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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 sarcastic; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his
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 accumu lated and exposed together, excited horrour; 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 censure, 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 purpose or his prey. The cause of Congreve was not tenable; whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour 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 through ten 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 achieved, 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 your 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 and disgusted, he resolved to commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience.
From this time his life ceased to the public; he lived for himself and for his friends; and among his friends was able to name every man of his time whom wit and elegance had raised to reputation. It may be therefore reasonably 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 published by men with whom he might be supposed willing to associate; and though he lived many years after the publication of his Miscellaneous Poems, yet he added nothing to them, but lived on in literary indolence, engaged in no controversy, contending with no rival, neither soliciting flattery by public 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 firmness was naturally esteemed, as his abilities were reverenced. His security therefore 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 Pœni
Nec tam aversus equos Tyriâ sol jungit ab urbe.
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 patron of his Miscellany, and Pope inscribed to him his translation of the Iliad.
But he treated the Muses with 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 not as an author but a gentleman; to which the Frenchman 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 commonly 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 Surreystreet in the Strand, Jan. 29, 1728-9. Having lain in state in the Jerusalemchamber, he was buried in Westminster-abbey, where a monument is erected to his memory by Henrietta dutchess of Marlborough, to whom, for reasons either not 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 assistance 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 dialogue. Of his plays I cannot speak distinctly; for since I inspected them many years have passed; but what remains upon my 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 of gay 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.
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 Antæus was no longer trong than when he could touch the grouud. It cannot be observed without wonder, that a mind so vigorous and fertile in dramatic 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 Mourning Bride;
Nay, quickly speak to me, and let me hear
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.
Yet could the author, who appears here to have enjoyed the confidence of Nature, lament the death of queen Mary in lines like these
The rocks are cleft, and new-descending rills,
The water-gods to floods their rivulets turn,
And each, with streaming eyes, supplies his wanting urn.
The fawns forsake the woods, the nymphs the grove,
And round the plain in sad distractions rove:
In prickly brakes their tender limbs they tear,
And leave on thorns their locks of golden hair.
With their sharp nails, themselves the satyrs wound,
And tug their shaggy beards, and bite with grief the ground.
Dejected lies, his pipe in pieces broke.
See Pales weeping too, in wild despair,
And to the piercing winds her bosom bare.
And see yon fading myrtle, where appears
The queen of love, all bath'd in flowing tears';
See how she wrings her hands, and beats her breast,
And tears her useless girdle from her waist!
Hear the sad murmurs of her sighing doves!
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,
Began the swelling air with sighs to fill;
The water-nymphs, who motionless remain'd,
Like images of ice, while she complain'd,
Now loos'd their streams; as when descending rains
The prone creation, who so long had gaz'd,
Charm'd with her cries, and at her griefs amaz'd,
Di-mal to hear, and terrible to tell!
Nothing but groans and sighs were heard around,
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,
It cannot but be proper to show what they shall have to catch and
'Twas now, when flowery lawns the prospect made, And flowing brooks beneath a forest shade,
A lowing heifer, loveliest of the herd,
Stood feeding by; while two fierce bulls prepar'd
Unthought presage of what met next my view!
For soon the shady scene withdrew :
And now, for woods, and fields, and springing flowers,
Behold a town arise, bulwark'd with walls and lofty towers!
Each in battalia rang'd, and shining arms array'd;
With eager eyes beholding both from far
Namur, the prize and mistress of the war.
One good line it has, which was
The Birth of the Muse is a miserable fiction. borrowed from Dryden. The concluding verses are these ;
This said, no more remain'd. Th' etherial host
The father, now, within his spacious hands,
Encompass'd all the mingled mass of seas and lands;
He launch'd the world to float in ambient air,
Of his irregular poems, that to Mrs. Arabella Hunt seems to be the best: his ode for St. Cecilia's day, however, has some lines which Pope had in his mind when he wrote his own.
His imitations of Horace are feebly paraphrastical, and the additions which he makes are of little value. He sometimes retains what were more properly omitted, as when he talks of vervain and gums to propitiate Venus.
Of his translations, the satire of Juvenal was written very early, and may therefore be forgiven, though it have not the massiness and vigour of the original. In all his versions strength and sprightliness are wanting: his Hymn to Venus, from Homer, is perhaps the best. His lines are weakened with expletives, and his rhymes are frequently imperfect.
His petty poems are seldom worth the cost of criticism; sometimes the thoughts are false, and sometimes common. In his verses on lady Gethin, the latter part is in imitation of Dryden's ode on Mrs. Killigrew; and Doris, that has been so lavishly flattered by Steele, has indeed some lively stanzas, but the expression might be mended; and the most striking part of the character had been already shown in Love for Love. His Art of Pleasing is founded on a vulgar, but perhaps impracticable principle, and the staleness of the sense is not concealed by any novelty of illustration or elegance of diction.
This tissue of poetry, from which he seems to have hoped a lasting name, is totally neglected, and known only as it appended to his plays.
While comedy, or while tragedy, is regarded, his plays are likely to be read;