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From the beginning of his career until the end everybody ad mired 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 that he was equal to Shakspeare, and bequeathed to him his own undisputed poetical crown, and writes of him: “Mr. Congreve has done me the favor to review the • Æneis,' and compare my version with the original. I shall never be ashamed to own that this excellent young man has showed me many faults which I have endeavored to correct."
The “excellent young man was but three or four and twenty when the great Dryden thus spoke of him : the greatest literary chief in England, the veteran field-marshal of letters, himself the marked man of all Europe, and the centre of a school of wits who daily gathered round his chair and tobaccopipe at Will's. Pope dedicated his “Iliad” to him ; † Swift,
* Dryden addressed his “twelfth epistle” to “ My dear friend, Mr. Congreve," on his comedy called the “ Double Dealer," in which he says :
“Great Johnson did by strength of judgment please;
In him all beauties of this age we see," &c., &c. The“ Double Dealer," however, was not so palpable a hit as the “ Old Bachelor," but, at first, met with opposition. The critics having fallen foul of it, our "Swell" applied the scourge to that presumptuous body, in the “ Epistle Dedicatory" to
Right Honorable Charles Montague.” “I was conscious," said he, “ where a true critic might have put me upon niy defence. I was prepared for the attack,
but I have not heard anything said sufficient to provoke an answer.”'
lle goes on
" But there is one thing at which I am more concerned than all the false criticisms that are made upon me; and that is, some of the ladies are offended. I am heartily sorry for it; for I declare, I would rather disoblige all the critics in the world than one of the fair sex. They are concerned that I have represented some women vicious and affected. How can I help it? It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and lollies of human kind.
I should be very glad of an opportunity to make my compliments to those ladies who are offended. But they can no more expect it in a comedy, than to be tickled by a surgeon when he is letting their bloodl.”
† “ Instead of endeavoring to raise a vain monument to myself, let me leave behind me a memorial of my friendship with one of the most valuable men as well as finest writers of my age and country-one who has tried, and knows by his own experience, how hard an undertaking it is to do justice to Homer-and one who, I am sure, seriously rejoices with me at the period of iny labors. To him, therefore, having brought this long work to a conclusion, I desire to dedicate it, and to have the honor ar satisfaction f placing together in this manner the names of Mr. Congreve and of -1. Pork."'-Pustýrift to Translation of the Iliad of Homer, Mar. 25, 172-,
Addison, Steele, all acknowledge Congreve's rank, and lavish compliments upon him. Voltaire went to wait upon him as one of the Representatives of Literature ; and the man who scarce praises any other living person—who flung abuse at Pope, and Swift, and Steele, and Addison—the Grub Street Timon, old John Dennis,* was hat in hand to Mr. Congreve ; and said that when he retired from the stage, Comedy went with him.
Nor was he less victorious elsewhere. He was admired in the drawing-rooms as well as the coffee-houses; as much beloved in the side-box as on the stage. He loved, and conquered, and jilted the beautiful Bracegirdle,t the heroine of all his plays, the favorite of all the town in her day; and the Duchess of Marlborough, Marlborough's daughter, had such an admiration of him, that when he died she had an ivory figure made to imitate him, I and a large wax doll with gouty feet to be dressed just as the great Congreve's gouty feet were dressed in his great lifetime. He saved some money by his Pipe Office, and his Custom House office, and his Hackney Coach office, and nobly left it, not to Bracegirdle, who wanted it, but to the Duchess of Marlborough, who didn't. ||
* " When asked why he listened to the praises of Dennis, he said he had much rather be flattered than abused. Swift had a particular friendship for our author, and generously took him under his protection in his high authoritative manner.”—Thos. DAVIES Dramatic Miscellanies
† “ Congreve was very intimate for years with Mrs. Bracegirdle, and lived in the same street, his house very near hers, until his acquaintance with the young Duchess of Marlborough. He then quitted that house. The Duchess showed me a diamond necklace (which Lady Di. used afterwards to wear) that cost seven thousand pounds, and was purchased with the money Congreve left her. How much better would it have been to have given it to poor Mrs. Bracegirdle.”—Dr. YOUNG. Spence's Anecdotes.
† “ A glass was put in the hand of the statue, which was supposed to bow to her Grace and to nod in approbation of what she spoke to it.”—Thos. DAVIES : Dra. matii Miscellanics.
Ş The sum Congreve left Mrs. Bracegirdle was 2001., as is said in the “ Dramatic Miscellanies” of Tom Davies; where are some particulars about this charming actress and beautiful woman.
She had a “lively aspect," says Tom, on the authority of Cibber, and "such a glow of health and cheerfulness in her countenance, as inspired everybody with desire.” “Scarce an audience saw her that were not half of them her lovers.”
Congrevc and Rowe courted her in the persons of their lovers. “ In Tamerlane; Rowe courted her Selima, in the person of Axalla.
; Congreve insinuated his addresses in his Valentine to her Angelica, in ‘Love for Love;' in his Osmyn to her Almena, in the Mourning Bride;' and, lastly, in his Mirabel to her Millamant, in the · Way of the World.' Mirabel, the fine gentleman of the play, is, I believe, not very distant from the real character of Congreve." -Dramatic Miscellanies, vol. iii. 1784.
She retired from the stage when Mrs. Oldfield began to be the public favorite. She died in 1748, in the cighty-fifth year of her age.
!! Johnson calls his legacy the “accumulation of attentive parsimony, which," he continues, " though to her (the Duchess) 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.''-Lives of the Pucts.
How can I introduce to you that merry and shameless Comic Muse who won him such a reputation ? Nell Gwynn's servant fought the other footman for having called his mistress a bad name; and in like manner, and with pretty like epithets, Jeremy Collier attacked that godless, reckless Jezebel, the English comedy of his time, and called her what Nell Gwynn's man's fellow-servants called Nell Gwynn's man's mistress. The servants of the theatre, Dryden, Congreve,* and others, defended themselves with the same success, and for the same cause which set Nell's lackey fighting. She was a disreputable, daring, laughing, painted French baggage, that Comic Muse. She came over from the Continent with Charles (who chose many more of his female friends there) at the Restoration-a wild, dishevelled Lais, with eyes bright with wit and wine-a saucy court-favorite that sat at the king's knees, and laughed in his face, and when she showed her bold cheeks at her chariot-window, had some of the noblest and most famous people of the land bowing round her wheel. She was kind and popular enough, that daring Comedy, that audacious poor Nell: she was gay and generous, kind, frank, as such people can afford to be : and the men who lived with her and laughed with her, took her pay and drank her wine, turned out when the Puritans hooted her, to fight and defend her. But the jade was indefensible, and it is pretty certain her servants knew it.
There is life and death going on in everything : truth and lies always at battle. Pleasure is always warring against selfrestraint. Doubt is always crying Psha! and sneering. A man in life, a humorist, in writing about life, sway's over to one principle or the other, and laughs with the reverence for right and the love of truth in his heart, or laughs at these from the other side. Didn't I tell you that dancing was a serious business to Harlequin ? I have read two or three of Congreve's plays over before speaking of him ; and my feelings were rather like those, which I dare say most of us here have had, at Pompeii, looking at Sallust's house and the relics of an orgy: a dried wine-jar or two, a charred supper-table, the breast of a dancing-girl pressed against the ashes, the laughing skull of a jester: a perfect stillness round about, as the cicerone twangs his moral, and the blue sky shines calmly over the ruin. The Congreve Muse is dead, and her song choked in Time's 'ashes. We gaze at the skeleton, and wonder at the life which once revelled in its mad veins. We take the skull up, and muse over the frolic and daring, the wit, scorn, passion, hope, desire, with which that empty bowl once fermented. We think of the glances that allured, the tears that melted, of the bright eyes that shone in those vacant sockets; and of lips whispering love, and cheeks dimpling with smiles, that once covered yon ghastly yellow framework. They used to call those teeth pearls once. See! there's the cup she drank from, the gold chain she wore on her neck, the vase which held the rouge for her cheeks, her looking-glass, and the harp she used to dance to. Instead of a feast we find a gravestone, and in place of a mistress a few bones!
* He replied to Collier, in the pamphlet called " Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations," &c. A specimen or two are subjoined :
“ The greater part of these examples which he has produced are only demonstrations of his own impurity: they only savor of his utterance, and were sweet enough till tainted by his brcath.
“Where the expression is unblamable in its own pure and genuine signification, he enters into it, himself, like the evil spirit; he possesses the innocent phrase, and makes it bellow forth his own blasphemies.
"If I do not return him civilities in calling him names, it is because I am not very well versed in his nomenclatures. * I will only call him Mr. Collier, and that I will call him as often as I think he shall deserve it. * The corruption of a rotten divine is the generation of a sour critic."
Congreve," says Dr. Johnson, “a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. * The dispute was protracted through ten years; but at last Comedy grew more modest, and Collier lived to see the reward of his labors in the reformation of the theatre."--Life of Congrere.
Reading in these plays now is like shutting your ears and looking at people dancing. What does it mean? the measures, the grimaces, the bowing, shufiling and retreating, the cavalier seul advancing upon those ladies—those ladies and men twirling round at the end in a mad galop, after which everybody bows and the quaint rite is celebrated. Without the music we can't understand that comic dance of the last century-its strange gravity and gayety, its decorum or its indecorum. It has a jargon of its own quite unlike life ; a sort of moral of its own quite unlike life too. I'm afraid it's a Heathen mystery, symbolizing a Pagan doctrine; protesting—as the Pompeians very likely were, assembled at their theatre and laughing at their games; as Sallust and his friends, and their mistresses, protested, crowned with flowers, with cups in their handsagainst the new, hard, ascetic, pleasure-hating doctrine whose gaunt disciples, lately passed over from the Asian shores of the Mediterranean, were for breaking the fair images of Venus and flinging the altars of Bacchus down.
I fancy poor Congreve's theatre is a temple of Pagan delights, and mysteries not permitted except among heathens. I fear the theatre carries down that ancient tradition and worship, as masons have carried their secret signs and rites from temple to temple. When the libertine hero carries off the beauty in the play, and the dotard is laughed to scorn for having the young wife: in the ballad, when the poet bids his mistress to gather roses while she may, and warns her that old Time is still a-flying : in the ballet, when honest Corydon courts Phillis under the treillage of the pasteboard cottage, and leers at her over the head of grandpapa in red stockings, who is opportunely asleep; and when seduced by the invitations of the rosy youth she comes forward to the footlights, and they perform on each other's tiptoes that pas which you all know, and which is only interrupted by old grandpapa awaking from his doze at the pasteboard châlet, (whither he returns to take another nap in case the young people get an encore): when Harlequin, splendid in youth, strength, and agility, arrayed in gold and a thousand colors, springs over the heads of countless perils, leaps down the throat of bewildered giants, and, dauntless and splendid, dances danger down : when Mr. Punch, that godless old rebel, breaks every law and laughs at it with odious triumph, outwits his lawyer, bullies the beadle, knocks his wife about the head, and hangs the hangman—don't you see in the comedy, in the song, in the dance, in the ragged little Punch's puppet-show-the Pagan protest ? Doesn't it seem as if Life puts in its plea and sings its comment? Look how the lovers walk and hold each other's hands and whisper! Sings the chorus—“There is nothing like love, there is nothing like youth, there is nothing like beauty of your spring-time. Look! how old age tries to meddle with merry sport! Beat him with his own crutch, the wrinkled old dotard! There is nothing like beauty, there is nothing like strength. Strength and valor win beauty and youth. Be brave and conquer. Be young and happy. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Would you know the Segreto per esser felice? Here it is in a smiling mistress and a cup of Falernian.” As the boy tosses the cup and sings his song-hark! what is that chaunt coming nearer and nearer? What is that dirge which will disturb us? The lights of the festival burn dim—the cheeks turn pale—the voice quaversand the cup drops on the floor. Who's there? Death and Fate are at the gate, and they will come in.
Congreve's comic feast fares with lights, and round the table, emptying their flaming bowls of drink, and exchanging the wildest jests and ribaldry, sit men and women, waited on by rascally valets and attendants as dissolute as their mistresses -perhaps the very worst company in the world. There doesn't seem to be a pretence of morals. At the head of the table sits