got such a prodigious number of places ? A lad composed a neat copy of verses at Christchurch or Trinity, in which the death of a great personage was bemoaned, the French king assailed, the Dutch or Prince Eugene complimented, or the reverse ; and the party in power
was presently to provide for the young poet; and a commissionership, or a post in the Stamps, or the secretaryship of an Embassy, or a clerkship in the Treasury, came into the bard's possession. A wonderful fruit-bearing rod was that of Busby's. What have men of letters got in our time? Think, not only of Swift, a king fit to rule in any time or empire-but Addison, Steele, Prior, Tickell, Congreve, John Gay, John Dennis, and many others, who got public employment, and pretty little pickings out of the public purse.* The wits of whose names we shall treat in this lecture and two following, all (save one) touched the King's coin, and had, at some period of their lives, a happy quarter-day coming round for them.
They all began at school or college in the regular way, producing panegyrics upon public characters, what were called odes upon public events, battles, sieges, court marriages and deaths, in which the gods of Olympus and the tragic muse were fatigued with invocations, according to the fashion of the time in France and in England. “Aid us, Mars, Bacchus, Apollo,” cried Addison, or Congreve, singing of William or Marlborough. "Accourez, chastes nymphes du Permesse," says Boileau, celebrating the Grand Monarch.
“ Des sons que ma * The following is a conspectus of them :ADDISON.-Commissioner of Appeals ; Under Secretary of State ; Secretary to
the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland ; Keeper of the Records in Ireland ; Lord of Trade ; and one of the Principal Secretaries of State,
successively. STEELE.—Commissioner of the Stamp Office ; Surveyor of the Royal Stables at
Hampton Court ; and Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians ;
Commissioner of “ Forfeited Estates in Scotland.” PRIOR. --Secretary to the Embassy at the Hague ; Gentleman of the Bedchamber
to King William ; Secretary to the Embassy in France; Under
Secretary of State ; Ambassador to France. TICKELL.–Under Secretary of State ; Secretary to the Lords Justices of Ireland. CONGREVE.—Commissioner for licensing Hackney Coaches ; Commissioner for
Wine Licences ; place in the Pipe Office; post in the Custom House ;
Secretary of Jamaica.
“ En Angleterre . les lettres sont plus en honneur qu'ici.”_VOLTAIRE : Lettres sur les Anglais. Let. 20.
lyre enfante marquez en bien la cadence, et vous vents, faites silence ! je vais parler de Louis / ” Schoolboys' themes and foundation exercises are the only relics left now of this scholastic fashion. The Olympians are left quite undisturbed in their mountain. What man of note, what contributor to the poetry of a country newspaper, would now think of writing a congratulatory ode on the birth of the heir to a dukedom, or the marriage of a nobleman ? In the past century the young gentlemen of the Universities all exercised themselves at these queer compositions; and some got fame, and some gained
; patrons and places for life, and many more took nothing by these efforts of what they were pleased to call their muses.
William Congreve's * Pindaric Odes are still to be found in "Johnson's Poets," that now unfrequented poets'corner, in which so many forgotten big-wigs have a niche ; but though he was also voted to be one of the greatest tragic poets of any day, it was Congreve's wit and humour which first recommended him to courtly fortune. And it is recorded that his first play, the "Old Bachelor," brought our author to the notice of that great patron of English muses, Charles Montague Lord Halifax—who, being desirous to place so eminent a wit in a state of ease and tranquillity, instantly made him one of the Commissioners for licensing hackney-coaches, bestowed on him soon after a place in the Pipe Office, and likewise a post in the Custom House of the value of 6ool.
A commissionership of hackney.coaches—a post in the Custom House place in the Pipe Office, and all for writing a comedy ! Doesn't it sound like a fable, that place in the Pipe Office? “Ah,
* He was the son of Colonel William Congreve, and grandson of Richard Congreve, Esq., of Congreve and Stretton in Staffordshire-a very ancient family.
+ “PIPE.- Pipa, in law, is a roll in the Exchequer, called also the great roll.
“Pipe Office is an office in which a person called the Clerk of the Pipe makes out leases of Crown lands, by warrant from the Lord Treasurer, or Commissioners of the Treasury, or Chancellor of the Exchequer.
“Clerk of the Pipe makes up all accounts of sheriffs, &c.”—REES : Cyclopæd. Art. PIPE.
l'heureux temps que celui de ces fables !” Men of letters there still be: but I doubt whether any Pipe Offices are left. The public has smoked them long ago.
Words, like men, pass current for a while with the public, and being known everywhere abroad, at length take their places in society; so even the most secluded and refined ladies here present will have heard the phrase from their sons or brothers at school, and will permit me to call William Congreve, Esquire, the most eminent literary "swell” of his age. “
In my copy of "Johnson's Lives" Congreve's wig is the tallest, and put on with the jauntiest air of all the laurelled worthies. “I am the great Mr. Congreve,” he seems to say, looking out from his voluminous curls. People called him the great Mr. Congreve.* From the beginning of his career until the end everybody admired him. Having got his education in Ireland, at the same school and college with Swift, he came to live in the Middle Temple, London, where he luckily bestowed no attention to the law; but splendidly frequented the coffee-houses and theatres, and appeared in the side-box, the tavern, the Piazza, and the Mall, brilliant, beautiful, and victorious from the first. Everybody acknowledged the young chieftain. The great Mr. Dryden † declared
“ Pipe Office.-Spelman thinks so called, because the papers were kept in a large pipe or cask.
“ • These be at last brought into that office of Her Majesty's Exchequer, which we, by a metaphor, do call the pipe .... because the whole receipt is finally conveyed into it by means of divers small pipes or quills.'—BACON : The Office of Alienations."
[We are indebted to Richardson's Dictionary for this fragment of erudition. But a modern man of letters can know little on these points—by experience.]
* “It has been observed that no change of Ministers affected him in the least; nor was he ever removed from any post that was given to 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 twelve hundred a year.”—Biog. Brit., Art. CONGREVE.
+ Dryden addressed his “twelfth epistle” to “My dear friend, Mr. Congreve,” on his comedy called the “Double Dealer,"
which he says :“Great Jonson did by strength of judgment please ; Yet, doubling Fletcher's force, he wants his ease.